Dan Sultan KillerWe spoke to the beloved Dan Sultan about the eclectic/cohesive paradox of his music, why scaring yourself is important, and throwing out the rule book while taking new album Killer on the road.

The record opens with this huge, building snare roll – it’s super anticipatory. Is it a kind of ringmaster’s call to introduce the ‘show’ of the album, or was it specifically about opening the first track, Drover?

Well, I guess it was a bit of both. I always wanted that song at the start of the record. That big snare roll and everything, I think it’s a bit of theatre. It’s got a bit of impact for the start, it felt good.


Drover is written from the perspective of an Indigenous drover during the period just before the Wave Hill walk-off of 1966, in which pastoral workers in the Northern Territory protested their godawful working conditions. You’ve described it as a ‘prequel’ to Paul Kelly’s From Little Things, Big Things Grow. Have you discussed the way the two songs relate with Paul?

I think I might have mentioned something [laughs]. That song, From Little Things Big Things Grow, which I love, I’ve sung that so many times. I guess I just wanted to [give] a bit of a tip of the hat to that song. It’s nice to be able to sing about that particular topic in a different way as well. I think it’s an interesting perspective.


Kingdom has a very jangly, Underground Railroad feel to its instrumentation; the tambourine almost sounds like chains. Were you deliberately trying to summon that idea?

Yeah, I think so. I think you’ve got to be careful when writing music like that gospel, slave driver-sounding stuff, because you don’t really want to speak out of school and you want to be respectful to that history. But Drover and From Little Things Big Things Grow, they’re my people, and they were slaves, essentially. They were given rations, if that. Their land was stolen from them. So, I don’t have any reservations about, again, doing a bit of a tip of the hat to that style of music. Everyone knows about the history in America and the songs that have come out of there, but there’s a huge history here in Australia as well, and in different styles of music.

I love those old songs. Getting the chance to write a song like that is exciting. You’ve got to be careful but at the same time it’s something that I’m pretty proud of. We’ve been through a big struggle, and we still are. It’s something that I’m never going to stop talking about, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people feel. And I’ve got my own way of doing things. I’ve got friends in the industry where I’m a bit more of a softer touch, I think, and I don’t think mine’s the right or wrong way, or theirs is the right or wrong way, but everybody’s different. But this is how I go about it within music.

You’ve played around much more with electronic drums on the album, particularly in tracks like Should’ve Known – it gives them a hip hop lilt. Why did you want to explore this?

Yeah, it was new for me to do that. I didn’t want to make the same record twice – I never want to make the same record twice. I’ve just got a really short attention span. With this record, I wanted to use different techniques and instrumentation; a lot of synthesisers and drum machines and beats, but mixed in with traditional rock and roll band instruments. I definitely did something different this time around. But this record’s the most kind of cohesive of all of my records. It’s still pretty eclectic really but it’s still the most cohesive. There are things throughout the record that tie in one song to another. So, it’s definitely sort of narrowing the focus a bit on this record.


How do you find working within that eclectic/cohesive paradox?

The thing is, not belonging to a genre or a certain click can be frustrating. But I think essentially as an artist, as a creative person, very positive. I think as you’re trying to produce a commodity it can be a bit frustrating, particularly breaking into new markets and new territories, be it overseas or something, they don’t really know where to put you.

Not everyone’s going to like it. And even more people aren’t even going to know about it, but that’s okay. But I feel very fortunate, and I don’t take that for granted at all.

Look, the really positive thing about not having a style or a belonging to a genre in particular is that I can perform with my friends in a hip hop group or I can write a ballad with someone else, or I can do an acoustic EP or a pretty flat out rock and roll record, or this record. It’s probably the most pop I’ve ever gone. There’s a lot of freedom there. It can be frustrating at times though, if I’m honest, but that’s just when I’m taking myself a bit too seriously. It doesn’t take me long to get over it.


The gospel choirs across the entire record are stunning. Do you plan to tour with a big bad group of singers?

That would be great, but I can’t afford it! I am going to have some singers on the road, which will be great. Also, I’m not totally against having tracks playing throughout the song that has big vocal parts in it, or synthesiser or some sample parts. I’m really taking it to a place where I’ve never been before, which is scary. I think when you’re doing something artistic and creative, I think that’s a really positive thing – scaring yourself. For better or worse, at least you’ve done it.

Will translating this and the other oddities of the record to a live setting present a bunch of new challenges?

Absolutely. It’s a whole new rule book; the old way goes out the window a bit. Well, not entirely… I mean, it’s still a rock and roll band. It’s changed, but it hasn’t. Again, it’s eclectic but cohesive, it’s different but it’s the same. I mean, it’s a pain in the a–e, but it is what it is. But, yeah, it’s a whole new thing. The people that are with me are very capable, talented people. We love each other and we enjoy being on the road and working together and figuring stuff out, so we’ll wait and see.


There are a ton of dates on this tour, how are you anticipating that sort of time-length on the road will go?

It does seem like a lot! There might be more, too. There certainly won’t be less. It’s a lot. But what else am I going to do – why not? You put yourself out there, you get out there you do it. You make a record and at the time it’s the most important thing that you’ve ever done. The last record was just practice for this one, and then you get out on the road and you do that for a couple of years and you do that show and then you start to think about another one, and then that becomes the most important thing you’ve ever done, and Killer becomes practice.


And what about the down times, when you come back to life from a tour slog and begin writing again?

Well, that’s it – it’s a process – the chicken and the egg. You go through something, you deal with it, it can be a bit hard, a bit rough, and you write about it, then you record it and you release it, then you talk about it to someone like yourself, then you get out on the road and play it for awhile and you just let it go, get it out of your system. It’s really cathartic. Then you’re out on the road and you start going through things and experiencing things and you come home and start writing about it. It’s a constant thing.

Killer is out July 28 via Liberation.
Dan Sultan is touring from Semptember 1 – Septmeber 30; get the details here.

Buy now at JB Hi-Fi

Watch excerpts from our interview below: