The following interview (part 1) is from Jarlath Regan's interview of Duke Special, which was broadcast on October 19, 2014. For the original podcast, go to the Irishman Abroad Podcast. This transcript was created with Regan's permission.
[Thanks to John Bowman for proof reading my transcript, helping with place names, and some phrasing a bit unusual to American ears!]
His albums "Adventures in Gramophone," "Songs from the Deep Forest" - both of which were nominated for the choice music award are just epic stand-outs from his back catalog of work. And in recent times, he's broadened his work with the play Mother Courage and Her Children, released in 2010. He met me on a bright Sunday afternoon, just before a gig he was doing at Union Chapel in Islington with Clannad another collaboration which is kind of a new direction for him. He's an unbelievably nice man.
The conversation we had really opened my eyes to some of the insecurities that he feels even with this incredible body of work behind him. It's to me something that anybody who is involved in creative industry should listen to - the humility of a man, his work ethic, and just his general character is something that's really startled me, even though I've met him once before
“Hello, my name is Duke Special, and you're listening to an Irishman Abroad.” [Pre-recorded show interlude, not transcribed.]
Well, Peter Wilson, thank you very much for joining me on an Irishman Abroad. (Have we started?) Well, yes, we have! (laugh)
We’re sitting in the Sunday school room of Union Chapel in Islington. It’s bigger than some venues I’ve played! It’s miraculous, it has a wooden balcony, floor to window mirrors for some kind of dance class, I would imagine. It’s like a more refined, Billy Elliot type room, where the boxing training took place.
You’re about to perform with Clannad here this evening and it’s - you know - the last time we crossed paths was nearly ten years ago. (It’s weird.) I wonder what has happened in the interim. because at that time when we met, you were signed to a major record label and here you are today with your own record label, and largely a creative freedom that you didn't probably didn't have, or maybe did have and didn’t explore it at that particular time. But I think the listeners will be interested in knowing what has happened for Duke Special in that time.
Yeah, I think it was around 2008 or something. So then I was on V2 records, I think it was, and they got bought out by Universal. And previous to that I’d just been self releasing, and touring (?) [Siren in the background]. Shit they found us! [laughter]. But yeah, I had two records with those labels, then I did a play in London in 2009, called Mother Courage and Her Children - a Brecht play. I wrote the music for that, and appeared in that for like four months with a lot of my band.
That was a major turning point for me. Almost like a bit of an eye-opener as to what I wanted to do, and what music could do, I suppose and the possibilities - because the people I admire in music - the likes of Tom Waits, Elliot Smith, Nick Cave, Steve Mareth, and people like that - they’re not really into the “write an album, record an album, tour the album, repeat, repeat, repeat. Trying to get onto the radio.
To do this play was a bit of a departure, and it took me off the road for half a year, I suppose, when I got dumped by Universal. (ha ha) And I don’t regret that for a second. When I was learning and reading about Kurt Weill, the composer, he was collaborating with other art forms - you know, whether it’s plays, opera, or novels - whatever it might be, he was seeing what would happen when music came into contact with those other art forms. And I loved that. I loved the freedom that it gave, the richness that it fed. As an artist, suddenly it wasn’t just about trying to get something to fit this very narrow funnel, which is radio. But it was something way beyond that and yeah, I really loved that.
Did that awakening - and I do really want to talk about that play specifically. Many of the listeners will be aware of it, or have had at least heard the promotion for it at the time. There’s a documentary available about it which is fascinating. But that awakening and that eye-opening moment that you talk about. Did it bring you back to why you thought you would do this or did it waken you from what you thought it was to something else entirely?
Well since I was wee I’d always - like when you’re watching Top of the Pops as I was, with my sisters in our dressing gowns on a Thursday night after bath night or whatever, with our Golden Wonder Crisps. The treats all combining for that Thursday night and watching bands appear on Top of the Pops. I absolutely wanted to do that. I think the world of music has changed so much. You know, when you listen to the charts now it’s nowhere near the breadth of artists or interesting artists that there would have been at that time.
