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Duke Special interview | Leeds Cockpit | September 2005

"I liked the idea of being a little bit enigmatic"

Interview and Photos (Newcastle/Leeds 2005) by Dawn

It's not every evening you arrive at a gig to find stage decor comprising a gramophone, megaphone, transistor radio, clarinet and a piano dripping with lush red velvet - but then it's not every evening you get to experience the compelling stage show and heartbreakingly exquisite music of Duke Special; a man whose image and whose band's quirky onstage antics regularly bely the shimmering beauty of his songs; whose olde worlde-style performances draw constant comparisons to the days of vaudeville and music hall.

Four nights into a brief tour with fellow Emerald Isle boys Hal, I catch up with the Belfast showman - more commonly known as Peter - in the Cockpit bar, having seen him play five nights earlier to a somewhat smaller audience in the Waiting Room restaurant in Teesside.

'It was quite an unusual environment to do a gig in a vegetarian restaurant,' he smiles, 'but yeah, it was really good fun and we had a really cool party afterwards - (bandmate) Steve and myself got on the decks and played The Sound of Music, all kinda stuff like that - really good fun.'

 


The gig was the perfect way to break up the long journey to Aberdeen for the first date with the Hal boys, who told me they specifically requested Duke Special's presence on their tour. Peter, meanwhile, is impressed with what he's heard of their music so far: 'I didn't really know much of them beforehand, but it's very understated and I'm only really getting to know the songs but I'm hoping to blag an album off them.'

And speaking of Hal, they share Peter's admiration for the glorious baroque 'n' roll of the wonderfully flamboyant Rufus Wainwright: 'When you're trying to find your own voice there's different people along the way who kind of fit like a jigsaw - suddenly "Ah, there's this bit". I was talking to one of the guys from Hal and he was saying that Rufus is one of those people. Tom Waits would be one of those people, Aimee Mann would be another, Magnetic Fields would be another, Elliot Smith would be another - so all these people have just really informed me and kind of validate, almost, what I want to do and really encourage me to keep going.'

 


Whilst part of the appeal of a Duke Special performance lies in his captivating, spinetingling vocals, Peter is ably assisted onstage by percussionist Chip and jack of all trades Steve. While the suited and booted Steve utilises the record player, radio, megaphone and clarinet, the lively Chip often leaves his drumkit in favour of playing, amongst other things, a cheese grater with a whisk. In his charming Irish lilt, Peter attempts to explain why:

'When we were recording we were trying stuff. I think initially we'd have preferred a washboard, and then we said maybe a whisk or something and tried it and it's taken off. Some people appear at gigs now with them and wave them at the appropriate time. We're actually going to try and develop a series of Chip Bailey kitchen utensils - we're imagining a stage at some point with maybe four or five hundred people all brandishing these things.' He laughs then, at the suggestion that perhaps he'd be left out, smiles: 'Well, you know, I could get a Magimix going or something.'

For the louder songs Chip can also be found brandishing an intriguing contraption comprising a bicycle bell, tin lid, taut spring and numerous other bits and pieces. 'I've never seen anyone else play it,' smiles Peter. 'It's called a Stumpf fiddle. There's actually a Stumpf fiddle factory - I don't know if it still exists - but somebody in a music shop found four and gave them to Chip 'cause they knew he loved crazy stuff like that. He's the only player of Stumpf fiddle I know - this side of America anyway.'

Peter, meanwhile, takes centre stage with his velvet-covered piano, on which he feels he can express himself far better than he ever could on guitar: 'Piano is like second nature to me, whereas guitar I find very difficult to play,' he explains. 'I play the accordion but, again, it's piano based. The guitar I can get a few chords out of and I write a wee bit on guitar but it's just I'm a bit lazy - the idea of going back to the drawing board with an instrument is just really frustrating. But I do want to get better at it and incorporate it into my live set sometime, but at the minute I'm so flipping busy playing all the time so I don't have much time to rehearse it.'

Certainly there'll be no spare time in the near future, with two Duke Special releases in the pipeline: 'I've got an EP coming out which'll just be for gigs and online only,' says Peter. 'It's called Your Vandal and it should be out any time now. And we've got a single coming out - Freewheel. We recorded a different version in Brighton in the studio of the Lo-Fidelity Allstars and it comes out on vinyl on the 24th October. It's going to be 78 rpm only, but you get a free download code so you can download it onto your computer anyway even if you haven't got a record player. The label suggested it and I was like "Absolutely, definitely"; I think there's something much more physical and solid about vinyl and about putting the needle on, whereas a CD just disappears under a drawer with a laser. I do like vinyl more.'

Peter agrees that the vinyl fits in neatly with the gramophone idea: 'Definitely. That was the lure of it; it kind of came about as I was writing songs; people said they sounded a wee bit like old musicals, or something from a music hall, so we just had to really embrace that.' Could the fact that reviews often make "Victorian" comparisons be seen as an insult? 'No, no, I love it. I just love the fact that it's like from another world and I like when people as soon as they go into the room they're seeing everything up onstage and going "What the hell is going on here?" - you know, they're kind of buying into our world.'

And where does the name "Duke Special" come from? 'Well my own name isn't very interesting, it comes down to that!' laughs Peter. 'When I was doing the first EP and thinking about the way I wanted to present it, I was about to get the artwork done and I had to have a name for the front cover. So I looked up this internet site which was all about vaudeville and music hall, and a typical vaudeville night would include novelty singers, like a singing troupe of dancing dwarves from Russia, some sort of performing animal, some sort of community singalong, maybe a magician, a contortionist - all these sorts of things would be in this kind of rolling variety performance - and a lot of these performers would be called "Duke" something. So I thought, "That would be a cool thing" and I liked the idea of being a bit enigmatic - people going "What is this?", you know? - and taking on a character. So having a name like that helps me take on the character, and putting on the make-up and the coat - it helps me feel like Duke Special as opposed to ordinary me.'

Indeed, Peter's chosen onstage image of dreadlocks, eyeliner and a black jacket is a striking one - and one which seems a complete contrast to his chosen style of music.

'People expect us to have gothic music,' smiles Peter, obviously amused by the fact that his actual sound often comes as a complete surprise. His style may be difficult to pigeonhole, but he's even thinking up designs for t-shirts to try and describe it - Hobo Chic. He grins: 'People ask "What's your genre of music?" and that's what I tell them; Hobo Chic.'

With huge thanks to the lovely Peter and Steve, and to Clare, Rosie and Don. Thanks also to Luke. Visit www.DukeSpecial.com for more information.

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