Somewhere on the edges of Berlin, veteran garage rocker Mark Sultan hatches another track that sounds like an amazing 1960s gem discovered in a flohmarkt crate.
Occasionally, he ventures from his lair and jets around the world as BBQ, wearing ridiculous get-ups like a turban decorated with a zillion goo-goo eyes or a very bad blond wig. You may know him as the straight man to madcap musician King Khan, a long-time collaborator since the 1990s when they were part of notorious Canuck punk group Spaceshits.
More recently, he’s become known as a one-man band. Strumming a guitar and stomping out an energetic beat with a full drum kit, his sound is hard-driving, scruffy, stripped-down, and soulful, pilfering a vast plethora of lo-fi underground music including doo-wop, R&B, psychedelic, and proto-punk. This Saturday he will be playing a rare gig in Berlin at Hoochie Koo.
We cranked up the batphone to speak to Sultan about living in a bubble in Berlin and time traveling through rock ‘n roll.
Is it true you missed your Hoochie Koo gig in March because of swine flu?
Yeah, I got it in Mexico. When I flew back, I looked horrible. At the airport, they actually called my name and took me off the flight and said, “We need to know if you’re okay because you can’t get on the flight with all these people.” At the time I didn’t know how sick I was so I was like, “No no no, I’m just hungover!” But when I got home, my god, soooo sick.
Well, now we’ll know who to blame if there’s a mysterious outbreak of swine flu in Berlin.
I felt really guilty about it, but oh well.
This is going to be your second time at Hoochie Koo, right? Did (DJ Don) Rogall contact you? Did you know him previously?
I didn’t know Don. I knew Bassy. I’ve been playing there alone and with King Khan since their first location fourteen years ago or more. I’ve always had an association with them somehow back in my partier kind of days. And then Don got in touch with me, I guess from loosely running in the same circles. I think he just was like, maybe this would be an interesting twist.
So you’re originally from Montreal and notorious for playing with this band called the Spaceshits.
Yeah that’s the earliest band I had. It was youngsters being rowdy and having fun but I guess at that point in time, people didn’t enjoy such things.
Or maybe it was just Montreal…
Montreal is actually pretty loose and pretty cool about stuff. I think it was like older folks kinda being competitive or something, Who knows, long time ago.
Your association with King Khan started all the way back then. That’s pretty amazing that you guys have known each other that long and continue to play together.
And weird that we’re both married here to German women. But that’s because of playing music and both of us here independently and together and meeting the same kind of people. But yeah, we’ve known each other since we were teenagers. And I’m now 87.
How’d you go from the Spaceshits to a one-man band?
In the Spaceshits, I used to be the singer guy. But even then, I had to wear a mask, because it’s not my thing. I’m so introverted. And then the next bands, I just played drums. And I felt comfortable doing that even if I was singing half the time just because I was kinda behind some stuff.
The one-man-band thing ultimately was just easier because a lot of people that I was playing with didn’t want to live this kind of lifestyle, especially traveling, and I did. I was like, man, I guess I have to do it myself. And I didn’t want to be Bryan Adams and play an acoustic guitar or some nonsense. I had to keep it rock ‘n’ roll. So I made that choice a long time ago but kind of rue the day I ever thought of it.
Well, now I’m kind of doomed. If I write music now, it always seems to fall into this kind of one-man band trap. I don’t get to play with full bands anymore. Partly because I’m a difficult person but also because of the limitations I set for myself.
But your one-man band has got a pretty full sound.
Yeah, on a technical musical level, it seems like a band. But having been in bands, sometimes it’s like you want to make a joke onstage. And it’s like, oh man, I’m talking to myself again. Or for kicks, I used to like burning bridges. Breaking up a band during a gig is fun sometimes. I could do it by myself, but then it’s kind of weird. Maybe I’ll do that on Saturday, running through different voices.
So… Berlin. How did you end up here?
