Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Man On Fire - Dan Patlansky talks to Blues Enthused

For a guy whose songs sometimes encompass stiletto-like social commentary, and who has just endured a roadwork-prolonged journey from Glasgow to Bristol when we catch up with each other on the phone, Dan Patlansky is sounding remarkably chipper.
Just as well it’s a night off in the course of his autumn UK tour supporting Joanne Shaw Taylor though.  Welcome to Britain, the land of the traffic cone, I observe.
“It was a wee bit of a drive,” the South African blues rocker chuckles.  “But we got here in one piece, and that’s all that counts.”
The purpose of this call isn’t to have a very British conversation about road works and traffic though, but to look ahead. On February 2 Patlansky releases his latest album, Perfection Kills, to be followed by a 6 date headlining tour of the UK in March.

Dan Patlansky - he likes that Strat you know!
Pic by Allan Jones
Patlansky has a habit of coming with intriguing album titles – Dear Silence Thieves, Introvertigo, and now Perfection Kills.  So where did the latest one come from?
“Well you know, I’ve done quite a few albums, and sometimes I find that pursuit of perfection in the studio, in the recording, sometimes you engineer the magic out of it,” he says, “because you polish the magic out a little bit too much. So I’ve always kind of tried to stay away from that, and keep that live spark and energy that always exists in the live performance, and try and capture that on the album.  And you know sometimes, leaving mistakes on the record, and glitches, that’s often sometimes where the magic is – there’s something special about that.”
After the Wish You Were Here-like burning man on the cover of Introvertigo, the cover of Perfection Kills is similarly thought-provoking, featuring a family sitting in a dowdy sitting room – but dad is an old-fashioned pipe smoker, mum is a bald mannekin, and the young girl is wearing a gas mask.  What was the thinking with that, I ask. 
“Well I think that’s a different take on ‘perfection kills’,” Dan responds.  “It’s almost like a family where the mother’s like, too perfect, and strives for perfection, and the little girl can’t breathe, that’s why she’s got the gas mask on.  And you know, the old man is just bleak as hell!” he says with a laugh.  “He’s kind of lost the will to live a little bit.”
As I noted at the start of this piece, lyrically Patlansky sometimes tackles quite hard-hitting subjects, as with ‘Sonova Faith’ and ‘Western Decay’ on Introvertigo.  On this album ‘Johnny’ talks about the impact of a difficult childhood on the grown man, and ‘Too Far Gone’ is a rather dystopian state-of-the-world piece.  So does Patlansky deliberately like to
Perfection Kills - it's never like this in the sofa ads

