Duke Special, Irish songwriter and performer, joined me for a chat on the brown leather sofas of The Phoenix. Taking ten minutes out of his pre-performance preparations, we discussed his new album Look Out Machines!, his current tour and the hard hitting questions of island survival. All this to the initial background music of Michael Jackson – which in hindsight was somewhat of a foreshadow to the Michael Jackson dance break that was yet to come at the end of his performance.
I know you just got to Exeter today, but have you manage to see much of it?
Duke: A little bit, yeah, we went to Caffé Nero [laughs] I feel like if you had some local knowledge, you’d maybe find more than big chain places to go. We needed Wi-Fi and the caffeine, so it was as good as anywhere.
So what was the thought behind the stage name Duke Special?
Duke: He was an ancestor of mine actually; he was a highway man. There was a royal carriage going past containing some dignitaries and one of them was a Duke; and my ancestor stole the title from him.
Now this Duke Special is currently on a tour at the moment; so how has it gone so far, any stand out performances or are you really looking forward to a certain one?
Duke: Huh, just done twenty one dates around Ireland. And this is number seven on the UK mainland. It’s always been lovely actually. It’s nice when you know, maybe there’s a few people that you are friends with or something in the audience. It’s been full of surprises. Introducing the new material has been really good.
The reaction has been really nice too. Yeah, cause people joke about tribute bands and the reason to go to see them is because you don’t have to suffer their new material, [laughs] because they are just going to play stuff that you know. So it’s always a little risky, but I’ve been mixing it up and used some stuff that are a little older too.
Are there any venues that you always get excited to play at?
Duke: I love playing in Ireland because there are a lot of kind of strange venues. Actually, the first one of this tour in the UK was really amazing. I’d never played before in Shrewsbury; it was the Henry Tudor House. So it’s like, where Henry VII had a meal, in the dressing room I was in, a couple of days before going in and defeating Edward III in battle. I’m sure he didn’t imagine some hippy in his royal chamber, you know.
Can you tell Razz readers about any festivals that they can find you playing at this year?
Duke: Yeah, I’m playing Glastonbury – the acoustic stage there. And Beautiful Days Festival, which is near here I think – Exeter or somewhere. Levellers run it. Might be playing at Bestival, not sure, and one called Green Belt as well.
That’s quite a few; are you excited to being doing festivals this summer or do you prefer tours?
Duke: Festivals are fun because you get to play in front of people that haven’t come specifically to hear you. So I love going to festivals because you can come across a band who you’ve never seen before. It’s a bit more challenging for the same reason. There’s people walking past you in a muddy field and you have to grab their attention, but yeah it’s good fun.
You’ve played the piano for Brian Houston and been in a few bands in Belfast,; do you miss the band dynamic or do you feel you still have it with the musicians you work with now?
Duke: Yeah, a long time ago now. Well, I’ve kind of been solo for thirteen years, and I’m lucky to have a bunch of musician friends who, depending on the tour, I can give them a call, depending on the budget. Like, a couple nights ago I was playing in Birmingham and a friend, Chip [Bailey], played drums with me. This tour has been solo but I’ve been collaborating a song or two with whoever the guest is. So, it’s kind of the best of both worlds; I can do a song on my own if I need to and then collaborate. And I love the chemistry on the stage, we’re all really good friends and they’re off doing their own thing, so it’s always nice when we get together.
You’ve released quite a few albums and EPs, and your next release for this year is Look Out Machines!; what been your favourite album to record & why?
Duke: Oh gosh [pause] They’ve all been so different. I had the occasion to make a record with a producer called Steve Albini in Chicago once, and he recorded Nirvana and Pixies and bands like that – so that was an amazing experience. There’s an album called Under The Dark Cloth which I really loved because it was with an entire orchestra. So that was lovely. But each one is like a photograph, each album, when I listen back to it, it’s full of not only the meaning of the songs from that period of time, but also the process of recording and the people I was working with.
You’ve released albums under a few labels – V2 Records, Universal – and your album Oh Pioneer was released under your own label Adventures in Gramophone; how has it been setting it up, do you feel more artistically free?
Duke: The difference is, you have complete artistic freedom, which is good. You have to do everything yourself; you have to fund everything. So that’s kind of scary. This new record is coming out on a label called Stranger Records and that’s really exciting because it’s just like having a bigger team batting on your behalf and who believe in your music, which is great. But I started out not being on a label and I was doing that for four years before I was signed. I think for most people it’s very hard to stay with one label forever. So you kind of learn to take the ups with the downs you know.
Interview continued here in Part II.