RAISIN THE STAKES

WITH THEIR DE­BUT AL­BUM FI­NALLY UPON US, AUS­TRALIAN GUI­TAR TAKES A DEEP DIVE INTO THE WEIRD AND WON­DER­FUL WORLD OF TASH SULTANA.

Australian Guitar - - Feature - WORDS BY MATT DO­RIA.

BUSKING ON THE STREET TOUGHENS YOU UP A LIT­TLE BIT

Sel­dom does a day go by that Mel­bourne’s cluttered city streets aren’t awash in the quirky beats of a beat­nik busker. No word of a lie, some of the world’s most soul-melt­ing shoegaze and heart-thump­ing hip-hop are borne of the no-names that call the pave­ment home with a setup of sec­ond­hand kit – most of­ten of the boot­leg ilk.

But – and un­justly so – those lo­cal lit­tle leg­ends rarely find their feet out­side of the pub­lic arena. That top-hat­ted teen you saw tear­ing through the most beau­ti­ful “Hey There Delilah” cover you’d ever seen this side of an FG100? His fu­ture awaits in ac­count­ing, most likely. The har­mon­ica-don­ning soul god­dess that spends Sun­days rip­ping through their melan­choly won’t find her­self on the main­stage at Blues­fest, and that mul­leted maniac who busts the sick­est Beastie Boys im­pres­sion on Earth will prob­a­bly re­main a tradie ‘til their back gives out for good.

It’s a sad state of af­fairs that most buskers never break into the recorded mu­sic scene, a com­bined lack of op­por­tu­nity and abil­ity the most com­mon bar­ri­cades in their path. But when those dream­headed hope­fuls do catch a break, their tra­jec­tory is al­most al­ways erup­tive. Take for ex­am­ple Tash Sultana, who spent two years soar­ing from the streets to sold-out are­nas with­out so much as a ful­l­length al­bum. It was their six-track No­tion EP that lit the fuse on their fire­work, all songs self-recorded and pro­duced with just a lap­top, a loop­ing setup and the drive to make waves.

Of course, Sultana was no mere as­pi­rant when they first took to the stage. As they bluntly let us know back in 2016 (see: Aus­tralianGuitar #119), “Busking on the street toughens you up a lit­tle bit. I think it’s ba­sic hu­man psy­chol­ogy. I once had a guy try to phys­i­cally abuse me, but he was very drunk so I just knocked him down. I called the cops, and then the cops came and chased him down. I’ve had bot­tles thrown at me… I’ve had a lot of dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences with members of the pub­lic. The ghetto streets, mate… They’re not like Bourke Street.”

Vi­tal was the fact that Sultana carved out a notably unique sound for their­self. They weren’t aim­ing to be the next [in­sert renowned mu­si­cal icon here], but rather the first TashSul­tana. There are mi­cro­scopic sim­i­lar­i­ties to other loop­ing prodi­gies stitched through­out their markup, but their def­i­ni­tion to Sultana’s style are just that – mi­cro­scopic. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally non­cha­lant, they pro­claimed, “I just do my own thing, man. There’s only one of me, so I’m not go­ing to waste my time try­ing to repli­cate some­one else. I don’t have that in me, any­way.

“I didn’t set out to go, ‘I’m go­ing to be the only one to change all of this,’ ei­ther. I have lit­tle influences from ev­ery­where, and it’s im­por­tant for me to be learn­ing from and in­spired by heaps of other artists. But I think that’s one of the nicest com­pli­ments, when peo­ple say, ‘I haven’t seen any­thing like what you’re do­ing be­fore, and you’re the only one do­ing it.’ That’s not my in­ten­tion, but it’s cer­tainly nice to hear.”

Sultana’s main­stream break­through is an es­pe­cially whole­some story when you con­sider its ori­gins. They be­gan busking as a means to live moreso than out of passion, with ef­forts to find a ‘nor­mal’ job prov­ing fruit­less for Sultana – who, crawl­ing from the harsh depths of drug ad­dic­tion and men­tal ill­ness, had re­cently hit rock bot­tom.

“I was a com­plete drug ad­dict,” they opened up to Marc Fen­nell in a now-iconic seg­ment pro­duced for SBS pro­gram TheFeed. “I was do­ing pretty much ev­ery drug apart from heroin.” Their down­ward spi­ral into drugs made a sud­den crash land­ing when, at the ripe old age of 17, Sultana found their­self buck­led in a state of psy­che­delic-in­duced psy­chosis. The story goes that they were sim­ply hang­ing out with a mate when they de­cided to eat a pizza laced with magic mush­rooms. The hal­lu­ci­na­tions were mun­dane at first, but quickly grew into dark and in­escapable mus­ings of pure mor­bid­ity – a cy­cle that Sultana was un­able to de­tach from.

