Sunday, 6 April 2008

The Duke Spirit interview

The Duke Spirit never seemed to get the attention they deserved first time around with their debut LP ‘Cuts Across The Land’. Three years later, they’ve gone all soulful and have consolidated their sound with their equally powerful but more wide-ranging second album, ‘Neptune’.High time we had a nice, long catch-up with frontwoman Liela Moss backstage at Koko over an endless supply of vodka and tonics just before the band were due on stage that very night.

noize: Are you excited about playing here tonight?
Liela Moss: I am actually. It’s been a really long time since we’ve done a proper UK tour at this level. We did a tour just before Christmas where we tested the water after quite a long break and that felt really good. The response was good, so I’m not as frightened as I was on the other one because we hadn’t done it for ages then. Instead, I feel a different kind of excitement. Rather than a worried excitement, this one’s like a Christmas morning.

n: Have the live shows changed since the first album?
LM: Yeah. For a start, I threw really exaggerated shapes and ran like I was running a sprint on every song, and I really liked the fact that people thought our live show was great, really energetic. That was what it should be: a spiritual, energetic connection with something, something you can’t describe that goes ‘bang’ in your face. Then, I think when you write more songs, different kinds of songs, you don’t need to do that all the time – in fact it’s harder to concentrate. When you go to see a band, you like it sometimes when they just stand still and deliver a melody. So I’ve realised that, and also I’ve realised that I was doing myself in – I was like a broken person after every gig. And I’ve realised now that what I really like to do is crank it up gradually, deliver some of our favourite songs, and then towards the end put in a few of our favourite songs so our bodies are more used to them.

n: Do you ever get tired of doing the same thing night upon night? How do you distinguish between performances?
LM: You do. Sometimes I’m so tired but honestly, the minute you say even anything remotely negative then doing this - sustaining a career as a band and not doing any other job, just being in a band - you sound like a cunt. As soon as you moan you just think ‘hold on, how can I moan?’ This is the greatest thing ever, and we’ve managed to sustain it for four and a bit years, so there’s never a moment to moan about. Perhaps amongst the band, when you’re at a service station at half three in the afternoon, but that’s a private moan. And then you get to the gig, and it really doesn’t matter – I can be ill, I can be hungover, I can be really aching, but there’s always adrenalin and the connection with people. It totally changes you. And you do it and you feel great – you walk off and go ‘I could do it again now’, which is a strange anomaly of nature but that’s the way it is.

n: How conscious are you of audiences reactions?
LM: Yeah it does. The longer we do this, the more we get used to cold gigs where the audience are nervous and self-conscious. I don’t think we’ve got a political agenda, but all I would ever say is that being in a band is testament to wanting to live outside of a boring, crushing, limiting environment. So if I go ‘I’m in a band, I feel limitless’, then you should feel like that too. Do what you want, punch the air, fucking bang into the person next to you, be joyful, whatever. If people aren’t like that I don’t feel begrudged but I do notice it and we just have to work a bit harder.

n: Going on from that then, how do you react to reviews?
LM: I read some but I don’t read all of them.

n: Did you used to, at the beginning?
LM: Yeah. And you get a bit annoyed when someone says something shit about you, and then someone’ll say something just brilliant. Fucking hell, if you read everything… if you believed everything everybody wrote about you, took all your cues from external influences, then what the fuck would you be? Would you be interesting? Would you be yourself? No. Don’t listen to anyone and do what you think’s right. That’s the best advice I can offer.

n: So tell me about the new album, ‘Neptune’.
LM: I’m so proud of it because it represents that aggressive wall of sound, distorted energy knocking about at your ears and you know deep down there’s some beautiful melodies and harmonies there. I think it best represents us and it’s the kind of album that to me - as a person listening to it not as me but as an entity – indicates where we could go next. Album one, you don’t know – will this band replicate that and do what people describe as garage bluesy rock? I never really thought of us in a garagey, 60s psychedelic way – I could see it but I thought it got mentioned way too much. I couldn’t understand. We had this very European starkness in there, although of course when someone listens to just one collection of songs they don’t get the whole picture. So album two holds up its hands – it’s more spacious, more lustful. A richer sound. And I know that we’re here for the long term.

