Mark Sultan Doesn't Even Know What Cool Is.
Mark Sultan is nothing if not prolific. In the last 15 years, he's released dozens of records as part of such Canadian garage rock outfits as Powesquat, the Spaceshits, Les Sexareenos, Mind Controls and the Ding Dongs, as well as through his solo project BBQ, his duo The King Khan and BBQ Show, and the gospel-tinged garage supergroup Almighty Defenders (with Khan and The Black Lips). Plus, there's the records he's released under his given name.
But though he's received some notoriety along the way — most commonly when associated with King Khan — Sultan isn't necessarily what one would consider a household name by any stretch.
For instance, even self-proclaimed fans of his work often mistakenly refer to his one-man band as BBQ Show instead of simply BBQ. And, for better or worse, he's managed to brush off his lack of mainstream success, continuing to put out records on his own terms, without any regard to what entities like Pitchfork have to say about him or what his public image may be.
Prior to his show this Thursday at City Tavern, we spoke with Sultan over the phone from his hotel room in Kansas. In our conversation about the current state of the blog-driven digital music industry, he touched on such topics as why he doesn't want to be on Bob Log III's team, how he feels about being a “cool” guy and why his music's constantly confused with King Khan & The Shrines.
How much does it frustrate you when people confuse The King Khan & BBQ Show with King Khan & The Shrines?
It doesn't frustrate me on a musical level. It just frustrates me that people don't pay attention to things. I don't know if it's that people don't buy music anymore and they don't look at an LP and covet and review things the way people used to. Names and details like that, which should be important, always escape people. That's just ridiculous.
We're talking about different bands and different musicians and to not know anything about the music that you're listening to on your iPod is indicative on why musicians and music suffers in general. So it doesn't bother me in any sort of personal way; it just emphasizes what I really dislike about music in its popular sense.
Do you think that that has anything to do with blog culture or sites like Pitchfork? How much do you think those effect people's careers these days?
I don't think anyone's got a career unless they're a careerist to begin with, and people like that are always going to have a career because they're just striving to make it or whatever that kind of bullshit is.
I do think it does have an effect. I wouldn't be doing something that I don't know about because that would put me at a loss at whatever I was doing. If you're a journalist or a blogger and you don't have a grasp on what you're writing about, if you can't do a little bit of research on what you're talking about or the music that you're reviewing, if you have no point of reference for what references you're dropping or what the band is doing, that's what a lot of it has become now.
You have people with the power to affect people's careers or their music that have no business affecting anything just because they have a popular blog. It's totally pointless in the grand scheme of things, but it actually affects people. Pitchfork and some of these blogs affect people's livelihoods. The people that like Pitchfork will listen to a band because Pitchfork gave it a nine. That's pretty crazy to think that they have that much power. If they review something, maybe kind of negative people like that won't listen to it. They won't give it another chance. If you are a famous musician and you are successful on some levels but aren't getting a chance, it's kind of rude that that's what your options are.
A lot of those kind of reviewers don't hold physical copies of anything in their hand and kind of run with what they think they know, and it's not necessarily what's right. I think that's kind of a new thing that's kind of depressing.
Do you think to people like that Mark Sultan is viewed as being not quite as “hip” as a King Khan?
Oh, for sure. And that's fine.
I'm fine with not being popular because I think what defines being popular these days is a lot different. And I mean popular in the smallest sense possible. I don't mind being not as cool as whoever because I don't even know what “cool” is. I know I'm a cool guy. I don't give a fuck.
I don't know what people think cool is. A lot of what people think is cool is based on image especially, and doesn't really reflect anything at all about the person themselves or their art or what they're actually doing. It's word snippets that have been passed down the line like a kids' game. It can go from an actual positive response like 'Wow, that guys is a great,' and, by the time it gets passed to the 90th blog, it's like 'Dude, it's like Superman eating lots of peanuts.' It's completely ridiculous the way things get passed along. Nobody checks anything anymore. People like image. It's a reflection of how culture consumes anything. If that means I'm not as popular, that's fine. But I do think in years to come somebody is going to find me somewhere and maybe dust [my records] off and listen to it and go 'That's decent.'
