By Brian Wise.
Dan Sultan’s new album, Killer, just might be the one to propel him to the international stage. If it takes big production, a powerful sound and songs with some irresistible hooks then the album should be headed for huge success. Released last Friday, July 28, it should be near or at the top of the ARIA albums chart by this time next week.
You don’t have to be an expert to know that this album is a serious attempt to take Sultan’s career to the next level. As soon as you hear it, the sound leaps out at you. You can imagine the songs played on big stages and it is the kind of record that would translate well at many of the larger festivals overseas (assuming it’s going to go gangbusters at home). He has already supported Springsteen here in 2014, so he is accustomed to the big stage.
‘Drover’, which Sultan claims is a prelude to Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s ‘From Little Things big Things Grow,’ is set to become an anthem, as is the first ‘single’ ‘Hold It Together’. The title track has all the elements of a hit single and there are several ballads that are bound to become crowd favourites. It is a striking development from the 2014 ARIA Award-winning predecessor Blackbir
The Killer tour, which features William Crighton as support, runs through September and until then Sultan is busy promoting the album, doing as many interviews as he can. It is a winter’s Saturday morning in Melbourne when he meets me at the Triple R studios for a chat. It’s early and he needs a coffee before the yawning stops.
During our conversation I ask him how long it took to make the new album.
“Thirty-three years!” he laughs.
If Killer does live up to its promise then it will be the culmination of a seventeen year plus journey since he first began playing in pubs and writing songs with Scott Wilson his first collaborator. Three studio albums and a live album as well as several Eps, a number of different band members and various song writing partners since then, Sultan is poised to make his mark yet again. This time around the band will be bigger to capture the album’s sound. Last year singing with Paul Kelly’s Merri Soul Messengers Sultan had the experience of working with a larger ensemble and obviously delighted in it. But now it is down to the business of promoting his own new recording.
You’ve been quite busy recently with the release of this album, haven’t you?
I have been busy, and I’ve been working a lot and not sleeping much. I’m good, though. It’s 10:30, it’s Saturday morning, I’ve got a guitar here, talking to you. We’re doing it.
I hope the coffee arrives very shortly.
Me, too. I’m going to go back to bed after this. I’m kind of wondering if I should do it because I might start something that I can’t finish.
Listening to this album I was wondering what was the turning point in your career? There was a point a few years ago where you signed with a major label. Your music didn’t necessarily change, but obviously budgets changed and everything like that. What do you think was the turning point for you?
I don’t know man, I think I’m still waiting for it to be honest.
Yeah. I mean it’s hard to say and it’s hard to see it. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to get some perspective. When I’ve got a bit of hindsight in a few years time I think I’ll be able to answer that question a bit better.
Well, you were reasonably successful. You were doing gigs that were selling out and then suddenly you went from that to being a major act didn’t you? Or maybe you don’t see it like that?
Well look, again you’ve got a perspective that is yours, and there are certainly more people than not who’ve never heard of me and will never hear of me. You know what I mean? And that’s fine as well. I like to listen to a lot of different types of music, and I like to make a lot of different types of music. Sometimes that can then translate into things being larger and a bit more full-on than other times when I’ve made more country stuff, or sort of rockabilly stuff, you know and a bit folksy. Then I wanted to make a big, major rock and roll record so I did that. You know, that then turns into something different altogether from what you were doing before.
But, this record, on this one it’s sort of different again still. But, all that stuff I don’t really think about that much because it’s not really up to me. I don’t decide whether more people are going to hear it, or more people are going to get into it than the previous record. I mean, it’s up to everyone else whether they listen to it or not, you know? Like I said more people than not aren’t going to ever hear it or know it exists.
I think most people these days would know who you are, wouldn’t they?
Well, I don’t know. Yeah, maybe.
I’m pretty sure they would. I think I recall seeing the first major video clip you did, you were in the bath weren’t you? Remember that? There was a bath involved. When I saw that I thought, ‘Boy, this guy’s on his way to something really big.’
He’s finally cleaning up his act, he’s finally getting in a bath and having a scrub.