bring some edge to what he writes, or is it just what bubbles to the surface?
“Yeah, I mean it’s kinda like social commentary, or things I’ve seen.  Often what I write about is the stuff that, like, just annoys me at that moment, I suppose!” he laughs.  “And what better platform to moan than a song?  But yeah, I used to write lyrics that were far more, I suppose, clichéd blues type of things, and I always thought that was a bit disingenuous because, you know, I don’t work in a cotton field like those old guys used to.  That was their life.  So I thought I had to write stuff that was more relevant to my life, and social commentary’s one of my favourite things to write about – about stuff that annoys me!”
Another example is the song ‘iEyes’, which talks about people living their lives through screens nowadays.  I ask him if he’s aware of that at gigs – of people filming the band on their phones for minutes on end rather than watching them live, as it were?
“Yeah,” he confirms.  “Actually the first thing that came to mind when I wrote that song was, we went to play at a venue in London, and it was a sold out venue, and I actually looked up at one point in the middle of a song, and it was like 200 cell phones in the air.  And I thought to myself, you know, the definition is way better with your eyes than with your cell phone!  It was a very, very strange thing to see.”
Even stranger in a way to an old codger like me, as it’s a completely about turn from when I was young and going to gigs, and you weren’t allowed cameras into the venue.
Patlansky is something of an oddity on the British and European scene, with his South African background.  But maybe that helps him to offer something distinctive.
Does being based in South Africa give him a perspective that helps him to find a fresh take on things, I wonder?  I imagine even in terms of metaphors and slang there might be a different vocabulary for him to tap into.
“It definitely does,” he says.  “South Africa is quite westernised these days, and also at one point was a British colony.  So there are a lot of similarities between South Africa and the UK, in certain aspects.  But obviously it’s a very different world now, and a very different place to live, with different problems and a different lifestyle.  So I definitely think it lends itself to a unique kind of songwriting if you’re basing your songs off stuff from back there.”
Patlansky has spoken about trying to make this album sound more akin to how the songs will come across live, and it sounds to me that’s he’s brought more of an edge to his vocals on some tracks, like ‘Dog Day’ and ‘Too Far Gone’.   Was that something he was conscious of?
“I don’t know if it was necessarily conscious, I think it was more like the song suggested a certain thing, and you kind of automatically or naturally go in that direction.  So I must say, it wasn’t a conscious thing, but it kind of definitely ended up that way.”
Patlansky goes for the Rage Against The Machine vibe
Pic by Anthony May
Patlansky doesn’t strike me as being your typical, mainstream blues rock guy, I suggest, so I’m intrigued to hear who really influenced your musical direction.
“I mean obviously a big portion of those guys are the blues rock guys,” he says, starting off with the more obvious names.  “Like Hendrix was a big influence, Stevie Ray Vaughan was a big influence.  But you know, all the old blues guys like BB King and Albert King and all those guys.”  Then he starts to get into different territory.  “But also, on the other hand, one of my biggest influences is David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, and Pink Floyd in general has been a massive influence and still probably remains one of my favourite bands.”  And never mind the guitar work, it occurs to me later, but maybe the Floyd’s penchant for angsty social commentary seeped into his consciousness.
“But you know,” he continues, “I’m influenced also by guys like Steven Wilson, who’s a modern kinda prog guy I’m a big fan of.  Even guys like Beck, who are completely outside the blues genre, but I think he’s a fantastic songwriter more than anything.  Then there’s all sorts of soul guys, like Ray Charles, and jazz guys like Jaco Pastorius, and Charlie Parker, and Oscar Peterson.  So I think it’s quite a wide range of influences, that I always try and kind of mix together to try and get something slightly more unique in the world of blues rock, song wise that is.”
That doesn’t strike me as the whole caboodle though.  I note that when he starts to get heavy, as on ‘Backbite’ from Dear Silence Thieves, or ‘Dog Day’ from the new album, there’s a seriously hard-edged funk undertow to things.
“Yeah, that’s like, I’m a big Audioslave fan, and a Rage Against The Machine fan, and I just thought they were fantastic riff writers.”  He ponders for a second.  “And also, you know, Zeppelin – I know that’s nowhere near as heavy as those bands, but Zeppelin were the original rock’n’roll riff writer guys for me, and that was a massive influence too.  So maybe a bit of that kind of influence came through on those slightly harder songs.”
Patlansky first made a serious impact in Britain and Europe with the release of Dear Silence Thieves in 2015.  But he’d released six albums before that, going back to 1999.  How was he developing during that period?
