This week, Punch of a Friend presents Part 2 of Jarlath Regan's Irishman Abroad interview with Duke Special, which was first published as a podcast on October 19, 2014. If you missed the transcript for Part I of the interview, look at last week's blog. Again, thanks to John Bowman for helping me with some of the unfamiliar place names!
Also, this week PoaF had the pleasure of working with Adam McReynolds to make available over 150 photos he's taken over the years at Duke Special performances. Adam's willingness to share his photos is a valuable contribution, and is much appreciated!
You know I remember someone saying that humor is kind of the sucker-punch. If you make people laugh, than you can say something profound, or something that’s meaningful. Not that humor isn’t meaningful, but you know what I mean?
You bought them, through their trust.
And you look at people like Bill Hexon - he’s like making people laugh but then saying stuff really from the gut. That’s what I want my gigs to be like.
You are still Peter Wilson. Just a couple of episodes ago, Johnny Vegas was on the show talking about his split personality. For him, it was very much, you know - “This is a man who speaks to me in my head.” This is a character who’s been in his life all the time who’s much braver than him, able to cut people down and go out and perform. Whereas Michael Pennington just couldn’t - there’s no way. You’re still Peter Wilson, obviously, because Peter Wilson had been a performer. But when “Duke Special” is settled upon, and I’d imagine there was a process of deciding that’s his name?
What are the differences between Peter and Duke?
I think as soon as you walk to the edge of the stage, like I will do tonight, that’s a weird thing. It’s weird think that I’m about to walk out in front of hundreds of people who are looking at you going, “Right, come on. What do you want to say? What are you going to do? to us? for us?” I think as Peter Wilson, I would shrivel and die. Duke Special is purely just some harder fabricked clothes that you can actually, immediately, walk out and say, “Right, this is what I want to say, from the heart, but I’ve got this protection, I suppose because you’re kind of taking on this persona. Again, I think it was Annie Lennox who said about while she’s on stage - she performs, and she always leaves that performance on the stage. So she’s free to come off stage and be herself. It’s a fine line, it’s blurred.
Does it get harder to leave it behind as Duke becomes more popular than Peter?
I think that’s the reason you have family and friends (laughs) who know all your shitty things and go, “Right, what are you doing?” [laughs] I think that’s so important. I think if I was on the road all the time, it would be a weird place for me to be.
It’s fascinating the Duke Special persona in that it’s contrived. You freely admit that?
You come up with this name. I’d like to know how that came about, and about how you make peace with - ok “Peter will shrivel, but this guy won’t,” and how you start to get through falling on your face, and he starts to fly right into his own being.
Mmmhmm. Well, I think any persona on stage is just like an amplified version of part of you. Well, the name - I tell various stories about how it came, but I’ll be honest with you.
What have you told people first of all, what kind of bullshit have you -
An ancestor was a highwayman, and he actually robbed this carriage that was going past. And one of the people on it was a Duke, and he stole some jewelry, but also stole the title, which has been handed down over the years.
And you’ve told people this in interviews?
And they’ve bought it?
And what is the truth?
Umm. I had a dream, and in it this angel came down and told me to dig under a tree - and in a box, I opened the box, and the name was there. That’s not true.
I knew - when an angel starts to appear I started to be skeptical.
No, I’d been reading Mary Lee stuff, I’d been interested in vaudeville, and what that was. I’d been looking up these old vaudeville almanacs and kind of - There’s this amazing book of “Dos and Don’ts” if you’re a vaudeville performer. And it’s like from the late 1800s, early 1900s. A lot of these characters would be called “Duke something.” That’s where the Duke names comes from. The Special comes from The Specials.
I put “Duke” with many other names before I thought, “Aha! That one!” I had the first EP coming out and had to come up with it.
It was only then that you settled?
Yeah! Nothing like a deadline.
Now these EPs that eventually come to form the first album. It’s, kind of like you say, is a reverse way of doing it in that everyone else is gagging to get that EP to somebody smoking a cigar who’ll go, “Kid, I’m gonna sign ya.”
You do get signed -
But it’s, this is a very slow build.
In terms of, particularly at that period was, you sign - you buy a new car, a house. The idea of a band breaking in the 90s was a real thing...much more of a memory now.
..compared to how things were. You went on this very slow build. How much of the success of that album that eventually emerged do you owe to allowing yourself to actually develop and grow slowly?
I think it made me be an artist, as opposed to some manipulated - not saying, like there’s lots of young artists who are mega-talented, more talented than I ever was, but who buy into the X-factor kind of thing, that aren’t allowed the chance to breathe and grow in the way that art students are. You know, if you’re an art student, you do a foundation year. You try and specialize. You don’t make any money, and eventually you might set up a group artist space where you’re trying stuff, learning things all the time.
