The Duke Spirit Rises

By: Dennis Cook

The Duke Spirit by Ben Corrigan
Neptune, the new album from United Kingdom rockers The Duke Spirit (released April 8 by Shangri-La Music), begins with a makeshift studio choir intoning, “I do believe in something, you know” before Jerry Lee Lewis style piano bombardment, beatifically fuzzed-out guitars, rolling drums and tough, throaty female vocals whisk us off. “The Step And Walk” follows, a strutting incantation reminiscent of early Rolling Stones filtered through a sensually cinematic perspective. One feels as if they’ve entered an underground club, a 1961 Hamburg of the mind. However, The Duke Spirit isn’t an attempt to recreate something of an earlier era. They’ve simply internalized their influences and make the music they like the most.

“I like that [laughs]. People may say we’re a retro band but we’ve never tried to be like anybody. This is just the music that comes out of us, and it’s more than the sum of its parts,” offers guitarist Dan Higgins. “When I write a song I don’t think too much about any of it really. I just think about what it feels like, and if it’s the correct music for me to be making. I don’t think about whether it’s the ‘Now Sound’ or how old it sounds.”

Unlike many young acts coming out of England today, there’s almost no ’80s nostalgia or ’90s Oasis-esque fragrance about them.

“No, I don’t think there is a whiff of the Gallagher Brothers [laughs]. That first Oasis album [Definitely Maybe], as young guys and a girl getting into music, was quite a powerful statement to us. It’s not something we’ve internalized or worn on our sleeve but we’ve maybe taken something of the power and intent they were going for,” says Higgins. “In England, there’s also the sound of rehashed post-punk as well. There’s a lot of bands who are sort of jaunty, playing away on a Telecaster, you know? That’s a thing we’re not. [The Buzzcocks] is a band I fuckin’ love but you’ve got people just crapping out their sound. The Gang of Four has amazing songs but I don’t want to hear someone rehashing them badly. Or a bouncy version of Joy Division! I mean, come on. Still, people try.”

The Duke Spirit by David Bowman
Their press often compares them to the Velvet Underground but there’s weirder, wider feelers in this band, who released an illuminating EP in 2006 titled Covered In Love, where they tapped songs by Desmond Dekker, Arthur Lee (Love) and Jesse Mae Hemphill – as nice a trinity of influences as one could want.

“That was paying our own kind of tribute to people who’d died that year. It was important to us,” says Higgins. “I’ve listened to the Velvet Underground at different points in my life and personally found it a bit desperate. For me, it’s more early-to-mid Rolling Stones, taking the menace of that, and I was a big fan of Spiritualized, Sonic Youth, the [Sex] Pistols and The Saints. It’s so interesting to think about all the people who did things differently and why they did it. You always find something interesting for your own music to take on.”

By feeling their way through the sonic wardrobes of various forebears, The Duke Spirit is figuring out what looks good on them. Frequently, it’s a tambourine-driven danceable haze, a late night rave powered by hashish rather than ecstasy.

“If you analyze what’s great about records by someone like Jackie Wilson, they made you want to dance. Or James Brown or The Rolling Stones. The percussion is there as an integral bit of rhythm. Our singer Liela [Moss] and Olly [Betts], our drummer, play a lot of tambourine. There’s a few real handclaps, too,” Higgins says. “In Joshua Tree we’d just have these percussive moments [laughs]. You just try all kinds of things to see what works.”

Neptune, only their second full-length since forming in 2003, came to life at the Rancho De La Luna recording studio in the Joshua Tree, California. The big skies and open land of the region subtly infiltrates the music. It may seem odd given the nautical themes that crop up but ends up working in the end. Recording in a space as different from the U.K. as one could find opened the band up. A cut like “Dog Roses” recalls the ear-catching experimentation of Siouxsie and the Banshees during the Peepshow period – vaguely alien but also intoxicating like pop music made by a lotus flower. Following “Rose” with a positively gnarly, headlong garage banger like “Into The Fold” speaks to The Duke Spirit’s wide-ranging potential. As fine as Neptune is, there’s a creative soul inside them that speaks to even more interesting music ahead. Neptune is a fine slab of what-what but it’s also fuel to faith for the future.

The Duke Spirit by Emilie Elizabeth
The obvious focus is on thoroughly compelling lead singer Liela Moss, who looks like a Godard starlet and sings with the raw power and unbrushed carnality of Shocking Blue singer Mariska Veres. Moss has an accent but doesn’t really come across as English, merely foreign. It’s an exotic voice but seems natural, the sound that tumbles out when she sings. “That’s how we all play,” chuckles Higgins. “Usually singers are trying to be very English or all out different like they’re from Detroit or something. It’s kind of good to be neither way or either way, as it suits her.”

After some buzz and success at home, they’ve begun to make a small noise in America, where they’ve toured with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Piebald and Eagles of Death Metal (who Higgins describes as the antidote to tame bands these days that are “all mouth and no trousers“).

“It’s daunting but great as well,” observes Higgins. “It’s easier to communicate with people with things like MySpace. We’ve made a few inroads on the East and West Coasts, just through a lot of playing. But, it’s still kind of daunting because America is such a big place. We could spend a hell of a long time just keeping on this way. But, it’s exciting and feels pretty natural the way we’re growing.”

Where in the past the United States was the big goliath everybody tried to conquer, now working bands like The Duke Spirit can build solid careers with decent followings in Sweden and Japan, Mexico and Canada. Through communication technology, the world is shrinking.

“The only thing that ever gets me down about America is I’m kind of an Old World boy. I like looking at old buildings and things. And I’m not dissing America [laughs]. After a while I need to be around something ancient, from the Iron Age perhaps,” says Higgins. “The great thing is how the Internet lets people know you’re going to be there, wherever they live. It becomes like playing your hometown except you’ve flown halfway around the world to get there.”

The Duke Spirit is on tour now, dates available here

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