Mark Sultan

Mark Sultan
Montreal native Mark Sultan got his start in the mid-’90s as the drummer for seminal garage punk combo the Spaceshits, where he first played with King Khan. The Spaceshits evolved into Les Sexareenos, and when that band fell apart he reformed under the solo moniker BBQ. A one-man band in the truest sense, BBQ plays soulful, lo-fi rock’n’roll on guitar and a makeshift drum-kit. In 2003, Sultan started collaborating with King Khan and formed the duo the King Khan and BBQ Show, which has proven to be his largest commercial and critical success. He also released a straight-ahead punk album under the name the Mind Controls in 2006, and most recently released his Sultanic Verses LP under his own name. Following a U.S. tour with Clinic and leading up to three appearances at Sled Island Festival, Mark Sultan was happy to answer some questions while he, fittingly, barbequed.

What are you up to right now?
Me and my roommate are barbequing, and the whole apartment is full of smoke because we don’t know what we’re doing. I got out of my room to answer the phone and the whole place is full of smoke. It’s kinda shitty.

What’s been going on with you since the Sultanic Verses came out?
I toured a bunch, I can’t remember if it was just me, or me and King Khan, and most recently I just finished a tour with Clinic in the U.S. Now I’m at home, and I have to record a couple of albums while I’m here. It’s just a cycle of touring and recording.

When you’re recording an album, how do you decide if it will be a BBQ release or a Mark Sultan release?
My most recent record was a Mark Sultan thing, which had some nerds upset. I decided to be honest and release that album under my own name because I was doing a lot of overdubs, and I don’t like it when purported one-man bands still claim to be a one-man band and overdub stuff when they record. So I decided if I’m going to do recordings using real instruments with overdubs or having guests, play I’ll use my name, and if it’s one-man band stuff I’ll use the BBQ moniker.

How did BBQ get started as a one-man band?
I had just been in a band called Les Sexareenos and I had a bunch of songs that I was just toying around with. I basically had an apartment at the time where I could just set up like that and play around. I set up like that by mistake. I was playing on my own, and I’m a drummer also so I had drum bits. I’d just go through with the song I was writing and they’d fit in. I kept doing it because it was easy, and it made sense at the time. Then it careened into something stupid.

You mentioned that you’ve had to deal with some nerds in the past…
It’s all so hypocritical and funny to me when I read stuff on the internet. A lot of people were upset that I was just doing the same one-man band thing, like, "I expected more!” What do you want? I couldn’t have won these people over any way. It’s funny to read reviews where some people are like, "It’s not crazy enough” and then the same person is like, "I don’t know why he’s not doing the one man band stuff anymore!” I don’t pay attention to that shit any more. I just wish those people would fuck off.

It seems like a lot of those garage punk collectors can be really anal.
Oh yeah! I love that music, but I also love a million other kinds of music. Any time you single out a genre of music and that’s your mainstay music, and you feel this ridiculous connection to it, people get anal. They’re collectors and they’re very serious, which is great, but as soon as someone gets popular or starts selling lots of records, they’re like, "What a sellout” or they just bail on them or whatever. It’s just kind of nerdy.

How did you first get into garage rock?
I’d always heard older rock’n’roll stuff throughout my life through other means and searching for stuff, and then I really got into punk and hardcore and stuff. I was getting into hardcore, and I happened to hear some modern garage stuff and it reintroduced me to a love of rock’n’roll that I already had. It kinda made sense at the time and I never really saw a big difference, even though there is a difference. I took it all as one exciting thing.

Coming from hardcore then, did the DIY lifestyle transfer into your current career?
Definitely. Maybe it’s bad to take that stuff seriously, but I guess at the time I was molded by a lot of DIY thought and punk ethos. If someone’s going to be like, "You’re not punk,” (whatever that even means) I grew up with that stuff so I don’t care if it doesn’t sound punk to somebody. It’s coming from the same place. For years I had to book stuff on my own, put stuff out on my own, and deal with labels on my own. It’s very important to me, and I think it’s very important in general just so you have control over your product and your art in general.

Why did you decide to release some other songs as Mind Controls?
I had a couple songs that I could’ve done as BBQ but I was like, "Man, I’d like to do this as a band.” The plan was to throw a band together, write and record the songs within a month. We did that and it came out, in the whole timeline we played maybe three shows. It was kind of just a one-off project. It was something I wanted to do with that music and it made more sense in a band context. I was happy with it at first, and then I left on tour and when I came back it was all mixed, and the sound had changed crazily and irreparably.