n: And the recording process must’ve been really different this time?
LM: It was totally fun. You go to this landscape and it’s the desert, it’s ridiculous. You’ve got to acclimatise, you’re with a bunch of Americans who live life totally differently - it was an alien environment but everyone around you is really pleased to meet you and wants to make you feel at home. The studio’s very much a bungalow, an apartment, a casita sort of thing. Patios, drinking outdoors, being outdoors…

n: Do you miss it now?
LM: Yeah I do! I really do. It was exciting to come home after seven weeks.

n: Only seven weeks?
LM: Yeah, it was pretty quick. It’s left a deep impression on us. You talk about things in interviews and it comes across as you talking about your band and your career, but if you took that out of it you’d see what I got to do with my personal life. I got to go to this place and it was a real moving time – you got to see a whole glimpse of something you might not get to see.

n: Like Chris Goss (producer of ‘Neptune)?
LM: Haha, yeah. We had such a laugh. He’s got a great sense of humour and a real campness about him. He’s totally straight and married, but he has this ability to be very humourous and giving and flamboyant in his jokes. If you met him you’d know what I mean! Dave Catching, the guy that owns Rancho De La Luna – you might know him from playing guitar in Eagles of Death Metal and he sometimes plays with Queens of The Stone Age as well – he’s one of their extended family. And that guy has an enormous heart and a very reassuring aura about him. You could be making tea with him, cooking cornbread, or he might be helping you work something out on the piano. All the time you feel like you’ve known him for years.

n: So was the album written before you went out there?
LM: It all was. There was one song we tried out while we were there, and finished off and tweaked – that became an EP track, it’s called ‘A Wild Hope’. It’s on the EP that came out before Christmas. If you’re in Britain and you bought the EP, then I suppose it’s our newest song to date.

n: Do you tend to put mostly new stuff in your setlist?
LM: Yeah. But when I go to see a band, even if I like the new record, I want them to play stuff off the old one where the whole audience know the words. We weren’t a massive band, we haven’t got massive hits – we’ve got two records and we’re still getting there. One of us will think we play a certain song better, another will say ‘no, people love that one’ - it takes a good hour of talking crap to sort it out.

n: Did the tracklisting on the new album cause a similar problem?
LM: The first album we laboured over for the best part of a week. It was really tedious and several of us went ‘I’m never doing that again’. It was ridiculous. Phonecalls, asking your manager, ending up petitioning people on the street! It showed a weakness of character. So this time I was like ‘right, if anyone’s got any strong views then put your strong view forward, and if you don’t care then someone who feels like they’ve got a bit of an intuition about what should be done should do it’. I went ‘personally, I think one, two and three should be this – I’m happy with whatever the fuck you do, I feel quite strongly about that, right let’s stick that in there’. Then someone else went ‘look, I feel really strongly that ‘Sovereign’ should be the last song’ – ok. Then the rest just slotted into place really. So it took about 20 minutes this time!

n: Cool, much better! What influences you, musically or otherwise?
LM: I actually got rid of my TV a couple of months before we were about to record ‘Neptune’ because I had some lyrical blanks. I’d written some words and then I’d fluff a line or repeat myself. I didn’t watch a lot of television but I noticed that the moment I was tired I’d put the television on. I suddenly felt really hostile towards it and went ‘you’re taking my creativity away’. So I packed it up, put it away and finished some books that I’d half started. I finished ‘Tropic of Cancer’ by Henry Miller which is a great piece of literature – the language is insanely all over the place. It’s colourful, the images are great and it’s essentially stream-of-consciousness. It’s about this guy who wants to be a writer who’s skint, fucks loads of whores and gets drunk all the time, but in between that you get passages of thoughts and feelings. I definitely stole the odd little flourish as a homage. Only the odd word or two! I’d see a word and connect it with this other bit of sentence that I had, so there’s definitely a bit of 1930s literature in ‘Neptune’. And I started listening to bands I knew I liked from the past but hadn’t really got my head into – like Roxy Music and Talking Heads. And at the moment I’ve got this thing for African music. I really love the label Soul Jazz, they put out really good compilations and you can really trust their taste and research. They do all kinds of stuff – they’ve got loads of dubstep which I’ve been getting really into which probably has no relation to Duke Spirit apart from a feeling. What’s brilliant is that because you don’t know the dialects and the languages, you just listen to the melody and put your imagination over the top of the words, the consonants and the vowels. I was doing that just before the album as well and it sets your mind free a bit.