“I was in that state for seven months, not know­ing what was real and what wasn’t,” they ex­plained in a mid-2016 TEDx talk. “I would go to bed and I would think that there was some­one in the room - I would look around and think that some­one was ask­ing me a ques­tion, but there was no-one there. I couldn’t go to school in this time be­cause I couldn’t make sense of any­thing in front of me… How do you live when you’re too scared to live and too scared to die, and there’s no in-be­tween?”

Anx­i­ety weighed down on Sultana like a tech com­pany’s reign on Chi­nese sweat­shop work­ers, but their re­silience (or what lit­tle of it they could muster) paid off when they re­alised that, clichés be damned, mu­sic re­ally is the best medicine. “I’ve al­ways con­nected with mu­sic,” they told us in our

AG #119 chat, “And I’ve never found any­thing that I can con­nect with more than that. But I think in that time, I was just kind of search­ing for any­thing that could have given me sal­va­tion, and I couldn’t find it. It was just about go­ing back to ba­sics, re­ally – I heard the sig­nal, and it hit me that I had the tools in front of me.

“It’s hard to ex­plain what’s go­ing on when you’re ac­tu­ally go­ing through psy­chosis – and I’ve spo­ken to a lot of peo­ple who have gone through it as well – you think you’re the only per­son who re­ally ex­ists at the time, un­til you re­alise that you’re not. And mu­sic helped me come to terms with that. That’s what’s re­ally spe­cial about mu­sic: it’s a com­pletely nat­u­ral rem­edy. It’s a nat­u­ral high to be driv­ing my own passion, and when I play, I’m com­pletely at peace

with my­self. That’s why heaps of other peo­ple play mu­sic, too: for that feel­ing that you have the whole world in the palm of your hands.”

Thus kicked Sultana off on their long and wind­ing road to star­dom. Sultana would lock their­self in a room for days on end, noodling on their Tele­cast­ers or lay­ing waste to their lungs with a trum­pet un­til some­thing –

any­thing – of sub­stance would ma­te­ri­alise. In time, their jam ses­sions would make their way to YouTube via quick, lowkey GoPro record­ings that would amass mil­lions upon mil­lions of views. Their busking ef­forts led to crowds of strangers hud­dling around them on any given week­day af­ter­noon, each hold­ing on breath­lessly for Sultana’s next rewarding twang.

It wasn’t long be­fore they wound up on the­atre stages ev­ery­where from Syd­ney to Swe­den. They were a self-made su­per­star, liv­ing proof that hard work pays off and os­ten­si­bly the most prom­i­nent non­bi­nary artist mak­ing waves. But de­spite the on­slaught of at­ten­tion, Sultana was con­spic­u­ously un­fazed. “I don’t feel any dif­fer­ent,” they mused on the cusp of their big­gest shows to date. “Y’know, this is the pro­jec­tion that I’ve had of my life since I was a lit­tle kid, and now that it’s hap­pen­ing, it’s f**king awe­some! But I don’t think of it as a ‘rise to fame’. I’m do­ing what I want to do - I just get to do that for big­ger au­di­ences and do it pro­fes­sion­ally now. It’s cool. This is what I’ve worked for my whole life to achieve.”

The No­tion tour as a whole saw their wind­ing road evolve into an all-out roller­coaster. In just shy of two years, Sultana has vis­ited 20 coun­tries, sold over 100,000 con­cert tick­ets, per­formed on stages for such top-class names as NPR and Seth Mey­ers, and racked up over 200 mil­lion streams of the EP on Spo­tify alone. TheIn­dus­tryOb­server es­ti­mates that Sultana could cir­cle the Earth al­most nine times with the amount of kilo­me­tres they’ve trav­elled (over 410,000), or take a lav­ish trip to the moon – not bad for a 23-year-old from the sub­urbs.

But of course, it hasn’t all been mosh pits and milk­shakes for the self-pro­claimed one-per­son band. 2017 saw a string of tour dates can­celled when Sultana copped a feisty lit­tle f*** of an ill­ness, and they’re quick to note that even though they’ve seen a hell of a lot over the past few months, they’re still learn­ing how to han­dle all the chaos.

