With The Duke Spirit about to hit the road on a UK tour, TGA caught up with singer Liela Moss to talk about their new sound, why making the first album was like pulling teeth and where they are 12 years on.
After some time out, The Duke Spirit returned to the business of recorded sound last year. Following their 2011 release Bruiser, mundane life responsibilities became overwhelming, and they took an extended hiatus.
Off the back of that silent period, in which some of them explored side projects, Liela Moss, Toby Butler, Luke Ford and company wrote and recorded a new album, Kin, which was released to critical acclaim earlier this year.
Liela Moss – lead vocalist, chief lyricist and head spokesperson – radiates joy when talking about their most recent album and what it will likely come to represent in the Duke Spirit’s discography. She’s clearly stoked that they’re functioning as a band again.
“I am totally into this record!” she exclaims with the kind of peppy abandon of someone who’s immensely proud of their achievement. It’s a heartening response from someone who’s been involved with the same group for twelve years. That’s a lot more band birthdays than most.
Usually, by this far in, interpersonal tensions surface and the friction becomes too much. Spending several intense years in the same space – mentally and physically – with the same people, in stressful situations, can bring out the worst in everybody. Rock and pop history is littered with examples of band disintegration – when once sturdy relationships fracture through anxiety, differences and over-familiarity, and small irritations become amplified year by year, the result is often death by a thousand scratches.
But the Duke Spirit hiatus has successfully subverted that trajectory. Certainly, Moss is very positive about its effects.
“It’s much nicer to reconnect in a room with the others after having travelled off in different directions,” she says. “The temporary split has allowed each member to create new experiences: you reconvene with new stuff to talk about!”
This second iteration of the band is not about re-advertising or rehashing old albums, but boldly mining different types of music to create a fresh Duke Spirit sound. Kin sounds like a group operating in a rich vein of exciting newness.
Tracks Blue and Yellow Light, Here Comes the Vapour and Sonar suggest that this, their most recent record, will ultimately mark the leaving behind of the muscular manoeuvrings of rock and post-punk that characterised the group’s first three efforts.
Instead, they have embraced ideas drawn from shoegaze and dream pop: their new songs are wispy, cerebral and swirling. Like a more forceful, more tangible Slowdive.
Moss seems content to downplay the importance of that shift, however.
“I just wanted to sing in a different register, and approach the singing in a less cluttered, spitting way,” she says.
Vocals are buried in a little deeper, pushed to the middle ground in favour of ambiguous guitar washes and benevolent drones; there is much greater focus leveraged on the construction of mood and tone rather than lyrics.
“Yeah, that’s just how I wanted to convey the emotional content,” she explains before adding stoically, “It’s dreamy, but nightmarey too. But that’s life, hey.”
The Duke Spirit name may have been dormant for a few years between but Moss, and bandmate Butler, were not. Together they recorded as Romans Remains, creating music that borrowed from dystopian electro pop rather than guitar rock.
That sea-change allowed the duo to expand their artistic palettes and writing talents into previously unexplored genres. Those experiences have been poured into Kin.
Says Moss, “We weaved other instruments in with much greater ease because of the other projects we’ve done, like Romans Remains, and built up more material, much more quickly.”
Not that the changes in sound and approach are necessarily down to just Moss and Butler. Kin also includes an unprecedented number of guest stars for a Duke Spirit album. Mark Lanegan, Sam Windett (of the Archie Bronson Outfit – Moss herself once guest appeared on an Archie Bronson B-side), Terry Edwards (who has worked with PJ Harvey, Gallon Drunk, Tindersticks and many more), Hackney’s Deep Throat Choir and Mara Carlyle all contribute their talents.
Arguably the most influential of the outside inspirations, though, is Simon Raymonde. Raymonde, formerly of Cocteau Twins and co-founder (along with Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie) of label Bella Union, produces on Kin as he has every other Duke Spirit record.
