Record Overplayed
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Duke Special interview | Sheffield Leadmill | 24/01/09

"Someone heard Freewheel and said, 'The world doesn't need another James Blunt'..."

Interview by Dawn
Photos (except final photo) by Emma

Later this evening Duke Special will take to the Leadmill's Steel Stage to perform songs from his new album, I Never Thought This Day Would Come. A few hours before the show I sit down with Duke's alter-ego, the charming Peter Wilson, to ask him about the new record.

Although dressed more casually than his onstage counterpart, the Duke's trademark eyeliner is still present as I learn that Peter arrived in Sheffield today via the beautiful city of Edinburgh – specifically the Camera Obscura, a tourist attraction which houses five floors of illusions and hands-on exhibits as well as a rooftop from which you can view the city.

'I didn't have time to get up to the top so I only saw one floor of illusions then I had to come down again,' explains Peter. 'I saw the one with the old looking photographs with the...' he searches for the right words, 'kind of demonic looking things.'

A description which seems to fit in rather nicely with the style of Peter's recent live shows, I suggest.

'What – creepy?' he laughs, then pauses. 'I suppose there is an element of that.'

Not wanting to offend I hurriedly add that I was thinking particularly of new song Flesh and Blood Dance where, onstage, Peter beats a drum like a maniac as percussionist Chip Bailey leads the crowd in a chant of "all we want is flesh and blood" and the whole thing almost began to remind me of some kind of cannibalistic party.

'I like that idea actually,' Peter smiles. 'I could get some blood capsules for my mouth.' His wonderfully expressive eyes sparkle mischievously as he adds, 'Or perhaps just a raw steak!'

Joking aside, the new album certainly does seem to have a darker sound than its predecessor, Songs from the Deep Forest, and Peter agrees:

'I think musically it's probably a desire to just not keep doing the same thing over and over again. The last album was very lush-sounding with strings. I just didn't want to do that again. I'll do it again at some point but I didn't want to just feel under pressure to do it. I tend to react - if people expect me to do something I tend to do something different.


'So basically I wanted it to become a more punchy kind of sound and we tried to achieve that with having much more guitar on the record and through having no strings. There's an orchestra on there but it's actually an orchestra comprised of only brass and wind. We told the string players to stay home that day.

'I suppose [it's darker] lyrically as well. Any song I ever write reflects a certain mood at a certain time so that comes out through the record as well but I suppose in my head some of the songs that didn't end up on the record influenced the thinking behind it, which was the idea of ghosts and sleepwalkers all dancing together. Tim who does my illustration work actually painted something just to have as a reference while we were recording - just a little sketch - and we put it up above the mixing board then, as it turns out, it moved away from that. We were going to call it Songs for Sleepwalkers to kind of echo the Songs from the Deep Forest but in the end we changed it to I Never Thought This Day Would Come and it seemed to suit the theme better.'

As well as his moods impacting upon his songwriting, this time around Peter has also taken inspiration from books, particularly for the album's title track:

'I'd read a book called A Man Walks into a Room by a writer called Nicole Krauss. It's about a guy who wakes up with no memory and he's wandering in a desert and he doesn't know how he got there – he has torn clothes and all the rest of it – and I just thought that was a really interesting concept – almost echoes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you and your partner's minds were erased and you met now would you fall in love again? You know, that kind of idea. What would be different and would you choose to do the same things. The idea of are we just the sum of our habits? Does that make us who we are – the choices that we make and the rituals that we continue performing over and over again? Do we put them on like clothes that don't fit and then gradually they fit us? And it's just that idea really interests me.


'I commissioned Ben Hales to write a little short story which is in the little deluxe set so it has echoes of the Man Walks Into a Room book and also other stuff coming out of the album. So it's been influenced definitely by authors, by authors' writing.'

