Remembering Dan Sartain

My friend Dan Sartain passed away yesterday. Dan was a remarkable and versatile musician, known as much for snarling garage punk and cool, detached synth pop as he was for the rockabilly-adjacent blues punk he used to make his name. His records were released by labels like One Little Independent and Swami. He toured the world with acts big and small. He collaborated with Jane Wiedlin, Richie Ramone, DJ Bonebrake, and many other legendary artists. 

Dan was also a fan of GI Joe, Transformers, Star Trek, and horror movies. That’s how I met him. We were internet friends before I ever met him in person. He was a kind, gracious soul who was always generous with his time and wisdom. Since some of my readers might know him, too, I wanted to remember him in this space. 

You can donate to his family’s GoFundMe for funeral expenses and building a trust for his daughter here

You can also find the majority of Dan’s vast catalog of work on his Bandcamp page here

I interviewed Dan in 2014 for a website called The Punk Archive, but that site sadly no longer exists and is not archived properly on archive.org. 

This interview should give you a good look at what kind of person Dan was, and give you a unique window into his life back in 2014. 

He was a brilliant musician and a good friend– he always made time to talk to me, and I was just some random guy he know from GI Joe related websites. The man and his music will always mean the world to me. 

Here is the uncut interview from 2014. 

Dan Sartain Interview from February, 2014

Alabama’s Dan Sartain is a busy guy. His new album DUDESBLOOD is coming in late April. He also recently released a digital-only album of covers called He Touched Me that includes songs by The Wipers, The Everly Brothers, Roy Rogers, The Ramones, Dead Milkmen, The Flesh Eaters and more. That record’s proceeds go to Windian Records founder Travis Jackson’s memorial fund

Dan Sartain

Dan’s also building a tiny house on wheels. He’s been learning home construction from Habitat for Humanity. 

Did I mention that DUDESBLOOD has DJ Bonebrake from X on drums? Yeah, that shit is crazy. And let me tell you that DUDESBLOOD is a tour de force. It has 70s-style punk, hardcore-style bangers (think more GBH and less Snapcase) and country-tinged heartbreakers. It’s got everything. 

Dan has toured the world and played with some pretty big bands. The last time he played in Boise, he was opening for Social Distortion and it was a sold out show. 

Though Dan and I have only hung out in person once, every time we talk it’s like we’re old friends. We ran in some of the same online nerd culture circles and he’s just as happy to talk to me about Star Trek and b-movies as he is to talk about music. 

I spoke with Dan as he drove to Montgomery from Birmingham, Alabama. An hour and a half drive. Friends live in Montgomery. Birmingham is a real destination now. 

Before the interview began, he told me about Habitat for Humanity:

“It’s a super Christian organization and some of the people are kinda Flandersy… but not too bad. I go in there with a tattoo on my face, so it’s weird for them. So I’m kinda asking them to practice what they preach. I can deal with it. I’m just learning to build houses. It really does make you look at the world different, man. I look at buildings and wonder “how did they build that?” I don’t mean that in a hokey way, or like I had some kind of breakthrough– it just interests me now. It’s shocking, man. It’s easier than you think. I’m really grateful to be learning.”

So, tell me about DUDESBLOOD.

Everybody was telling me to get a Mac Book so I could record this album. I’m already breaking my first rule by saying this. I told everyone I was just going to lie and tell people I recorded it totally analog, because everyone’s got a boner for that stuff. They think it’s made of magic. And every album I’ve done has been made that way, so I was looking to do it a little differently, doing it on digital and figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of doing it that way. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be!

For a lot of people, recording on analog and tape is magic. I could always do that, I have the equipment. I’m doing it on Apple, but it’s more advanced than I need it to be. I feel like the developers must be struggling to keep up?

So you’re doing the new record that way? Are you done with it?

Almost. Almost all of the parts are done, but DJ [Bonebrake] is on tour with his other band and he still tours with X a lot. I don’t know him at all… you know? 

I’m still on a label and they still give me X amount of money to make a record, so I’m trying to do it differently. Usually you try to get your friends involved, but that can be tough because they can be unreasonable. They want a crazy amount of money because they think it’s a record label and not you anymore. It’s like it’s not asking a friend for a favor anymore. Artists need to get paid and I understand that. 

But if we’re just talking about friends– why don’t I hire someone that isn’t my fucking friend and is a hero of mine, you know? (laughs) Especially if I’m going to pay him the same amount! I’ve never heard a bad record that DJ Bonebrake has played on. And if I’ve heard a record he’s played on that was less than stellar, he wasn’t the problem. 

DJ Bonebrake

So did he come record with you or is he doing it remotely?

See, I’m blowing my cover the first time someone asks me about this! (laughs) I was going to make up a huge lie.. and I guess I can still do that to people that aren’t my friends or haven’t done their homework (laughs). 

I was gonna tell everyone we did everything analog and hung out and stuff, but… he’ll do it for any band. He’ll do it for your band. It’s the coolest thing ever. His ego’s not so fragile, maybe he figures if someone has taste enough to ask him to do it in the first place then he won’t hate it. And maybe if he DOES hate it then he’ll see it as a challenge. 