“I do get burnt out some­times,” they ad­mit, “But you just have to learn. You have to take as much time for your­self as you pos­si­bly can, be­cause oth­er­wise, you don’t get any. Like, when we started tour­ing a few years ago, we ob­vi­ously had quite a fair bit of time – we’d go out af­ter the shows and have a few beers and what­not, and things would get out of hand from time to time. Ev­ery­thing was so new, so it was just like, ‘Ah, let’s go out!’ I didn’t re­ally sleep much, and I got sick be­cause I was so tired all the time. So I just stopped do­ing that. I don’t drink at all when I’m tour­ing now, and I just take as much time to my­self as I can.” Al­though a short break at the end of the

No­tion era was meant to bring Sultana a chance to fi­nally sit back and un­wind, their buzzing mind had other plans. Namely, the il­lu­sive de­but al­bum ev­ery fan had been drool­ing for since their first spin of “Jun­gle”. Five years in the mak­ing, Sultana is keen to take even big­ger leaps with FlowS­tate.

“It was a term that I heard used once – I can’t even re­mem­ber where – but it re­ally stuck with me,” they ex­plain of the record’s ti­tle. “When you’re 100 per­cent de­voted to your passion, you ac­cess some­thing in your mind that makes you com­pletely un­aware of ev­ery­thing around you. Most peo­ple would achieve that when they play the gui­tar or when they sing, and I’m in that state of mind when­ever I play mu­sic, so it just made sense to call the al­bum FlowS­tate.”

Much like on No­tion be­fore it, Sultana alone laid down ev­ery layer of ev­ery track on FlowS­tate. Amidst self-pro­duc­ing the whole beast, they played an ap­prox­i­mate 15 in­stru­ments – gui­tars, bass, piano, flute, drums, MIDI con­trollers, sax­o­phones and trum­pets all stand­ing out in the mix along­side their ra­zor-sharp beat­box­ing and sweet, soul-bend­ing vo­cal tal­ents – all hashed out in re­al­time to boot.

“I wrote it all live,” Sultana boasts in jest. “I’d come up with an idea and play it as a loop first, and then I’d bring that into the

I FEEL LIKE I’VE REACHED THE AB­SOLUTE LIMIT...

stu­dio, break ev­ery­thing down and multi-track ev­ery sin­gle in­stru­ment and ev­ery sin­gle part of the song. That kind of gave me the vi­sion for where I’d want to take a cer­tain track, and then I’d just make the rest of it up. When you lis­ten to the al­bum, a lot of the songs will flip into a dif­fer­ent song half­way through – they flip into a break­down or, like, a big com­mo­tion; those would just come out of nowhere in the stu­dio.”

Blend­ing two years of song nuggets ac­cu­mu­lated through sound­check jams, bed­room demos from their teenage years and a slew of brand new com­po­si­tions, Sultana wound up with an im­pres­sive stack of songs to pick from. So much so that when it came time to hash out the track­list for the LP, they found it im­pos­si­ble to stick to their ini­tial lim­i­ta­tion.

“It was orig­i­nally go­ing to have ten tracks,” they say, “But I’ve done 13, and a few of those ex­tra ones are songs that just kind of hap­pened in the stu­dio. I can’t even be­lieve I did that; it was a lit­tle bit of a daunt­ing task, ac­tu­ally, just know­ing that I had this dead­line, and I had to get all of th­ese ideas out of me and put them to­gether into an al­bum. It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than be­ing given a work­load that you have to do by the book and just submit – moving through a cre­ative work­load is a to­tally dif­fer­ent process, and you work on a to­tally dif­fer­ent spectrum of time than you would with nor­mal tasks.”

At a minute over an hour long, FlowS­tate is burst­ing at the seams with chimey synths, crack­ling drums and sweet, sweet gui­tar licks. There’s no short­age of ex­per­i­men­tal jams to sink your teeth into, but for long­time fans, the spread of shred won’t be com­pletely un­fa­mil­iar. “Mur­der To The Mind” and “Mys­tik” both started off as stand­alone sin­gles that Sultana dropped in 2017 (al­though they’ve been treated to some com­po­si­tional up­dates and a fresh new mix), while “Big Smoke”, “Black­bird” and “Har­vest Love” were all purged from their cat­a­logue of home video ses­sions.

“I’ve been play­ing th­ese songs live for years and years and years, but I hadn’t put them down on any­thing other than th­ese shitty lit­tle MP3 record­ings on my lap­top,” Sultana says. “I just felt like it was time to get some of that old stuff down so that I can fi­nally f***ing put it be­hind me! I want to make a bit of room to do some new things af­ter all of this. To be hon­est with you, I’ve al­ready started think­ing about the next al­bum!”