Raymonde is all but a permanent fixture in The Duke Spirit; he is not merely an ‘outsider’, but more or less an additional member of the band. Think about Nigel Godrich and Radiohead, or Martin Hannett and Joy Division. It’s a bit like that.
Moss is cautious, but inclined to agree. “If I said yes, I’d be talking crap and over-mythologising our situation, because we go for quite long periods of time without hanging out [with Raymonde]. That said, I feel there is a connection, a trust and a ‘realness’ to our being in a room together, and it does bring great inspiration and warmness to the recording process and makes me want to work with Simon over and again.”
Good music is a powerful monument to these kinds of munificent intuitive relationships, something that Moss feels directly. As she says, “I think [Simon’s] presence is very positive for me personally, and all of us as a group of people.”
“It [Kin] was made with such nimble speed and good vibes,” she continues, “and plus it has just been a much cooler process than way back on the first record which seemed like pulling teeth – sorting out labels and lawyers and such. This was just music-making and was very satisfying!”
Her enthusiasm remains undimmed more than a decade on. The best thing about surviving for that long though?
“I’m just really excited that we still exist, to be honest,” she admits.
In her deceptively simple statement, she celebrates the fact that The Duke Spirit are still a living and breathing entity, continuing to tour and make new music. But it’s also an indication of how hard-going carrying on can be, especially if you’re committed to moving forward. In one short sentence, Moss boils down the existential processes of a group of people ageing, working and collaborating together to the single most evidential indicator of success: endurance.
Asked whether she and the band have reached a point where they look back and think: ‘We should have done this or that differently’, Moss charmingly and amenably replies, “We’ve had a fair few spells of sludgy indecision, possible awkward moves, Sisyphean small struggles. That said, we have also done so much work, [racked] up so many experiences, been almost everywhere and woven in and out of other scenes and stuff happening ‘out there’”.
Many of those experiences come from the band’s excursions across the pond, including appearances on talk show-type programmes such as The Late Show with David Letterman and The Henry Rollins Show, fronted by the high priest of hardcore himself.
Moss is certainly keen to go back and reconnect with the legion of Stateside fans they have inspired there in the past: “We have made some real bonds with fans over there, and I would be sad if we don’t get out there again pretty damn soon.”
Dates for US shows have yet to be announced but a UK tour kicks off in Brighton on Monday 10 October, which is exiting news for all of us – even if hardcore fans have long known about it.
The Duke Spirit are nothing if not acquiescent to their hardcore following – those who pre-ordered Kin were treated to the chance to attend a one-off, intimate gathering at their rehearsal studio for meets, greets and pizza.
With almost 27,000 likes on Facebook alone, and only 20 spaces at the meet and greet, that’s a lot of people that missed out. But the band hasn’t ruled out doing something similar again — in fact you can buy VIP experience bundles via the band’s website, which include attending soundcheck, a meet and greet, and more. For a band that has never had a ‘hit’, and relied on organically cultivating a cult-like presence on the circuit, their Facebook tally, and fervent fandom, is impressive.
“It could have been such a short burst of activity,” says Moss, of the band’s beginnings. “But we continue!”
And that’s something all fans of The Duke Spirit will be thankful for as the tour gets into full swing. They feel like a band that is once again on an upward curve, revitalised by their hiatus, and with an exciting future in store.
As our chat draws to a close, Moss comments reassuringly, “I’m looking forward to more shows and more recording.”
So is everyone else.
Catch The Duke Spirit live on the following dates:
Mon 10 October — Patterns, Brighton
Wed 12 October — Mama Roux’s, Birmingham
Thu 13 October — Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Fri 14 October — King Tuts, Glasgow
Sat 15 October — Think Tank, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Mon 17 October –Gorilla, Manchester
Tue 18 October — The Bodega Social Club, Nottingham
Wed 19 October — The Fleece, Bristol
Thu 20 October — Scala, London