INTERVIEW: Duke Special | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Well-established as a vaudevillian and raconteur, Belfast-based maestro Duke Special, aka Peter Wilson, has written albums based on and from the perspective of subjects as diverse as a fictional silent movie star (The Silent World of Hector Mann), Bertholt Brecht’s tragic account of the Sixty Years War (Mother Courage and Her Children), and an unfinished musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn – and that’s all within one release. Although he’s often inspired by fiction, Wilson admits that “when I write songs, they tend to spark from personal experience. Songs often want to tell their own story; sometimes you kind of have to let them.” A more personal touch is certainly apparent in new record Look Out Machines!, perhaps his most personal and “traditional” album since 2006’s Songs From The Deep Forest.

Look Out Machines! will also be the second LP he’s funded via PledgeMusic rather than through a label; but what was behind the decision to go grassroots? “Partly for financial reasons – an attempt to release records to a level that the cost of PR, radio plugging, and such has made difficult. It’s now more expensive to bring out a record than to actually make it! It’s also a cool way of working with fans; in the past, composers would’ve had a wealthy patron, now you’ve got thousands of ordinary people working on the same principle. I have a great relationship with my fans in that they trust me to do something interesting. It’s all about exploring somewhere new and taking people with me in these musical photographs.”

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“I have a great relationship with my fans in that they trust me to do something interesting”

Two of the things most associated with Duke Special and his live show are his theatricality and his love of 78rpm records and gramophone technology, the latter enthusiasm inherited from his music-loving father. “I first heard 78rpm from my Dad, who had a collection of them – he used to go to people’s houses and play them at parties. I’ve now cut a record on 78rpm and I DJ with them at festivals [and at his new Duke Special’s Gramophone Club events] – it’s the music that everything else came from, and from around 1960, they’re just gone.”

The theatricality, he admits, was “borne a little out of necessity. I’ve been in bands and things before, and a band’s like a little gang with its own chemistry. Solo, there’s something missing, a dynamic or an energy, maybe. I also wanted to make use of the stage, to create interludes, and give that feeling of coming into that room and coming into another world, so I’d have a record playing on the gramophone onstage. There’s a scene in ‘Man On The Moon’ where Andy Kaufman’s doing a gig, and he has Here Comes Mighty Mouse on a record player onstage – I guess it stuck in my head!”

Complementing his love of shellac and showmanship, much of Wilson’s back catalogue harks back to or focuses on bygone eras. Says the Duke himself, “I find interest in all those influences and artists that have been forgotten. I feel it’s more interesting than a band of a few years ago – it’s the path less trodden, like going through your grandparents’ attic.”

Out on tour with Laura Kidd’s staggeringly multi-talented alt-folk/doom pop She Makes War project, Duke teases that the set is going to be “like a gentle introduction to the new songs – I’m going to be playing new stuff mixed in with old songs, and songs I love by other people.”

Duke Special plays at the Sage Gateshead on Sunday 19th April.

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