Duke Special on New Album Look Out Machines!

Listen to second single 'Nail On The Head' exclusively on Culture Northern Ireland


Most musicians find their style early and never or rarely deviate from it. The Rolling Stones might be considered a case in point.

Lisburn-born, Belfast-based singer-songwriter and pianist Duke Special – aka Peter Wilson – is made of more adventurous stuff, however, for he has been involved in a dizzyingly varied range of creative endeavours throughout his career, including performing with classical orchestras and writing for theatre.

Each of his nine albums to date has revealed a different aspect of his talents or a new direction. His upcoming album, Look Out Machines!, provides further evidence of his restless inventiveness. 

'With every record I don’t want to repeat myself,' says Wilson. 'The blessing of being a solo artist is you don’t have the same group of musicians around you that informs the sound, so it’s a case of developing a palette of sounds for each record. I’m able to go somewhere different every time and I find that really enriching and exciting.'

Appropriately enough, given the imminence of Creativity Month, which aims to stimulate new thinking and help creative people to flourish across Northern Ireland with a wealth of events taking place throughout the month of March, Wilson was creative in how he has financed the album. Working through Pledge Music, an on-line direct-to-fan music platform, he devised a mindbending array of special offers for fans prepared to contribute funding before the album’s official release in April. 

So £12 gets you a signed digipack copy of the album, for example; £29 gets you a signed vinyl copy. Fancy the lyrics of one of the songs written in Wilson’s own fair hand? 32 smackeroos to you, squire. Each song from the album, I kid you not, on a wax cylinder? Only £310. A house concert? £700 and it’s yours.

But surely, given the effort of thinking up the kind of imaginative ideas that will help raise the requisite funds, Wilson must sometimes yearn for the old days when the record company would finance and market albums and the artist only had to be creative with the music. 'Yeah,' he giggles. 'But it’s the done thing now where bands raise funds themselves.

'I suppose hundreds of years ago artists would have had patrons who enabled them to do what they do. Now, that idea still exists but at a grass roots level so that there are thousands of patrons contributing small amounts to enable an artist they believe in to do what they do.'

The album features a more electronic sound than Wilson has used before. He explains that this direction developed naturally as he worked on the material. 'I’m really pleased with the songs on this album and as I was demoing them a theme began to develop in terms of the production values, there were a lot of synthetic drums and strings, which I hadn’t fully embraced before. So I continued with that into the record itself.'

Wilson, an idiosyncratic performer, is frequently described as vaudevillian but Look Out Machines! suggests that that description of him is outdated. The album’s soundscape, in fact, is often rather dark and unsettling.

'In previous records there has often been a jauntiness to the sounds, although the lyrics have often been the opposite of that. With this record I wanted to do something very rhythmic and tense in places. The vaudeville thing certainly informed me when I was starting out but it’s not something I want to be constrained by.'

Wilson co-wrote the songs on the album with various collaborators including Ivor Novello award-winning Bangor songwriter Iain Archer. Given his proven ability to write on his own – see his earlier albums, like the high-selling Songs from the Deep Forest, featuring the single 'Freewheel' – it is perhaps surprising that Wilson is attracted to the potentially fraught process of co-writing.

'There is something really healthy about sitting in a room with someone you admire,' he argues. '[You think], "I want to write something really good here that they’re going to like." It’s not competitiveness, it’s about making the song the best it can be.'

Amongst Wilson’s other recent songwriting collaborators have been Paul Brady, Clannad’s Pol Brennan and Ash’s Tim Wheeler. Incredibly, however, none of the songs he wrote with these illustrious partners made the cut for the album. 'They will see the light of day at some point but they didn’t fit on the record, with the kind of production values we wanted. You have to be objective and go, "It doesn’t matter who I’ve written this with, this is about the album". You have to make those decisions.

'And the wonderful thing about co-writing is you learn something new every time, whether the song ends up on the record or not because as writers we all have our own default settings, our own ways, our own tricks of the trade. And when you write with someone else you go down an avenue you wouldn’t have gone down, so you’re adding to your arsenal of abilities. It’s never a waste of time, no matter what happens.'

There are some religious images and themes contained in some of the songs on the album. On ‘In A Dive’, for example, Wilson sings of the blood of Jesus. 'The song is about Belfast, really,' he explains. 'It’s about what people recognise as spiritual and what it means to me to be spiritual. My point is that, whatever people mean by God or grace or spirituality, it’s often not in the obvious places.'

There is more powerful religious imagery in ‘Son Of The Left Hand’, where Wilson sings of ‘the clutches of hell’. He attributes this to his environment. 'I don’t have some sort of hidden agenda or message, but these are words and images and ideas that I’m wrapped up in, that I’ve grown up with and that seem to come out. I find music – because there’s no wrong answer, there’re no taboos – is a great place to explore things I’ve grown up with and things that are important to me or frustrate me.'

Wilson has often worked with classical orchestras. In 2007, for example, he performed memorably at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall with the Ulster Orchestra and has on several occasions worked with the RTE Concert Orchestra. 'It’s my favourite thing,' he reveals. 'The power and dynamics and range of sounds and instruments and the fact that there are between 40 and 60 people on stage with you is just mindblowing. It’s an incredible, thrilling feeling.'

One of the key experiences in Wilson’s career was creating the music for Deborah Warner’s 2009 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children, starring Fiona Shaw, at the National Theatre in London. Indeed, he was written into the production as a central character and performed his songs on stage.

'That was a defining moment for me,' Wilson enthuses. 'I’d never really done theatre before and it was really informative because I saw where music could go for me. I’d always been frustrated with the idea of just making a record and touring it. The idea that music could collide with other art forms suddenly opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me and that’s been really important since.'

Wilson has subsequently recorded albums like 2010’s The Silent World Of Hector Mann, which was inspired by American novelist Paul Auster’s The Book Of Illusions, and 2011’s Under The Dark Cloth, influenced by the work of photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand and which featured the RTE Concert Orchestra.  

No matter what material he is playing, however, Wilson remains an exceptionally theatrical performer. Interactivity is central to his live show – he will often play a record on an old gramophone or engage in some strange but compelling stage business.

'Part of [the reason for the theatricality] is years of playing solo in venues where you have to grab the audience’s attention,' he says. 'I would do things just to engage with people whether it’s using a gramophone or clashing cymbals or whatever. I certainly like to bring in elements of circus and theatre, but I don’t want the songs to be overshadowed or for that to be the only aspect of it. Ultimately I want the songs to speak to people.'

Duke Special performs with Soak at McGrory's, Culdaff on February 5, at the Old Courthouse, Antrim on February 6, Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick on February 7. Look Out Machines! is due for release on April 6, to coincide with the official release of 'Nail On The Head'.

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