So I always wanted to do something that would be reaching a bigger audience than friends and family. Or some sort of niche thing. But I also, I suppose, I always wanted to do something that was theatrical, that was of interest not only to a particular scene, in a certain year, but would somehow go beyond that. Like I remember my parents coming home. I lived in Downpatrick, and they’d been to the opera house to see Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy perform. And I listened to that record nonstop for ages, and what I loved about it was the breadth of ages that were at the gig. Because there’s something about stories, something about humor that transcended age. So I think on one hand, I always wanted to do something. I loved the Beatles so that was like an epiphany for me seeing A Hard Day’s Night in 1981. So I always wanted to do something that was about this amazing gang of people, that had their own kind of world, and played these amazing songs. The idea of variety, the idea of entertaining people of all different ages.
So I think when I did the play, things crystallized a bit more for me where I realized that - Well who’s to say that you can’t do this? Why should I, just as you said, have to fit things into this tiny funnel?
And that was the awakening? That realization that nobody can tell me - that I am effectively my own master?
Yeah, it was just one other epiphany, I suppose, on that journey.
You talk about the Clancy brothers and about the notion of variety, and how you appreciate things like the Beatles. Vaudeville is something that’s connected to you. “Vintage” and “antique” is sometimes talked about a lot in terms of what you do. It seems to me timelessness is something you’re fascinated with. Creating something that spans generations, rather than something that’s just really old. The things that tend to be vintage now are things that have lasted. That’s how they become vintage. Am I wrong on this?
No. Then again, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s any good. Like this last year I’ve been DJing a lot with gramophones. I do a gramophone club in Belfast. I use only 78 RPM records, and run a gramophone club night where a lot of “vintage” dancers who are young people, but they dress up in the old garb - bell hoppers, and Lindy hop dancing. It’s great because it’s such great music. People have started to give me a lot of 78s as well, and often they’re really awful. There’s a lot of C-list of Joseph Locke records and things. So just because something is old, doesn’t make it great.
In the same way that years from now, people might retro-style start DJing with CDs. Because they’ll be a thing of the past. But there’s so much shite on CD as well. It doesn’t mean it’s any good - just because it’s old.
But yeah I think there is something about things that are forgotten, almost. A few things I've done recently....I love exploring the back-catalogs of other artists, like Ruby Murray from Belfast. And I did a whole tour recently of the songs of Harry Nilsson, for example. He was of interest to me because, although people might know him for one or two songs, he made loads and loads of records. They are like mines with treasures waiting to be discovered within them. I just love not doing the typical, well-worn path. I think my job as an artist is to look at other places. Look at things that have been forgotten in the shadows, in the nooks and crannies, and bring those out to the light, and to introduce people to those.
I’m interested in where that sensibility comes from, because that’s not something everybody does. You’re very unique in that being at the forefront of your mind. How many artists do you hear talking about that idea of bringing things to light that have previously been forgotten. You grew up in Lisburn, is that right?
I was born in Lisburn, grew up in Coleraine and and Downpatrick in Holyrood…
Ok, so all over Northern Ireland, and you're in a family with three sisters. Playing the piano is handed down by generations through the family. It becomes your fascination, is that correct?
Well, it was kind of my ticket through adolescence, I suppose, in the way people find things they’re good at. Whether you’re a great rugby player, or you’re funny, or whether you’re an academic, you know, really good at particular subjects. For me, music felt very familiar, and it felt where I belonged. So suddenly I had a place and other like-minded people that I could feel a part of - which is so important at that age, you know. When you’re desperately trying to belong, as well as search your individuality. But you’re not really - you just really want to belong.
So music was what allowed you to find happiness in that time?
Yeah, other kids were out til late. I remember Garth Healy out doing toe taps in our wee gardens in Downpatrick. And being scouted by Nottingham Forest and that was his thing. And I was in, practicing scales on the piano - infinitely less cooler. (laugh)
But I think for me, the fact that I grew up in the 80s, playing piano was not a very cool thing. Phil Collins was the main purveyor of playing piano in the 1980s. And in hindsight, that wasn’t maybe, particularly (sorry Phil) hasn’t stood the test of time.
Who you were you looking to? You were not looking to Phil Collins, obviously.
Oh, no I was.
Were you really?
Yeah my first gig ever was Chris De Burgh. (really?) My sister brought me to that, when I was in my very early teens. Because these were the only people I knew about that played. Then I was introduced to other people after that. The likes of Randy Newman, Tom Waits - people like that until it was like.. oh! (laughs). But I find the fact that I grew up playing piano - I came from a church background, playing hymns and things like that. It was not very “cool,” but that actually allowed me a great freedom to explore these other artists, and not try to be the cool thing happening at the moment. Though I was with a couple of record labels, and all the rest of it, I’m not ever going to be this "megastar." But the really exciting thing for me is by dipping under the radar, I can actually do artistically what I want. And I think as my taste has matured, and as I’ve explored other art forms to an extent. I think that’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. I feel this great freedom to do that.