Be­fore we in­ad­ver­tently hype ev­ery­one up for LP2, how­ever, it should be noted that an­other proper record is a def­i­nite ways away for Sultana. New mu­sic in an­other ca­pac­ity, on the other hand, is all but guar­an­teed. “I’ll prob­a­bly try to re­lease a few B-side tracks to­wards the end of the year,” Sultana teases. “Maybe a cou­ple of col­labs with some peo­ple – I think it’s time for some­thing like that!”

Sultana’s pri­mary goal in tack­ling FlowS­tate was to reach a peak in the sonic time­line they’d em­barked on with No­tion. It cer­tainly sounds like Tash Sultana, but the spate of sounds that un­fold on the al­bum is un­fath­omably di­verse. It’s the work of an artist des­per­ate to smash bound­aries like the Hulk smashes bad guys, take risks that oth­ers would cower at and set fire to any sem­blance of what might be con­sid­ered a ‘com­fort zone’. “I think I was in my com­fort zone when I did the

No­tion EP, be­cause I kind of thought I f***ing knew ev­ery­thing,” Sultana chuck­les. “Y’know, I had that typ­i­cal ig­no­rant 19-year-old mind­set. When you hit

IT’S JUST GO­ING TO BE THIS NEXT-LEVEL MON­STER

the road for a long time and you’re around a lot of peo­ple that are quite a bit older than I was when I first hit the road, you learn some shit and you see some shit, and… I don’t know, I think I’m just more knowl­edge­able now – es­pe­cially in, like, a sound as­pect, and be­ing in the stu­dio and all of that.”

It only takes one playthrough of the al­bum to see that Sultana reached their peak with Flow

State. The vir­tu­os­ity they em­ploy is stun­ning in such a way that even we – the mag­a­zine whose job re­volves around know­ing ev­ery gui­tarists’ quirk like the back of our hands – were taken aback at just how mas­ter­ful Sultana is with axe in hand. But to sim­ply ride on this peak would be to have the Mel­bour­nite re­nege on ev­ery­thing they stand for. Not con­tent with their tal­ents as is, they’re de­ter­mined to push things even fur­ther from here.

“I feel like I’ve reached the ab­solute limit with ev­ery­thing that I’m do­ing right now,” Sultana ad­mits. “I’ve gotta take it into my own hands. So me, my gui­tar tech and my pro­duc­tion man­ager – we’ve de­cided that we’re go­ing to ac­tu­ally

build the next step of my jour­ney. We’re go­ing to cus­tom-build all of the equip­ment, be­cause all of the generic stuff that I’m us­ing cer­tainly got me to this level, but I’m just not sat­is­fied with it any­more. We’ve de­cided that we’re just go­ing to build our own loop­ing sta­tion from scratch, and it’s go­ing to be f***ing hec­tic. It’s go­ing to mean that I can just do so much more on­stage – like, I can em­u­late the sound of my setup in the stu­dio, in that ex­act qual­ity, live.”

Though chunks of it have al­ready found a place in the mix, Sultana’s new stage rig will make its proper de­but in 2019. And per­haps the most ex­cit­ing thing about it is that, de­spite be­ing no­to­ri­ously dead­pan with the press and out­right re­fus­ing to wax on the finer de­tails of their rigs, Sultana beams when they talk about their am­bi­tions for the kit. We’re talk­ing over the phone, but their voice flut­ters in such a way that we know they’re smil­ing when given a chance to vibe on their big­gest project yet.

“A lot of it will be driven by soft­ware,” Sultana tells us. “There’s ob­vi­ously a lot of phys­i­cal things, but we’ll be running a sep­a­rate mix through Able­ton from the side-of-stage area, just so ev­ery­thing is in a re­ally good qual­ity stereo for­mat. The main com­po­nent is a 40-chan­nel looper, and it records and multi-tracks ev­ery­thing. In­stead of your typ­i­cal looper – say, an RC-505 – you’ve got a stereo in­put and a stereo out­put, so that’s two chan­nels in and two chan­nels out, and that just gives you so much more free­dom. No mat­ter how many in­stru­ments you cram into that sig­nal chain, it com­presses it all per­fectly.”

Sultana’s new­found taste for cus­tomi­sa­tion doesn’t end with their loop­ing sta­tion, ei­ther. We don’t even fin­ish the ques­tion – “Do you have any plans to build a sig­na­ture model gui­tar?” – when they butt in with a blunt, “100 per­cent.” De­tails on a luthier are vague as of the present, but Sultana is keen to get their ul­ti­mate gui­tar over the line.