Do you mean that you’re not happy with how the Mind Controls record turned out?
It was weird because when we recorded it the actual sound of the recording was reminiscent of the Zeros. It was really well produced, not in a shit-ass Sum 41 way, but it was live to one-inch tape and it just sounded really organic and really loud. Then something happened with the machine, it broke, and I didn’t know about all this and I was on tour. The way the album sounded was never meant to be really lo-fi. I am kind of disappointed, but I like the songs so I’m happy with it.

It seems like a lot of your friends’ bands like the Black Lips, Jay Reatard, and King Khan have all signed with major indies lately and are getting a lot of attention. How do you feel about this recent popularity, and have you been approached?
I think it’s great. I have no problems with that, even from a punk mentality. I know these people; they work there fucking asses off. It’s not about the money at that point. If you can get help and you’re not losing money, that means you can relax and not work. I think that people like the Black Lips and Jay deserve exposure and deserve to be better known. They write great songs and they’re great folks. I myself, I get approached by some of these labels. I don’t know how to feel about that, in my own mind I’m kind of comfortable where I am. I do well enough on my own right now with the way I do things. It would be nice to have help in certain situations, of course, but I just don’t know if it would change things positively or negatively. I don’t think there’s room for me to be a star at any level, not that that’s what I want. If I were to sign to a bigger label it would be so that I don’t have to deal with everything all the time because it gives me a headache.

If you signed to a larger label at a time when the genre is so popular, isn’t there a danger that the hipsters will move on and you’ll get dropped from the label?
I’m glad if I tour now, especially with King Khan. I guess our stuff is really popular for some reason in that little scene. We’re playing bigger spaces and selling out shows. The crowd definitely has changed, and it’s got a hipster element. You can predict the half-life – I’m sure it’s a fad. But no matter if you get dropped from whatever label you’re on, or the hipsters leave your fan base, if you’re writing good music, it doesn’t matter. You’ll always have real fans, and your music will be important in a few years. It won’t be like Squirrel Nut Zippers or whatever. There are people that play the trend out and jump on the trends, and there are people that live beyond the trends are there music is too important for that shit to bother them.

How do you write songs?
I always have tons of songs. I have a backpack full of songs in my head. When I sit down, I piece it all together in a way that will be a definitive song. I’ll grab a guitar and hum it out, and then write lyrics. Coming up, I have to write a skeleton of a Mark Sultan record that I have to give to some labels, and then sometime between July and August we’re going to do a new King Khan and BBQ Show album. I’m actually kind of depressed because I haven’t put anything out in over a year. I haven’t really been doing as much as I usually would.

What else do you like to do?
I like to travel, even when I’m not touring. I like to write. I’m trying to write a couple of books that never seem to get finished because I’m always so busy. I paint a bit. I’m also into experimental dance… Now I’m totally lying.

Are the books you writing fiction or non-fiction?
They’re fiction. I started two of them forever ago, and I always come back to them after forever, and edit everything out of them, and then I have to go. It’s not coming as quickly as I’d like. I’ve been in Montreal for a couple of months, and had a few weeks of tour and a couple jaunts in that time, so I’m never in the same place for a fixed amount of time. It’s hard to get stuff done.

Will you be driving to some shows on the way to Sled Island?
There’s no way I’d drive all the way out there. I did that years ago when I was in the Spaceshits, and although I love the country and I think it’s beautiful, that drive has got to be one of the most devastatingly boring things possible. I love nature, you know, I want to ride a moose, it’s great. But it’s when you’re driving you see these signs that say, "Next rest stop 340 km” and you’re like, "Holy shit!” I like electrical storms, those are cool, but that’s mostly in the prairies.

What is your goal for what you do?
I just want to make music I like and have fun doing it, travel, meet people and play with musicians I respect – just milk it for as long as I can. I do this out of love of music, and I’m also happy I have the opportunity to do what I do. A lot of people who have the means to play music and go on tour often don’t because they’re scared. They miss out on potentially good times and a way to make their life happen without having to work at a job they hate.

How do you feel about the old idea that punk is a youth movement?
I was going to see punk shows from when I was 13 on, and I’d be at an adult show with fake ID and I’d think, "God these people are old.” You get over that as you get older, but sure, if you’re five mohawked dudes with bullet belts and you’re 40 years old screaming about how you hate your dad, it’s fucking embarrassing. But if you take a punk mindset to what you do, if you do stuff for yourself, not in a selfish way, if you go against convention, and make sure you’re doing something that is not predictable, and not cheesy, and you’re happy with what you do and you get to do it without concession – I think you can do that forever. Musically, if you’re making stuff that’s "punk,” which can mean anything, it’s all rock’n’roll music. When I play by myself or with Khan, we’ll play shows and there are punks there and they love it, because they can tell the energy is there. It’s the punk heart and soul, and it’s honest and true. There’s no bullshit. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. I’m playing from my heart and my soul, and I think that’s punk in itself.