Duke Special's Gramophone Club
Andrew Lemon talks to the multi-skilled Peter Wilson about spinning 78rpm vinyls in Belfast's Aether & Echo
Peter Wilson is an artist who keeps finding subtle ways to reinvent himself. He is, alternatively, a singer-songwriter, poet, curator, composer and now DJ.
It is, perhaps, not in itself a particularly mind-bending move for the chart-topping songster. But when you consider that Wilson's latest venture is dedicated solely to playing 78rpm vinyls, it certainly feels a little different to the well-trodden path of established artists casually taking up the decks on weekends.
Born out of a love for old soul, bluegrass and rock and roll music, Wilson's Gramophone Club – which has begun a residency in Belfast's Aether & Echo on the last Friday of every month – aims to attract a diverse demographic whilst providing some pleasantly retro music, all with a pinch of Wilson's signature eccentricity.
'Essentially it's a night of great music,' says Wilson. 'All the music is from 1955 and earlier, and it ranges from skiffle, gospel, bluegrass, blues, soul, early rock and roll and novelty records. All that kind of stuff, all 78rpm records, which date from 1955 and before. I suppose the reason I got into it is that I've always been interested in gramophones, and use them as part of my stage setup.'
Although Wilson insists that these monthly nights are 'not about me', the Gramophone Club also allows him a healthy distraction from the demands of his main creative output, Duke Special. The Duke released his tenth album, Oh Pioneer, in 2012 and subsequently toured it extensively.
Wilson has already brought his Gramophone Club to various venues across Ireland and is therefore now able to reflect on a few similarities and contrasts between the experiences of the DJ and the live performer.
'I suppose the similarity would be in constructing a set. If you're constructing an hour and a half set, you want to have arcs to it, where it builds up to something and then maybe dips a little bit, maybe goes to a slower song and then picks up again,' Wilson notes.
'There's that kind of similarity, but I think the pleasure that you get from seeing people enjoying the music – either dancing or coming up and asking about a record or enjoying the atmosphere of the whole thing – that's slightly different. There are some similarities, but it's like a different headspace.'
Anyone who has experienced one of Wilson's live shows as Duke Special will find it easy to imagine the kind of theatrical, vaudevillian vibe that he's aiming for with the Gramophone Club. But it's clear from speaking with him that he has big ambitions for the club night beyond that of a semi-regular specialist vinyl event.
'What I'd love is for it to be established as a regular thing in Belfast. I've only done it twice in Belfast and it's been quiet enough, although everyone that's been there has loved it. I just want to get the word out and for it to become an established thing where I can experiment a bit and bring other people on board or have other aspects going on.'
'Established' and 'experimental' are two words that could easily describe Wilson himself. Having emerged in mid-2000s from a Northern Irish music scene that is invariably obsessed with guitar-led rock music playing piano rather than a six-string, Wilson has maintained an admirable artistic integrity throughout his career.
Although a regular performer in Belfast since the early 1990s, it wasn't until the the release of Adventures in Gramophone in 2005 and its radio-friendly follow-up, Songs from the Deep Forest – which included the hit single 'Freewheel' – that Wilson finally broke into the mainstream.
The music industry in Northern Ireland has since exploded, with acts like Two Door Cinema Club, Soak and many others flying the flag on the live circuit and in the charts. As he begins to write and plan for studio album number 11, what does the Grand Old Duke of Belfast think of the local scene these days?
'I think there's still lots of emerging bands and there's a constant stream of young people coming through that have lots of aspirations and are writing great material,' he observes. 'I think we're still at a place where we're developing an infrastructure and a way of nurturing that new talent.
'With the demise of bigger labels, I suppose everything has changed again and people are having to try and find new ways of doing things. I still think there's a huge amount of optimism and lots of younger acts that are making a name for themselves and coming through, and it feels like a really important time still. It's important that we get this bit right and develop models and ways of doing things that are going to keep that happening.'
When it comes to longevity, those emerging acts could learn from Wilson's diverse musical career, which is constantly fuelled by his insatiable creative appetite. With ambitions to grow the Gramophone Club, and various other pet projects in the works, Wilson's sights are beginning to shift toward his latest album, which he plans to compile with a little help from his friends.
'I'm doing a lot of co-writing on it,' he reveals 'There are lots of people I contacted about it that I like, and I asked if they'd be interested in writing something together. I'm pretty clear lyrically about what I'm saying, I'm just finding it a really fun and interesting way to go about completing songs.'
As usual, Wilson has no interest in limiting himself musically. 'I was in New York last week writing with [Ash frontman] Tim Wheeler. I've been writing with Paul Brady, Iain Archer, Boo Hewerdine, all kinds of people. It's been about throwing the net pretty wide and writing loads, and then seeing what identity the record has. I'm hoping to record it this year.'
That will, of course, be music to the ears of Duke Special fans. And, as is the norm when releasing a studio album, there will no doubt be a UK tour to promote the record. After over a decade of performing, living on the road, enduring promotional cycles and unsociable hours, it begs the question: what keeps Wilson going?
'It's where I feel alive, man,' he admits cheerfully. 'It's what I do, it's who I am. I find making music and art is the place where I feel at liberty to explore the things that matter to me, and to try and articulate things. I don't think that'll ever change.' Here's hoping.
Duke Special's next Gramophone Club set is at Belfast's Aether & Echo on Friday, April 25.