Interview : Mark Sultan

23 Mar

Canadian music legend Mark Sultan – aka BBQ – has worked to define the landscape of garage rock, punk and rock ‘n roll, with his bold and relentless approach to music solidifying his status as a pioneer of an incredibly influential subculture.  After fronting The Spaceshits and going on to embark on projects like Les Sexareenos, BBQ, Mind Controls, King Khan & BBQ and The Almighty Defenders, Sultan began honing his solo abilities, releasing The Sultantic Verses – the first album under his given name – in 2007 to further acclaim by critics, fans and fellow musicians.  This year, he releases $, the second instalment of his solo endeavour which continues to see the veteran explore another side of his musical persona, further establishing himself as a fearless, relevant and multi-dimensional artist.  Dirtbag Journalism was fortunate enough to speak with Sultan to discuss the spirit of garage rock, the concept of $ and the resurgence of old.

Dirtbag Journalism:  It goes without saying that you’re a legend of garage rock – rock ‘n roll in general – and since your time fronting The Spaceshits, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve noticed in garage rock?

Mark Sultan: I can name a million things that have changed, but I guess with new blood and with new people coming in and doing stuff with different influences. I think people have opened up a bit more to include all sorts of music into [more than one genre] than they did at one time.

There’s more kids involved in that kind of scene right now, the crowds are bigger than they have been in a while.  The old guard – quite literally – the older folks that were into more 60’s or 80’s kind of revivalist pure garage punk stuff is a smaller crowd than it was.  I mean, it’s a smaller crowd now than it was a few years ago as people get older and I think a lot of the younger people who are into garage rock, it’s a different kind of thing that they’re into rather than this like, Austin Powers-type shit.

DJ:  Garage rock has kind of survived music’s tendency to abandon genre categorization.  Why do you think garage rock continues to stand on its own and continues to have that iconic status?

MS:  Um, that’s kind of a weird question because I don’t really see it that way.  I can see where you’re coming from, but at the same time, if I listen to indie rock, the majority of indie stuff I could trace back years ago to an indie movement that happened in the 90’s.  Everything’s retro now, there’s nothing new.  Maybe garage rock doesn’t have a heavy electronic influence, but sometimes it does.  Or maybe it doesn’t have indie or folk influence, but sometimes it does.  And I guess it stands on its own because unfortunately, a lot of people sometimes are pretty close-minded in the scene, and at the same time a lot of people aren’t at all.

And I think it comes up now and again because it’s popular, whereas sometimes with indie rock and folk music, it’s kind of always going to be what it is.  And usually there’s a lot of kids involved, and a lot of people into it and the crowds are much bigger.  But with garage rock, when you think about ‘garage rock’ as some kind of entity, usually it’s because it’s become popular.  Because for the most part – in the years I’ve been involved in it – it was never really a big thing, it was always a small scene.  Now it’s gotten a bit bigger, so it’s gotten attention again.  I’m sure it’s a very cyclical thing with this kind of music – it comes and goes as far as popularity’s concerned.  But there is definitely a lot of influences that are I guess older, so I guess it just seems like it’s something different because of what people are influenced by and could probably cite something very clear because there are defined kind of boundaries of the music if somebody wants to be a purist about garage rock.

DJ:  Well, especially bands like the Black Lips and even the Horrors’ first album.  Everyone seems to cite acts and [place them] under that canopy of “garage rock” and only that.

MS:  Yeah, and of course that happens.  But at the same time, it’s journalists who start that. I think it’s a label you need to pin on somebody and to stick on somebody if you’re unsure as to what it is.  I’m sure my record that’s coming out, people will be like “it’s garage rock!” but I hardly see – I mean, there are some influences from whatever people perceive to be garage rock – but I’m sure it’s going to happen, that I’m going to be called that no matter what.  That’s just the way it is.  And I don’t know if it’s a bad thing, I just think it’s kind of lazy.

DJ:  You’ve been cited as having a pronounced appreciation for the 1960’s and you’ve drawn comparisons to Sam Cooke with your vocals, [as well as having] combined elements of classic rock.  Why do you think we seem to be drawn to previous eras?  Do you think current music is paving the way like classic artists did for us?

