ENTERTAINMENT

Dan Sultan On His New Album 'Killer', Heritage, Footy And Being 'Cool'

Watch Sultan play an exclusive acoustic session.

02/08/2017 6:18 PM AEST | Updated 02/08/2017 6:18 PM AEST

Dan Sultan is in a good mood when he swaggers out, guitar case in hand, onto the balcony at the offices of his Sydney promo agency. It's an unseasonably warm winter day in the Harbour City, but the Melbourne rocker is still clad in the classic rockstar clobber, in black head-to-toe; black leather jacket, black tee, black jeans, black boots. The only flashes to break up the look are two large, thick silver rings on his fingers -- one a lion, mane and teeth and all -- and the gold rims on his black sunglasses.

"They were a release-day present to myself," he grins, as he slides them on against the welcome winter sun. It's the start of a long day of interviews and fan appearances to mark the release of his latest album, his fourth, 'Killer', but Sultan already sounds a little tired. As we set up our camera for the interview, he tells us he was up late the previous night performing on The Footy Show.

"The good one," he tells us with another cheeky grin, when we ask which version, the AFL or NRL iteration. Being from Melbourne, we assume he means the AFL. He shakes his head -- AFL is "the good sport", he says, but the rugby league version is "the good show".

Tall and broad, imposing in all-black and hands covered in tattoos, Sultan has built a reputation as one of the nice guys of the industry. Irreverent and charming, funny and good-natured, he's recognised as one of the most talented guitar players in Australian music, lending a hand (and a riff) in recent years to the likes of Hilltop Hoods and A.B Original, and picking up ARIAs and National Indigenous Music Awards along the way.

His fourth album, 'Killer', however, may be his most ambitious effort yet. The bluesman set aside his trusty guitar for much of the record, instead moving toward synthesisers and electronic drums. The classic Sultan touches are still there, and this is still very much a blues record -- but it feels newer, more urgent and vital.

"There were times I would have naturally gone to a guitar, and here I've gone 'no, let's go over there with this'. A song is a song. I'm a big believer in that you should be able to play a song at a piano, on your own, with a symphony orchestra, or with a rock band, the same song and it should stand up," Sultan told HuffPost Australia.

"The song should work, it shouldn't be reliant on a certain snare drum or a certain process. If you can do it on a guitar, you can do it on anything. And vice versa, if you can do it with a big group with singers and all that crazy stuff, you should be able to do it on a piano, on your own, at three in the morning."

It's a philosophical Sultan who arrives for our interview on this Friday morning. The album's release was preceded by a live video for new single 'Drover', a groovy, swaggering, Americana gospel-tinged number about the famous Wave Hill walk-off of Gurindji Indigenous pastoral workers from a Northern Territory cattle station in 1966. Sultan himself, he later tells us, is of Gurindji heritage, and has previously spoken about his grandfather being one of those workers involved. Considering the story behind 'Drover', we ask him what the album is about. His answer veers into unexpectedly philosophical territory.

"You write songs but you never own the song. It can be about you, or someone you know or something you've gone through, but you never actually own it. It belongs to itself, a song is its own thing. It's up to people to interpret it, or not, how they want. And in turn, the record itself," he said.

"That's an important part of being a songwriter and a creative person. We facilitate the art, we don't own it. It happens, and if we're lucky, we are able to grab onto something every now and then. It's like fire. Fire existed before humans were able to harness it. Fire has always existed. Mathematics, two plus two has always equalled four, before we could grasp that. Songs are songs, and plenty of songs are out there. More songs are flying around out there than have been written."

We pressed him on 'Drover' specifically, about why he wanted to put that story into song.

"It was an important moment for Indigenous rights-" we began before Sultan stopped us.

"Well, civil rights," he corrected, "throughout the whole world. It's a huge moment in world history.

"Why not? I live in the world. I'm an Australian, I live on the planet, I'm interested in history, I'm interested in civil rights and fighting the good fight. I'm also Aboriginal, and I'm also Gurinji... I'm into it on a whole bunch of levels."

"It's part of your heritage and your history too. It's part of everyone's history. Part of world history. We're all here together... I do feel connected to it, and so should you. It's your history too."

But while he talks about history and heritage, of civil rights and "fighting the good fight", it's important to note Sultan easily switches into the more laconic, laidback and laughing showman he is best known for being. 'Killer' is quite the arresting album title, conjuring images of crime and violence and danger. Sultan said that's not what he was exactly going for.

"It looks cool. 'Killer'. It looks great. It sounds great, regardless of the meaning," he laughed.

"As a writer, it's a great sounding word. And it means a bunch of stuff -- its dangerous, a bit heavy, it's kind of cool. Jerry Lee Lewis' nickname was killer. I like it. It's just a cool word."

While some of Sultan's work lands on the emotionally heavy side of the spectrum, he said it's important to still have some fun.

"Sometimes you can just do stuff because it's cool. I take it very seriously what I do, as a songwriter and musician, and you should -- but don't ever take yourself too seriously. Sometimes, good is just good," he said.

"You can smell it, you can see the bands at festivals and airports, you can see the bands that just take themselves way too seriously. It's boring, they're boring people. They wear these funny hats, wearing stupid sunglasses [at this point, he pauses and gives a self-aware fake cough, referencing his own sunglasses] and they think that replaces the personality but it doesn't. I'm wearing a top hat with pilot goggles -- that means I've got a personality? No it doesn't."

"It's OK to be serious and to care about what you do, and to really honour the opportunities you have, absolutely. But don't take yourself too seriously. 'Killer', it's just a cool word. It looks cool."

Killer is out now, via Liberation Records.

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