n: Moving on, how would you like people to listen to your music – what’s the ideal situation?
LM: Seeing us live has got to be number one. It’s the most honest and the most sincere, it’s most I can go physically and I really want people to be into it. And then after that, I think walking with headphones on. In any kind of environment - a rural ridiculous forest or the back of Euston. Negotiating people, places and the atmosphere and just having a soundtrack. Yeah.

n: Cool. How do you think the industry’s changed since the first album?
LM: It’s definitely disintegrating in a strange way – it’s worrying because I would hate to feel that I was on a label that couldn’t afford to put us on tour, ‘cause as people that earn very little money we couldn’t go on tour by ourselves – we might get paid at each gig but it would only fill our van with diesel. As well as making records and putting them out, we really rely on the label in order to build up the people we’re playing to and they know that too. So on the one hand I see all that collapsing and people running out of money, but what’s great is that we’ve signed a different, more progressive deal where we have a percentage of all our merchandise. When we first did it we had this disgruntled argument with ourselves: ‘I can’t give that away, it’s ridiculous’. But then times are radically changing. I’d like to work with a group of people who are willing to support us, organise shit that I can’t organise because I don’t know how, put in a bit of money at the start, and if they want to get that money back later then that kind of seems fair. They can’t sell a million, trillion records like they used to in the 80s. It’s more about the live promotion companies – who are actually the people who seem to make all the money but can’t necessarily sign bands – you can put an event on and someone from a live promotion company will make a bunch of cash. Well done, but who pays for the band to get here, who pays for the band’s t-shirts, who advertises the gig in the NME, who advertises the gig on the radio, who comes to the rehearsals? The record company do. That’s not right, and ultimately the way I see it is that those companies will morph into record labels. Maybe it’ll eventually level itself out but ultimately, if you’re good live then it’s gonna be alright.

n: Do you wish that The Duke Spirit were around in the 80s then?
LM: If we were around in the 80s we’d be fucking rolling in it. If we were 1994 now, I reckon we’d be a top ten indie band. But I really don’t care! There were a lot of shit indie bands then.

n: But then you wouldn’t have the accessibility that myspace has provided now…
LM: Yeah – that’s a bit of a headfuck. I can’t spend that much time on my computer so I have a limited knowledge of what’s going on and what’s good. People tell me to listen to something and I go ‘alright’ – we have met a few bands via myspace but I’m getting to the point where I just don’t give a fuck.

n: Too much of a good thing, eh?
LM: Yeah, pretty much.

n: So you’ve got your own record label, Velo…
LM: We’ve had it for a little while – we don’t use it often, but we have a logo and we have emails and phone numbers! If we have a little extra time between tours or between records, and we think something’s great, then we’ll put a few pennies together and maybe put out a seven inch and give it to a few good indie stores.

n: Yeah, I’ve seen Congregation, one of your bands, live before.
LM: Well we had them support us here tonight, and we took them on tour last time just before Christmas. We got them a radio session with the BBC up in Manchester. There’s a limit to what we can do, but we were really pleased that we got them a few reviews and a few radio plays and from there, they’ve met someone who wants to put an album out. It’s in the spirit of the 80s and the 90s, like Factory Records where they never signed contracts and just did things in good faith. I feel like we did our little bit and that’ll continue when we can. I can’t really see us doing it in the next six weeks, but in six months we might. Or we might spot someone else and go ‘you’re too good to be doing fuck all, let’s press you some vinyl up’.

n: And you obviously feel a lot more comfortable now on your label than the first time around?LM: I really do. I feel like the notion of an A&R man - I’m gonna say ‘man’ because they mostly are – seemed to be someone who liked your band, gave you compliments, and then you got fucked up with them. You got pissed, you took drugs with them and that was really funny. And then you’d go to make a record and they’d sit in the studio, they may or may not make a comment and it wouldn’t be particularly helpful or relevant. Now, we work with someone who really listens to our demos and will ring up in the middle of the night and go ‘you know that song, you know at 1.30 minutes you bring in that guitar line? Well I’ve been thinking what if you did that and that and that?’. Someone now takes cares of business musically, has an interest.

n: And you want that input?
LM: Yeah. And what’s good is that if you’ve got the kind of relationship that we’ve now developed, you can sometimes go ‘you’re so right – fuck, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees’. Or you can go ‘no, you’re wrong – I really like this bit, sorry but you’re wrong’. Never before did it seem so obvious what other A&R people do, which is basically sign bands that they do like, but don’t really know how to work musically. It’s a bit of a faker’s job, whereas this time we’re with people who we talk in detail with.