I didn’t quite mean it like that. Well, not a complete change, but a sort of a serious thing, wasn’t it?
Look I suppose it was. Like you say, I’d never been with a label before, so the budgets increase, and you can kind of take things a bit further at the time. It’s fun, I enjoy it. I mean, budget permitting, I’d have a choir and orchestra and fireworks, you know what I mean?
There are some strings on the latest album.
Well there are strings, and there’s quite a few voices too, but you do what you can. You sort of hear these stories about labels and stuff like that, and I’m sure most of them are true. My label’s really good with me. They’re really good with me and we’ve got a great working relationship and most of the time we’re on a pretty similar page and if we’re not, that’s okay. I mean, there are interesting debates and there’s a lot of mutual respect there.
Well as you said, you’ve been working pretty hard. It depends on your putting the effort in too, doesn’t it? And I suppose when you get some tangible results from it – like I imagine that next week this album will be in maybe, I’m thinking, the Top Five of the Australian ARIA charts (although you can never predict anything can you?).
Well, yeah, you just don’t know. Like I said, it’s just not up to me. I made it, and I’m here, and I’ll keep up my end of the bargain most of the time. And that’s all I can do. As far as all that other stuff’s concerned … we’ll just wait and see. You just don’t know. You just don’t know how it’s going to go, you know?
A mate of mine’s just released a song that went mental. You hear stories about people being on the beach in Brazil, and hearing backpackers singing it on an acoustic guitar, and he’s from Melbourne. Stuff like that. I mean, it’s a nice song but it’s like ‘Who would have thought?’
So things can go really crazy, you know? And then some things, you can think ‘This is a great song’ and you’re really proud of it, and you’ve crafted it and no one likes it, no one cares. So you’d just drive yourself mad if you worried about that stuff. You’ve just got to create and just be honest, and just keep moving.
I was reading an article about football yesterday……
Somebody was talking about the length of people’s careers, that you don’t have that long in the game, and, therefore, you get a certain window of opportunity and you’ve got to make the best of it. I guess that window has opened up for you, and you have to really put in the work to make the best of it.
Well yeah, I’m glad that my knees don’t play too much of a factor in my career! You see these old footy players, and a lot of them can’t stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time. So yeah, I’m glad that that’s the case, but you know, in a lot of ways it’s true. I certainly think that there’s been opportunities that I could have taken that I haven’t, just like anyone. But I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Tell us about the production of it and the producer.
Jan Skubiszewski and Way of the Eagle. He goes under ‘Way of the Eagle.’ He’s just a great producer. He’s made platinum singles, hip hop singles. He’s made gold records for Cat Empire, and singles for Illy, the hip hop artist, and John Butler. A bunch of stuff. He’s worked with a lot of kids too. He’s a real sort of nurturing dude. I think as a producer it’s a really important quality that you need to have.
He calls it the ‘something sandwich’, where … He said this the other day. We were doing a bit of a talk for APRA/AMCOS for some young songwriters, and he said “I call it the something sandwich.” I can’t remember what it was. He goes, “You’re great, the song is not so great, and I reckon you can make it great.” You know what I mean? He’s got this real good disposition and demeanour.
And we’re really close and we’re good mates. I know his family really well. We’ve spent a lot of time together. So it was a great process. We made it in Melbourne. The last record we travelled for that. We went to Nashville and made that, which was an adventure and it was great. But this one being in Melbourne, all the boys had had young kids since Blackbird, since our previous record. So people are home for dinner, they’re sleeping in their own beds, you know? It was a really nice way to do it.
How do you interact in the studio with Jan? What sort of directions does he give, or does he? Does he have a pretty firm idea of what he wants something to sound like?
Sometimes – and sometimes I do as well. We just go for it. Obviously there’s a lot of mutual respect, and we just go for it and we just trust each other. Ultimately, it’s about the song, and then further than that it’s about the record itself. Whether Jan’s written a bit for the song, or whether I’ve written a bit, it’s kind of regardless. If the bit works then we’ll use it. But we’re not going to use it just because I wrote it. If it’s not good, it’s not good. Or if it’s not working. It might be good, it might be great, but if it’s not fitting, or if it’s not relevant, then see you later.