To be brutally honest, one of the main draws was money. I have a house now, for example, outside of the city. And it was so cheap. A house in Montreal is like 500,000 bucks. There’s no way I could ever afford something like that. That to me is like the guy from Monopoly wearing a mink shawl. I grew up kind of poor and just having something like that… I know it sounds lame, to have some possessions like a house, but to me it’s something I worked for. I’m here now and I enjoy the space I have and I’m reaping the rewards of living a retarded lifestyle.
That all being said, I like Berlin. I’ve had some of my greatest life experiences here. I wouldn’t have just said, “Yeah! Let’s got to Berlin!” But if this was transposed onto a different city or a different country, I could do it too. It’s just about having personal space and enjoying my life in a bubble. Unless I’m on tour, I don’t really do much. I just like being where I’m comfortable.
What you said about being in a bubble… that’s what it feels like to me. It’s one of the amazing things here, that you can be an artist and survive.
Yeah, and I think one of the good things being an artist in Berlin, any kind of artist, is that it seems to be the city’s heritage. It’s accepted and respected. Whatever you do, I think you can get away with doing it. Even the worst kind of crummiest jerk is going to be like, “Oh, you’re an artist.” It’s just part of the culture. Some cities just aren’t like that. You’re actually a scourge as an artist; you’re some kind of scumbag or a commie or whatever other label people have. But here, I never felt any weird pressure or like oh no I’m doing something wrong. I feel like I’m in the right place to live this lifestyle that I’m living currently. That’s Berlin.
The whole super tolerance that people have…
It’s great. I love that here you’re allowed human freedoms. The States or Canada would be like, “We’re so free! We have 20 kinds of chips at the store!” That’s not really freedom. Freedom is being able to walk down the street with a beer, go into a bar, and get a blowjob. That’s freedom.
But you’re in rock ‘n roll. And isn’t rock ‘n roll so much about resistance? You know, FUCK YOU! How can you feel like this if you’re happy?
Well, you know, I grew up a punk and I still have an underlying middle finger sitting on the bridge of my nose wherever I go. I’m a punk but I don’t have a leather jacket with a bunch of names written on it and spikes. Doesn’t mean I’m not a punk, but you’d have to talk to me to find out where I’m coming from. And I’m a punk but I don’t have to run around and be negative. I still hate people. But the ones I love, I love. And I can be positive about the things I do love. And the things I hate, instead of harping on them, now I just don’t pay attention.
I was thinking how funny, the idea of a positive punk, happy about the world.
A lot of my friends in the States are like, how can you be happy now the world is turning to shit? Well, that was the apex of all our beliefs. You wanted anarchy, here it is. Enjoy it. So I live my life with a smile. Because the more the world turns to shit, the more – not happier, I am – but at least, I’m good with it.
Well, anarchy does force you to rely on yourself more. In an anarchic world, you can’t expect the system to catch you or serve you. You have to be smart to live in anarchy.
Right, but the world’s gone completely apathetic also. A lot of people now who seem to be the ones trying to make a change, I can’t even tell if they’re actually there to make a change or to be seen online and get likes. I can’t tell any more who’s sincere about anything, the way the world is now. Are you doing it sincerely or narcissistically? I have no idea any more. But the world is some kind of state of chaos or change. And I’m all for change, even if I don’t change my clothes, I still think change is a good thing.
That’s interesting what you say about change. I mean, your music looks back. It harks to the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s not what one thinks when one thinks futuristic music. Or is it?
You can never really do exactly what was done in the past and if that’s your mission, it’s futile because there are so many factors going into how things sounded. I mean, beyond societal, there’s also just the mechanics of recording. And the way people played and the way people walked and talked and breathed. But if you take certain things from the past and do your thing with them, that’s always fresh. No matter whether people can hear that or not. That’s something you’re doing new.
I would never purport to be someone who’s like, “I got the latest, newest thing!!!” I mean, are you singing in Braille? You can’t do anything new. And that’s not a defeatist attitude. We’ve been here for thousands of years. I’m pretty sure it’s all been done. Even if we invent some weird machine that can suck your aura out and give you synaesthesia and play harpsichord with the smoke from your soul, yeah cool, but it’ll probably sound like something that’s been done.
I like what Jim Jarmusch said about how you can’t do anything new, but you can be authentic.
