Canadian rock 'n' soul powerhouse Mark Sultan presents a tough exterior, but deep down he’s a sensitive soul.
If he’s irritated with an audience, he’s not afraid to show it. During an April performance at Spaceland, the singer -- who loathes two kinds of audiences, scenesters and hard-line garage rockers -- admonished a lackluster concertgoer with a copious, curly mohawk, "What, am I bothering you, fro-hawk?" But when a crowd is, said Sultan in an interview this week, “giving forth their attention, you feel responsibility, not because ‘Oh, well, they paid their money and they’re fans.’ More like ‘Oh, these people are letting their heart open up to you,' so you should do the same kind of thing.”
Speaking via phone from Halifax, Canada, the relentlessly creative singer discussed his career, the frustrations of being pigeonholed as a mere garage rock artist, and the joys of a diverse audience in advance of his Friday show at Spaceland.
“I’m not a big fan of labels, as you can imagine,” said Sultan, whose sound has occasionally been labeled "doo-wop garage." His first solo album in three years, “$,” was released in April by Last Gang Records, although he's kept busy in the interim with an array of projects, including the recently disbanded King Khan & BBQ Show (an irreverent, internationally acclaimed two-piece composed of him and his longtime friend and current Vice Records star), the Almighty Defenders (a boozy, gospel-flavored melding of the talents of Sultan, Khan and members of the Black Lips), and his greasy, no-frills rockabilly band, the Ding-Dongs.
He has a deep appreciation for R&B, doo-wop, Italian movie music, prog rock, punk and psychedelic, among other genres, but “the garage rock community,” as he says in disparaging tones, hasn’t always been receptive to his ability to liberally inject his compositions with wide-ranging and surprising combinations of these influences. “It’s like a bunch of faceless geeks who are elitist the way 'Star Trek' fans are elitist,” he said. “I like other things… and I will insert those things into my set, I’ll insert them into my albums. I’m not ashamed of it and I’m not bound to the criticisms of some guy that’s only listened to the Sonics for 10 years straight.”
Some listeners have complained about the sprawling length of some of the songs on “$,” which only served to raise Sultan’s hackles further. He purposely put “Icicles,” a slow-building, eerie 6½-minute epic, as the first cut on the album to “weed out the critical nerds. They’re not going to get past that song and they won’t be able to listen to the record... I really wanted that to be there as kind of an evil opener.”
But the album, perhaps Sultan’s most ambitious and textured effort to date, is well worth the trip. The 13 songs on “$” are bound together by Sultan’s darkly poetic lyrics, experimental instrumentation and powerful voice -– one of the most distinctive in the garage rock genre because of its soulful, aching poignancy. More nuanced and lush than “The Sultanic Verses,” his last solo record for In the Red Records, “$” is a sometimes abrasive and sometimes morose expedition into a sonic world that is a heady combination of the sinister and the divine.
Speaking of making the album, he said, “I was just more into... adding more instrumentation and more experimentation to the actual core of the song. Or if I had an idea, I’d just want to explode it and see where the fragments lay and then connect them somehow.”
He may have alienated the garage rock elite with his refusal to adhere to the restrictions of the genre, but Sultan still lays claim to a surprisingly diverse audience. When he last swung through L.A. in mid-April, the crowd was a healthy mix of young and old, male and female, and some decidedly non-garage rock types. “I’m glad to see a cross-section,” he said. “Like last time in L.A., these two hippie-looking dudes baked me a big apple pie with a pentagram on it, and we were all eating pie after the show, and I was like, ‘That’s awesome.’ I love when people actually get something from the music and there’s actually a modicum of love. Some people get my goat and some people make me angry, and I can be a real [jerk] sometimes, but ultimately, deep down, I’m a nice person and when someone shows love to me, I’ll show it right back.”
Take Sultan’s song “Status,” from “$,” for a spin here:
-- Jason Gelt
Mark Sultan at Spaceland, 1717 Silverlake Blvd., Silver Lake, Friday at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.
Photo: Mark Sultan. Credit: Last Gang Records