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Duke Special

Article written by Paul D - Jun 17, 2008

Duke Special
Before Duke Special’s 2/6/08 show at Birmingham’s Glee club I stole half an hour with Belfast’s finest Pete Wilson to catch up with the his news and developments (amongst other things) since his last tour ended at the end of 2007.

SoundsXP: Here we are at what seems to be Duke Special’s 2nd home at Birmingham’s Glee club, in the middle of your short solo tour of England and Wales, showcasing some new material?

Pete Wilson: Yeah, it seems like a long time since I’ve been playing my own shows, last tour was with the full band in December with Crowded House, but it’s going to be very different (to that short set) that you’re coming along to tonight. Felt like it was time to come over and do some shows, as a warm up to recording a new record, playing some new songs as well.

SoundsXP: How did it feel like to take some time out, after what seems like forever being on the road?

Pete Wilson: It’s been pretty much 7 years, that’s 3 or 4 years more before I’ve known yourself. It was really great being off, I have to say. I was nervous about whether I’d quickly get itchy feet about getting back on the road, but I loved being at home, writing, doing different things including a couple of cool little things like being invited to play with the Dubai Philharmonic Orchestra and being in LA for the ‘Oscar Wildes’ which is a pre-Oscars’ Irish Film board kind of hoo-ha.

SoundsXP: Is Duke Special the man from Belfast ‘they’ ask for, for that kind of occasion?

Pete Wilson: (Laughs) Errm…well it has been for the past couple of times, so you enjoy that little moment of spotlight while you can, but the rest of the time has been spent writing, doing the school run, going to see some other gigs, you know, trying to absorb some things…

SoundsXP: That’s segued nicely into my next question (Duke – ‘you’re doing a good job then – laughs!), the Belfast music scene has quite an upsurge of late, with you and Foy Vance leading the way…any new artists from your home city you’d recommended?

Pete Wilson: Yeah, Foy and myself are at the forefront of the solo artist kind of thing, but there are lots of really good bands – in fact there’s a project called the ‘Oh Yeah Project’ which is both a building and a concept as well, spearheaded by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody (among others). It’s creating a focal point for the Belfast music scene which traditionally hasn’t been there, as there hasn’t really been an infrastructure. There’s just been brought out a cd with a load of upcoming Belfast bands, like Cashier No. 9, So I Watch you From Afar, The Delewares, a great band that’s been around for a while who I really like called The Desert Hearts but there’s also loads of kinda Indie (does quotation marks with fingers) bands around, which is good to see

SoundsXP: Are those new bands starting to seek approval from Pete Wilson?

Pete Wilson: Errm, I think because I’ve had a little bit of success others have been given a little bit of drive, maybe thinking ‘if he can do it, so can I’ which is great. I think it’s so refreshing to think it’s possible to have a career in music, if you want to do that, and the likes of Foy and me, and before that Snow Patrol, Ash and The Divine Comedy have all paved the way for that.

SoundsXP: It’s obvious (having recently been a couple of times recently) that there has been a re-birth of the city of Belfast, what do you think is the best thing about coming from there?

Pete Wilson: (Thinks for second or two) I think it’s generally the case that Northern Irish people have a down to earth attitude about things and I think that’s true about Irish people in general, you know? There’s the famous Bono quote that goes ‘American’s look up at a big mansion up on a hill and say ‘One day I’m going to be like that man, and Irish people would say some day I’m gonna get that bastard’ (both laugh!). There’s a kind of self deprecating thing about coming from Northern Ireland, and that generally we’re the underdog. I think that’s’ good cos it keeps your feet on the ground, and there’s plenty of people who will bring you back to earth if your head gets too big…but I think the flip side is that the whole American dream thing is such a good thing too, that you can do anything, but Northern Ireland’s definitely the other side of that.

SoundsXP: Have you had to fight that then?

Pete Wilson: It’s kept my feet on the ground, but for years it made me feel like it was a sort of pipedream, thinking it may never happen. I did have to really consciously go ‘No I am an artist, I can do this’. It was actually going to Nashville and meeting a lot of musicians, about 9 years ago now and talking to them made me realise it was actually normal to be a musician and that you’re not crazy and the pipedream is in fact a real option. I think that was a real turning point for me.

SoundsXP: Change of subject, does Pete Wilson have a favourite film, or particular genre?