n: It’s all pretty comfortable then. So in an ideal world, where would you like to be in a year from now?
LM: I would like us to be playing Brixton Academy and then flying to New York to play some big venue there, and then do a few spot shows in America only to return to Paris, Barcelona, Milan, Rome and Cologne. To be playing the kind of venues you’ve always looked up to bands in. I think it’s somewhere within us but we just haven’t done it yet. I want to be really content with playing big venues – not massive stadiums as it’s not very us, but the kinds of places you go and see bands and just think ‘yes’.

n: Going back, why’s the new record called ‘Neptune’?
LM: It was done accidentally. There were images of water and the sea and maritime connections and of course the power of water and tears – it just kept cropping up. I laughed at first – I wondered what the fuck was going on. There were lots of raw emotions and times I couldn’t hide them – they’d bubble up in your stomach and your head and your ears. I was very much laying it on the line with my words and these lines and I’d imagine this sea god character residing somewhere deep down calling to me, going ‘you can’t ignore me, you’ve got to write about this, you’ve got to write about that’. It was a bit like there was another character that was sort of me but sort of not – and a couple of the band, Dan and Toby, grew up on the coast and had a connection with that kind of thing. I think ships and sea gods are very Duke Spirit material – exactly the kind of crap we talk about. I’m fascinated by mythology so it’s all pretty cool.

n: So how exactly do the songs come about?
LM: I tend to write the lyrics and the melody over a piece of music that someone else has brought in. Sometimes that’ll happen when I’m making a cup of tea. I just sing crap until someone says ‘that’s good’ and I like it too, and then I sit down and focus once I’ve got over those initial few minutes of nerves where I feel stupid because I’m singing out loud and I have no idea where it’s coming from or what I’m channelling. Then I focus, and sing melodies and words – to me, it’s the rhythm that gets the words out. I don’t ever sit down and go ‘today I’m going to write about my friend leaving her boyfriend’, instead I think ‘mnah mnah mnah’ – you know, nonsense words – and then the consonants form. And then the rhythm. The words just come to me and sometimes I’ll quite like the collage and go through it over and over again. And then the picture starts to emerge and what’s funny is that it’s like a little game – you’ve got this picture emerging out of words you’ve got no control over, and then you go ‘ooh, I’m going to talk about that now – this has really been bothering me for some time’.

n: Are there moments where you’re stuck in a rut and can’t write?
LM: What’s really lush is when something drops out of your mouth and you suddenly realise that that’s the best way you could’ve possibly put it to yourself. Something you know you’ve thought about that’s on the edge of your thoughts and you think ‘fuck, I haven’t really said that to myself’ and it comes out all at once. And that’s when I definitely know something’s good. And I know it’s good because other people go ‘that’s a good line’ and I knew it would be because it was so truthful and it came from another place. And the lines that get scrapped are things when I’m trying to be really clever, and ultimately I’m like ‘what a fucking liar, get rid of it, rub it out’.

n: Did you always see yourself in a band?
LM: I really wanted to from when I was about thirteen and first got into music. It was difficult to admit it, because there were loads of boys in bands at my school and they were very arrogant – I played music with them once or twice. They were like ‘you’re quite good but I don’t know about a girl singer’. They were a bit prejudiced and I don’t have a gripe at all because I feel I’ve had a really good experience, but they really put me off. They’re actually some of my best friends now who I’ll look at and go ‘you were a right cunt to me – that weekend that we had a jam, you fucking sod…’

n: They can eat their words now, then!
LM: They’re all really happy, on different paths – but there were moments where I was too scared to know what I might do. This misshaped girl – I wasn’t cool or pretty, I was proper misshaped. So I saved up for years to admit it and then I really wanted to do it.

n: Finally, do you think if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now there’d be another outlet for it?
LM: I’d probably be a good diarist – I’d write lots of poems and diary entries. If you want to write, it doesn’t matter where it’s going to end up. You just want to get abstract notions down so you can look at them as something outside of yourself.

So that was the ever hospitable and flourishing Duke Spirit. The band played a stonking set, where all of Liela’s talk and analysis was as hidden as could be – the instruments fused together so naturally, and the atmosphere of the gig was effortless. Sheer brilliance, arguably.The Duke Spirit are more than just a frontwoman although in Liela Moss, they’ve got a mouthpiece of the rawest, gravelliest, most mesmeric calibre.

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