An interview with The Duke Spirit

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L-R: Leila Moss, Toby Butler, Olly ‘The Kid’ Betts, Luke Ford, Dan Higgins

It’s been a long time coming but the Duke Spirit are well and truly back. This Monday (22nd Oct) marked the release of Ex-Voto, a brand new EP recorded out in the Californian desert. It may only be four tracks but it sees the band revitalised and fighting fit. We caught up with Leila Moss (vocals) and Toby Butler (bass) to discuss their new material, up and coming tour and what they’ve been upto since we last saw them in 2005.

It’s great to have you back with the new EP and tour. You’ve been greatly missed. For the benefit of our readers who are less familiar with the Duke Spirit, can you fill me in on what you’ve been up to since cuts across the land was released.
Leila: We toured america, twice in theory. We went round and round again in a splitter van. We were away for months! Last winter we changed labels, which is always a drag because weeks fly by and you’re sat at home going, “is the deal done yet? When can we go and record the next album”. Finally, this January, we were ready to make a proper recording schedule. We sifted through all the songs we’d stacked up, and cut the wheat from the chaff, and went to make the record this April.

You recorded most of the ep out in the desert at Joshua Tree. Surely a rock star fantasy…was it as much fun as it sounds?
Leila: Of course. We woke up in a mexican style casita on a mountain side every morning. We looked for snakes everyday. We recorded whilst some of our favourite rock and rollers would pop by for a burrito. It was hot as hell. We drunk margaritas and our new friends played us music by people we’d never had the chance to get into before, like Fatso Jetson and The Shaggs. And because we’re english everyone kissed our asssses in LA. They love the brits!

Did you manage to make any pilgrimages whilst you were out there? I wouldnt have been able to resist a trip to the infamous joshua tree inn…
Leila: First night in from the airport, we stayed either side of the room he (Gram Parsons) died in. Nothing freaky happened. But our thoughts were with him. We swam in the pool, and thought about him and Keith Richards doing the same, way back in the day. Olly thought the fact that they served cereal at breakfast was awesome. He loves cereal.

Three out of the four tracks were recorded with Chris Goss. How was it working with such a revered producer, and how did the relationship come about?
Leila: We all think Queens Of The Stone Age are a magnificent punk rock band, so obviously we we’re interested in who they work with. Coincidentally, whilst trying to make lists of producers to consider for the album, UNKLE got intouch with us to collaborate on a song. We said “oh sorry, but we’re on tour in usa”. They said “well we’re making the record in california, where abouts are you”…And we said “oh, in california. And we have a day off in a few weeks”. And so we drove up to the desert, spent one day and long night there. After that, we knew we wanted to return. Too many good people and such a weird beautiful place, you can’t resist.

Was “Mayday” written specifically for the UNKLE collaboration?
Leila: Those guys had the beats and the riff. They just suggested we work on that one. We thought it had a good stomp.


Soho Revue Bar, London. Photographs: Sophie Barnett.

Where did the title Ex-Voto come from?
Leila: I’d read the term studying a little bit about mexican folk art, a long time ago. It refers to art objects or paintings offered to saints or the ‘gods’ in hope, thanks, or prayer. Some are for the church, and are made of expensive materials, but for the most part, ex-votos were something that anyone could make – out of tin or wood, whatever. You didnt have to be rich or part of the elite to create your own spiritual offering, in picture or sculpture form. I liked the phrase. I liked the sentiment, and i love x’s and v’ s. They sound good.

What i’ve always loved about you guys is that you’ve never belonged to any scene and that you’re never afraid to wear your musical influences on your sleeves. What were you listening to when recording the new material? There seems to be a real stax feel on lassoo for example….
Toby: We’ve spoken about our collective love of soul music a lot. We all love records that make you wanna dance from the hip or punch the air! So, we wanted to infuse the feel those records have into this record. That insistent stax drum beat will always make you wanna get up and shake! Also, using a horn section properly, and writing parts that accentuate how uplifting they can make a song sound. Bands like The Saints, The Stones, Rocket From The Crypt, Dexy’s Midnight Runners all had that influence in them too.

Its only been two and a half years since your debut was released but a lots changed in the industry since then. The ongoing digital revolution seems to have turned the industry on its head. Other artists we’ve spoken to recently seem to see it as a positive thing. A two finger salute to major labels everywhere. What are your thoughts?
Toby: It’s a strange time for music at the moment. We’ve been on a major label and didn’t enjoy it, so it’s easy to say it’s great that they are suffering…… Which it is! The reaction though, seems to be to give music away now. Leaving playing live as the only way a band can generate an income and get by. Especially smaller bands. I can’t help thinking that the price of tickets will start going up as the industry realises that this the only place where money is to be made. Making live music more and more corporate. I don’t think anyone knows what will happen in the next few years. Which will hopefully generate some good music, rather than the safe generic music we are so often force fed.