Pete Wilson: Errm, I’ve recently been enjoying some martial arts films, I mean the modern ones, like ‘Hero’, dunno if you’ve seen that? It was the pre-runner to Crouching Tiger, I think it has the same director. They’re very, very beautiful and poetic. Generally, I don’t really have a favourite genre; I love films that will stay with me for days after, that really make me dwell on them. Recently, last night actually, I watched ‘The Lives of Others’..Of course I woke up in my Travelodge bed with a burning computer on my lap! I went to see Indiana Jones last week, and that is what it is. My good friend Ryan Suffern, who did the animations for my first 2 videos, he worked behind the scenes filming the ‘making of’, so it was kind of interesting for that reason as well. I love going to little arthouse cinema’s watching loads of foreign language films, being on my own, usually with beautiful imagery. There’s a film theatre in Belfast called the Queens Film Theatre and it generally shows really, really, great stuff. In the film festival in Belfast, actually, there was a film called ‘I am Cyborg, But that’s OK’ it’s a Korean film and it’s absolutely wonderful.

SoundsXP: Last year you had a week at the Empire in Belfast, you got pretty close to the film score aspect of music, is it something you’d like to do?

Pete Wilson: Yeah, well I actually presented a night as part of last month’s film festival, where I watched lots of different silent movies, Czech animation films, eastern European films and surreal German films from the 1930’s and selected about 8 or 9 clips to inspire me to write some music to accompany them at a night at the Waterfront Studio (in Belfast) last month. It’s definitely something I really, really, love, and I kind of feed from films, so I feel it’s natural.

SoundsXP: Another tangent…you’re a vegetarian aren’t you?

Pete Wilson: No, I think pescetarian is the official description, I eat fish occasionally. On tour I eat a lot of humus it seems, but you jest eat what you can. It’s not so bad now the riders are usually really nice, you get some nice fruit and veg and sandwiches and things but for years, when it was often just Chip and myself, going up and down the countryside in his van, you’d arrive and there’d be a crate of beer, some water and a bag of apples. And that wasn’t because I’d signalled my dietary needs, that’s just what you got as a lousy support act! My favourite food is varied, but I love beetroot.

SoundsXP: Everyone seems to have a way to describe Duke Special and his music, any particular favourite?

Pete Wilson: I guess there have been some funny quotes, but for myself, I’m striving to make soul music that takes people somewhere else, but also surprises them and never dwells on one emotion for too long. I’m kind of exploring beauty and fragility and I also want to make people laugh, but also to have throw away songs as well. I love Magnetic Fields cos there’s songs are so throw away, almost meaningless but with one heartbreaking line with a little quirky keyboard line. I like those things lying side by side, things that musically a little bit funny, but also heartbreaking and also vice versa.

SoundsXP: Will that be reflected in the new songs?

Pete Wilson: I want to go somewhere different with this one, part of that will be the instrumentation. I’m deliberating over using the guitar in this one, it hasn’t really featured live at all and with this recording I feel like I want to use it. It’s kind of a big thing to bring in, cos I find that the guitar really influences the sound really quickly, but I like the idea of it sounding like the little of an old jazz player, but we’ve been listening to a lot of old punk records, and that’s what I’m after – old fashioned but being punky in attitude.

SoundsXP: Although you’re considered a solo artist, we’re used to seeing you with a multitude of band members; does it feel weird being out on your own again?

Pete Wilson: No, I’ve always, in-between tours, done solo shows, and I started on my own. Most of the shows I’ve done have included at least Chip, my faithful comrade who’s stuck with me through thick and thin, but I think it’s important for this, and the tour I did in Ireland in September, to bring it back, to strip it right back again and then when I go out on tour with the new record to make that something different again. I love the idea of doing solo gigs, doing ‘dirty venues’ with just me and Chip, then doing big venues with the whole band, playing places like the Glee Club which is more open to that more open, theatre style. I love playing with other musicians, being like a circus ringmaster bringing them in to bring their music from their worlds, but I also love the intimacy of it being just about the songs too.

SoundsXP: Will that be reflected in the new songs?

Pete Wilson: I want to go somewhere different with this one, part of that will be the instrumentation. I’m deliberating over using the guitar in this one, it hasn’t really featured live at all and with this recording I feel like I want to use it. It’s kind of a big thing to bring in, cos I find that the guitar really influences the sound really quickly, but I like the idea of it sounding like the little of an old jazz player, but we’ve been listening to a lot of old punk records, and that’s what I’m after – old fashioned but being punky in attitude.

SoundsXP: Is there a marmite thing with Duke Special, in regards to what set up you prefer live?

