If The Duke Spirit were ever serious about being hardline analog purists, they got over the idea quickly.
"It came out of necessity, in a way," explains guitarist/cofounder Luke Ford. "When we first started, we were really adamant that we wanted to work on tape and use certain gear."
"But," he adds with a laugh, "we were stuck in a studio in Wales and the tape machine broke! So we finished on Pro Tools. And before that, when we were demoing, we'd use whatever format we could to get things down. So I think we just realized that it's more about the expression you're laying down rather than the format. I could see the beauty in that, but if you focus too much on the tools, then there's something sort of soulless in that as well."
Initially categorized as psychedelic garage rock based on the raw sound of their first full-length, 2005's Cuts Across the Land, the London-based quintet carries its influences with an air of ease that liberates its music from the stifling vibe of more past-obsessed peers. Yes, The Duke Spirit are quite obviously—and unabashedly—steeped in psychedelia, shoegaze and soul music. But, as the new sophomore album Neptune clearly demonstrates, the band isn't interested in merely repackaging old trends. With the aid of producer Chris Goss, The Duke Spirit have just provided the latest proof that musicians can cover old ground and remain true to vintage aesthetics without falling prey to regurgitation or militant retrophilia.
"The essential thing," Ford supposes, "is that we hope to be a stylish band and not a fashionable band. There's quite a fine line, but I think people get our thing wrong. We've been turned on to so many things by other bands, and from reading interviews with other musicians we've been fans of talking about how they discovered The 13th Floor Elevators or Minnie Riperton or whoever it might be. So I've got no problem with telling people who are into our band about the stuff that got us to where we are."
If the band tends to paint with '60s brushes, its underlying assertiveness is unmistakably drawn from the '90s rock that the band members grew up on. The tempos and jangly guitars may hearken back to the Velvet Underground, but the edge hits closer to Curve. And vocalist Liela Moss' thick, heavily-reverbed vocals combine the R&B sensibility of Tina Turner with the spitfire passion of PJ Harvey. (The band calls the latter comparison "lazy," yet it is hard to deny from a listener's perspective.) The Duke Spirit create a hard-driving swirl even when they're holding back—their enthusiasm feels palpable, and the whole thing sounds refreshingly free of calculation.
"I find it kind of weird when bands are blatant rip-offs and act like what they do is completely original," says Ford. "I can't really get my head around how that works, or why they would want to be like that. We just played a festival in Los Angeles and Gang of Four and Jesus and Mary Chain were playing. Both bands were so influential. They both came up with such a distinct sound of their own. If you're going to get inspired by this great thing, why not take it further?"
And why not keep a sense of lightness about you too? With such a dense, fiery attack, The Duke Spirit could easily have chosen to, if not wallow in gloom, then at least drape a dark aura around themselves for effect. Certainly, Neptune's Henry Miller-influenced ocean imagery and sea god invocations flow freely with tears—on "My Sunken Treasure," Moss is even captured mid-cry for real. But it's not like the levity comes flying out at you through the non-linear collages Moss arranges into verse. And even as she laments a love disintegrating into "cold detachment," she makes her intentions clear, singing, "without joy-joy-joy and the rain, I could feel forever the same." Fittingly, the band maintains its gravity without being grave.
"I don't know if it's humor," Ford offers, "but hopefully we don't have that sort of po'-faced attitude. I can't stand these bands that have to smoke cigarettes in every picture or stand off in the shadows. There's humor in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and in the Velvet Underground. With certain bands, it just seems joyless. I couldn't handle being that way."
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