You wind up leaving school, and going straight to Swindon - (Yeah) Now, we interviewed Michael Smiley on the show before and he talked about getting out of N. Ireland was the number one thing for him at a certain point. Was that a feeling that you had? Or was there something about the metropolis of Swindon that really attracted you (chuckles)?
Well you can imagine (laughs)! No, I desperately wanted to do music and I could have had a music A-level, but the career advice was that you could become a teacher or a concert pianist, neither of which I could’ve. There weren’t any pop music courses, or anything like that, like there are now. I started saving up money to go to a performance arts course in Canada, and I ended up meeting this band that played - it was kind of like a religious band, actually. That would have done a lot of community work and youth work, and stuff like that, as that was my background. I was like - You mean I can write songs, and play songs, and do that all the time?
So I ended up joining this band of people my age - 18 or 19. We were based in Swindon and played at local community centers, churches, and youth clubs. And I did that for two years.
Two years? That’s quite a commitment!
Well Swindon and Bristol. So this was 1990-1991.
What were you thinking during that period? Because I doubt you were thinking that this is where we’d be at this point in your life?
No, no. I thought, “wow,” I’m doing what I always wanted to do, which was to play music full time. I could see that this was not “pure music,” you know. There was a whole other agenda - the whole community-work-thing. I also felt guilty coming from the North, of course, (hah!). I would feel that I should have a proper job, so I came home and ended up going to Jordanstown College to do community work. But all through that, I was playing in other peoples’ bands, and writing songs.
What was the decision to come back? Was it actually borne out of guilt?
To come back - yeah.
Who was pressuring you? or was it internal?
Really? So that even though you were living your dream, essentially, (yeah) you couldn’t square the circle of, “Well, I deserve this.”
No, absolutely not.
What do you put that down to?
I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it. I didn’t know - any role models in the north, I suppose, at the time were like, so far above you like Undertones, Van Morrison, people like that, that you just thought - this is a ridiculous dream. I may be living the dream, but it’s foolish. It’s a pipe dream, really. So when I came back and started doing this degree course in community work, which I completed, But the day I finished, I became self-employed as a musician. I think I realized that, actually this is what I love most. Maybe this is what I do the best.
You took the 2 years of study - the 4 years of study to fully realize that, yeah, I can and should follow this. (Yeah.)
And there’s a guy called Brian Houston, who is a songwriter from Belfast who was playing in bars, playing his original music, not covers. So I played piano in his band for a couple of years. That was a bit of an apprenticeship, I suppose.
Yeah, I’ve heard it called that. (Yeah.) What did Brian Houston teach you in that apprenticeship? What is the apprenticeship of a pianist in that situation?
Well - a number of things. One is learning the craft of playing in front of an audience. And we talked about people shouting stuff out, or winning people over who’d rather be somewhere else, and you have to win them over. And two, the fact that he was playing his own songs, and the fact that you could make a living doing this. And that was unheard of - I didn’t know anyone else doing this. That again was another eye-opener for me. It wasn’t like Belfast was buzzing with original bands. Around that time, I guess you had “Ash.” Again, that seemed like a fairytale.
Yeah, they’re supporting U2 on tour and stuff.
Yeah they haven’t finished their A-levels, and they’re on Top of the Pops, you know. That just seemed like uh..
I really want to ask the question, what Brian taught you in terms of winning over a crowd that doesn’t necessarily want to be there, or charming them to bring them into what you’re doing. What did he do, first of all? And how did you assimilate that into what you do?
I think he never took for granted that people were there to listen. So he walked onto the stage with the view that, “I’m going to have to win these people over.” I think also he would channel his frustration if things weren’t going according to plan in to a performance. So rather than do that thing where you walk off stage because people aren’t listening, or they’re using the mobile phone, whatever it might be - that you actually use that and channel it. So that if you’re angry, the performance becomes more animated, becomes more visceral. And it’s about the music you get rather than tackling these people who’ve had a hard week at work, and are there to chat with their friends. Rather than take it out on them, you channel it into the music, you know.