With music, it’s not fair the way these young, talented fledgling musicians burst onto the stage and are left to flounder. It’s nothing about them, it’s about the industry, the horrible industry that’s behind that. So, I think that I was lucky. I remember, I’ll be honest with you, I remember when East 17, the lead singer left. I was so tempted to try and jump in - I don’t know why -
You’re kidding me?
That was on your mind? “I’ll get in touch with the lads from East London?”
Yeah (laughs). That was very silly. But then I remember Fame Academy coming out. It felt like it was going to be a different thing. Because it felt like it was more about this nurturing thing..
It was a school.
A school, all the time being televised. And that was something - I talked to a few friends, and like “no..don’t do it.”
I think that will blow peoples’ minds when they listen to this. To think that thought was still there, that that was still a germ of an idea.
You think that this is the only way that you can break through, and do what I wanted to do as a living. Yeah.
Was it those friends? Because the idea that Duke Special came out of Belfast is, to a lot of people, bizarre and strange. Because its reputation as a city - from the outside in - is as a tough-nut place where that kind of experimentation both visually, and artistically on stage, in terms of your music, is not something an outside with kind of a black and white view of that city would have. But when I met you, I was kind of opened up to this huge creative community that’s up there, these friends that you’re talking about that said, “Do not do that. You are an artist.”
Talk to us about that creative community and about that nurturing environment that allowed you to come from this city that has seen so much.
Probably my biggest influence that the time was a guy called Paul Pilot. He was part of a band called The Amazing Pilots, which came from Coleraine. I remember he did a degree in business or accountancy, or something like that, and did a Masters in music technology at Queen’s. But he really wanted to be a producer, a music producer. He was one of the first people to record a couple of songs that I had done. Then he moved to Eastbourne, where he was the house engineer. And the rest of the band, after their college days, moved to Eastbourne. They would record songs in the “downtime,” which meant in the middle of the night. So when the studio wasn’t being used, they would be there, plugging away, writing songs, and recording themselves.
And again, people talk about influences, but it’s really the people tangible to you who are your main influences. Cause the likes of Nick Cave, or Van, or whoever were still a million miles away. But suddenly here are my peers doing what I what I want to do in an uncompromising way. Where they’re actually doing it, not kind of
...talking about it..
...talking about it, nor are they being told what to do by a “cigar-smoking guy,” as you say, who knows nothing about music, who’s interested in the business bottom line.
But they are actually being artistic, you know.
Paul Pilot, is he living in Eastbourne by this time, or?
Yeah, he’s living - welllll..probably still in and around the North. He lives in Berlin now. It would have been people like that who informed me, and influenced, I suppose my tastes as much as anything. You know..and my ambition in a good way.
Do you take on more of what I’m saying there though, about Belfast and that image?
I mean, what was your experience of that “tough nut” side to Belfast? Because I’m sure there were times when Duke Special went on stage in Belfast, and there were guys who were having none of it, or even just walking around the way you are?
Well, I suppose in 2002, when I started playing, I deliberately didn’t play Belfast very much.
And you’re asking about advice that I would give? And one of them is definitely no matter what town it is.. Whether it’s London, Manchester or Dublin, or Belfast, wherever it might be, to go and play other places where you have to live or die by what you do on the stage. It’s not about who you know in the audience. It’s not about your friends and family. It’s - you’re an unknown, and you’re walking out on stage, and you have to make it work.
So for me - I started touring in spurts. Dundalk was one of my mainstays. I did about eight supports there before I ever did my own show. And just playing in front of - remember Taigh Chearsabhagh? remember them?
Yeah I do remember them.
Yeah they were great. Played for them, The Walls. I can’t remember all the people I played before.
It was breaking out of that coziness, right?
There was no coziness to be had. It was like you either sucked, or you won them over.
But that’s what I mean. It’s like, I think that was very interesting that comment you had about the people you knew in the audience...
Cause I think we’ve all witnessed the big wheel here, and it’s all his friends.
I mean even now Belfast is not a big place. I know I live there, and I don’t tour as much as I would have done in the past because I have three boys, actually. So I’m trying to be around as much as I can. I’m so aware not to believe that you’re a big deal in the town that you’re from. Because it would be easy to sell with that, and I’m not interested in that - so.
I want to get to, not to jump forward, or to diminish any of that journey, but there comes a point when you’re playing Jools Holland, when - this has worked. This has really worked, and now - V2 Records is owned by Universal, and you are a priority for Universal.
Well, it was for V2, but it was before Universal. It was before then. I wasn’t a priority for Universal (laughs).
Well, ok, I do want to get to that.
Because you’ve also said it’s a cautionary tale, and the idea of not being a priority at a label makes being at a large label not a very nice place to be.
