Duke Special – Interview and Déjà Review

Some seven weeks has passed since Seafront last featured Duke Special (a review of his performance in Wrexham which can be read here), yet it’s been a busy period for the singer from Northern Ireland. Continuing to tour in support of his latest release, Look Out Machines, Duke Special has performed as North as Edinburgh and as South as Southampton with numerous dates dotted in between.

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Within those weeks too came the release of the aforementioned album to great acclaim. Look Out Machines is a display of continued top form and provides those new to his musical styling a perfect introduction. The new record also offers some unheard sounds that will continue to keep the interest of long time fans, perfectly exhibiting Duke’s extensive abilities as a musician.

Seafront sat down with Duke Special ahead of his final solo gig of the current tour in Cardiff’s Globe venue, speaking about the tour and the album’s release, future projects and the danger of tea lights!

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Seafront: How has the tour been so far?

Duke Special: It’s the final date on this solo tour, it’s number 43 since the middle of January. I’ve loved it, it’s been great introducing the songs to people. Reaction to the new stuff’s been really positive and the album came out early April so it’s been nice that people have been coming to the shows and know some of the songs now.

Sf: You used Pledge Music to get some backing at the start of the album’s production, tell us a little bit more about that process.

DS: We raised money to make a record, so essentially fans bought it, fans helped make it happen and then a label called Stranger Records came along and we licensed it to them and they put it out, marketing and all the rest of it.

Sf: Do you think the way that Pledge Music and similar sites operate, that might be the future method for some artists to release and market their music, given such sites’ popularity.

DS: I did it for the first time six years ago and it was a very new thing, I was probably one of the first acts that went on and did it that hadn’t been with a label before. You compare that to now and you’ve got everyone from Ash, to Holly Johnson, just look at the website, there’s so many bands that you’ve heard of, so I think that it mainly works especially well for artists that already have a fan base. Of course for maybe a new band starting out that maybe have loyal friends and family it’s possible but maybe the target that you’re raising isn’t as much. But yeah, it’s a really good way of doing it. It creates a lot of work that you then have to fulfil.

Sf: For those unfamiliar with Pledge Music artists promise rewards for donations. These can be anything from copies of the release being funded and handwritten lyric sheets to even in house performances, something that was offered during Duke Special’s Pledge campaign.

DS: Yeah, I’ve done one of those so far, got another six to go.

Sf: And I imagine they’re quite spread out too?

DS: Yeah, all over the place! But I think it [sites like Pledge Music] will only grow, there is a place still for record labels but it’s a wonderful way for established acts to put something out.

Sf: I’ve recently delved into The Book of Illusions, the novel by Paul Auster on which you based your project, The Silent World of Hector Mann.  You’ve completed a couple of such endeavours, Under the Dark Cloth [an album based on the photographs of pioneering photographers which Duke was asked to create by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York] and Mother Courage and Her Children [songs composed for the National Theatre’s stage production of the same name]. Are projects like this something you might look to do again in the future, have you got anything planned at the moment?

DS: I don’t know whether it will become a recording but I’m writing music for a play based on Gulliver’s Travels, I’ll have it finished by the end of June I think. Since doing Mother Courage and her Children I’ve been looking. Something I’ve really wanted to do is write more theatre music, not necessarily be in it because that was a huge commitment to be in that for four months, I had to live in London. So this is going to be other people acting and singing it which will be a first for me, so I’m really excited about that.

I love trying to get stuff on the radio, that’s really exciting. It feels like every once in a while an album I do will be like that and then I’ll follow my gut with other things, taking on something more project based.

Sf: As you’re based in Belfast and grew up around the area, has the story of the Titanic and Belfast’s history with the ship ever inspired you to write anything on the subject?

DS: Not as yet, I think you grow up in a particular place, like for me growing up in Belfast I never wrote much about the troubles. It’s maybe that thing that where you take where you are for granted a little bit. It’s that thing where if you have visitors over, they ask you what’s that building, you go… “shit, I have no idea.” It is incredible that the Titanic was built in Belfast and as you discover when you go around you find that it’s not only the biggest shipyard in the world at the time but also the biggest rope works, linen obviously was a huge industry. Yeah, it’s strange how industries rise and then decline, I guess it’s the same with mining or any shipyards around.

Sf: The story of the city sounds very similar to that of Cardiff’s with the important history of their docks which helped make the city what it is today and influence the hugely varied cultures you can see throughout the city. Have you had a chance previously to go around the capital?

