Dan Patlansky: Meet The Rising Star Of The Blues

Dan Patlansky looking into the camera with his fingers to his forehead.
Dan Patlansky: focused on the future.

It’s November 2015 in London, at the Classic Rock Awards in Camden’s Roundhouse, and Dan Patlansky is hiding from Jimmy Page. He wants to walk up to him, of course, but at the apex of a brilliant year that’s seen him release his best album to date (the game-changing Dear Silence Thieves), break out into the UK and tour with Joe Satriani, the chance to meet a lifelong hero is suddenly overwhelming.

Spurred on by an inexplicable stroke of sudden cool-headedness (and, we would imagine, the generous amount of wine that’s kicking around), this writer takes one for the team and goes over to make introductions. Everyone says hello, Page is a delight, and Patlansky reassumes the role of friendly, quietly confident rock artiste.

“We didn’t have the balls to talk to him, we had to get you to go and do it first!” Dan laughs six months later. “It was just me and Marco [Minnemann, Satriani drummer] lurking near his table ominously for, like, an hour! It was a really cool thing though. That was definitely one of the highlights of last year.”

That awkwardness, that shyness, wasn’t like the Dan Patlansky we’d seen before – the bright-eyed, boundlessly cheery guy on stage, signing merch and doing promo (a short guy, minus the short man syndrome, good-looking in a slightly unusual way). No, this was more in keeping with the title of his new album, Intro-Vertigo, named after the dizzying sensation experienced by introverts after spending over five minutes with an extrovert.

“I think when a lot of people think of introverts they think of a guy who grows his fingernails and doesn’t see sunlight ever because he’s stuck in a basement,” he muses. “But that’s not the type of introvert I am. I really enjoy people, just in far smaller doses than most people can before I start not coping with the situation.”

Introvert or not, as a performer he’s put himself out there. After years of being largely confined to his native South Africa, 2015 was the year Patlansky became a known name for British and European blues fans. And rock fans in general, for that matter, with his stylish, refreshing use of funk, jazzy touches and classic rock – all stirred into a riffy, Stevie Ray Vaughan-y blues rock gumbo. Or “renegade blues”, as he’s described it before. As with Dear Silence Thieves he’s put his energies into writing quality tunes for Intro-Vertigo, rather than simply showing off on the guitar (which, by his own admission, he spent the earlier part of his career doing).

“I think it was definitely a continuation from Dear Silence Thieves,” he agrees. “Kind of where we left off. This one has maybe a rawer feel, but it’s broadly the same influences as before; Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King… and it may not be apparent, but there was more of a Pink Floyd influence on some of the songwriting. I wanted to let the songs do the talking again; that was the game plan going ahead.”

Good tunes aside, it’s the zingy colour involved that gives Patlansky’s music its distinctive character. It’s this, he says, that sets him apart from other blues rock dudes. Listening to Intro-Vertigo – from the deliciously funky, bass-grooving sass of Stop The Messin’ (“Yeah, it’s basically about getting it on…”) to the breezy yet propulsive likes of Poor Old John – it’s not hard to agree. It all comes back to classic bluesiness, ultimately, but it is different. It isn’t like other blues rock music.

“One of my favourite musicians of all time is [Weather Report bassist] Jaco Pastorius,” he says. “He’s a massive influence on me, even though he’s not a guitar player. And Ray Charles for the soul thing. And funk, and Weather Report, and I’m a massive Beck fan. So I come from the blues, but I’m not letting myself get hung up on remaining ‘true to the blues’, or to any one genre of music.”

Expectations are higher for Intro-Vertigo, expressly because he has more fans to please. Rewind a couple of years and Patlansky struggled to reach listeners in the UK, save the South African expat audience at the Half Moon in Putney, London.

“It was a battle at first,” he concedes. “No one knows you, so you’re trying your best to get people to shows. It was great that the South African guys in Putney came to those shows, always at the Half Moon, but you think, ‘We’ve come all the way to London to play to a bunch of South Africans!’ It’s great to play for them, but you also want to play to a British audience. That just wasn’t happening at the beginning.”

Indeed, upon launching Dear Silence Thieves in the UK, the only place he could initially play was London – because of the South African community there. It was only when he acquired a proper ‘team’ (including the same PR as Joe Bonamassa and other guitar-wielding big guns) that he extended his reach across the country and across Europe. Supporting Joe Satriani on tour was key in this regard.

“Doing the Satriani tour was a fantastic thing, because Joe’s such a wonderful, inspiring guy, and you’ve got this guitar-loving audience right there,” he enthuses. “They haven’t necessarily come to see a Dan Patlansky show, but exposing yourself to them at them at the Hammersmith Apollo and all those other places is just incredible. I’ve really seen the difference, just from that tour, even in Facebook likes and things like that. The response we get is doubling up every time.”

Now, with the release of Intro-Vertigo, the plan is to concentrate on the UK and western Europe – starting with an upgrade from London’s Borderline to the larger capacity Jazz Cafe.

“I’m a firm believer in not spreading yourself too thin,” he says. “Trying to do the States, the UK, Europe and maybe Japan at the same time… we’d just do a half-arsed job, because we don’t have the money to market it properly. My thoughts are to try and get something really good happening in the UK and western Europe. We’ve got a bit of momentum there, so we want to keep building the fanbase.”

He certainly has the smiley, good-natured energy for it. Furthermore, his small, trim physique and fresh-faced demeanour give the impression of someone who does yoga on the tour bus. Or at least goes for the odd run, and knows their way round a juicer. To our surprise, however, he claims to do no exercise at all. So how does he keep in shape?

