In a small, cluttered room tucked away in Belfast's
Oh Yeah Music Centre, Duke Special is conducting a private
guided tour of his collection of music memorabilia.
There is the fake Styrofoam piano a stage prop - that
hangs from the wall; his vintage collection of 1930s
gramophones, which crackle and hiss and visibly light
up his face when he winds it up and plays a Glenn Miller
record by way of demonstration. The green painting that
adorns the cover of his early EP 'Your Vandal' takes
pride of place on the wall; a wax cylinder bearing his
name and his music sits atop the upright piano; dusty
volumes of Seamus Heaney poetry line a bookshelf. "This,"
he says from behind his dreadlocks, proudly holding
an oddly-shaped lump of metal, "is apparently a spur
from Alexander the Great's horse. Fiona Shaw gave it
to me on the opening night of 'Mother Courage'."
This pokey little chamber full of memories and mementos
is where Duke Special, or Peter Wilson as he is known
to friends, family and the taxman, concocts the vast
majority of his musical alchemy. All items act as signposts,
charting a course through his incredibly diverse career
- from 'Adventures in Gramophone' to the aforementioned
adaptation of Brecht's 'Mother Courage and Her Children'
at London's Royal National Theatre in 2009 and beyond.
Far, far beyond. Over the last five years alone, he
has undertaken musical projects based on the photography
of Strand, Stielglitz and Steichen for the New York
Met ('Under the Dark Cloth'), written a concept album
based on a Paul Auster novel and recorded by Steve Albini
('The Silent World of Hector Mann'), crafted shows based
on the music of Harry Nilsson and Belfast legend Ruby
Murray, collaborated with Clannad and even had the time
for a sideline in DJing by establishing his Gramophone
Club. This summer, he'll pen the score for a new musical
adaptation of Gulliver's Travels to be staged in Belfast
by Youth Music Theatre UK.
Phew. Those who may have had Duke Special
pegged purely as a purveyor of vaudeville pastiche at
the beginning of his career have been proven very, very
It's always been about music for Duke
Special. Growing up in Coleraine, Downpatrick and Holywood,
he was the one "doing my scales in the bedroom" while
other kids were kicking around footballs. He dabbled
in several short-lived bands in his teens and early
twenties but it wasn't until 2002 - when he adopted
the moniker of Duke Special - that things began to coalesce
on a greater scale.
"I made the decision that I saw myself
as an artist," he says, nodding. "I thought 'I'm not
going to wait around for a record label to vindicate
me. I'm an artist now, and I'm going to start doing
that.' That was a hugely liberating thing for me, and
that has stayed with me. I feel like it's my trade.
It's my vocation."
That self-sufficient mentality has served
him well over the years, steering him resolutely through
unstable waters with record labels and successful PledgeMusic
campaigns (this new album marks the second time that
he has successfully used the crowdfunding source) and
has led him to the latest juncture in his career. In
a way, 'Look Out Machines!' sees Duke Special come full-circle
after over a decade of spreading his tendrils across
multiple genres and musical projects. It was recorded
in Echo Zoo studios in the seaside town of Eastbourne,
with producers and old friends Dave Izumi and Phil Wilkinson.
"I recorded my first EP there, and a song on my second
EP is called 'Regarding the Moonlight in Eastbourne'
- so since the inception of Duke Special I've been in
Eastbourne on and off," he explains. "A lot of people
think it's funny because it's a bit of a retirement
town, but there's a faded glory to it all big old
white hotels that people used to go to for their summer
After several albums of intense periods
of isolation and concentration on a specific subject,
'Look Out Machines!' saw Special throw open the door
of his writing room and invite a number of collaborators
in. Some names are more well-known than others, like
Boo Hewerdine (The Bible, Eddi Reader), whom he collaborated
with extensively on 'Under the Dark Cloth' and Iain
Archer (Snow Patrol); other songs were written with
as-yet-unknown songwriters from Belfast and beyond.
"I was deliberately throwing the net
really wide and writing with as many people as I can,"
he nods enthusiastically. "I feel like I'm learning
so much, still, as a writer and a great opportunity
to learn is to just throw yourself into this blind date,
and say 'OK, we've got three hours and we've gotta come
up with something'. I love the trauma of that."
Another major difference between his
recent output and this album is the fact that he has
placed himself in the first-person with these songs
at least for the most part. The obvious result is
a more personal album; if you cock your ear, you'll
hear trace of regret on the title track in lines like
"Why did we never question things / it beggars my believing",
or on Tweed Coats' "Every direction, fallen trees; I
used to think it was just me". Yet as vulnerable as
he may be, the spectacular 'In a Dive' betrays his inner
defiance. "'I refuse a safety net," he croons over a
beautiful, elegant piano riff, while the sweeping, elegiac
'Domino' draws the album to a close on a redemptive
"Writing songs about your feelings all
the time is pretty exhausting, and ultimately, maybe
not that interesting - so it was really helpful for
me to write about other things," he says of approaching
this album in a "less prescribed" manner. "I've done
twelve or thirteen different releases now, and every
now and again it's important to come back with something
that maybe is
hummable! Then again, all my songs
have always been about regret, love, loss, searching
for meaning and that's what I'll probably always write
about, although in different clothes. But it constantly
criss-crosses between personal and fictional."
The sense of creative derring-do and
openness to all possibilities permeates the musical
arrangements, too; it might just be his most eclectic,
unexpected release to date. Moving forward, he says,
is always the goal.
"I don't want to be sounding like I sounded
ten years ago; I want to keep adding to what I've learned,
keep developing," he insists with a shy smile. "The
risk, of course, is that some people love 'Songs from
the Deep Forest', and unless I do something that sounds
exactly like that, they'll be disappointed. But for
me, as an artist, I love going into different territories
and finding things that works for me.
"This album is a photograph of where
I am right now; it feels like a kind of gathering-in.
I'm not quite sure how to describe it. What's the word
where you stay in one place to recharge your batteries,
and then you're ready to go again? It feels like that;
almost like a little launching-pad."
"Magically uplifting" EVENING STANDARD
"Duke is in a world of his own" INDEPENDENT
"This is music of magic and soul" THE TELEGRAPH
"Sumptuous, symphonic pop anthem, courtesy of dreadlocked
Irishman who sounds like The Flaming Lips crossed with
Rufus Wainwright" Q
"Emotive and endearing" GQ
"Like fellow timeless travellers Arcade Fire and
prime Van Morrison the songs favour an otherwordly orchestral
"The duke's cowboy-gone-vaudeville dreampop is
pitched between Rufus Wainright and the Divine Comedy"