BY CATHAL DELEA
Peter Wilson, AKA Duke Special, has developed quite a repertoire as an artist. He has written music for, and appeared in, Deborah Warner’s critically acclaimed production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre in London. He collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, writing original songs inspired by the Stieglitz, Steichen, Stand exhibition. On top of those projects, he has also found time to produce consistently great albums, including the platinum selling Songs from the Deep Forest.
Named after the King Crimson record of the same name, ‘In the Court of…’ is a week-long festival running from the 4th to the 9th of September. Each act has been personally selected by Duke Special. In anticipation of what will surely be a landmark arts event in Belfast, I went to the MAC to meet him.
How does it feel to be the curator of the first ‘In the court of…’ festival at the MAC?
It was inevitable really because I had some stuff on Gillian [Mitchell, Director of programmes] that she didn’t want to get into the press, so it was easy from there. No, for me it was such a thrill to do it and I hope it continues every year because it’s such a great idea. Every year will be completely different because it does really reflect [the curator’s personal] experiences, references, influences and tastes so each year will inevitably be completely different.
Talk us through who you’ve picked and what made you pick them?
I picked who I picked because I really liked them, or I liked what they do or they had some sort of influence on me. Also we were careful to choose some acts that wouldn’t be very well known in Belfast: We wanted every single event to feel like it was an event, rather than ‘Oh here they are again.’
But ultimately all of them are really great, so even if you don’t like my music there’s stuff that’s absolutely brilliant.
I’m so thrilled that we’ve got The Blockheads (5th September). I remember when I was little listening to them but I’ve never seen them live, so part of it is, I really want to see them live.
Also The Futureheads (6th September) [will be performing their] current album which is really cool.
Then there is Three Bonzos and a Piano (4th September), who are legends, hugely influential on comedy and Monty Python. They were friends with Paul McCartney and The Beatles back in the day. They’re just a really exuberant, irreverent take on jazz and all kinds of music and humour.
Cathy Davey, [who has had a] number one album in Ireland twice, is performing a unique show that she’s done just twice before – it’s not something that she really tours – so again, it’s really cool to have her coming that night [7th September] with very special guests, all singing “Songs that Scare Children (But in a Very Beautiful Way)”.
Nanu Nanu [8th September], I came to know through Laura Sheeran who is a cousin of Ed actually. She plays ‘saw’. I remember doing a show in Dublin one night and I needed a saw play and she contacted me. Her partner is from BellX1, and together they founded this group called Nanu Nanu which they describe as an ‘alien, electric, pop duo’.
Mr Joe Black [Also 8th September] I encountered in Portsmouth, he’s bonkers but in a really great way, he does a lot of fringe festivals and cabaret nights, torture gardens and all that kind of stuff. So it’s pretty dark vaudeville cabaret. But very, very, funny and he’s a great musician.
The Johanna Billing [8th September, all day] collaboration, I didn’t really know what it was at the start, but through speaking with Hugh, who’s involved with visual arts here at the MAC, I’m really excited about it because I’ve never been part of an evening where it’s just the same song (Roky Erickson’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet”) is repeated. With visual arts there’s that idea of repetition, you go into a gallery and there’s the something written on the wall multiple times, but it’s something you don’t really see in music. The fact of the matter is, it’s an event with the same song played twenty times. I think that’s going to feel really amazing and odd. I’m really intrigued about that one.
Then my own show at the end [9th September] will features lots of special guests from all kinds of musical genres and it will definitely be a one off because this group of people will all probably never have been in the same room together – It’s gonna be fun.
You have some wine tasting going on on the 7th, accompanied by some films and by music, which I thought was quite an intriguing idea, what gave you the idea behind it?
Well, when I go into Tesco’s off-license, I look and see what’s half-price and inevitably you go to reach for it and everyone else has the same idea. I was doing some shows in the Czech Republic and the guy that’s doing the wine tasting [on the 7th], Marek, runs a community newspaper, but his passion is music and for years and years he’s been bringing bands to the Czech Republic, most notably The Frames.
I played with The Frames in Prague and it turns out that his [Marek’s] daughter is Marketa Irglova from The Swell Season [alongside The Frames’ Glen Hansard; they also co-starred in the film ‘Once’], so he’d known Glen for years. It was just a late night conversation, I was asking him did he have any other ambitions apart from promoting – because he’s really good at facilitating other people’s creativity – and I said, ‘What would you like to do?’: he said [that he] used to run a wine shop and [he had] like a thousand bottles of wine in [his] cellar, [and he said he] also liked films’. So I had this idea of doing a night where we’d show clips from films where the characters are drinking wine, and then serve that wine to the audience, explaining it and then showing another clip, etcetera.
