Pictured: singer Leila Moss, onstage in England, 2007; Check out some of my interview with Duke Spirit drummer Olly Betts. View the feature article at www.nctimes.com/entertainment/music. The band plays on Saturday as part of the Download Festival at Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City.
Q: Where have I reached you today?
A: I’m nowhere particularly interesting. I’m in Milton Keynes, which is probably the most American part of Britain. It’s a new town and it’s based on a grid system. It’s not as good as the rest of England.
Q: The band just played the Granddaddy of all English festivals, Glastonbury. How did that go?
A: It was absolutely amazing, actually. We played four shows over the weekend. Our first gig was torrential rain and it didn’t stick around, which was great. As the weekend went on, it got better and better. I’ve only been to Glastonbury twice, but it was definitely the better one.
Q: In a few days, you play the O2 Wireless Festival. Do you enjoy playing the big outdoor gigs?
A: Yeah, it’s ace. We’ve got a great time ahead. We’re also going to Denmark to play the Roskilde Festival. I love it, really. It’s a great chance to see other bands and meet up with old friends in bands that you see around. It’s great to have a chance to play for people who otherwise might not have a chance to come to your shows. They’re there to see different genres of music and you catch them and win them over. As a band, that’s the key element to playing a festival – to get new people into your band. We embrace festivals. We’re very much a gigging band and always have been. A festival is the jewel in the crown of touring.
Q: For someone who’s never caught a Duke Spirit show, how would you describe it?
A: I like our gigs to be a special experience for the audience as much as us. There shouldn’t be any stage/audience divide as far as we’re concerned. We want people to embrace what we’re doing as much as us. That’s a great gig – when people forget they’re at a rock concert and just enjoying the gig.
Q: Do you hope this American tour, which opens in Solana Beach, will turn out better than the one in 2006, which was fraught with problems?
A: We realized that, although there are souls out there who will steal your equipment, there are 20 times more people who will go completely out of their way to help you carry on as a band and play shows. We’ve had some great [American] tours since then. We went on the road with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club...they were a great band to be on the road with and the audiences were really receptive to us.
Q: The latest CD “Neptune” has been out here for a couple months now. What is the consensus among fans?
A: The majority of people have completely warmed to it. I think it’s a natural progression for us as a band. Many people listened to it and felt surprised by the outcome of the album, but I think people realize songs at the end of “Cuts Across the Land” [hinted toward this one]. I don’t think it’s a massive jump, sonically. I think it’s a natural progression…we feel like we’ve hit the ground running and we don’t want to stop.
Q: Was working with producer Chris Goss a direct result of doing the UNKLE track “Mayday?”
A: It was. Basically, we’d never met him until our collaboration with UNKLE. But we’d heard of him and we were a fan of his work. When the UNKLE collaboration came about we were really pleased. So we went to Rancho de la Luna [Studio] in Joshua Tree and worked with Chris and UNKLE, just for the day...You’re trying to create a piece of art and be musical...often Chris would say, ‘just fill in the gaps.’ He’d make subtle suggestions about harmony and tempo. It would all make sense. He’d never rip everything apart and have us wondering what was going on. He’s a great musician. A great producer often has amazing life experiences. They put it all together and pass it on. That’s exactly what Chris did for us. The changes and suggestions he made were the subtleties we really yearned for.
Q: Did he encourage you to use some of the less common instruments around the place, like the autoharp and omnichord?A: The autoharp we’d used previously. There’s so many weird and wonderful instruments there and sometimes he’d be tinkering on some old Hammond B3 organ. You’d think, ‘what the hell is he doing in there?’ All the sudden, you’d be like, ‘yes that’s great! Press record!’ He’s quite eccentric and that is just brilliant. It was quite different to us, growing up in rural England, you go to the desert. He’s the polar opposite to us. That was so refreshing.
Q: I read that the band actually stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons died, right?
A: We did – our very first night in Joshua Tree. We stayed in rooms on both sides of the room where he passed away...We were there to get [oriented to the desert] and watch the first day of Coachella, then had a BBQ a few miles up the road. It was great introduction into life in Joshua Tree. Now it’s like our home away from home because we spent so long there.
Q: On the cover of “Neptune,” you’re holding up a vinyl copy of Bob Dylan’s “The Basement Tapes.” Why’d you choose that?
A: It’s funny. We didn’t set that photo shoot up to be the cover of the album. We like the end result. Initially, we came together to Toby’s flat and brought 5 or 6 items that we really liked. I ran in my living room and picked up 5 that were dear to me. Everyone did the same. “The Basement Tapes” is an album I’m really fond of...Everything in that picture isn’t as significant as we should have made it. We liked the outcome of the photograph and the items we all hold are dear to our hearts. We wanted it to be slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s a contrast with the artwork, stands out and creates an interest because people ask, ‘why are you holding that?’
Q: Toby said you consider yourselves to be a soul band. Can you elaborate?
A: I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole it with a type of soul. It’s more the ethos behind the sound. The way we sound when we play and us as people. One thing that really captivates us is old soul records. Even bands like Parliament Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone – it’s a celebration. You can’t avoid being drawn into the sound. Just the way everyone looks when they play. When you watch and listen to the music it’s uplifting. We want to emulate that in our music. It’s something that influences us and we want to express that when we play. That’s where us being a soul band comes from – it’s more the feel of things. We definitely tried to make more of a groove-based album this time…knocking things around and realize there’s more space to be had. With “Neptune,” we tried to express that space which you have in soul music.