So making quality music is more important than being well-known or having a good reputation or being viewed as cool?
Yeah. I think that goes for a lot of things. If you're really ultimately worried about popularity, then you want to be something like a Britney Spears or an Arcade Fire or some really big band that's selling millions of albums.
I think, musically speaking, a lot of stuff that I like and that I grew up on is obscure. I didn't do that on purpose. It wasn't because of those things.
Just one or two songs resonated with me far more because they were so naive or honest and weren't touched by any notion of popularity. You can actually hear when a band is affected by popularity, I swear. I can hear when a band has garnered praise a bit too much and it affects the music somehow.
That could be good or bad, but I just don't want to be there. I have burned bridges infinitely on purpose, just so I could stay obscure and to stay unappreciated at times. I think it's important for me right now to do what I want to do and not be affected by a lot of stuff that people need in order to champion something.
Do you think that playing solo as a one-man band gives you more of that freedom to do what you want and to not have to answer to anybody else?
I didn't necessarily focus on the one-man band thing as a belligerent way to push people aside or anything negatively. I am a difficult person to work with, for one thing, and my expectations are a bit different.
I love having a band at times. I think in the end it would probably end catastrophically. When I play by myself, it's way easier for me to just translate whatever is going on in my head instantly into something. I like to be spontaneous on stage. I have bands on the side. When I go back home, I play with some bands and play shows. That's another means to get your music and your ideas out.
But there is a construct and kind of limitation of what you can do in a band setting.
People think the limitations are way more broad than in a one-man band, but the fact is I can do whatever I want when I am on-stage. I can do a lot of things that make me happy. The presentation of the music and the immediacy is a lot different and a lot more chaotic. I kind of like that right now.
How do you view what you are doing as being different than what other people doing with the one-man band thing — like a Bob Log III, for instance, or somebody like that?
I just feel it's different. I'm not talking about Bob Log III or anyone in particular, but the one glaring difference I can think of is that I don't consider myself a one-man band in the sense that I talk about myself in that way.
A lot of those people will talk about being a one-man band in order to be included in the genre of the one-man band so that they can play with other one-man bands and compare funny masks and setups and all the other accouterments and decorations of being in that situation so that they don't have to talk about the songs or the music. I am playing within a one-man band set-up — not proudly, but it does give me the means to make the music the way I want at this point. I will gladly play with a bunch of five-man bands or whoever else. I don't care if it's just me. I think the music that I'm producing is worthy of more than just sticking me as some sort of gimmicky one-man band. I don't play swamp blues or whatever. I don't play slide guitar. I play my own thing and I just happen to be one guy. I don't like being lumped into that because I do find that a lot of the guys doing one-man bands are relying heavily on the fact that that's the team that they've chosen to be on. I don't want to be on a team.
I'm just a guy. I think that teams are completely against what music is.
So how important is keeping that DIY mentality to what you do?
I think that it is important. If I wasn't a guy that was raised on DIY fodder or punk ethos, I would have stopped doing this a long time ago. I would have been concerned with coolness or all those catchphrases that go along with music now.
I could be viewed as a failure. I could be viewed as a guy who is flogging a dead horse. It's easy to do if you look at where I am or at my past. To me, it is very important, having come from that background of DIY, that I pursue this, that I continue on it.
It doesn't matter to me what the size of the crowd is or anything like that because I don't believe that has any part in what I'm doing. I think that I should be able to deliver a kind of music and a kind of thought and that part of my soul that might resonate with just one kid so that they look into something else rather than what is regurgitated in their face.
I think it's dangerous to follow any form of mainstream thought to a point where you're just relying on that to get on with your own life. I'll do this for as long as I can as long as a few people here and there are picking up on it and open up their eyes and their ears to the thought that they can do something else and that they don't have to follow a path. They don't have to view me as a success in the stereotypical sense of the word.
I'm a success as far as I'm concerned, because right now I'm in a hotel in Kansas talking to a guy in Dallas and about to jump in a car to Oklahoma City to play a show and then I'm back in Canada. To me, that's great. I never thought I'd get to do that. I just want to pass that along, whatever that is. If that affects just one kid I'm happy.
Mark Sultan performs Thursday, May 31, at City Tavern.