There’s a point in some performer’s careers, not all but a gifted few, where you just know they’re ready to step up a level and take on the world. When a record company knows that too and throws its resources enthusiastically behind the project, there’s reason to be excited. Dan Sultan is excited and rightly so. He’s just released a powerful new recording, Blackbird, a soulful, big sounding album featuring strong songs, recorded superbly in Nashville by producer heavy-weight, Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Tom Waits) and lauded engineer Lowell Reynolds. An extensive Australian tour begins in late June, followed soon after by the overseas showcase assault. “We’ve got a good team over there both in Europe and America,” Dan tells me. “We have a couple of top notch agents, which is very exciting. It’s flattering and humbling at the same time that they want to be involved and help out. We’ve got a great lawyer too who can broker a deal and put us in touch with the right people. It’s all really exciting. We’ll see how it goes but ya gotta give it a nudge ya know. You’re not going to die wondering.”
Sultan began road testing his new material on a tour earlier this year and those who experienced the recent Triple J One Night Stand gig broadcast, will know how rockin’ the new songs are scrubbing up. Dan and band are currently in rehearsals for their upcoming Australian tour. To further enhance the power of the album, he’ll add keyboards and a horn section. Unfortunately for some regional dates, economics dictate that they’ll only get the four piece version of the show. Now that Sultan is such a big deal for his record label, he also has to give more consideration to the visual aspect of the performance .
“The further you go and the more you evolve, there’s always going to be new challenges and new things to be getting into,” Sultan explains. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. We played at the One Night Stand and we had a big screen up the back which had a big red background with the black feather on it, from the record cover. I thought that looked really cool. That’s something I’d definitely like to look into for the tour, a lot more visual stuff. I know a great lighting guy too who is very much in demand so we can’t get him all the time but I do want to sit down with him. These are all things that we’ll look at.”
Joshua Jones (bass) and Peter Marin (drums), Dan’s core band members were part of the Nashville posse for the recording of the Blackbird album, as well as a few hot local session players who laid down the brass and some fretted instrument parts. For the Australian tour, Dan has a few local guns in mind to play those session parts and sees no issues in replicating the album’s grand sound. “I have a great trumpet player, Eugene Ball and he’s bringing someone else along to play trombone,” says Dan. “It’s just a matter of him listening to the songs, nutting out what he needs to do and write it all down. We’ll also have Gina Woods, our long-term keyboard player. It’s just a matter of them learning the songs. It won’t be too painful. They are all good musicians, they know their parts.”
Dan attributes much of his satisfaction with his album to producer Jacquire King, not just from a professional perspective but also due to the friendship King provided and the comfortable atmosphere he created in the studio. “We had a phone conversation before we even agreed to make the record together,” he explains, “just to see if we would get along. We spoke on the phone for about 40 minutes. I think the first five minutes was about the record and the rest was just talkin’ shit, just hanging out. We became friends there and then and we were good friends by the time I left.”
The level of comfort Sultan enjoyed in the studio allowed him to dig deep and find something special for his vocal takes. The soulful results speak for themselves. “He just said to go for it,” Dan says of Jacquire’s simple message. “I got pretty lucky when we made the record. Most of the songs I got down in three takes or less, three or four max. If he was happy, I was happy. A couple of the songs I wasn’t feeling that good about when I did them and I just thought, I’ll come back to it and try it again at a later date. So most of them went down pretty easily man.”
The elements which make up Blackbird’s grandiose sound, particularly the brass and Hammond organ tones, may not be de rigueur for the electro-pop loving, Triple J worshipping hipsters but it’s a combo Sultan has long admired. “I love Abbatoir Blues, Nick Cave’s record,” says Dan. “I think that song Nature Boy … it’s one of those songs I wish I’d written. I love that album. There’s The Saints with tracks like Know Your Product that I can’t go past, and a lot of Springsteen records. But do you know what? Not for the brass but the guitar, I have been listening a lot to Marquee Moon by Television, it’s a killer record. At the time there was a lot of balls to the wall punk coming out and they came out with basically a record of guitar solos. There’s some really intricate guitar bits going through the verses, it’s not just flat chords with singing over the top, it’s really intricate and I find that really interesting.”
With new albums and new sounds, more often than not comes new gear, or at least an excuse to buy some. Dan hasn’t gone overboard but has acquired a few new guitar pedals. “I used to like going straight into the amp and not use any pedals at all,” he says. “I’ve got a nice Overdrive pedal and also a Univibe pedal, which is kind of like a Chorus/Tremolo sounding thing, which is pretty good fun. Also, I have a Wah pedal, they’re always good fun. So, yeah, using a few more pedals this time. The sound of the album has a lot to do with the bass and the effects that we used on the bass. Josh, my bass player is using a lot more pedals. It’s the same live, the bass is the big sound … obviously electric guitar on top of that but the bass is really driving it. Traditionally that’s the job of the drums and bass anyway.”
Guitar-wise, Sultan has always been fond of the Telecaster sound as opposed to a Strat. His main Telecaster is a ’69 model he picked up in LA at the Guitar Centre. “The Tele’s pretty badass. I love Strats too, I have a really nice Strat as well but I don’t use it live. The Strat is very particular, while the Tele is too… you know a Tele when you hear it. I like the Telecaster and I also like the P90s. I have a few Les Pauls with P90s in them and they’re always cool.” In regard to amps, he’s into Vox and Orange. “I like an AC30,” he says. “I like a Vox but I really like the Orange amps too. I’ve got an AD30 combo with a speaker box underneath with 2x12s in the combo and 2 x12s in the speaker box. So that gives me a really big sound. I’ve also got a great Orange Rockerverb, a 100 watt with two quad boxes. That’s completely over the top. It’s too big (laughs) but good fun.”
Sultan is a firm believer that a beautifully crafted instrument that feels and sounds just right in your hands, can go along way to helping your performance and your songwriting too.
“You know what it is like on stage when you are getting a good stage sound, that always helps … helps the gig,” he says. “If you’re feeling good, it can only be a positive thing and I think it is the same with guitars. I have a beautiful old early 50s Gibson acoustic, which I bought in Nashville while I was there making Blackbird. It doesn’t have any pickups on it, it’s a straight up acoustic with a couple of F holes in it. That’s got a really beautiful sound to it and lends itself to certain styles. I have a beautiful old piano. A friend of my girlfriend had to get rid of it. It had been in his family for a long time and he wanted it to go to a place where it was going to get looked after and appreciated. It’s a Fritz Kuhla, made in Berlin. There’s no other piano that sounds like that. Pianos can be so particular … I think that is more the case with acoustic instruments rather than electric. Although, having said that, there can be a world of difference between two different Telecasters. I’ve got a Tele with a Bigsby on it. It’s a beautiful Candy Apple Red, a 90s Japanese Tele I think it’s got Hot Rails in it and it sounds completely different to my original ’69 Telecaster.”
A lot of bands from around the country gravitate to Melbourne, largely recognised as Australia’s music capital and are particularly attracted to the inner suburban vibe of places like Collingwood, Richmond, and Fitzroy. For Sultan, who grew up in Fitzroy, I wondered if those years left a lasting impression on him. “I think it must have,” he doesn’t hesitate in saying. “I love rock and roll, always have and think I always will. I always used to go to a bar called the Black Cat. In the eighties there was this great band called The Crocs, they used to play on a Saturday afternoon. Those days were pretty cool growing up … family and friends were musicians too. It just seemed like the natural way for me to go too. I never wanted to be anything else.”
For information on Blackbird and Dan Sultan tour dates visit www.dansultan.com