Where are you in your head when you are playing Jools Holland, and Amy Winehouse is on your right-hand side? What is happening in your mind? Are you buying in at all? Do you think, “I’m a step closer to Van,” and this other world that you felt was a million miles away. Were you still thinking “this is a dream”?
I felt like an imposter. Absolutely. I was on tour with Divine Comedy. It was myself, and Chip, who was drumming with me. We were on tour with Divine Comedy all around Europe, and I flew back to do the Jools Holland show from France. This is 2006, I believe. It was like October-November time, then it was aired in January or February. And, as you say, Amy Winehouse was there, Muse, Gypsy Kings, Raconteurs, Jack White, John Legend, all around us. And Jools Holland was going around, and he gets my name wrong. He says, “All the way from Belfast - the Duke Spirit!” (laughs) Which is interesting because the Duke Spirit were a band that came out around a similar time when I was starting. But they were managed by Allan McGee.
So you think that is what went on in his head?
Oh yeah, it still happens. So, “Duke Sp---,” you know. Weirdly as well, my first record had similar artwork to one of their records - which is compleeeetley coincidental because two guys have done all my artwork throughout the years. And they do their own thing, and we talked about it.
And here’s Jools Holland mucking it up. Do you call him out, because that’s obviously -
No, of course not.
No, I almost cried, because I was just thinking nobody knows when they’re ready. But it wasn’t on film, so it was just the intro. Somebody from the label was there, and they went… FFFF!!! “All the way from Belfast, Duke Special”. So, I felt completely out of my depth. I felt…. I was having coffee in the BBC Cantina overlooking the Blue Peter garden, which was just like - this is insane! (laughs) You know? So, all of that just felt so surreal. How did I manage this? So, no, I didn’t feel a step closer or anything. I mean it had a great effect in that gigs were… maybe I had 200 previously suddenly were filled with maybe 400 or 500 were coming because of that program.
So it shows the power it still has - one of the only music shows that there is now on television. So -
You feel like an imposter though?
That’s bizarre to me..
All the time, all the time!
Your humility, though, - you have to know, Peter, you’ve got to know that you’re good at this. You’re feeding three boys.
No, I - Yeah, I look at things in that respect, and go - “ok.” This is going okay, and the fact that I’m able to… But it’s not like I’m - I live in a terraced house in East Belfast. Same one I’ve lived in for the last 17 or 18 years. I drive a clapped-out car. I don’t know month-to-month where my wages are going to come from. So, I’m not well-off. People sometimes assume because - particularly in Belfast, which is a small place, if you do something full-time - “I know these other people who do that full-time, and they’re millionaires, therefore, you must be the equivalent of someone playing for Dundela Football club.
You play football, and so does
...you must be equally, you know.
So there’s that huge misconception.
Ok, well whatever about the finance. I mean the work - are you not proud of the work?
No, I am. I’m proud of the work. And that I do absolutely love, and I’m totally loving the fact that I’m doing what I’m doing.
Are you one of those people, though, that - when I painted, I always wanted to take it down. If I wrote or painted that now, I could do that better.
No, I don’t feel like that. I love doing things in the moment. Doing it, then going on.
Right. Do you leave it behind?
Leave it behind. It’s only ever a photograph. That’s all it is, is a photograph of where you are at that particular time with the experiences you have, with the expertise you have at that time. And you learn from that - doing it wrong, whatever. You move on, and you do it differently the next time. But I don’t want to go back and touch things up.
I want to do something else, because -
Let it go.
Let it go
Is that because of the need to move forward and be better, or is it just the belief that that’s the best way to create art?
I don’t know if it’s the best way to create art. I just know that life’s too short, and there’s so many other things that I want to look at. Yeah, I don’t want to be preoccupied by trying to get the drum sound right on one particular song. I have no interest in that. I want to keep moving.
So were you proud of the work you were doing on Jools Holland at that moment, because this is a moment - if we’re doing the Duke Special movie, this is either the beginning or the end, or certainly the turning point in your career? And yet you feel like an imposter. Are we making too much out of that, or is that just a thought that’s going through your head, “What am I doing here?”
I’d like to think it’s just a moment, you know. I wasn’t any better for doing that. Nothing changed overnight. My lasting memory is - I just got the photograph recently, because a friend, Ben, who plays the clarinet with me - his sister was stage manager. And I remember a photograph being taken. And I said, “What ever happened to that photograph?” And they got it sent through a few months ago. And I’m standing beside Jools Holland. Amy Winehouse is standing there and my hair was up in a knot, and Amy’s obviously was in a big beehive. And I turned to her and said, “I see they put all the big hair up front!” And she just looked at me like I really insulted her. Because to be fair, her hair was bigger than mine, so she probably didn’t see me talking about myself. And she kind of looked at me. And then Jack White leans in from behind and says, “Really like your skirt.” And she said, “Oh thank you!” And I was like - DOH! (laughs)
Oh my god. (laughs)
So, it’s just like oooh (laughs). I’m not very good at that.
