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Express Interviews: Duke Special

Byline Music Editor Holly Cooney spoke to Duke Special, aka Peter Wilson after his gig at the Coughlan’s Live Music Festival.

Duke Special, is as his name suggests, a special performer. His mix of styles and sounds lends a unique, retro sound that no other can claim. Over the past decade Wilson has experimented with every genre, honing his craft to produce whimsical music with strong narratives. His new album “Look Out Machines” is the result of a crowdfunding campaign with Pledge Music where fans pledged money in return for special extras, including house concerts which saw Wilson travelling across the world playing in all venues big and small. His latest venture to Cork saw him close the Coughlan’s Live Music Festival and what a performance that was. Bringing his special charm to this small venue, his energy and interaction with the crowd shows that he deserves the title of one of Ireland’s greatest talents. The new album, nominated for the Northern Ireland Music Prize, is full of strong and explosive songs and is a glimpse in Wilson’s world. We sat down to talk crowdfunding, religion and chart music.

EXPRESS: So we all love Coughlans, but it’s a really small venue. Do smaller venues appeal to you?

DUKE SPECIAL: Yeah I do love smaller venues. There’s something actually amazing about the intimacy, [you have] people up close to you and it’s a chance to tell stories more than bigger venues. Over the summer I’ve been doing festivals and you can’t really have that same kind of interaction so small venues are great for that reason and Coughlans is like the cream of the crop.


So the new album “Look Out Machines” is more electronic than your previous work, why was there a change in direction with this album?

I think with each album I’ve done I’ve tried to go somewhere different. So in the demoing for the tracks for the record we were finding we were using electronic drums and fake strings and things like that and it sounded really good so we just kinda kept with that.


There’s a lot of religious connotations on the new album, especially with songs like “In a Dive” and the title track, “Look Out Machines”. Do you feel that coming from the north, that religion is an important topic that you should address?

I think “In a Dive” definitely, is a bit of a rant against [religion]. I think the whole concept of the album is, not anti-religion as such, but anti things that make us try to fit into a certain mould and religion is one of those things.


Do you think that the music scene in Northern Ireland has changed since you started out?

Yeah I think so. I think there’s, in some ways a great optimism about being able to export what you do. You know there’s a lot more people going further afield and I think that’s balanced by the fact that it’s really hard to make a living playing music and just selling records. I guess if you’ve been doing it for a while you’ll see bands fall by the wayside and people stop doing what they’re doing and people coming through but I’ve definitely seen a whole crop of new people coming up.


Do you think there’s a sense of camaraderie, with music especially, that bridges the religious and social divide that exists in Northern Ireland? Do you think music helps to bridge that divide?

It always has. Right through the last thirty, forty, fifty years music has transcended any kind of backgrounds or geography. It gets down to the stuff that’s important


Your sound is really unique, obviously we all know that. What inspired your sound and why do you think it’s so well received in an era where chart music is the big thing?

I don’t know if chart music is the big thing. I think the charts have gone far, far away from what people who are into music actually like. Weirdly I think that’s the case.

I don’t know how I got my sound. I think I’ve tried to be authentic and do things that I like, things that I do like playing the piano and the influences that I’ve had inevitably come through the process of digesting those things and then they come out in how your write and how you come across.


You use quite an eclectic mix of instruments, not always conventional instruments, like cheese graters and gramophone records. Where do these ideas come from?

Everything’s an instrument! I think again there are certain instruments that are really useable but then everything makes a sound. I think there’s lots of people who found different sounds in creating textures and for me, in a recording it’s about the atmosphere and the textures, as well as the song. What makes a really interesting recording is all the ingredients that go into that.


Growing up as a kind who loved music, who were your big influences?

I think growing up The Beatles were huge, like an epiphany. Probably hymns and things as well, choirs and traditional music and then all along [the way] there have been various other epiphanies that have informed me and influenced my writing.


You’re currently working with Pledge music. How’s that going?

I started my most recent record using Pledge and then licensed the record to a label, but certainly Pledge [is great]. It’s the second time I’ve done it, the first was in 2009 and again, it’s just the nature of the musical landscape at the minute, in terms of the industry side of things. You’ll do whatever you can to get a record out.


Do you think communities like Pledge are a good alternative to traditional record labels?

It’s certainly an option. It’s also dependent on your fans wanting you to make another record so, you know it’s quite nerve-wracking, thinking “what if nobody pledges” and then “ok, I’m getting the hint”, but fortunately it was effective again. I’d say the one thing that’s difficult is that it creates a huge amount of work that you have to fulfil. Everything from doing house concerts to other different options you provide that [mean] you have to deliver a lot of things so you know it’s a lot more work than if it was just a record label, but it also brings you as the artist more control which is great.


Do you find pressure from the fans from what they would expect from the album seeing as you used a crowdfunding platform?

No, never. I think I’m lucky in that the fans that I have now that I’m always going to follow my gut and any record that I do will hopefully go in a new direction, but I think I’m lucky in that respect.


You’re involved in lot of different projects, from composing for the National Theatre in London to  RTE documentaries. Do you think it’s important for musicians to be able to diversify?

Yes. I think also for me it’s so interesting and so much fun. Music is more than a song on the radio. The idea of writing a song for a film or the theatre or different commissioned projects I think is really exciting because you’re initially floundering and going “I don’t know anything about this” and then you have to educate yourself and read and research. I find that kind of stuff really inspiring because you end up hearing stories, amazing stories that almost write themselves. Most recently, I collaborated with a writer called Andrew Doyle on Gulliver’s Travels, [the] musical, so again working with other people is really brilliant because it throws you in a different direction then you’d go otherwise.

Do you find that helps you when you’re writing for your own albums as you’ve experienced the other side of music?

Yeah, I think you pick up a new skill every time you write with someone, even if that song never sees the light. I’ve written with various people, in the record that didn’t make the record, for no other reason than suitability. You’re creating a body of work that creates the personality of the record and there’s songs that didn’t really quite fit that [personality]. They were little lost souls.

Congratulations on being nominated for the Northern Ireland Music Prize. How do you feel about your competition?

Yeah, it’s really strong set of albums so it’s just really nice to get a mention. I suppose anything other than that is a bonus.

Are there any projects in the pipleline that we have to look forward to?

The next writing thing is writing a song for a short, independent film in Belfast. I’m touring with Billy Bragg in England and Scotland in November and then I think I’m gonna throw myself into writing.