“You know what it is? I smoke and I think that keeps me trim, because I often substitute food with cigarettes.” He chuckles wryly: “Smoke yourself thin kids! Obviously it’s not a great thing. I don’t eat particularly healthily on the road either, lots of fast food. But I’m really feeling the effects of bad eating and not sleeping, so I’ve had to change it up a bit.”

Dan Patlansky: meet your new guitar hero.

Dan Patlansky: meet your new guitar hero.
(Image: © Shanna Jones)

The 80s and 90s were an interesting time for a budding blues musician in South Africa. Born in 1981 in Johannesburg, Patlansky’s early years were flavoured with apartheid-era tensions. Not that he was especially aware of them at the time.

“There was so much propaganda from the government that as a kid, and even my parents, you almost didn’t think anything was wrong,” he recalls. “It’s only when you look at it in hindsight that you realised the government lied to you all the time about how fantastic everything was. I grew up from the beginning with only white kids at my school. That was just normal. And when apartheid ended, black guys started coming to school and it was actually quite exciting, because it made you think, ‘Holy crap, where were they before?’”

Raised by open-minded Jewish parents (his father is a lawyer, while his mother does the accounting for his books), he quickly fell in love with the likes of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. At the time these were banned artists, which the Patlanskys imported from overseas. At school, other students called Dan a satanist because he listened to rock music. A touring writer/evangelist called Rodney Seale reinforced this idea, during visits to school assemblies.

“He used to tour schools in South Africa, in the late 80s, and he’d give these hour-long lectures of all the bands you should not listen to, because they were satanistic,” he remembers, in disbelief. “And you can’t believe the bands that were satanistic in his eyes. ABBA were satanistic, U2, you name it. What an asshole. This guy published books man, best-selling novels! It was just ridiculous. I actually got into a lot of trouble in my second last year of school. He came the first time when I was about 15, but then he came back and he started off by saying, ‘What did you learn from last year’s lecture?’ and I put my hand up and said, ‘I just wanted to thank you because you introduced me to some of the greatest music I’ve ever heard.’ He was bleak this guy.”

Post-apartheid, his classmates changed their tune about rock music – though most of them were more interested in the rave scene that hit South Africa in the 90s.

“Everyone was buying rave music, techno, dropping pills in rave clubs and stuff, and it wasn’t my scene at all,” he says.

His grades “went to hell”, and he finished his education at arts school. Spurred on by music classes – and a few like-minded people – he began gigging in earnest, initially as a “hardcore blues guy”. With the country opened out, post-apartheid, his travels took him to all sorts of places, including, in 2004, the spring dance of one very backward small town. The reception was frosty to say the least.

“All we had was this very heavy, very loud blues rock set,” he recalls. “We started playing and people were queueing to get out. There wasn’t a black person in sight. I mean they had the old apartheid-era flag – which isn’t normally used now – they had this flag blazing. It was fucking heavy.”

But it was a weekly residency at Johannesburg blues bar that really gave him his live legs. Playing four 45-minute sets every Friday for four years turned him into an incredibly solid, panache-laden performer, unafraid of sparkly solos, stripped back moments and doing weird things with guitar strings.

I started out playing in the dive of dives. You’d get hepatitis from the cutlery.

“It was a dive, let’s be honest,” he says, frankly. “It was the dive of dives. You’d get hepatitis from the cutlery. But it was a good place to cut your teeth. I learnt everything, the building blocks of being a live musician. It was a long hard four years, but it was fantastic.”

He still lives in Johannesburg, though now with his wife (an interior architect) and their two-year-old daughter. The skills and confidence gained from those residency shows are audible in Intro-Vertigo, as are his thoughts on a spread of issues – including mob mentality (single Run), sexual freedom in Stop The Messin’ (“When it comes to relationships and sexual relationships we tend to be quite conservative, cos you’re terrified of seeming too freaky. But we’ve all got a dark side… It’s a lighter moment on the album; closer to a classic blues ‘whisky and women’ thing!”), and religion in Sonnava Faith. The latter in particular bursts with biting disenchantment, which Dan’s had to handle carefully with local audiences.

“When we play it live in South Africa I’ve got to explain that song very clearly, otherwise I’ll get mobs of people trying to punch me in the face after the show,” he explains. “But it’s about people with power in religion taking the piss. That’s more of a social commentary song for me; my thoughts on the business of religion, and how stupid some people can be, giving half their money to a ‘religious’ guy who buys Ferraris and Italian suits, or whatever they spend their money on.”

So where does he stand religiously these days?

“I see myself as a spiritual person,” he says thoughtfully. “I have tattoos and eat bacon so I’m not exactly a practising Jewish dude… I believe in a creator or a god or whatever you wanna call it. But I don’t necessarily believe in conditions of religion. I’ve got no problem with people that do, but I do have a problem when people get screwed over because of it.”

He cheerfully admits to being “fairly antisocial”, and cherishes time at home with his family. Or at the ‘guitar weekends’ he’s hosted in South Africa, running workshops, gear talks and jam sessions with small groups of fellow guitar nerds.

“I like the peace and serenity of being at home with my wife and daughter,” he explains. “That’s nirvana for me.”

It’s small-talk situations, he tells us – “those random weather conversations” – that “really destroy” him, and which he therefore avoids as much as possible. But for all his natural shyness, for all his thoughtful introvert qualities, there’s nothing fake about the fiery, thrilling blues performer on stage. Or the chatty guitar nerd at the merch stand afterwards.

“I do change on stage to a certain extent, to get out of that antisocial headspace. I figured out early on that if you don’t engage with an audience, talk and connect with an audience, it really changes the dynamic of the show. As soon as you make an audience feel a bit more comfortable with you, they tend to enjoy the music more, and I then get more confidence. It just works.”

Into-Vertigo is out now on Dan Patlansky Music.