“Well I started out as a very traditional blues artist, like doing straight down the line blues, 12 bar blues type of stuff, which I still love listening to and still love playing on occasion.  And you know over the years I kind of really wanted to get into the songwriting side of things, and try to not just express through guitar playing and singing, but also writing music and trying to express through the song itself.  So the focus shifted far more to the songs, and try to get the song right first and then worry about the playing and the performance of it.  So I think that’s been the biggest shift and change.”
We have a bit of a laugh as I observe that his website, and some of his PR material, give the erroneous impression that these earlier albums were largely acoustic in style, even though the cover pictures generally feature him wielding an electric guitar.  Speaking of which, the guitar he’s always pictured with is a pretty beat-up looking Strat – it’s almost worthy of Rory Gallagher.
“Yeah, I’ve had that guitar since the year 2000.  The guitar is a 1962 Strat, so pretty much the same year as Rory’s – I think Rory’s guitar was a ’61.  And yeah, I’ve played that guitar almost exclusively for the last 17 years, and it’s really taken a beating on the road.  And it’s been everywhere with me, it’s virtually done every live show I’ve ever played.  It’s been to every country I’ve ever been to, it’s been thrown around in airports, and on the stage, and dropped - it really has taken a beating.  But it’s a Strat, and fortunately they’re quite strong.”
Dan Patlansky gets ready to cast a spell
Even so, I’m thinking, I’ve seen numerous stories of guitarists retrieving their instruments after flights and finding them damaged.  Does he worry about baggage handlers getting their mitts on it?
Very worried.  I’ve actually got a super strength flight case for it, and even with that I still kind of have heart attacks every time I arrive on the other side, hoping that my guitar is going to come out in one piece.”
No Bonamassa-like guitar nerd, the Stratocaster is Patlansky’s essential weapon of choice.
“Yes, definitely,” he agrees.  “I use that in the studio, I use that live.  I’m the type of person that’ll really relax with one guitar, and really know the guitar, know the way it sounds, know the way it plays, and it really feels kind of second nature.  So that’s really why I love the ‘one guitar’ kind of thing.”
Now this is interesting, I think, because Patlansky has gained a reputation as a bit of a guitar sorcerer.  Does that mean he has to use effects to stretch himself and bring variety to his sound?  He demurs a bit, saying that he’s actually got a fairly small effects board.
“But for me,” he explains, “if you know a guitar well enough, there’s ways of getting different textures and tones out of a guitar without using effects pedals – more like the way you play the guitar, the techniques you use on the guitar that I’m trying to work on.  So that’s pretty much the way that I try to keep things interesting, tone-wise and texture-wise.  It’s just try and experiment with the guitar, and play it differently, and set it a little bit differently, and then see what happens.  And it’s crazy how some unique stuff can come through."
From previous comments he’s made, and even the notion of Introvertigo, Patlansky has given the impression that he’s something of a reflective guy, happy in his own company.
Definitely, at heart I think I’m an introvert,” he agrees, before anticipating the next question.  “In a way I know it seems like a silly career choice being a musician if you don’t like crowds of people, but I think performing on stage and being in a shopping mall is a very different thing!”  Or as he puts it later, “Having to make conversations about the weather with strange
"Don't talk to me about the weather!"
family members, or something like that – that really kind of kills me.  I tend to recharge when I’m on my own, and there’s a little bit of peace and quiet.  So I guess I do really shy away from, like, chaos.”
Nowadays though, artists like Patlansky are very much expected to be accessible to their audience offstage.  I recall seeing him supporting King King in Glasgow back in 2016, and talking to a long queue of people after his set.  It must be demanding, coming off stage and having to do all that chat, I imagine.
“It is in a way,” he admits.  “But at the same time it’s – if I feel like I’ve had a difficult show, or a bad show, then it’s like a lot of hard work.  But if you’ve had an alright show I actually find it alright, because it’s not for too long, it’s half an hour or 40 minutes, and you get generally honest feedback on what people thought of the show, and that’s always good to hear and take to heart.”
Well, I suggest, if they’re bothering to speak to you it’s probably because they’ve liked you.  And Dan Patlansky laughs, as he often does.
For all that he likes to write edgy songs, and is also capable of striking awe into axe worshippers, Patlansky comes across as a rather self-deprecating guy.  That picture on the cover of Introvertigo, of a burning man sticking his head in the ground, may just be an exotic way laughing at himself banging his head against the wall on occasions.
There’s a Facebook group out there nowadays dedicated to the ‘New Wave Of Classic Rock’.  With his innovative guitar playing, punchy and distinctive sound, and intelligent lyrics, Dan Patlansky has got all the tools to surf that wave.  Perfection may kill, but class will tell.

Read the Blues Enthused review of Perfection Kills here.

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