So I’d been asked to this MAC thing by that stage and I suddenly thought ‘ummh’, so I called him up about it and that’s how it came about. It’s his debut doing this and he’s a great guy, really knowledgeable about music and film and wine. I’d known the Belfast film festival had done it with food but never with wine.
What excites you about being a musician based in Belfast?
I think it has more festivals per head of the population than any other city in Ireland or the UK. It’s interesting when you go and play some amazing festivals in these towns.
I played the Helium festival recently and Ash where headlining, it was on one stage with the whole town turning out because no matter where you lived in the town you’d hear it anyway so you might as well go, and the whole town turned out and volunteered. Oldcastle was another one like that, and then you have really big ones like Electric Picnic and Oxygen. But Belfast itself has such a variety of festivals from blues festivals; to the cathedral quarter; Queens; Tennant’s Vital; Belsonic and loads of little small ones – but I think ‘In The Court of…’ is unique because of the nature of it.
I think it’s great that over the last ten or fifteen year Belfast has become a place where cruise ships stop in as a tourist attraction. It feels like our self-confidence as people is increasing, and also musician’s confidence, because it’s not totally unlikely that you’ll make it in music, or have a career in music, because there are a lot of other people that have done it now. I think that’s a great boost for artists coming up, thinking ‘Do I have to go to London?’ No you don’t. Yes you have to travel outside of Belfast, in the same way everyone has to leave where they live to cut their teeth, but it’s great that you can actually live her.
How does Belfast as a city influence your song writing?
I don’t know except that my music would probably sound different if I’d grown up somewhere else. I think people like Van Morrison have been an influence on me, in that I feel confident enough to sing in my own accent and not be worried about it, and even to name-check places from here in songs in a way that American writers have been doing for years about where they’re from. Suddenly Connswater sounds poetic as opposed to just a river and a shopping centre. It suddenly becomes infused with this mystical sense in the same way that New Jersey Turn Pike, to us, sounds really exotic. I think probably the humour in music as well, we’re good at that kind of self-deprecation, we’re not so good at being self-confident, I’m sure that’s been an influence on me.
You’ve got The Futureheads playing on the 6th of September, they’ve recently started their own record label, Null Records, what do you think about the concept of independent labels and the effect on new artists and local bands?
Well, when I started out, I remember being in local bands, years ago, and it as almost like the record deal was the holy grail, that illusive thing that you aspire to. I think in some way [that] was a distraction because it made you think, O.K. once the record deal came that was problem solved, you’d made it. But the fact of the matter is, for many, many, many acts, you had one record or if you’re lucky, two, then you’re spat out the other end and left high and dry. When I started ten years ago as Duke Special, I definitely decided I wasn’t going to wait around for a record deal: I was gonna go out and play and build up an audience.
So I went through a couple of different record deals with bigger labels and came out the end of that, but I feel comfortable not having a record label, because having a record label doesn’t make you an artist, it just means that you have people working on your behalf and getting in and helping, but you need to know you’re an artist with or without that.
So, I think that potentially [independent labels] will increase an artist’s longevity, as opposed to just being a flash in the pan, a quick brush with success, then nothing. I think the potential, particularly with the internet and having a worldwide fan-base, means you can sustain your career for longer.
I think I would have struggled with the traditional model because I’m not making records that are particularly radio-friendly, but I’m able to still continue and make a living playing music because of the fans and audience that’re out there.
I still think it’s really good to have partners to work with and, whether it’s a record label or people you employ for a limited time to work PR or whatever it is – people still need to know that you’re there.
But, yeah, I think it’s exciting and I know it’s not easy to make money from record sales now because people download, but I think it’s an exciting time of innovation that as musicians, we can really exploit to our benefit. There’s maximum artistic freedom and maximum stress from the banks – that’s the downside of it – but it’s exciting, it feels like the proper punk attitude ‘we can do this’, you don’t have to wait for someone to validate what you do, you just [have to] go out and do it.
The event runs from the 4th – 9th of September and tickets can be bought online at www.themaclive.com, by phone on 028 9023 5053, or by calling in to the MAC, which is located just behind St. Anne’s Square.