MS:  My limited knowledge tells me no.  I hardly see what could be new or innovative without drawing from influences in the past.  I’m not saying the 50’s, 60’s or even 70’s, but I think we’re coming to a conclusion on a lot of levels.  And that includes the whole notion that pop will delete itself and time will devour itself and everything’s in a circle that keeps getting smaller and smaller.  And I think anybody that thinks they can do something very original is probably mistaken.

50’s and 60’s stuff is kind of an exciting thing to some people who haven’t latched onto it before because all that is [is] very straight-forward pop arrangements and some great tunes that make you want to dance.  They make you want to feel without being heavy-handed, they’re pretty naive but at the same time they’re vulgar [and] sexual . . . because a lot of people had to steer away from the outright lyricism or imagery that they wanted to [use] because it was illegal or frowned upon.  So they were clever about what they were doing, and [you were] able view things a different way or grasp things a different way or kind of push adults out of the way, and it was something special for kids.  No matter how old the thing is – like, rock ‘n roll, if you’re drawing from the ‘50’s or ‘60’s – it’s very obviously a youth thing.  I have a million different influences, but I love that stuff.  I love doo-wop and I love 60’s punk and all that psychedelic rock ‘n roll, and black rock ‘n roll and all those things from those decades are amazing forms of music.

DJ:  Like, we’re still offering something different sometimes, but it doesn’t have that rawness that it had when it was first exposed in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  That brand new scandalous quality that made it so big.

MS: Well, yeah – that’s exactly it.  I mean, the notion of rock ‘n roll, the name itself, it refers to fucking.  It was sex music.   The black dude playing under the radar of white folks, whatever they were doing was supposed to be of sexual excellence. I think rock ‘n roll music – white or black – it’s taken us to where we are today as a society in such a weird way.  It was the culture of rock ‘n roll that totally allowed kids to rise up and allow kids to become their own entity and not the precursor to adults.  Kids are something, and teenagers are something, and twenty-somethings are something and you know, sexuality was explored and drug usage and everything good in the world is due to rock ‘n roll culture. In my world, I believe that the forces of music and specifically rock ‘n roll probably shaped a lot of what we see today.

DJ:  And continue to do so.

MS:  Well, I hope so.

DJ:  Well, [in regards to] the title of your latest release, $ – is it a comment on the fact that society or the music industry is dictated by consumerism or finance?

MS:  You know, it probably meant nothing, but it’s something that if I thought about enough, it does mean something. You know, I’m certainly aware of what music has made people resort to being, and yeah, it is a consumerist, horrible entity sometimes, but at the same time – ironically and conversely – then I’m putting out an album by a bigger label than I have in the past.  And at the same time, $ is an ironic label – probably if I thought about it enough – too, because there’s no money to be made in this bracket I’m in.  And when it’s juxtaposed against the rotten mouth, I think it says a lot about what money means to me, anyways.

DJ:  Well that was my next question – was whether your album art is a play on the title or multi-meaningful on purpose.  So they do run together, then.

MS: I would think so.  I mean, yes.  I don’t really think much about anything.  But yes – because I had to think about putting my friend’s art that was commissioned, and the name itself.  So, yes.

I grew up as a punk and still am at heart and I was into all that stuff – you know, anti-capitalism, anti-blah-blah-blah – and I still am, to a certain extent.  And yeah, money follows people.  You’re corrupted by money, or [you don’t] have money – you know, money’s just a problem.  And in my world, that rotten mouth is pretty much my existence and the dollar sign on top of that thing is just like a little shirt you can wear from time to time to make you feel better about yourself, and really that’s all you got.

DJ:  I think that’s really interesting.  Because I think everyone when they’re younger becomes anti-capitalists, but when you get older you have to realize [money] is a shirt you put on sometimes because you can’t really escape it fully.

MS:  No, I can’t be a hypocrite because at the same time I want to be a musician and play music and get my ideas out there for a few people to hear.  And you know, like anybody else I need approval at times, I need to be criticised, I need all these things because the music has pretty much taken over who I am and I have become the music itself because I have no other direction to go to.  And I need money to live.  I can’t live in a ditch even though I’ll probably end up in one.   I’m not worried about the ebb and flow of money because I don’t believe it exists enough.

Posted by : Anne T Donahue

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