There’s a few collaborations on the album. Talk about the song writing on it.
Yeah, yeah. [It’s] about half and half. I collaborated again with Jan, obviously, but with Pitt Norman. Alex Burnett who I collaborated with on “Blackbird”, but also Julian Hamilton from The Presets, and Ben Abraham, and yeah, a few different people. It was great. I love it, I love collaborating. You walk into a room, into a studio, in the morning or at midday, my morning, and by the time you leave at six o’clock, you’re going home. You’re going to have some dinner and you’re singing a song that it feels like you’ve been singing for your whole life. It’s a special thing, I like it. It’s good.
There’s lots of great hooks on the songs here too. On a lot of them.
Well that’s it. When you throw everything at the wall, occasionally a few things stick.
Somethings going to stick.
‘Drover’ is a really interesting song. Can you talk about the story?
Yeah. It’s about two young fellas working on a cattle station, Wave Hill, and talking about murmurs of a strike. It’s a prequel to ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow.’
…….so the inspiration is pretty obvious. And it’s interesting, this week we lost Dr. G. Yunupingu, which is a huge loss to the musical community and it was good to see it recognised in the media, wasn’t it?
Yeah. There’s not much I really want to say about it, I mean just out of respect but I’ll just say we can all count ourselves very lucky that we were here. He was a force, and very special. It’s very sad.
One of my strongest memories ever was being in New Orleans at the Jazz Festival, and seeing him perform in the Blues Tent, which was a pretty amazing experience. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but the buzz and the excitement in the audience was incredible, ’cause basically they’d never seen anything, or heard anything like it before.
No one had. Well, some people had, but most people hadn’t.
There’s a bit of an obvious gospel influence on the new album isn’t there? With the voices there.
Well, yeah, you put more than one voice down and it becomes gospel. I suppose there is. I didn’t really set out to necessarily do that. The record just sort of presented itself, which is, I find, usually the best way. It’s my job just to sort of honour that, and just really facilitate, you know?
So do you go into the studio with a whole batch of songs ready to go? Or did you have to write stuff while you were in … how long did the recording process take?
Thirty-three years! I mean, it takes a long time. But I suppose about a year, once we were really getting into the nuts and bolts of it. But at the same time I was writing for a year before that as well. When Blackbird came out, 2014 … I didn’t really write for a long time before Blackbird, I was in a real rut. Made some changes and since then I haven’t stopped. But I came in and wrote about 60 songs. Had about 60 songs to choose from for Killer.
I mean, a lot of them weren’t very good, so that made it easy to kind of whittle it down a bit. But once you get down to 20, and then 15, and then 15 to the eventual 11, that’s when it can get a bit hard, and you’ve got to be a bit of a mercenary. You’ve just got to be willing to let it go, and just realise that you never really had it in the first place. So, it’s everything and nothing at the same time.
What sort of things have you been listening to? You mentioned when we played ‘Killer’ a bit of a Clash influence there, or Police even on the start of that particular song. Have you been listening to anything in particular over the last few years that you’ve enjoyed?
To be honest with you, and it’s terrible, but I’ve just been listening to this record. Well, in the writing process, I was listening to the most recent Tame Impala record a lot, which I just love. Cam, he’s incredible. He’s another one. He’s a bit of a force of nature, that dude.
But I was listening to a lot of Clash, and a lot of different sort of stuff, electronic stuff as well. But honestly, when I’m making a record, I just go into a bubble and I don’t listen to anything else, and I just obsess on it quite a bit. Hearing that song then, it’s the first time I’d really sat and listened to it in a while, ’cause once it’s done I give myself a bit of a rest. But it’s one of those things. I just get a bit obsessive about it.
When I had a listen to the album, first heard it, I’m thinking international market. Is that what you’re thinking?
I’d love to, yeah.
It’s got that kind of sound to it.