Pete Wilson: Yeah, there’ll always be people who ask ‘Where’s Chip?’ and that’s ok cos I understand the appeal, but I don’t think an artist should ever be trapped by what people want, and the reaction has been from both ends of the spectrum…some people have been going ‘where’s the band, where’s the band?’ to others saying they’re loving hearing the songs in a different way. So I hear those things, and you always hear the negative things louder in your own head…but it’s just important for me to do these things, to be true to myself, and if you keep doing the same old things it may appeal to some people and it seems like the easy thing to do, so I want to take a risk and develop, and enjoy what I’m doing and not feel like I’m just repeating myself.

SoundsXP: So what are the rest of your ensemble doing right now?

Pete Wilson: Ivo, the Austrian poisoner, has his own jazz group, and he’s very much in the world of jazz and he’s a pianist first and foremost and also a saxophonist and clarinettist so he’s incredibly multi talented, and an amazing player… he’s playing with other people as well. Ben Castle had been touring with Beth Rowley, but now he’s wanting to concentrate on his own stuff, so he’s about to embark on a new recording. I’m looking forward to hearing that…also he’s frequently asked to do scoring for big bands, TV, house bands, all that kind of stuff…so the matador Ben Castle is fully occupied. Chip was about to do a tour in Ireland, which is coming to the Birmingham Glee Club as well, but then he’s broken his arm playing football (laughs), so I think he’s been doing a little bit of teaching and getting this tour together, which is gonna happen still, but it’ll be the UK dates first. Paul Pilot is on tour with Beth at the moment, playing guitar, he’s gonna be producing my next record as well, I was just speaking to him earlier and we start on 9th June recording in London, so he’s just getting his head round all that, also his dates with Beth and he’s been producing for people like Gary Dunne, a guy from Ireland, and a band from Liverpool called ‘The Miracle Cure’, over in Haldern in Germany, doing that. Rea, there’s people who come in from time to time, he’s doing his own music called ‘The Maximals’ which bizarrely is quite ‘pop’ but great, really great. He’s also been doing the puppet theatre with Karen and constantly working doing reminiscent therapy with elderly people suffering from dementia, doing things like going in and writing poetry with them and he also works in workshops with children, and also he’s a fine actor, he’s an amazing. Extraordinary guy really. He’s recently been in a musical adaptation of snow white…or sleeping beauty, I think…I can’t remember which! (laughs). None of them are clicking their heels waiting for Duke Special to call, and that’s what I think I love about it, I feel like I’m Yul Brynner, in The Magnificent Seven, going around rounding up a posse of specialists in really really great things. Not sure who the knife man is though…

SoundsXP: You’ve just mentioned you’re starting to record the new record a week today, on the 9th

Pete Wilson: Is it really? Shit!

SoundsXP: I hope you have someone running your diary for you!

Pete Wilson: Yes, someone else thankfully!

SoundsXP: So when can Duke Special fans expect the new record to be released?

Pete Wilson: It’ll be out in Ireland, I hope, in October, and in the UK in the New Year. We’re recording it between London, Chicago and Cullybackey and it’ll be released with Universal, V2 got bought up by Universal and I signed to Universal Ireland, so that’s who is involved in the recording process, but we’ll find a partner in the UK to release it and around Europe and so on… Nobody really knew what was happening at V2, all the staff got laid off and all the bands and acts were up in the air, you know, and they were told, some acts like Stereophonics were immediately taken on by Mercury others were left kind of floating while a decision was made, I think Josh Ritter went to Mercury, not sure where Little Man Tate went, but I’ve heard he’s got a new single out, so that’s good. Bloc Party went to Co-Op I think, through Wichita, so everyone was kind of scattered. Duke Special had no idea whether we were going to be dropped, errm so I was gearing myself up for that, but I was thinking, you know, in anyone’s career there’s moments with majors and then with independents, maybe be major/independent and completely independents. You know, when I started doing this, as Duke Special I completely decided I’m not gonna wait for a big record deal…I’m going to go out and do it. And that’s what I’ve been doing all along, and it’s been great to be with a major like V2 and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out with Universal as well , so I hope that answers you question?

SoundsXP: One final question then, everyone, but everyone, has a favourite Duke Special song…what’s Pete Wilson’s?

Pete Wilson: Oh, the most recent, among any ‘most recent batch’ there’s always one that stands out, I’m really loving ‘I thought this day would never come, now it won’t go away’, which is a new song, I love ‘Those proverbs we made in the winter must end’, I’m enjoying ‘Diggin’ an early grave’ and the song is good as well! (laughs). They’ll all be heard tonight on this tour.

SoundsXP: Well, I’m really looking forward to hearing them tonight, Pete Wilson, thanks so much for your time, and good luck with the album

Pete Wilson: No worries, and thank you

Duke Special’s first album ‘Songs from the Deep Forest’ is still available at all good record shops. Full information on the man and his plans can be found at


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