Feature: The Sun met The Duke & The King

Wednesday, 29th July 2009

Simone Felice grew up with brothers Ian and James in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Their surroundings were rugged, uncompromising and beautiful. Music ran in the three boy’s veins. They formed a band called, not surprisingly, The Felice Brothers, a kind of hillbilly Kings Of Leon.The music could be both fast and loose or slow and tender, their songs imbued with the spirit of The Band and Neil Young. Simone played the drums, guitar and occasionally sang lead vocals. They began busking in the subway stations of New York and success came along as sure as the D train. A string of albums, intoxicating mixes of rabble-rousing hoe-downs and heart-wrenching ballads, cemented their reputation as modern keepers of the Americana flame.But sometimes life takes a terrible fateful turn. Last winter, Simone and his partner lost their first child and he decided it was time for a life-changing rethink. He left the band of brothers and threw all his energy into a new project, The Duke & The King, which took its name from characters in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With musical soulmate Robert "Chicken" Burke, Simone has crafted Nothing Gold Can Stay, one of the year’s most heartfelt releases, with third member Nowell Haskins completing the mix. The sound is more polished than The Felice Brothers, like an eerily convincing throwback to the west Coast sounds of Joni Mitchell or James Taylor. The lyrics are poetic, confessional, autobiographical and sharply observed with wistful opener If You Ever Get Famous setting the tone.Here, Simone Tells his storyWas it tough leaving The Felice Brothers to start this project?Yes, but after my baby died a lot of things came clear to me, the course of my life and the poetry I needed to make.Were the others upset by your move? Me and the boys love each other very much, it’s the kind of live I imagine Navy men share in a U-Boat, and one of out codes is to support each other’s ideas and visions. It’s a lucky thing to have.Do you imagine rejoining them sometime ?I’m sure we’ll come together again one fine day, it’s a long road ahead.How did you get to know Robert?We met over ten years ago and became fast friends. He helped my brothers and I with our first recordings. Bob and I would sit around a fire and write songs nobody would ever hear and laugh and watch birds (a particular hawk) by the water and dream up one-act plays and all sorts of weird ideas. We made each other feel like kids.How come a hip-hop guy got to mix and master the album?Bassy Bob (Brockmann) is a genius, a man who went from making $20,000-a-song and living in the posh Manhattan music biz world in the Nineties with Puff Daddy and Biggie, to living in a basement in the roughest part of Brooklyn and barely being able to keep his electric on, all because he denounced the big-money major label illusion and got back to his roots. We spent a month with him in his basement mixing this album. He’s got very special ears. He grew up in New Orleans where his father was a pianist in bars.Do you feel a lot more responsibility now you’re the main singer in a band?I had a punk band I used to front when I was a kid. We’d skip school and get high and go and play a week nights at the CBGB club around the time Nirvana had just come out and Fugazi was god.Then for eight or nine years before my brother sand I started our band, I was a traveling poet, a bit of a gipsy loser reading every night on a different microphone by myself, nervous and awkward at first. But time and trial and error helped me get rid of the shakes. So it’s been a pretty natural to make this change.Why did you name yourselves after the characters from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?Mark Twain is one of my heroes. He was a rebel. We love rebels, art that comes from a real and raw place, not afraid to tell the truth. This book was a revolution to America when it was printed, a young Southern white boy making best friends with a runaway slave. Who ever heard of such a thing?!Who’s the Duke and who’s the King?I’m the Duke and Bob’s the King and Nowell Haskins is Black Jim. Or the Deacon. That’s the nucleus of the band. (PS: All of these titles would not hold up under royal scrutiny. Off with out heads!)Did recording in the wood in New Yorks’ Bearsville affect the songs?It was deep Catskill winter so there was two feet of snow outside. It was cold and beautiful. It was very silent and I’ve found silence to be the finest environment for writing. Could you cope with being really famous?I was born at home in a creek in the mountains. I heat my home with a wood stove, grow a garden, hunt deer, read a lot of books. I grew up that way, simple, and that’s how I’d like it to stay, however the dice lands.And how is your past like reflected in music?The Album does a lot of looking back, trying to make sense of where all the time has gone, the dreams. So growing up in my poor little mountain town, north up the river from the city, features heavily in the themes. That’s where I first fell in love, first heard Led Zeppelin on the radio, first got high on music (and other things), first learned about violence and magic.What’s YOUR American dream?That someday we’ll learn to trade the handshake for the fist, the fiddle for the drum.- Simon Cosyns