09 Dec Q: Duke & The King Interview
Imagine, if you will, a cross between Marvin Gaye and James Taylor; Smokey Robinson and Paul Simon; Sly and the Family Stone and Neil Young. Okay, got it? You’re halfway towards getting a feel towards the gorgeous and painful, yet warm, country-soul sound of The Duke & The King. They’ve released one of the year’s best albums with their debut Nothing Gold Can Stay (recorded in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of New York State) and are utterly devastating live.
Named after the travelling Shakespeare hustlers in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Duke & The King are made up of Simone (pronounced Simon) Felice (The Duke), former drummer and writer for the equally wonderful The Felice Brothers, George Clinton collaborator Robert ‘Chicken’ Burke (The King), Nowell Haskins (The Deacon) and Simi Stone. Qthemusic had a chat with the band before they took to the stage at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge and left a beer-soaked, rowdy crowd in a hushed awe.
How did you and Robert get together? And what inspired you to record as The Duke & The King?
Robert: Love and friendship.
Simone: It’s the same thing that brought us all together. Nowell is on the record that we made. He’s a featured singer on Lose Myself. And Simi is our most recent chosen one.
How did you enjoy playing on Jools Holland recently?
Simone: My friend said we looked like an Oreo version of The Mamas and the Papas.
Being a drummer with The Felice Brothers was there a desire to be centre stage or is that just a by-product of the fact that you had these songs to sing?
Simone: No, I love playing the drums and even in The Duke & The King I still get to play a couple of songs that Bobbie gets the lead on. We swap up. Nowell grabs the bass sometimes or hits the drum kit. We started out us three guys; it was a trio first. And we’re three singing drummers. I’m proud to be a singing drummer and I hope I always will be one.
Being singing drummers how was it playing a show with Levon Helm, the legendary drummer for The Band?
Simone: It was a milestone for us. We’d done about 100 shows before that, but the one at Levon’s we’d been working hard in my barn on getting all of our band really united and feeling really glued up together with our songs and our harmonies. We really considered Levon’s show to be the launching pad for what this band can be live. Levon fell in love with our band and we got a standing ovation at the show and he called us up at the end to sing The Weight with him. And we sang with our hero, one of our biggest heroes ever. One of the most magical moments of my life.
The name The Duke & The King comes from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the new Felice Brothers record ‘Yonder is the Clock’ comes from a more obscure Twain book, Mysterious Stranger. What is the deal with the southern thing for guys born in the New York area?
Simone: It’s the devil saying, ‘that guy’s going to die at this hour, that guy is going to die at that hour, she’s going to die at this hour’. Yonder is the clock. It’s Northern Gothic. The inspiration for The Duke & The King is that in the book there are these two drifters setting up the Shakespeare camp that was going up and down the river. And it’s that tradition of being on the river, or on the road, getting up on stage and putting on a show. And we like to bring theatre into our music. We want it to be like a travelling theatre. In the future Nowell said he would like two horn players on either side of the stage to introduce the band.
Your album Nothing Gold Can Stay seems to be about recognising your own mortality and a yearning for the innocence of childhood, yet it doesn’t sound like a sad album. It actually sounds very warm. Was that a conscious decision or did it happen naturally?
Simone: Like a glass of wine. That’s what we wanted. I think as writers and singers all of us have looked darkness in the eye. You can be rest assured. And sometimes when you have to look down that dark tunnel it forces you to create an inner warmth. D’ya know what I mean? It’s cold down there. If you face death or you face sadness, or the abyss, you have to create an inner fire.
That same warmth comes through from the letter you wrote to fans about why you had left The Felice Brothers and all the tragic personal events that had happened to you [Felice and his partner lost their first baby while he was making The Duke & The King record]. Are you generally a positive person?
Simone: Do you want to answer that Bobbie, am I a positive guy?
Robert: I don’t like to make a comment about that. But when you go through a hard time in your life and you acknowledge it, and by coming to grips with that there is a feeling of freedom. So if you learn how to go through that door and take the positivity of experience it makes you feel good to go through something bad once you understand you’re going through it, and past it. I think that’s what positive people do and why they’re not as prone to depression. When I feel more negative I’ve gone through depression in my life. So is Simone a positive person? Yes. He tries as hard as possible. But man we could be cynical as hell.
Nowell: The reality of life, life’s rhyme or reason, is that there is happy and sad. The reality of being a human being is that you have good, you have bad, you have happy, you have sad.
Simone: The world would fall apart if it didn’t have balance; the darkness and the light. We’re trying to spread as much love as we can. We want music to be a healing force for people.
Do you believe in the redemptive power of music then? Like you sing in Union Street: “As long as we’ve got rock ‘n’ roll, everything will be alright.” Do you believe that?
Simone: Well music has been for all of us…
Nowell: It’s a medicine, man.
Simone: It’s the biggest medicine.
Robert: Once again you’ve got to look at the light. I mean because Gary Glitter had rock ‘n’ roll, too.
Simi: It’s about finding beauty in darkness, and in pain, and in the abyss.
Simone: Life is hard. For so many people it’s a suffering thing. And if a glass of wine or a laugh with a friend, or falling in love, or making a baby, or walking up a beautiful hill with the sun shining on you, if you have those moments you can cherish them, and it helps you get through all the rest of the fucking rough. But music, songs, poetry, it’s saved all of our lives.
The record has a timeless quality without sounding old. Is it hard to write something without slipping into sentimentality?
Simone: It took my whole life to learn how to write like that. And it’s not easy, it’s hard, but that’s how you learn how to write. Trying to get a tradition of telling the tale of our time. You get a lot of people that take the past and just regurgitate it. Taking some old tradition and thinking I’m going to dress up like this guy used to, and sing about the same old shit. But that’s weird. The poet’s job is to tell the story of his own time.
Robert: But obviously you can’t ignore the fact of the past few decades we’ve been through as well because that has affected and inspired all of us. The classic albums and musicians of the past.
Are you aware of what the music critic Greil Marcus described as the “old, weird America”?
Simone: I think America is twisted, and it’s been twisted since we picked up the slaves on the ships, and twisted since we gave the smallpox blankets to the Indians. If you keep the channel open in your heart and mind then you can really listen to all the screaming ghosts that exist in the country called America. If you listen to it all it will drive you crazy. So you have to know when to turn it off.
There are so many singers who write contrived, trite love songs that sell millions, and lesser known artists, like yourselves, exist on the margins. What would you do if you ever got famous?
Robert: It would be like Phil Collins from that point on.
Simone: We’d have to remember where we came from. That’s what the song is about. It’s a mantra to ourselves, to remember the people who have always loved us, and remember each other. And to not get caught up in all the illusions and bullshit of fame. The disease of fame, which is a disease that England and America both have. Programmes about dancing with the stars or American Idol are completely false.
Interview: Eddie Devlin