INTERVIEW: Dan Sultan

Dan Sultan is something of a rarity in the Australian music scene, let’s admit it: a dude with charisma, talent and opinions who isn’t afraid to use all three. Often the dreaded ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ gets in the way of letting artists truly express themselves but Sultan seems to just go for it with a purity of will and utterly without pretence. He doesn’t feel the need to talk himself up, but he doesn’t talk himself down either. That makes him a pretty damn refreshing interview. And it also makes Blackbird, his new studio album, something very special. Named after Black Studios in Nashville, where it was recorded, it’s Sultan’s first album in five years and the follow-up to his acclaimed Get Out While You Can. A lot can happen in five years, especially when you carry the burden of expectation on your shoulders, but Sultan is taking it all in his stride. With producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings Of Leon), Sultan has crafted a varied, expressive album which sounds at once brand new and comfortable. It’s familiar and yet exciting. And its’ loaded with great guitar tones.

“I used a 1956 Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups,” he says. “And also a nice ’58 with PAF humbuckers. Another one I took over was a nice ’69 Tele which is unbelievable – I love that guitar. It’s all thrills, no fills. But the main one was the ’56 Goldtop. It was amazing how many times we’d be trying things out, like we had this great Silvertone plugged into a great 70s Maestro fuzz pedal from the 70s, but also with more modern stuff like the Earthquaker Devices Ghost Echo and the EHX Holy Grail reverb… but the number of times we’d be trying something and not quite getting it until we picked up the Goldtop, man, it was just perfect. You can hear the gold, man, you can!” he laughs. “But P-90s in particular, I love those pickups. Pickups are an incredible thing. It’s something I’ve been getting into a little more recently. I think the studio did a lot of that for me as well: in a studio like that you get to sit and try a lot of things. The producer and engineer as well, they were plugging shit in for me and I didn’t have much of an idea of what was going on until we’d get this sound that was just crazy. We used this Line 6 thing, this cheap plastic Line 6 whatever, but we actually used it on quite a few things because it sounded like there was this organ happening in the background, this big ghosty church organ, but it’d just happen. It was just an incidental, accidental sound of the frequencies of that reverb banging up against each other.”

Dan Sultan BlackbirdThat’s just one of the ‘ear candy’ moments on Blackbird. Listen close and you’ll hear banjo, horn parts – all sorts of little touches that make it a great headphone album. “With the horns we didn’t want to go too over the top,” Sultan says. “With Jacquire and his production, he just eats that shit up. So we didn’t want to go too full-on. We were thinking about strings at one point but then we had that Line 6 pedal again, doing this high-end jangliness that sounded like a cross between strings and a horn section, and then we’d have the horns in, and due to the arrangements and they way that it was mixed it comes up like strings. Little things we learned along the way…”

In a more nebulous way, the environment in the studio was enhanced by some rather interactive mood lighting designed to allow musicians to get into the mood. “I’m not just talking about a dimmer switch,” Sultan says. “There’s a whole lighting rig in the studio, and we’d change it from time to time to see if that’d make any difference. Most of the vocals I got pretty lucky with, because we’d get them within five takes. But there were a few other songs where I’d just leave it and come back at the end of the whole deal, within the last few days of me being there. But we were so excited to be there. There was a lot of emotion and it was a long time coming for us to be making another record in the first place. So once we were there it was pretty exciting and we had a lot of adrenaline. We’d record the song all day and then we’d do the vocals at the end of the day. So by that time I was tired and wasn’t inspired by what we’d come up with throughout the day and it’d all be happening during the day. But Jacquire was really cool and very understanding. He could tell when I was feeling it or not feeling it and he was very nurturing either way.”

Sultan first picked up the guitar at around the age of four, learning ‘Wild Thing’ on a single string, then moving on to as much of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ as he could manage. “I’ve had a lot of great teachers, and even people I played with who weren’t officially teachers.” he says. “Scott Wilson, who I used to play with, he’s an amazing guitar player. I learned a lot playing with him for many years. And a teacher that I had when I was a kid was Louis McManus, who’s no longer with us, but he was in The Bushwackers and was a great inspiration early on. I remember rocking up to his house, 2 o’clock on a Saturday or Sunday, I was about 8 or 9 or something. He’d just taught me ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ the week before – I love Jimi Hendrix, grew up listening to Hendrix – and I rocked up and he looked like he’d had a largish night. He’s like ‘G’day, come in. What do you wanna learn today?’ and I said ‘I’d like to learn the solo to ‘The Wind Cries Mary,’ and he just looked at me then went ‘…it’s a bit early in the morning for ‘The Wind Cries Mary,’ mate. So we learned ‘Sunshine Of Your Love.’ Sultan says the drive to be a professional musician has always been with him. “It was never gonna be any other way,” he says. “But I was always given a lot of support. I had a couple of teachers at school who weren’t that good (laughs) who I don’t need to mention. They know who they are. But I was always given a lot of support. I think I was pretty cocky growing up. I can still be a bit cocky. So maybe a couple of teachers when I was a kid, I might have rubbed them up the wrong way but I was a child, y’know?”

Dan Sultan

Sultan is hitting the road for an expansive – okay, friggin’ huge – Australian tour starting this month, hitting up way more towns than the average run by the average artist. “We’re gonna give it a good crack,” he says. “It’s the largest tour I’ve done and the most full-on tour I’ve done. But they’ve been good to me. It’s four shows in a row and then maybe four or five days off. And I haven’t got it right in front of me but basically it’s June, July and August playing a lot of regional areas and a couple of capital cities. Just giving it a good nudge, I guess!”

Sultan says his material typically changes on the road, but that’s not likely to happen with the new stuff. “I feel it out a lot, y’know?” he says. “It’s definitely changed in the past, and that’s really me saying I wanted it to be bigger and more grandiose. I guess when I haven’t had that control in the studio I’ve had more of that control on stage. But with this record I don’t think it’s going to change as much because I had a lot more control this time around and we were able to make it as big as I wanted.”

BLACKBIRD ALBUM TOUR
With support from Stonefield and Way Of The Eagle
Tickets on sale from Thursday April 10

Thursday 26 June The Venue, Townsville QLD **

Friday 27 June Tank Arts Centre, Cairns QLD **

Saturday 28 June River Sessions Festival, Mackay QLD ***

Wednesday 2 July Solbar, Maroochydore QLD **

Thursday 3 July Spotted Cow, Toowoomba QLD

Friday 4 July Soundlounge, Gold Coast QLD

Saturday 5 July Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane QLD

Tuesday 8 July The Northern, Byron Bay NSW

Thursday 10 July Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle NSW

Friday 11 July Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW

Saturday 12 July Waves, Wollongong NSW

Thursday 17 July The Forum, Melbourne VIC

Friday 18 July The Wool Exchance, Geelong VIC

Saturday 19 July Westernport Hotel, San Remo VIC

Friday 1 August Settlers Tavern, Margaret River WA

Saturday 2 August Astor Theatre, Perth WA

Friday 8 August Wrest Point Showroom, Hobart TAS

Saturday 9 August Country Club Showroom, Launceston TAS

Thursday 14 August The Gov, Adelaide SA

Friday 15 August Darwin Ampitheatre “NIMAS”, Darwin NT

Saturday 16 August Roebuck Bay Hotel, Broome WA ***

Friday 22 August Port Panthers, Port Macquarie NSW

**Stonefield not appearing
***Stonefield and Way Of The Eagle not appearing