“It’s in the mak­ing right now,” they rhap­sodise. “And be­cause I’ll be us­ing it for the loop­ing and all of that, I had the idea to do a bass and a gui­tar in one, in the body of some­thing like a Tele­caster. Be­cause y’know, I can em­u­late a bass gui­tar with ped­als and ef­fects and all of that, but I can’t do slap bass or any of the more in­tri­cate stuff that you ac­tu­ally need a proper bass gui­tar to do. So I just thought, ‘Well, f***, wouldn’t it be sick if I could have the best of both worlds?’ It’s just go­ing to be this next level mon­ster, man!”

I RECKON I’M ONLY JUST START­ING TO BE­COME A GOOD MU­SI­CIAN

As for the riffs that made it onto FlowS­tate, Sultana played on “some­where around ten” dif­fer­ent gui­tars, with dif­fer­ent mod­els favoured for their in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics. “I usu­ally go for that typ­i­cal blend of a heavy, a medium and then a light-sound­ing gui­tar,” they say. “My Richie Kotzen Tele­caster is the sick­est sound­ing gui­tar I’ve got, and that’s a sin­gle coil, so all of the re­ally fat sound­ing chords and the lit­tle bass em­u­la­tions were done through that gui­tar with an oc­tave pedal on. And then all of the solo­ing was done on the Strats, and all the rhythm parts were done on this other Amer­i­can Pro Se­ries Tele­caster that I got re­cently – it’s got those new noise­less hum­bucker pick­ups on it, and that just sounds in­sane.”

When they’re not rip­ping out on that Kotzen clas­sic or noodling on pris­tine new Fender mod­els, Sultana’s go-to piece is a cus­tomised Mini Ma­ton. It found a place in their arse­nal when they dis­cov­ered a need for some­thing more homely and easy to wield, and that worked as an el­e­ment sep­a­rate from their per­form­ing kit.

“It’s just a re­ally nice travel gui­tar,” they buzz. “Be­cause I fig­ured that when I play shows, I don’t ac­tu­ally jam as much as I’d like to. I get to the sound­check and I sound­check, I set the stage up and I play a show, and then all my shit gets packed up and freighted to the next place. I didn’t re­ally have any­thing I could use to keep up with it all in terms of the jam­ming and writ­ing, so I in­vested in this lit­tle mini Ma­ton. I love it. It’s just a re­ally good thing to keep with me on the road.”

They’re still hes­i­tant to un­veil the se­crets of their ped­al­board, but Sultana notes that they’re par­tic­u­larly keen on the Stry­mon BigSky. “I rig my 12-string through that, and it sounds pretty f***ing sick,” they say. “And I’ve got this Octa Dose bass oc­tave pedal, which is so f***ing cool. Those lit­tle Boss de­lays are al­ways a good lit­tle treat, and I’ve got this shitty lit­tle Legacy dis­tor­tion pedal, which is, like, my sig­na­ture dis­tor­tion tone – it’s this $20 pedal that I bought when I was about 11, and it’s just still on the f***ing ped­al­board! And my mini wah. My mini wah is es­sen­tial.”

At the end of the day, Sultana’s over­all vibe is one of un­for­giv­ing en­thu­si­asm. They’re be­com­ing one of the big­gest new names in rock mu­sic not just in Aus­tralia, but around the world; their al­bum de­buted to crit­i­cal ac­claim and their most am­bi­tious headline shows are right around the cor­ner. But dwelling on the hype isn’t an op­tion for our hero. They’re en­thu­si­as­tic about the present, but the fu­ture is brighter and decked out with more top notch toys for them to mess around with. Af­ter all, it’s only now that Sultana is happy with their own ef­forts.

“In all hon­esty,” they close, “I’ve got­ten this far with the level that I’m at right now, and I reckon I’m only just start­ing to be­come, like… A good mu­si­cian. It’s funny, be­cause I watch so many other peo­ple, and I think to my­self, “I want to be there.” And peo­ple might look at me and say the same thing, but I just think there’s so much more I can be do­ing right now. I’m a tough critic of my­self!”

We’re re­minded of an­other quote Sultana gifted us in our #119 yarn: “Mu­sic is an open field - you can do what­ever the f**k you want. The only time that you think you can’t is when you’ve trapped your­self into one zone or genre. That’s why a lot of peo­ple have trou­ble try­ing to progress in mu­sic af­ter a while - be­cause they’ve been known to be this spe­cific thing, so ev­ery­one just ex­pects that. But you don’t need to be any one spe­cific thing.”

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