DS: Yeah, I’ve been around the bay area before, maybe at some point I will reflect a bit more on where I’m from. I grew up in Downpatrick which is about 25 miles outside of Belfast and I’ve moved around a little bit, so maybe I haven’t settled in one place quite long enough yet to feel that I want to write about it. Although I wrote about Conn’s Water river which is near where I live. You see it [references to the area] in Van’s [Morrison] music he’s actually going to be performing in the summer on Cyprus Avenue [of which he has a song by the same name] which is kind of near where I live, yeah so we’ll see.

Sf: Going back to your previous performances in Cardiff, there’s an interesting story one of the times you played in the Glee club, do you want to share that with us?

DS: [Small chuckle] Yeah, playing the Glee club and the piano had a load of tea lights along the top and at one point just somebody from the audience started thumping me in the face with their jumper, and I thought what, I’m being assaulted, then I could tell that one of my dreads had gone on fire and somebody had ran up and was putting the fire out. There was just that horrible smell of burning hair and you could smell it all around the room.

Sf: So there’s no tea lights in sight tonight?

DS: [Laughing] No, health and safety wouldn’t let you now days.

Sf: Back on the first of March Seafront featured a piece about Welsh Music and some of the new talents emerging. Do you have any particular feelings towards Welsh music scene, has it previously influenced you, despite Welsh language music not ever really making it into the mainstream.

DS: I’m sure it’s very cherished in Wales, I know there’s some festivals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and I know Super Furry’s would sometimes also [sing in Welsh].

One place I used to play all the time, The Chattery in Swansea way, way back, it was just somewhere I always wanted to play. Another place called Tregaron, the Talbot Hotel was one of the first places I played on tour as Duke Special, some 12/13 years ago. In fact they did have an influence on me directly because they found some old shellac records in the attic of the hotel and gave them to me. A lot of them are spoken word records, lectures on woodland birds and veins and the history of man. I’ve used those as direct inspiration for writing some songs and also for using as sound effects, so some of them have made their way onto records that I’ve done and that was from Tregaron, so there’s definitely a connection.

Sf: So Wales isn’t somewhere you’ll miss off your tour plans.

DS: It’s frustrating, because many tours have done that, where there hasn’t been many Welsh dates. I would love to come and play in more places in Wales, but it’s just generally Cardiff or Swansea. I would like to play some gigs along the coast, maybe like Aberystwyth.

It’s safe to say that Wales will always offer a warm welcome back to Duke Special. The Globe, one of its capital’s most popular venues was packed by the time its headliner took to the stage with the audience also treated to an absolutely entertaining support act in the form of Thomas Truax. Along with his homemade instruments including the Hornicator and complex contraption known as Mother Superior, Truax brought laughter and fun to the room with a unique performance, to say the least. He made use of the venue far beyond the stage limits during his performance of Full Moon Over Wowtown, moving through the crowd, ascending the stairs up to the empty balcony before disappearing through the doors out of the room. A long silence later came a re-emerging voice helped through the double doors back into the venue by Duke Special who had joined the crowd to witness this spectacle, which he himself had described as something special during our chat before the gig.

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Equally special was Duke’s performance when he finally took to the stage that evening. Opening with Elephant’s Graveyard, his first release from Look Out Machines; that would be familiar to so many by now, along with a lot of the song’s he was to play. Despite them not sounding unfamiliar to the ear any more, they were still a joy to hear live.

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Performing solo on this current tour and despite Duke’s unquestionable music ability, one performer can only produce so much noise, so without the production and extra instrumentation that is recorded on a studio album, many of the songs take on a fresh sound which still manage to translate perfectly from studio to stage.

With covers of his favourite and most inspirational musicians, as well as a set list that included songs stretching across his ever-growing back catalogue, Duke’s performances are all encompassing and satisfy any mood brought along by each and every viewer.

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Another one of the joys of having Duke Special perform these songs in front of you is the telling of the stories and ideas behind many of those played. He holds a room’s attention through both song and speech, as a result however, you’re unfortunately likely to find that the gig will be over before you know it.

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Yet with the new album and such an extensive collection of Duke Special releases behind the performer; old and new fans alike can happily dive into these to pass the time until he next goes out on tour.

After just a trio of shows in May, Duke will perform a number of festivals over the Summer before making a return to touring during the Autumn months.

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