So, album number two is in the bag, mixed and mastered. Could we maybe get some information on it? An album title? Release date? Tracklisting? All would be very welcome….!
Toby: It’s called Neptune and as far as we know at the moment it’s gonna be out early February, with a single out late January. Apparently christmas time is a tricky time to release a record! We’d get eclipsed by Cliff Richard.

Last year saw you set up your own label ‘Velo’. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
Toby: We were sat around waiting for our new record deal to get sorted, and got asked to play a few songs at an Arthur Lee tribute night. Knowing that we weren’t gonna get to release anything during 2006 at that point, we decided to record those songs, and a few other covers, and put them out ourselves. So we created Velo. We also got the rights back to Roll Spirit Roll, so we put that out too. Next week is our first release by someone that’s not us!….. A band called Congregation, who we got into at the end of last year and felt really needed to be heard, as well as being good people. It’s not something we’re gonna get too obsessed with, it’s fun to do in periods when we’re not too busy.

We spoke to your good friend Simon Raymonde (Bella Union label boss) a couple of months back, and when asked what advice he’d give to someone thinking of setting up a label he replied “think again. Be an agent, a secret agent or start a clothing label!” Did he give you any pearls of wisdom when setting up Velo?
Toby: I don’t think we asked him for any advice actually. He’s always very supportive of bands being pro-active and doing things for themselves. That punk D.I.Y. ethic! Running a label proper has to be incredibly hard. Bella Union has always been about putting out music he loves, and not about signing bankable scene-sters. That’s why he’s got such a credible and successful label now.

The label ‘You are Here’ are putting out the EP and new album, they seem to be a label in their infancy. How did they approach you guys?
Toby: It was through a friend of ours who told them after they saw us at Coachella festival last year, that we were just splitting with Polydor, and looking for a deal. They approached us and we liked their ideas and attitude. It seemed to be quite synchronistic. We were feeling dispondant at how crap most record companies are and so were they. They are very open minded and forward thinking, which is pretty refreshing!

There seems to be a lot of excitement for your UK tour next month. It’s been around two years since your last full tour over here. What are you looking forward to the most about getting back out on the road.
Toby: There will always be a difference playing to UK audiences because we are an english band, and have that extra warmth for english crowds. We’ve stood in many of the venues ourselves watching bands we love. We are actually really excited about this tour, mainly because we know we’ve been away for a while, but also because we’re coming back with a new album that we’re really proud of and can’t wait to play.

After touring the states extensively last year, are there any noticable differences between US and UK crowds? You really seemed to hit it off in america, do you think they just ‘get’ you more over there.
Toby: People do seem to understand us quicker in the US. They don’t feel the need to bang on about how the singer is a girl, etc. etc. In the UK we seemed to get boxed in almost immediately by a few lazy comparisons and that can be a little annoying when you’re trying to tread your own path. However, that is to be expected and isn’t a big deal. I think they are used to musical diversity in the US, and like to encourage that. However, we are better at producing innovative and iconic bands here, that understand style and history in music.

You’ve lived with a lot of these new songs for a while now. I remember hearing “Lassoo” and “Dog Roses” back in 2005. It must be a relief to finally get them onto tape.
Toby: Yeah it was a relief to finally get them down. That time did give us the opportunity to constantly tweak those long standing songs, re-write parts, and think of better arrangements. I guess the problem with many second albums is that you don’t have time to live with the new songs, to be clearly judgemental about them. We ended up being fortunate enough to live with a batch of songs and see the strongest ones come through. If we’d recorded the album straight off the back of the other, I’m sure we’d have recorded a few shit ones!

Leila, you turned up on an Archie Bronson Outift b-side, and appeared with the Jesus and Mary Chain at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of months ago. Any other Duke Spirit collaborations currently in the pipeline?
Leila: We’ll give it a break for a while…See what comes up! We don’t plan for that sort of thing, you just say yes if someone asks you to work on something really good, and you get along.
Toby: Through doing the UNKLE track I ended up playing on a couple of other tracks on their album, and am currently playing on an album by Rich File’s (UNKLE) side project ‘Deaf.’ Collaborations are always cool when they come through the right kind of channels. By that I mean being friends or having a mutual admiration for each others music. It has to feel like you’re extending your family.

Links
The Duke Spirit [official site] [myspace] [may ‘07 interview]
[ex-voto ep review] [live review]