Brecht, silent cinema and Huckleberry Finn: Joanne Savage catches up with Duke Special as he prepares for a new literary-minded tour
Everyone knows the kohl-eyed, dreadlocked Duke Special by now, his melancholic voice and vaudeville, folk-y shows involving decrepit pianos, sputtering candles, old gramophones, odd percussion instruments and tales of the wounded, wandering heart.
The Duke has had us hooked since the rousing and plaintive Songs From the Deep Forest, full of pre-rock balladry, by turns jaunty and mournful, which included the oft-aired singles 'Freewheel' and 'Last Night I Nearly Died', and it's 2009 follow up, I Never Thought This Day Would Come.
Since graduating from smoky bars into the mainstream consciousness, he’s played Jools Holland, toured the world, scribbled scores of new songs and supported acts like the Divine Comedy, Crowded House and Snow Patrol.
He’s been feted by the arbiters of cool at Q, The Word and Uncut, all of them beguiled by his kooky Duke-ness. It’s rock via the circus, the music hall and the dark side of the moon, with a pinch of burlesque, ska and Bridie Gallagher thrown in for good luck.
Now the Duke is preparing for a new tour, rather grandly entitled The Silent World of Hector Mann and Songs from Mother Courage, built around songs from his three-disc concept album The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen.
The album is three projects in one: the first includes songs that Duke wrote for a recent production of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children at the National Theatre in London; the second, Huckleberry Finn, is Duke's take on Kurt Weil's unfinished musical based on Mark Twain's classic book; and the third, The Silent World of Hector Mann, is a collaboration with 11 other songwriters. The stage, a book and the silver screen. It's all in the title.
The inspirations behind this boxset album are manifold - cinematic, theatrical and bibliographic - and might prove too confusing for some. But the Duke's bravery in releasing it is, perhaps, to be applauded. Hector Mann was a silent actor in 1920s and the subject of Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions, which the Duke found intriguing.
'Hector Mann’s timing was quite bad,' says Duke. 'Just as [his career] was coming to fruition, talking movies came to the fore. It was the death-knell for him and he promptly disappeared, leaving only 12 two-reel films behind him.
'Thinking about Mann I wrote a song called 'Mr Nobody' and then sent the book to 11 other songwriters and asked them to compose songs for his other films. I gave them titles that I thought would suit them. The DNA of each writer is recognisable but overall it’s a pre-rock sound. They all reflect a mixture of the slapstick and sophistication of Hector Mann’s silent movie roles. There’s humour and the bizarre, then melancholy and pathos.'
Duke isn’t a pop artist, but an avant-garde mandarin relishing his individuality and edginess. Last year he composed and performed the music for Deborah Warner’s production of Brecht’s anti-war epic, Mother Courage and her Children, at the National Theatre in London.
Bleary, otherworldly melodies accompanied the action, set during the Thirty Years War. Brecht’s challenging political play deals with the folly of believing anyone can profit from conflict and was an attempt to stave off the rise of Nazism and fascism in 1940s Germany. Fiona Shaw played Mother Courage and Duke’s woozy, foreboding lyrics can only have added to the favoured Brechtian mood of estrangement.
'This was a new translation of Brecht by Tony Kushner, a New York playwright,' Duke confides. 'Fiona had seen me playing in LA and thought that there was something Weimar about what I was doing, using visuals and a gramophone and cymbals. I’m no expert in Brecht but they thought my sound was Brechtian enough. I had never done anything like this before. It was a real departure. I responded to the lyrics and kept the sound bleak, angular, full of twists and turns beneath the surface.'
The new tour kicks off in May and Duke hopes fans will be entranced by the new mix of Hector Mann and Brechtian inspired melodies.
The themes may seem obscure but the sound will be comfortingly Duke. The piano and the cymbals will be in tow, perhaps even the guttering candles. His accompanying band will bring out the odd percussion instrument and there might also be a trumpet. Then there’ll be silent film footage of railway tracks in the background and Hector Mann falling over or looking woebegone before sound ruined his career.
'We’re taking people on a journey,' says Duke. 'It might be slightly surreal, but not too crazy.' Watch a video from Duke's website on YouTube below, in which the Duke plays songs from The Silent World of Hector Mann.
Catch The Silent World of Hector Mann & Songs from Mother Courage by Duke Special and his band at the Strule Arts Centre Omagh, May 28 and the Waterfront Studio, Belfast on June 9. Contact the relevant venue to book tickets or visit www.dukespecial.com for more tour dates.