It's a crisp winter's day in Melbourne and Dan Sultan, dressed head-to-toe in black denim, is pacing around the upstairs bandroom of The Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood, not far from his home in Fitzroy. When the musician sits, he compulsively sweeps his hand across the table. When he stands, he smokes. He might have completed his new album Killer, but the nervous energy is palpable.
Perhaps it's because Killer is different. After three albums of gutsy roots-rock, Sultan's legion of fans will laud Killer for its big-swinging hooks, smart pop arrangements and that distinctive voice – a soulful, dusty bellow. That's if they embrace the sonics. It isn't that Sultan's gone electronic, exactly. But Killer's genesis can be traced to new song "Cul De Sac", a downbeat, synth-drenched co-write with Julian Hamilton of the Presets. For an artist who's previously won ARIAs for Best Blues & Roots Album (Get Out While You Can, 2010) and Best Rock Album (Blackbird, 2014), this is Sultan's leap.
"I didn't want to make the same record twice," he says. "I've got a really short attention span and I get a bit disengaged if I'm not scaring myself. I think jumping off the deep end artistically is a genuinely positive thing. It might not work all the time. I mean, I wrote 60 fuckin' songs for Killer, so I know it didn't work all the time. But I want to make music I want to listen to."
The snappy grooves of big band stompers "Hold It Together" and "Magnetic" preserve Sultan's hallmarks. But now there's flashes of future R&B ("Over in Time"), stirring Adele-like torch ballads ("Fire Under Foot"), and gospel-flecked opener "Drover" – an account of two brothers working the land in the Northern Territory – is anchored by a minimalist hip-hop shuffle.
Killer came together with the help of producer, friend and bandmate, Jan Skubiszewski, but sees collaborations with a diverse lot, including Pip Norman (TZU, Jarryd James, Troye Sivan), Jon Hume (Evermore, Lisa Mitchell) and the aforementioned Preset. This creative stable shouldn't shock, says Sultan. "I've never belonged to a certain clique or style," he explains, brushing his arm across the table some more. "Which means I've found it easy to play a guitar solo on a Spiderbait record, then write a bluegrass song with the Wilson Pickers or a hook on a Hilltop Hoods or A.B. Original record. It can be frustrating when people don't really know where to put me or what I am. But I can't blame them. I don't know what I am either."
Born to an Indigenous mother and father of Irish descent, Sultan found his feet at open mic nights and the thriving Melbourne music scene of the early '00s. He never considered himself an Indigenous musician, but others did.
"I'd be playing in a rock & roll band with a bunch of white guys and they put me on the world music stage after an African drum band," he says, still incredulous. "And we're standing there with pomade in our hair, black jeans and cowboy boots playing electric guitars. But I got over it a long time ago. I'm an artist who happens to be Aboriginal, I'm not an Aboriginal artist. I don't have to prove it to anybody. It affects my music as much as growing up in Melbourne or the people I've been in love with. Which is in every way, so therefore in no way whatsoever."
Sultan speaks of love often on Killer, but with resignation. "It'll be over in time," he sings on the bruising "Over in Time", "we don't have to make up our minds." Is there someone out there who thinks Killer is about them?
"Probably," he laughs. "Might be a few people, if I'm honest. It's interesting, you release a record and you tour and you have this life. You're cruising around, you play Australia, maybe go overseas, and shit fucks up in some way. You go through some shit, then it's time to start writing about another record. So you write about all that, then you release it and you go through it all again. Then it's time to start writing for the next record. That's how it's worked out so far." He laughs. "But that's OK. I'm nothing if not honest."
From issue #790, available now.
Topics: Dan Sultan