Are these things you still draw from?
Yeah, yeah. I think then the next five or six years I was playing in a couple of field bands that didn’t really go anywhere. It was 2002, that I brought out my first EP as Duke Special. And I made the decision, with my manager at the time, that we weren’t even going to bother sending it off to record labels, and waiting for the letter to come back saying - yes or no, whatever, which we’d done with previous bands. I was just going to go out and play. So I started playing support gigs all around Ireland and UK. Support gigs are where you play before someone else’s audience.
Often, or all the time, no one has heard of you, and you’re playing as people are still coming in. Your job is supposedly to warm up the audience for the person who is coming next - the main act was an absolutely brilliant opportunity to kind of hone things, not in the glare of spotlight, or people having heard of me. No one knew me. So I was making mistakes, trying things, falling on my face, learning all the time and gradually building up an audience. I had an email list that people would sign up to. Gradually that increased, and then I would gradually go back and do my own show for twenty people, and gradually begin to grow.
Well you’ve jumped over two things that I really want to talk about.
And that is first of all the decision to go from Peter Wilson to Duke Special.
The first thing that I thought upon reading and researching for this, was that when I started stand-up, I wanted to do all these elaborate things. I felt that shows should be an experience. It wasn’t enough for a man to be behind a microphone. I wanted this, that, and the other. But over time, I found myself worn down and back to the microphone because nobody will let you do that. They’re like, “This is a pain in the arse. A projector, what is this??”
Why can’t you just do what the last guy did? It went fine for him.
Was there a sense that calling yourself “Duke Special” and inhabiting a character of sorts, that you would be allowed to do whatever you wanted up there, and be completely free from the notion of Peter Wilson and his piano?
I found it so helpful because - number one, Peter Wilson is quite a common name. Or I should say, “popular” name. In Northern Ireland, Wilson is the most popular name in the phone book, allegedly. (Poor old phone book, whatever happened to that?!) There were a lot of other Peter Wilsons around. I think what I loved about bands is the fact that there is this theater to any band - whether it’s U2, or Dresden Dolls, who I mentioned earlier, or whoever it is. There’s this feeling of a gang, with a certain look, and all the rest of it.
As a solo artist, I wanted to be more than - you know I remember seeing like “DJ Bobby so-and-so from Lurgin” (ha ha) you know and you’re just going, “That doesn’t inspire me to go and hear this band!” So I wanted to try and have some theater around, even though I’m a solo artist, there would still be something enigmatic about it. And then I was reading about Nick Cave, and him saying that when people come into his shows, he wants them to come into his world as opposed to him entering theirs.
So there’s this theatrical suspension of disbelief for people coming to a gig. And for me it was using a gramophone on stage, and the piano, which would be covered, so you wouldn’t see the mass-produced Japanese name on the front of it. There would be this intrigue. “Oh! What’s happening here? And immediately you had people on the back foot. They are going, "Ok, what's going to happen? Ok, show us how to comprehend this“ But immediately people were listening to it in a different way.
You noticed that right away?
Absolutely, you know - whether it’s winding the gramophone, which is such a simple thing, but it immediately evokes something and people are engaged. For me the most important thing in performing is you’re communicating something, and you’re trying to say something, I suppose, that people have felt, haven’t or don’t want to feel, but don’t have the time or other words to express it. So in that sense, you have to provide this world that people can come into and inhabit. And then you take them by the hand. It would be wrong for me to then just use them for therapy for myself where it’s all just like - uuuuuh - “Here’s all my thoughts and feelings.” You need to entertain them as well because they’re trusting you with this, with this privilege that I’ve been given. You’re bringing them on this journey of emotions, thoughts, and feelings. So you want to bring them on highs and lows.
If it’s all “highs,” it’s frivolous and frothy. If it’s all lows, it’s depressing and -
And Just Recently...
Duke Special gave another extenstive (hour-long) interview with "The Absolutely Awesome Podcast." Here are a few highlights that didn't seem covered in other interviews I've heard or read recently:
- Though this was published 5/29/14, and is not really "recent," I discovered it recently and thought it interesting enough to note. The blog "Uke Tunes" wrote up the ukelele score for the song "Wanda," and provides some interesting observations about Duke Special and some of his other work.
Black Box Belfast announced that Duke Special will appear with others on 12/4/14 (Friday) at 8 pm.