Well, look, I’d love to play in as many places as possible, but I don’t really belong to a certain genre or a clique, or anything like that. So labels overseas have not signed me, have not picked me up, they find it hard to put me in a category and they need to do that. I don’t blame them. It’s just the industry. They need to get someone they know is going to work and then if it doesn’t work past the initial ‘Yep that works’, and if it doesn’t continue on then they just go to someone else, which is fine. With me they don’t know that ’cause they don’t know where to put me and they find it a bit difficult.
In a lot of ways it’s a good thing, because I can write a soul record with Paul Kelly – or a couple of songs on a soul record with Paul – and then go on a hip hop track with AB Original, or Hilltop Hoods. You know, I played Splendour last week, and I played lead guitar with Peking Duck, and then we did our own set on Saturday, and then I sang with AB Original on the Sunday. So even just in that weekend, it’s just kind of all those different places.
So it’s great in a lot of ways, but as far as international is concerned, it’s a bit difficult. So for me to actually get something going overseas it’s going to take someone with a bit of guts to really just do it and see it out.
But it’s just so disposable now, with these Idol shows and all that trash, you know. They just get these kids and these kids come in and they think that they’re stars, and they think that they’ve made it, and they just get chewed up. And it’s really irresponsible, and no one’s buying music, and I don’t know. I should probably just get a job. You’ve made me think about it a bit now!
Oh, I’m glad I’ve inspired you.
Are they hiring here? No…….but it can be a bit of hard yakka. Look, never say never. I’m going to be heading over to the States this year, and we’ve actually got a situation going where we’ve got our own team in place, and we’re gonna just put it ourselves, and market it. There’s actually quite a few people in the industry who are aware of the album, and are really interested, so we’ll just see how we go.
You going to get to play any festivals or anything like that over there? Or is it too early? I guess the season’s probably …
We’ve got some in Europe next year booked.
And then hopefully a bit of flow on from that. But you know, you just go for it. I mean, why not? You’re not gonna die wondering.
You’re going out on tour in September with the band. It’s what, a seven piece band?
Budget permitting. There’s going to be some shows where we can’t have everybody. But yeah, a couple of singers, guitars and keyboards. Drums. It’s good fun.
Well you played the song ‘Drover’, which is kind of political obviously, but mainly the album is sort of more personal isn’t it? In a lot of ways.
Well, ‘Drover’s’ very personal as well. I suppose it is political, but anything can be political if you think about it long enough, you know what I mean? If you want it to be. ‘Drover’ is a song about two brothers, and it’s a song about a momentous event in world history, Civil Rights history. So, I’m into that song for a lot of reasons. I’m into that song because I’m interested in those types of stories and fighting the good fight. I’m also into that song ’cause I’m an Australian. I’m also into that song ’cause I’m aboriginal, and I’m also into that song because it’s where my people are from, Wave Hill. So, there’s a few different things going on.
It’s very personal, and it’s also very political. But listen, as a songwriter every song’s got to be personal, even the ones that are fiction. You need to have an enormous capacity for empathy, because you need to believe it even if it hasn’t happened to you, and you’re just inventing something, or creating something. The story, you need to know it, you need to believe it.
You mentioned the Merri Soul Sessions, and when you were performing with Paul, it looked like you were having enormous fun, so I hope you have fun on this forthcoming tour. I’m sure you will.
Me too. That was good ’cause I only had to sing a few songs on that one, so I’ll be working a lot harder … It was hard work, don’t get me wrong, but yeah, that was great fun. I hope I have a good time as well.
Killer is available now via Liberation.
Dan Sultan Tour Dates
Friday September 1 – Wool Exchange, Geelong
Saturday September 2 – Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Friday September 8 – Odeon Theatre, Hobart
Saturday September 9 – Club 54, Hobart
Friday September 15 – HQ – Adelaide
Saturday September 16 – Metro City, Perth
Thursday September 21 – The Northern, Byron Bay
Friday September 22 – Max Watt’s, Brisbane
Thursday September 28 – Academy, Canberra
Friday September 29 – Bar On The Hill, Newcastle
Saturday September 30 – Metro Theatre, Sydney