Maybe it’s like back in the day with those song poems, when you’d send your shitty amateur lyrics to some studio band in Nashville and they’d send a song back. Maybe he looks at it that way. I haven’t even really asked him. Well… I did ask him a little bit because he’s doing some marimbas and some drums and I thought he was charging way too little for both!

I’ve done things like that with a couple people now. We did a track with Richie Ramone and we did a track with Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos, and I didn’t think what they were asking was unreasonable. I don’t want to name amounts, but DJ Bonebrake works for less than that. I thought he was gonna ask for more!

That’s not saying anything bad about Richie or Jane, I still really admire both of those people. They’re great. DJ is as cool and talented as any of those guys. X was always my favorite out of those early punk bands. I love their style the best and DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom are too fucking talented to be punk musicians. 

It’s right that John Doe and Exene would be the most recognizable faces and put out there the most, but Billy Zoom and DJ are not only the most talented people in that band– I think they’re some of the most talented musicians PERIOD. 

I don’t listen to everything my dad says, but one time he said that a band is only as good as their worst member. I think it speaks volumes that DJ and Billy aren’t showing off all the time in that band, that shows how much taste they have. 

I have a crush on every member of that band, I want to be every single one of them. But Billy and DJ are the heart. They do multiple instruments. 

Powerful but understated?

Yeah! I met DJ and the rest of X when they played in Atlanta, opening up for Blondie. I like Blondie and everything, but you see bands like Devo and X opening for Blondie. Don’t get me wrong, I like Blondie… but do they enjoy getting their asses handed to them every night? X and Devo have just gotten better and better over the years.

Devo’s new record made me afraid to not go digital. Those guys haven’t lost anything. It’s a shame about Alan. That’s the one thing I thought when I saw them with Josh Fries, but it looked like it was too easy for him. With Alan, he looked intense. Like he was giving it. 

You can always tell when someone’s pushing it or if they’re just coasting by. 

Yeah, that’s exactly it. 

So, you’re close to being done?

Yeah. I’m not married to all of the mixes yet, but we’re close. When DJ sent that “Marfa Lights” song back to me I was amazed. 

That was in my head for all of that night and most of the next day, so that’s an awesome sign. 

Yeah! I think it’s miles ahead of everything I’ve done. It sounds the most like those two people– DJ and I as anything ever could. The marimba is great. He’s way fucking talented. It’s above punk.

I hate the conversation about what is and isn’t punk, it gets ridiculous. Like Malcom McLaren talking about how cavemen banging two rocks together is punk. (laughs) It’s like “dude, what are you talking about?” I don’t know. 

To me, it’s music that makes it feel like you can do it yourself. Exene is the part of the band that is brave enough to make me think that normal people can harness their thoughts and skills and be a badass. Now no one considers Elvis Costello or the Talking Heads punk, but I get it. They were normal people that got up there and made you feel like you could do it. 

But X is so talented I almost feel like they get annexed out of the punk club. You guys are geniuses, get the fuck out of the punk club! (laughs) You don’t belong. 

I love that band so much. I was an idiot. I was like a little kid. I was so starstruck by those guys. I was watching the Decline of Western Civilization and then I started tattooing myself like a stupid idiot. It altered the course of my life.

Dan Sartain

And now you’re working with DJ– that’s pretty crazy. 

And at reasonable rates! He’ll do it for you, man. He’ll do it for anybody. He’s waiting for you to call him. That’s what I figure– if you’re working in entertainment and still living in LA, then you’re ready to work. You can do that in not live in LA. Acting is a totally different thing, but Bruce Campbell lives on a farm in Oregon. If you want him, you know where to find him. It’s not that he doesn’t want to work but he’s not going to auditions and stuff. 

Not that DJ is answering want ads on Craigslist, but if he’s still out there in one of the entertainment capitols of the world, he must want to work. It’s not a cheap place to live. I told DJ he was worth a lot more than he was charging. He said “I agree, but a day working in music is a better than a day not working in music.”

We don’t talk about my music. I just send it to him with vague instructions. I’ve talked to him on the phone a few times and I met him in Atlanta. I like the idea of doing this with limited interaction. 

Yeah, it’s totally different than anything you’ve ever done before. 

Yeah! It’s true. It’s worse if you do it with friends, because you might lose friends if it does well. Especially if my name is on the song and not a band. I kinda see where some resentment might come from. Instead of doing it the opposite way of doing it with a friend, and then it’s on the radio and I’m going on tour and might have to replace that person, I’m trying to go the opposite way. 

Let’s keep it professional, I pay you up front, give you minimal instructions and let you use your discretion. So it’s the total opposite of how I’ve always done it, you know? It doesn’t run the risk of losing a friendship. 

But now I’ve got his phone number, so if I’m ever in  LA I’m going to call him up and ask him what he’s doing (laughs). 

Dan Sartain

So, are you playing everything but drums and marimba on the record?