I’m thinking about how this works to your benefit - not buying into it. I know a guy who was writing for Saturday Night Live, and on his first day someone came up to him with a moleskin notebook and said, “Do you feel like a fraud?” And he said, “Yeah!” And he handed him the notebook and said, “You’re going to fit right in.” I just love that story, because it -
Because it tells me that despite this great work that everyone’s producing, if there’s no self-doubt, then it doesn’t improve.
I was listening two nights ago, watching a documentary about Jeff Lynne. And my new album is produced by Phil Wilkerson, Paul Pilot’s brother. He’s a massive ELO fan. Thomas Pugwash is a huge fan
And Jeff Lynne’s there, and he’s the most down-to-earth person you could ever meet. And, it’s like, you know when he did “Free As a Bird” with the Beatles, and I don’t think anyone else could have gone in and negotiated all the egos that were in the room – never mind the ghost of John Lennon’s voice floating around. And uh, but he was sane(?) and they loved him. And he had a huge reputation, you know, The Traveling Wilburies, and you know, Tom Petty, collaboration with Roy Orbison, all this kind of stuff.
And he’s there going – you know, they’re going, “What do you think? We want to run these background vocals past you, Jeff.” And he’s like, “Literally, I’m just pinching myself every five minutes going, WHAT?” (laughs) You know? And I really liked him a lot more for that, you know because it’s like –
I’ve heard David Grohl talk about the exact same pinch-yourself moment. Where he’s playing with McCartney –
Oh…And this was in the Sound City [unintelligible]
I know. Yeah, I think ultimately I’m a music fan as well, you know –
And I remember probably years ago thinking…”Oh, you know, I’m as good as mumble mumble.. And the more I do this the more I definitely just think I know nothing. Like this last record, I collaborated with loads and loads of different people – cause I learn that. I love learning from other people. And I want to keep learning.
The Harry Nilsson show that you put on..
What does Harry Nilsson mean to you, and how would the listener know Harry Nilsson?
Two songs that Harry would be known for is “Everybody’s Talking,” (yeah) which is from the film Easy Rider. Then, “I Can’t Live If Living Is Without You” which was written by one of the guys from Badfinger. But Harry didn’t write either of those. And I suppose the thing that interested me is that he would have been known as the fifth Beatle, or the American Beatle. And he was known for being John Lennon’s, kind of, “bad influence” on his Lost Weekend. And I knew bits and pieces of some of his other songs. I loved the song, “One.”
[begins playing the song “One” on the piano]
..which was inspired by the dialing tone from a telephone in a hotel room.
No I …
[begins playing Lime in the Coconut on the piano and singing..] Lime in the Coconut and drink them both up, put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up, put the lime in the coconut, etc. The best version is the Muppets. But I suppose I loved the sweet and sourness of him, and the fact that he was known as a rabble rouser, but could write the most tender songs. And I suppose the yearning, the constant searching that was in him is what drew me to him. But also the fact that he had all these albums that I didn’t know, that I wanted to explore.
I think to hear you talk about him is really inspiring because – to hear people who have reached the level that you’ve reached in your profession – I know you don’t believe that – but to still have this passion for the people who influenced you along the way is really special. I know that we’re running out of time, and I don’t want to hold you any longer. It’s a big night. And we haven’t even gotten the chance to talk about the play. But I do have to ask you the question that we ask every week. And that is – what is the one piece of advice that if you’re on your deathbed, and this is the last thing you can say, what is that?
Can I say two things?
As a person, not as an artist, the motto I try to live by now is umm…try to be kind to other people and try not to be a dick. I think that’s good advice. As an artist, I’d say, “What are you doing that you do that is for you? That no one else is doing? What is it that makes you you? Don’t try to be anyone else, just do your own thing. It doesn’t matter if it flies in the face of what’s popular.
Well thanks a million, Peter.
Let’s play a song
I would absolutely love that. What are you going to play for us?
I’m going to play a recording I heard from Harry Nilsson – him doing a song by someone he was trying to give a foot up to at the time called Randy Newman, from an album “Nilsson sings Newman.” And, this is it…
[sings and plays “So Hard Living Without You”]
And Just Recently....
12/7/14 - Duke Special played at The Glee Club with Dan Whitehouse, Birmingham.
Wednesday 13 May 2015
London Islington Assembly Hall, Upper St, London N1 2UD
Ticket link: http://gigst.rs/DukeSp
Friday 15 May 2015
BELFAST Mandela Hall
79 University Road, Belfast, Antrim BT7 1NF
Box Office: 028 9097 3726
Saturday 16 May 2015
DUBLIN Vicar Street
58-59 Thomas Street, Dublin 8
On sale 9am 04 Dec