Dan Sartain’s fascinating career proved that rock thrives on the edge of the mainstream

The Alabama musician, whose garage rock was often more interesting that the scenes that brought it to light, has died at the age of 39. RIP

To find the really good stuff, sometimes you need to look to the peripheries. Nirvana‘s success in the early ’90s created a slipstream in which a host of underground rock acts enjoyed a window of prominence unlike anything they’d experience in years of scratting around. 10 years later, as garage rock-influenced bands The Strokes, The White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs came to rule the Earth, it happened again. It was within this moment that we came to know Dan Sartain, whose death was sadly reported at the weekend.

Though never hitting the commercial heights of the aforementioned, Sartain’s music was notable for its consistent quality. He was born Daniel Fredrick Sartain in Alabama, USA on August 13, 1981, and the songwriter’s childhood took in many stops. He grew up in Fairfield and moved to Center Point and Bluff Park, before establishing himself in the region’s metropolis, Birmingham. Along the way he delivered pizzas, worked at a gas station and attended barber college.

But the discovery of The Ramones and Rocket From The Crypt, whose records his brother Rob had brought back after seeing them play in their native San Diego, proved life-changing. Like so many whose music would in time embrace rootsier sounds, he was drawn to the immediacy of hardcore punk. Sartain would perform locally with Plate Six (their 2007 release ‘Battle Hymns For A New Republic’ is much recommended) in the late ‘90s.

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They served as Sartain’s backing band when the songwriter decided to go it alone at the turn of the millennium. Now solo, Sartain came out swinging. He self-released two records – 2001’s ‘Crimson Guard’, ‘Romance in Stereo’ a year later – before the album that saw his world open up beyond the boundaries of The Magic City. Released on Rocket From The Crypt frontman John ‘Speedo’ Reis’s label Swami Records (Sartain had accosted him, tapes in hand, at a show), third album ‘Dan Sartain Vs. The Serpientes’ received coverage in NME, thanks principally to the then-magazine’s great champion of underground sounds, the late Pat Long. Opening slots for both The White Stripes and The Hives followed.

‘…Vs. The Serpientes’ feels like a record out of time. The record’s sleeve – a horizontal portrait of Sartain with a noose around his neck – feels wildly inappropriate in context of current sensitivities. But if Sartain’s bluesy indie rock felt rustic at the time of its release, it feels positively otherworldly today. The record’s touchstones – the three-chords rock of Boston’s The Real Kids and the Lyres; the marginally groovier Pennsylvania band The Original Sins – feel further away than ever. Within this silo, ‘…Vs. The Serpentes’ feels curiously unique. Its songs feel more special for not existing within the crowd of garage rock hopefuls.

Within any era, though, these are great songs. ‘I Could Have Had You’ has a lilt that is almost Mariachi in feel, the song portraying a yearning sadness that remains unresolved throughout the song’s trebly twang. ‘Walk Among The Cobras, Pt. 1’ raises the tempo and the ferocity. ‘Leeches, Pt. 1’ is frenetic, almost feral garage punk. The excellent ‘Metropolis’ has an infectious swing. Then, at the end of it all, ‘Got That Feeling’ – a song that sheds its skin until it’s just skeleton, a lone trumpet parping away – is sorrowful in a way that felt enchanting then, and yet tragically pertinent today.

Thanks to his penchant for greased hair and hollow guitars, the word ‘rockabilly’ followed Sartain around. He was never fond of it. “I try to be a little more introspective with my songwriting,” he said in an interview with local news site Al.com in 2012, explaining his disdain for the scene’s revivalism: “These people say it’s a lifestyle… What does that mean?… Does it mean they pick their teeth with switchblades? It’s 2012. You can’t live a rockabilly lifestyle… You’re just going to pretend that MC Hammer didn’t exist?”

Sartain’s star would never again shine as brightly as it did around the release of his third record. And yet his music became increasingly innovative. 2009 single ‘Bohemian Grove’ was recorded by Jack White and released on his imprint Third Man Records. His unsettling and bleak ninth album, 2016’s ‘Century Plaza’, embraced the use of synthesisers, owing much to Sartain’s love of the New York duo Suicide. In 2018, after taking on the lease of the Hippodrome Barber Shop, he opened his own hair-cutting business.

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On March 10 this year, his label One Little Independent Records announced via social media that they were parting ways with the musician, though the posts have since been deleted. NME has approached the label for comment but had not heard back at the time of publication.

Dan Sartain, who was 39, is survived by his five-year-old daughter. In the wake of his death, a GoFundMe page was set up to raise money for his funeral costs. After the page quickly hit its target, it was announced that the remaining funds would be given to his daughter. His cause of death has not been made public.

– Update: at 3.14pm on March 22, after the publication of this article, NME received a response from One Little Independent Records, who declined to comment.

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