Yeah. My friend Misty did a vocal track. She’s a real popular British singer named Misty Miller. She’s so young, I’m like an old man to her. She’s doing better with her career than I’m doing and she’s seeking me out. And I feel bad because I’m an old asshole from Alabama and she’s a gorgeous young lady (laughs). So I asked her to be on a song. 

Do you remember your Reddit AMA? Someone on that thing asked when you were gonna do more acoustic stuff because you were in what you called a “Ramones” phase. How has that changed– or how is it going right now?

Well Dustin, that phase saved my life. Some people liked it, some didn’t. Some people liked it more than everything I’d done previously, and I still kinda feel that way sometimes. It was more fun and it was good to step out of character. 

It came time to do another record, and I was worried about just doing another one because that’s what you do. Going through the motions. Am I imitating myself? Who am I? I had a big breakdown and got really skinny. It was bad. The stuff I was writing wasn’t very good. And now, after that, I’m a little more okay. I’m playing live and recording. 

I’m playing with a friend who played for my second record on Swami. We’re playing and doing the old songs we did when we were 25. I’m not that old, but it feels like a long time ago to me. Are you imitating yourself… maybe a little bit. But at least I’m imitating myself and not someone else. 

Imitating the Ramones was fun, and I wasn’t hiding it. I just tried to write an album for the Ramones and it saved my life. If people didn’t like it and I thought I was going crazy, they were right. I had to go through that and it saved my life. But you can’t go through life being someone else, you know? But it’s fun to take a break for a little while. 

I though that record [Too Tough to Live] was awesome. 

Yeah, man. Thanks. It’s still my favorite record. But I say that every time a new one comes out (laughs). We were gonna do this new record with Richie Ramone, and some of the songs on it I wrote with him in mind. I still love Richie. His new solo album is kinda heavy metal but it’s really good. It’s good to see him doing rock music. 

But I thought I’d see who else was available. We reached out to a lot of people– Bushwick Bill, Traci Lords, Alice Cooper and Tommy Ramone. Tommy’s the only person who said no. He was really polite about it and wrote back and said “thanks for the offer, I like what I heard but I’ll have to decline the offer.”

I got Alice Cooper tickets and got to meet Alice Cooper out of it, you know? I was going to try to add rock music to one of Traci Lords’ dance songs, but it didn’t really work out. I’d love to have my name next to hers on some form of media. 

We were just starfucking, man! Bushwick Bill said yes but came back with a quote that was maybe a little too much. But Starfucking, it’s great. I was surprised at who would say yes. I’m just trying to pick out people that I thought would say yes and still wanted to work. 

Dan Sartain

I also wanted to ask you about your tiny house. Tell me about that. 

I just need a place to stay. I’m trying to get back to Birmingham, so I’m trying to make one I can travel with. Take it anywhere I can. No property taxes, you know? It’s kinda trendy now and I’m not pretending I invented it, but it something I want to do. I saw other people doing it and thought I could do it. 

I see dumpsters outside of construction sites with 2x4s, drywall, whatever else. I’m building it out of scraps and spending very little. The trailer foundation cost the most. It was an old camper I bought for $500 and I stripped it down.  And I got $400 out of the scrap for that. I’m spending very little and it’s coming along very nicely. I’m going to have my own house very soon. 

It’s really trendy, but these aren’t the kind of trends anyone’s gonna be ashamed of in ten years time. It’s not going to be like your disco uncle. We’re talking about housing. It’s necessary. If it’s a trend it’s not one I mind hopping on. It won’t be embarrassing or shameful down the line. 

The one thing I don’t like is the word rustic (laughs). I deal with people and they keep saying it. People are cutting up palettes and building furniture and decks. 

Yeah, we used palettes to build a bar in my friend’s backyard for his wedding. 

And that’s cool. I just don’t like when people call it rustic. I don’t wanna hear it. 

But some trends stick around and they prove useful for decades. Electric guitars, blue jeans. They go through bad spells like acid wash jeans or BC Rich guitars… but even those things work with the right person. But some trends stick around.

RV parks have such a stigma, but they’re really nice in the southwest. I wouldn’t mind living in one. Stone floors, cacti and palm trees. But there are horrible rednecks everywhere and you end up with a and stigma. This tiny house thing is a little classier way of doing that. Maybe it erases the stigma. 

Maybe I’ll take it out on tour one day, man! Who knows. 

I don’t know how much more touring I have left in me. And I’m not saying that in a grim way. Sometimes you just have to see what else you can do. I’ve been touring pretty hard since I was 21, and I’m 32 now. I’d like to do some other stuff. 

I’m enjoying building for Habitat for Humanity. I’m doing it for free. The people for Habitat always say to the volunteers, “Thank you for giving up your Saturday.”

For me, it’s the part of the week I look forward to most. I should be thanking them. 

Building houses is a great skill to have. 

I’m still pretty scared of it, but I guess that’s healthy. 

Anyway, Dan– thanks for talking to me!

Thanks, dude!

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