And the same can be said for new track By the Skin of My Teeth, as Peter explains:

'I wrote that one with the same guy [as I Never Thought This Day Would Come] - Phil - and we actually had a completely different lyric. But I just felt I wasn't really sure what it was about, or what I thought it was about didn't communicate, so I'd read this book called East of Eden, which is an amazing book by John Steinbeck who wrote Grapes of Wrath. And East of Eden is a beautiful, beautiful book but the idea of that song lyrically is, I suppose, just the feeling that I always seem to literally scrape through things and kinda being frustrated with that and always seeming just to get by and no more.'

But although the album is beautiful as it is, I'm also intrigued as to what happened to the songs like Careless Heart which, although showcased on tour in 2007, didn't make it to the record?


'There's a handful of songs that I'm still determined to record at some point.' says Peter. 'I deliberately give Paul Pilot - who produces the records with me - an amount of influence on the song choices as well. In fact we started to record with 15 or 16 possibilities and then Phil - my manager - Paul and myself each made a yes list, ones out of ten that we thought should be in. Songs that all three of us picked were guaranteed, they were on, and then ones that two people picked, they had to convince the third that "this is really worth doing", you know? Sweet Kisses was one because Paul and I loved it and Phil wasn't sure. Also, I had the final vote. Neither of them had picked Mockingbird and I said "no, this absolutely has to go on". So that was it. Careless Heart wasn't even an option this time but I think it'll come out at some point after a bit of reworking - a few tweaks.'

What's been most noticeable this time around is how much Peter has grown in confidence when performing – to the point that he's started leaving the piano to perform songs from the middle of the stage, and often whilst standing on a chair.

'Well at the last tour I was just really ready to do that and enjoy music behind me. I think playing with orchestras recently has really helped 'cause you've literally got this huge wall of sound behind you, and you can go "right I actually don't need to play piano". And I've always hated the piano being a barrier, so on the Irish tour I did with the seven piece there was another guy playing piano for most of it. It's just relearning what to do with your hands. I find it really useful to use props to just try and articulate some of the content of the song - not by doing actions but in some way representing the song. So I think that tour in Ireland really helped me and now I can't get enough of it. I'd happily not play piano at all!'

So all in all, is Peter pleased with his new record?

 


'I really am, actually. I could've done something safer and done more of the same but I never want to do that so I am really pleased. I'm pleased with it. It was an honest record for me, as well as being influenced by some books I'd read, and also it was a slightly daring record for me to make, so I think it represented what I wanted to do. At that point in time that's the record I wanted to make. And I'm ready to make a new one now even though this one hasn't come out in the UK.'

In Ireland, Peter says his audiences are "generally bigger and probably slightly younger" than in England due to his music being played on daytime radio.

'But I'm going to be doing some touring over here probably with more well-known acts so I think that'll help. At the minute it's still very much a word of mouth thing, you know, which is great in some ways because you've got people who are really into all the music and not just like a single that was on the radio. It makes for a more rounded experience for me as a performer, whereas in Ireland some places they're waiting for the Freewheel or the Last Night I Nearly Died. It's great when you hear people singing back at you but I kind of always go on stage with something to prove so we'd never be satisfied with just coasting on the fact that there might be some people who might come to the shows – I've got to win these people over.'


In closing, I ask what comparisons Peter's music has had to other artists – both bad and good. He mentions Harry Nilsson, Nick Cave and Tom Waits whilst simultaneously adding that 'it feels quite different from them as well.' He continues, 'Van Dyke Parks, in terms of instrumentation. The Beatles in terms of some of the arrangements - all those are good.' Then he mentions possibly the most horrendous accusation that anyone could throw at his music:

'I think the worst one I ever heard was when someone heard Freewheel and said, "The world doesn't need a James Blunt". And I'm like, "what?!"'

There's not a lot else you can say to that, is there? Thank you Peter; it's been a pleasure as always.

With huge thanks to the lovely Peter, Jonny and Emma. Visit www.DukeSpecial.com for more information.

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