Originally published in Dummy
Dan Sartain plays rock’n’roll. Real rock’n’roll. Like young Elvis did, like his hero Chuck Berry did. Onstage at the Astoria he first looks small and very alone; almost obscured by stacks of equipment for the next band. Then he smashes out an opening chord and his sole accompanist beats furiously at the drums and the sound blasts through the smoke and the chattering crowd like a jet taking off. Suddenly he’s channelling Chuck’s knock-kneed shuffle, spitting out raw three-minute sagas of love and death with sweat-soaked fervour.
Off-stage he smokes fast and talks slow in an unexpected West Coast accent. His gaunt face and mischievous eyes hint deliciously at a picaresque past. But the Birmingham, Alabama born and raised singer claims he had a typical childhood, playing with Transformers, eating Vienna sausages from the tin. Birmingham, for all its sordid racist history, is, he says, just like anywhere in America. And like many grown-up American kids he loves big glossy cars, sport, hip hop, and getting stoned.
Still, at not-quite 25, Dan seems old for his years. A little roughed up by life, already. Maybe that’s how you get, living with as-yet unrequited dreams.
When did you first get into music?
My dad was a musician so he had a guitar around, always. He taught me how to play my chords when I was about eleven, and that’s when I got interested. And I’ve got a cool big brother. He’s probably my biggest musical influence, as far as getting me good records and shit. Sonic Youth, Pixies, Rocket From The Crypt. What else do you need?
What was the first record you bought?
It was either Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits or AC/DC Who Made Who. I still have both those tapes and listen to ‘em all the time.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An athlete. American football or boxing. I had the heart to do it but I didn’t have the body.
But I come to every practice and tried as hard as I could.
Were you popular at school?
Yeah, probably for the wrong reasons. I was either making fun of people or getting made fun of myself. The biggest class clown there was.
Is that part of why you got into music? To show off?
There is a certain buzz you get; it’s like a high, playing onstage. It kicks in the same endorphins as being an athlete. Except you get to be drunk and do it, so that’s cool.
How did your debut album, Dan Sartain vs. The Serpientes, come about?
When I was about 19 I made a record myself called the Crimson Guard, and I gave it to [California-based label] Swami Records, the one record company I ever tried to get on. They liked it and wanted to put it out so I rerecorded some old stuff and did a bunch of new stuff. It felt good. I felt validated as a musician.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d gotten knocked back. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about it.
Who or what are the ‘serpientes’ of your album title?
It’s just, uh, snakes. Dan Sartain versus the snakes. All the snakes of the world. It’s cooler to say ‘serpientes’ than snakes.
You’ve been compared to Johnny Cash and Elvis – is that exciting or intimidating?
It’s nice, ‘cause I like Elvis, and Johnny Cash. But Chuck Berry’s better than both of them.
So who are your musical heroes?
Ol’ Dirty Bastard. [Jazz/blues musician] John Reece. Chuck Berry. And the people that I get to work with.
Is there any music you don’t like?
Most music. You gotta dig for treasure, you know what I mean. You gotta dig through all the stuff to find one jewel.
How important is your image to your music?
Not that important. But I like to look nice. I try to wear something with a collar.
What would be your dream gig?
Oh geez. I wish I’d seen the Ramones.
And to play?
There’s so many gigs that you play that you think were the perfect gig. My 21st birthday was good. You get to drink when you’re 21 in America, so it was like a big milestone. Was I drunk onstage? Oh yeah. Well, we were the first band so I wasn’t too tossed
What’s on your rider?
Towels, water, fruit. Nothing too exciting. I’d like to get lobster and pistachios but that ain’t gonna happen.
One reviewer wrote that you were probably destined for ‘cultdom not stardom’ – what do you think?
I agree with ‘em. I’d like to do enough to get some money though ‘cause I don’t have any money. When people say they don’t have any money they got something. They got some Christmas money put aside or something but I ain’t got no money. I ain’t got no money.
How does it feel to be working these last few years, putting out records, and still be broke?
Well, I can’t do anything else. And I can say that in all honesty, ‘cause I tried. I’ve been a pizza maker, done manual labour stuff, everything but office jobs.
What’s the worst job you’ve had?
The worst job I ever had was cleaning out the showers at the YMCA. They were obviously full naked men walking around. I’m not homophobic but then again, they weren’t homos. They were just naked dudes and it made me uncomfortable.
On MySpace you list your influences as Mike Tyson and THC – can you elaborate?
I just like to get stoned and watch Mike Tyson knock people the fuck out. Yeah! He’s the greatest champion of our life time.
Doesn’t the ear biting count against him?
One time he bit that guy’s ear, I guess. But Holyfield shouldn’t have been head butting him. You don’t head butt Tyson and expect him to take it lightly, you know.
Do you take any shit off people?
Never. I’ve been in fights, yeah. I’m not proud of ‘em. I usually win though. Hit someone in the nose and they get all bloody and they don’t want to fight anymore.
Who would play you in a biopic?
Sal Mineo, maybe. [Rebel Without A Cause co-star, murdered in West Hollywood thirty years ago.] I’d like to choose James Dean, you know, but you can’t choose somebody that’s more handsome than you.
Would you rather be famous now or well-remembered in the future?
What has more money? Famous now? Then famous now.
I’ll tell you this much, people that are rich and try to play it off – do everything very moderate – those are born rich people. But poor people, when they get rich, they’re like all these rappers. They’re like Elvis. Elvis was a poor person who became rich. He was like, I’m eating whatever I want, anytime. I’ve got three Cadillacs, got all these jewels in my belt.
I’d do all that. I’d do the lobsters, I’d do the rings, I’d do all that shit.
Dan Sartain vs. The Serpientes is out now on One Little Indian. His new album, Join Dan Sartain, is scheduled for release in Sept 2006