Interview: Sultanov

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Pic: Danny Clifford.

As he prepares to release his self-titled debut album, we meet a Russian artist who just wants to ‘Break Free’

hen we heard Sultanov’s first single Keep On Running a few months ago, it struck us as a perfectly pleasant and listenable slice of summery pop… but even a very slick video failed to convince us it was anything much more than that. Then we heard second single Break Free, and decided that no, here was a guy worth investigating after all…

Also accompanied by a slick video (which you can watch below), Break Free is an altogether more grown-up sounding piece of work than its predecessor single, a track that with a tailing wind could easily follow the “slow-burning Radio 2 hit” road to the charts. So just in case it does we figured we’d best grab a chat with Sultanov now!

We found out that he’s the scion of a family of famous Russian painters, dancers and sculptors, that by day he’s creative director at a Moscow advertising agency, and that his songs are co-written and produced by Andy Wright, who’s previously worked with everyone from Jeff Beck to Natalie Imbruglia, via Simply Red, The Eurythmics and Lisa Stansfield. And that his first name’s Dan, just in case you were wondering.

As for what else he had to say, read on…

You’re originally from Azerbaijan but grew up in Russia… what kind of music did you grow up listening to?

“Mostly western music, actually, which I guess was unusual. But I came from a very artistic, musical family and there was always lots of music in our home… during the Soviet times there were no nightclubs so our home was known as a good place to be! There was always lots of dancing, and it would be things like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees and Jimi Hendrix, those are some of the first things I can remember hearing.

“Oh, and Michael Jackson – I can remember listening to the Thriller album over and over again. The only Russian music I’d hear was classical music… although when we went to stay with my father’s family then there’d be Azerbaijani folk music as well.”

“The music we had was all prohibited”

But wasn’t western music outlawed in Russia at that time?

“Oh yes… the music we had was all prohibited, vinyl records would be smuggled in and sold on the black market and people would pay a huge amount of money for them! And if you were caught with them there’d be fines, or you could be put in jail… well actually I don’t know what the penalties were, it was a long time ago and I was young. But certainly fines, though it never actually happened to my family.”

So at what point did you start making music yourself?

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“Very early… since I was about four years old, I guess, because there were always guitars in our house, and a piano and drums. Then I went to jazz music school to study the saxophone from the ages of seven to 16… and of course as soon as I graduated the sax went straight to the back of the wardrobe and stayed there for many years, I was tired of playing it!

“But then around the same time I picked up a guitar, and by the time I went to university I had a band with some friends… we used to do Metallica and Suicidal Tendencies covers, Deep Purple, stuff like that. But I got tired of that as well… I didn’t want to just be in a band playing covers in clubs, I wanted to do something serious with my music. So I started looking for a producer from overseas and I found Andy Wright.”

Why did you feel you had to look overseas – surely there must be good producers in Russia?

“The Russian music scene is very strange… Russia has its own completely different musical culture compared to the rest of the world. I always knew that the music I make would never have a big audience in Russia – maybe 100,000 people out of a population of 200 million!

“I was looking to London, because really the UK and London is the centre of the world, music-wise. I have a friend who works in advertising with me here in Moscow, who had a friend in the music business. And that friend had a friend in London, and that friend knew Andy. That’s how it came about.”


Pic: Danny Clifford.

Andy’s not just your producer, he’s also credited as co-writer on all your songs. How does that work?

“Well Andy writes all the lyrics, because obviously I’m not a native English speaker. I know what I want the songs to be about but I don’t want them to sound amateur-ish, so I’ll tell Andy what the content of the lyric should be, the ideas and emotions, but he’ll write the actual words.

“As for the music, it’s generally I’ll come up with the germ of an idea on the keyboard or the guitar – usually a melody and an idea of how the vocal will go. Then together we’ll add the bassline and the drums, and come up with a kind of sketch, which I’ll leave with Andy. He’ll tidy the sketch up and add bits and we’ll meet up again, and then maybe I’ll throw in some more ideas and so on.

It sounds like there’s quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing…

“There is, partly because I like a lot of music inside one track – lots of ideas, lots of layers. If you listen to some of the songs, there are up to eight backing vocal tracks – and I’ll have sung all of them.”

“The song always comes first”

So do you always work face-to-face, or have you tried remote collaboration, such as using the various online ‘virtual studios’ that are available?

“No, I’d say it’s 98 per cent face-to-face: sometimes maybe I’ve called Andy up and hummed an idea down the phone or something but mostly I’ll fly over to London for a fortnight and we’ll be in the studio all day, from 9am to midnight. It’s an old-fashioned way of working perhaps, but it’s how I like to do things.”

You also get quite closely involved with the presentation of your work, don’t you – the videos, the packaging and so on?

“I do… but in the sense that they’re my ideas, not that I do it myself. So the animation for the Keep On Running video was based on some sketches I did, the video to Break Free was based on my idea of wanting to pay homage to [Terry Gilliam film] Brazil. But it’s not like I made the videos myself, I’d rather leave that to the professionals!”

So does the artwork side of things ever inform the songwriting – do you ever think, “I could put this in, that would look great in the video” or anything like that?

“Not at all, I never think about the video when I’m writing the song. The song always comes first.”

The single Break Free and the album Sultanov are out on July 15 on Sultanov Records. You can watch the video to Break Free below

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