Dan Sultan has had better days. He’s got a nasty cough – “I’ve been sick for most of this year” – and he’s grouchy, too, firing off a few expletive-laden tirades. But when he talks about his new album, Killer, the prickliness gives way to evident pride.
“It’s my most focused album to date, the most concise thing I’ve done,” he says, cradling a cappuccino outside a busy cafe in Woolloomooloo, near his management company’s Sydney office. “You know, you write 50 or 60 songs, and 11 of them make the record, so you pretty much like all of them.”
Sultan’s soulful fourth album, recorded with his producer and long-time collaborator Jan Skubiszewski, marks a departure from the ARIA award-winning Blackbird, released in 2014. Drum machines and synthesisers reinforce the rhythms and big sounds, which are infused with gospel, rock and hip-hop. By turns reflective, angry and deeply personal, the lyrics are also sharply political, on tracks such as Drover and Kingdom.
“A lot of bands stick to a particular formula, and they make great record after great record,” muses the indigenous singer-songwriter. “But I’ve got a short attention span and I never want to make the same record twice. I don’t like to feel too comfortable; I like to scare myself a bit. I think that’s important when you’re trying to be creative.”
Released on 27 July through Liberation, Killer opens with a booming drum roll, signalling the start of Drover, which Sultan describes as a prequel to the Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody classic From Little Things.
Drover tells of two brothers labouring on the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory, before the 1966 walk-off and strike by Gurindji stockmen, which forged the way for land rights. Those events have personal resonance for Sultan, who has Gurindji heritage through his maternal grandfather.
“It’s a huge part of Australian history, and I feel a lot of pride, being connected to that land, through family and through blood,” says the Melbourne-born 34-year-old. “It’s an incredible chapter in the history of civil rights around the world.”
It’s 11 years since Sultan released his debut album, Homemade Biscuits, following that up with Get Out While You Can, which earned him two 2010 ARIA Awards (Best Male Artist and Best Blues and Roots Album). In 2009, he also ventured into film, with a role in the musical Bran Nu Dae, alongside Geoffrey Rush, Jessica Mauboy and Missy Higgins.
Blackbird picked up an ARIA Award for Best Rock Album and went gold, reaching number four in the ARIA Albums Chart.
Unlike Blackbird, which was recorded in Nashville, Killer was made in Skubiszewski’s Way of the Eagle studio in Melbourne. It was tough whittling those 50 or 60 songs down to 11, he admits, “but kind of liberating as well”.
One intensely personal song is the closing track, Easier Man, a candid reflection on learning to control his inner demons. “That was very cathartic,” he says. “I’m lucky, because I’m an emotional person with a lot of empathy, and I have an outlet – I’m able to write and create. It would be a lot harder if I didn’t have that.”
Asked about his politics, Sultan – who collaborated with the hip-hop duo AB Original last year on the anti-Australia Day anthem January 26 – lets rip.
“I’m not political, but I’m opinionated,” he declares, as the morning sun glints off his sliver skull ring. “I know what civil rights are, and I know my history, and I know what our future should be, and I know what human rights and equal rights are, and I know when they’re not happening.
“Who gives a shit if two people want to get married? Why are women paid less? Why does changing the date of Australia Day to include a huge proportion of the Australian population make you feel excluded? It’s just the f*cking height of white entitlement.
“People know what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s why f*cking KKK members wear hoods. At least the rednecks out there waving the f*cking Australian flag, at least those racist c*nts you can f*cking see ’em from a mile off and you can avoid them. It’s the people in [Sydney’s] Surry Hills, and in [Melbourne’s] Fitzroy, where I live, they’ve got Jabiluka Mine stickers on their bikes and they don’t even know they’re racist.”
He adds: “I’m really pissed off about this freedom of speech, which has turned into the freedom to insult someone. It’s all bigotry and racism. You can be a bigot, but don’t f*cking say that racist shit, don’t harass and scare and terrorise people. It’s f*cking despicable.”
Behind his dark glasses, Sultan looks weary. It’s been a big year, and it’s about to get bigger. In September he kicks off a national tour with his seven-piece band, then in October he’ll be supporting Midnight Oil at gigs in Alice Springs and Darwin.
“That’s going to be awesome. They’re the first band I remember seeing as a really little kid, like maybe three, when they played out in the Territory. Then I saw them again when I was about eight, at the Tennis Centre in Melbourne. That was my first big rock and roll show. So to be on the bill with them for a couple of shows is exciting.”
Before that, though, Sultan is taking some much-needed time off. “I’m going to spend August in bed, nip this flu in the bud. And I should get back into the gym – I haven’t been to the gym for a long time. So it’ll be: up in the morning, gym, home, trackies, Judge Judy and Uber Eats. Gym in the morning and then f*ck all for the rest of the day. It’ll be good.”
This is a guest article from Sydney-based journalist Kathy Marks.