The eccentric Duke Special speaks to Kris Goodbody about stage dives, sword fighting and Seasame Street.
I received a call from Duke Special before our meeting in the RTÉ cafeteria to tell me that he’d be the guy in the corner drinking coffee. As I arrived, I realised that he’d failed to mention that he was also wearing a 19th century ringmaster’s outfit, outrageous eye makeup and sporting a two-foot tall mountain of dreadlocks.
This is a style coined as ‘hobo chic’ by its otherwise mild-mannered creator, Peter Wilson, also known as Duke Special. It’s a style that he may be planning on bottling as “an eau de toilette with a hint of tramp.”
Life is moving fast for Duke Special at the moment. Having won this year’s ‘Best Irish Male’ Meteor award (which he describes as “hilarious”), just last week he released his second album I Never Thought This Day Would Come and he is embarking on a nationwide tour next month.
“Life is a rollercoaster of emotion, one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re crying. I try to reflect this in these songs”
Despite the hectic lifestyle, he takes touring in his stride, which might be due to the days where 150 shows per year was the norm, and he enjoys adding a bit of strangeness and excitement into the mix.
Along with being an avid stage-diver, of which he says, “we try to make a point of it”, he’s also been known to engage in the occasional swordfight, mainly with his long time creative rival, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. He feels that “it’s time for him to stand down and feel the point of my sword”.
Eccentricity seems to be a running theme in his live shows, which can be described as some sort of vaudeville meets cabaret brand of twisted strangeness. He incorporates a wide range of interesting instruments, from gramophones to Shardi Drone Boxes, described by Duke as “a magazine rack with bellows”, to the odd symphony orchestra.
On the idea of using gramophones he explains, “even if there’s no musical difference it’s visually way more fun to see a gramophone on stage than some sort of synthesizer”.
This antiqued sound transfers itself to his records also. His previous album, Songs from the Deep Forest, and I Never Thought This Day Would Come, both exhibit a timeless quality.
His new album contains a lot of his own dirty laundry, a very personal work, of which he says, “songs aren’t just black and white… life is a rollercoaster of emotion, one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re crying. I try to reflect this in these songs”. It’s an album for “sleepwalkers, gravediggers and skeletons”; a notoriously tough scene to crack into, but on a lighter note the Duke has been jamming with the Muppets.
He’s been writing the theme music for Sesame Tree, the Northern Irish version of Sesame Street, and has been receiving artistic direction from a certain Mr Snuffleupagus; a well seasoned Muppet.
After all this fun, Duke Special has his eyes set on the world of theatre. He’s halfway through a musical based on the life of Huckleberry Finn, his theory being that his live performances are theatrical enough to make this the natural progression. Although he’ll be pulling strings behind the scenes, not performing himself.
When asked where he’d be if he wasn’t touring, writing and winning awards, he thoughtfully says, “I’d probably give Neil Hannon a break and go back to sword fighting my three wee boys”.
After the interview, we realised we were going the same way and the Duke accepted an offer of a lift. Piled into the back of a crumbling old Volkswagen Polo, this famous sword fighting, Muppet collaborating, stage diving Duke was as down to earth and friendly as could be hoped.
Duke has been described as “the fucked up ringmaster of a broken down circus, the lead dancer in a forgotten ballroom of ghosts.” His gig on Tuesday, 25th November in the Olympia promises to be interesting at the very least.