Yeah, we’re blessed with our own beings and our personas and our own souls. Blessed by whatever or whoever or yourself. And if you have your own personality, it should transcend whatever you do. Maybe things have changed, but I hope people want to themselves. And then you can give off a bit of something that’s new because nobody has ever lived that was you.
Well, there does seem to be a huge trend towards homogeneity.
What’s really interesting to me is that when the internet went up and everybody realized that they have all that information at their fingertips – the world’s history and all the genres of everything and everything musically and you can find any painting, you can find anything you want – you’d think that would make people more creative and be more individual. Because you can take anything you want and listen to everything, and you can engage in the world’s cultural history. You can be like, wow, I’ve heard and seen and did everything and now I want to do my thing!
But it seems that the more people know, the less they know. People are more ignorant now than they ever have been, as far as musical knowledge or artistic knowledge or cultural knowledge. And I find that really strange because when I was a kid, trying to find myself through music, the hoops that I had to jump to find music that I liked was insane. And then to find out about these artists and find out about this ‘n that, it would take forever. Tape trading and writing letters and doing all this stuff, this grandiose effort to find the most obscure crap for no reason. Now that it’s all at your fingertips, everyone kind of just wants to be the same as each other.
Yeah, it’s so easy, I don’t understand why people don’t have an impetus to dig deeper.
I was talking to someone the other day about how people I dislike who are totally the antithesis of me and my friends are now punks. Like a sports guy, a jock dude, is now a punk. And weed is like beer. And all this counterculture behavior is kind of the norm now. But a weird, watered down, fake version. I don’t know if you are allowed to step out of normalcy anymore because people who are the squarest people in the world are considering themselves subversives. So where else do you go from there? And if you do get out, then you’re not part of this team, which is ultimately part of this jock reality. People want to be part of a team, they don’t want to be an individual because it takes away their power or whatever.
Too scary, it’s just too scary.
That’s why I’m in a bubble!
So we were talking about how your music evokes the ‘50s and ‘60s and punk… and this made me think, what draws you you to that sound?
Well, I really like black music from mid-50s to mid-60s because… I don’t know… it just turns me on for whatever reason. That goes for all rock ‘n roll. Like garage rock from the ‘60s also. It was a specific time and place that offered up this idea of writing a good pop song and sexualizing it and making it dangerous. But not doing it on purpose. Just because it was the state of affairs of that time. The music you hear from those times, from these folks, from the different genres of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to me is very honest. And even when it isn’t – when it’s a pre-fab put-together novelty act – there’s a good pop song behind it.
I just like that whole period of music. If you smoke a joint and listen and close your eyes, it makes you time travel a little bit. And I’m not saying you’re time traveling to the ‘50s and ‘60s, you just feel like you’re not part of time. There’s something magical and special. And that’s probably has to do also with how the world was turning at the time. You can feel that in the music from both eras.
And the level of talent too, when you talk about a legendary performer from that time versus now. The quality then, it seems that you had to have a certain caliber even with really trashy stuff.
What you’re saying makes me think of Michael Ventura’s great essay about the origins of rock ‘n roll that mentions how saxophonist Sidney Bechet called his music the “long long song that started back there.” I think about that a lot, how the screaming and the rhythms in rock ‘n roll are so elemental.
Yeah, on a good night if you really vibing with the stuff, you can tap into this elemental timeless energy. This is why people get a charge out of a live show. You don’t need to have a thousand puppets onstage or a laser show. If you can tap into this parallel energy that is also part of this timeline that rock ‘n roll is on, that doesn’t exist as far as time as we know it, at least in my head, then you’re paying tribute and you’re reverent to the things I love about rock ‘n roll. And that elemental quality, like you’re saying, it can’t be quantified or qualified. It’s ethereal and magical.
It’s the spiritual side of music. It’s the demon or the god.
Exactly, a lot of people want to ride one part or the other. Be it gospel or some bad guy delinquent rock ‘n roll. Ultimately, it’s all the same thing. It’s the spiritual charge. If you can find it and you can hit it, then you win.