- 29 Nov 06
As Duke Special set off for a jaunt around Europe with the Divine Comedy, our correspondent hitched a ride on the tour bus. In between the sound-checks and the motor-way pitstops, he received a unique insight into the life of the touring musician.
There really is no escaping the Irish in Lille tonight.
Literally the first thing I see, as I alight from the train in the city’s main station, is a framed promotional poster for Frank McCourt’s new book, Teacher Man. And the reason I’m here, of course, is to meet and spend a few days in the company of Belfast native Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special, as he continues his tour across Europe as support act to fellow Northern Irish outfit The Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy/Duke Special double header tonight is taking place at a venue called L’aeroneuf, which is located at the top of a giant entertainment complex on L’Avenue Willy Brandt. To get to it, you have to climb two flights of steel stairs outside the building. With a caged-off, graffiti-covered area just to the left, L’aeroneuf has a vaguely threatening exterior (across the road there is a dilapidated, disused office block covered in yet more graffiti), although once you get inside the venue is compact and cosy enough.
In the reception area I meet Duke Special’s tour manager, Clare Rosenbaum, a charming Canadian who got her break in the music business courtesy of Melissa Auf Der Maur, with whom she has been friends since childhood. Clare has previously worked as tour manager for a wide array of bands, including Aqualung and The Cure.
“The last few days have been pretty crazy,” she says. “Two nights ago we were in Brussels, and then last night we were in London for Later With Jools Holland. The Raconteurs, Amy Winehouse and Muse were on as well. The Raconteurs I didn’t get to meet, although I knew the Muse guys from a previous tour I’d worked on.”
Inside, I’m briefly introduced to Wilson and his drummer, Chip Bailey, who are onstage sound-checking. Tomorrow, Wilson plans to do a full band show at The Olympia in Paris (a luxury he only indulges in when it is financially viable to do so), but tonight, as it has been for most of the 150 or so shows he has played this year, it’s just him and Chip.
There seems to be more of an appetite for checking out support acts in France than there generally is in Ireland or the UK, and by the time Peter and Chip take to the stage for their performance, L’aeroneuf is three quarters full.
Duke Special are currently touring to promote their second album, Songs From The Deep Forest, which was released at the end of September. The album is a gorgeous collection of piano-pop and odd-ball experimentation, shot through with a near vaudeville-style theatricality. Despite the fact that there are only two people onstage, Duke Special’s consistent touring throughout the year has meant that their live rendering of the album is a highly polished and entertaining affair. Seated behind a piano, Wilson, with his distinctive look of dread-locked hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, is an enthusiastic and magnetic performer.
The performance is marked by a series of eccentric flourishes which mean that the duo are never less than compelling to watch. They open with a scratchy old vinyl recording played on a gramophone, while Chip later stands and bashes away at a cymbal during ‘Brixton Leaves’. He also utilises an eclectic array of items for percussive purposes, including a stumpf fiddle, cheese grater and egg whisk (Duke Special have toyed with the idea of introducing the latter two to their merchandise range). They also have the songs to back up the visual and stylistic elements; the highly catchy ‘Freewheel’ is a wonderful pop song, while you can hear a pin drop during the delicate, melancholy strains of ‘No Cover Up’.
To finish, they deploy another gonzo string sample, which eventually morphs into an up-tempo piano stomper. It’s an excellent way to cap a warmly received performance. Later, after The Divine Comedy’s set, I properly meet Wilson and Bailey for the first time. I find the duo at the merchandise stand, where they are standing chatting to Clare. “Bonjour Paul,” says Peter by way of greeting. He is clearly a little tired from traversing the continent over the previous few days, but buzzing from the performance. We decide to retire to the band’s dressing room backstage, where we crack open a few beers and get talking.
Chip and Peter have known each other for 16 years, since they met at a youth project both were involved with in Swindon. Chip played in a series of bands after leaving school, although he has only started working at music full-time again over the past few years, as Duke Special has started to become a more and more serious proposition. And during 2006 particularly, things have got very serious indeed.
“Really, a night like we had last night, playing Later With Jools, makes you realise how far we’ve progressed,” reflects Peter in his soft Northern tones. “Since we signed with V2 for this album, there’s been a noticeable step-up. We’re doing so much more press, promotional stuff, TV shows, etc. And it’s also nice that we can go out on tour now on a proper bus, instead of Chip’s little van. Although I think that when we get to Ireland, because of the prohibitive cost of putting the bus on the ferry, we have to revert to the van! But you know, it’s just interesting stepping into that world that we were in last night.”
“It only got confirmed at the last moment - the night before we started this tour, in fact. We had to drop one of the dates. Apparently, one of the producers of the show got a preview copy of the record and played it all the time when he went on holiday with his wife. It was fun afterwards, a few people from the different bands got together to have their photo taken with Jools. Jack White was being quite flirtatious with Amy Winehouse, I thought. ‘Amy, I love your dress, your hair looks so good,’ that kind of thing.”
Aside from this tour with the Divine Comedy, which commenced in September, Duke Special have also played support slots with a number of big name acts, including The Beautiful South, Rufus Wainwright and Snow Patrol, with whom they played at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast.
“It’s been great the way things have worked out for them, hasn’t it?” muses Peter. “Johnny, their drummer, I’ve known for years. Johnny used to manage Ursula Burns. Years ago, during one of his stints as a singer, maybe the ‘Ain’t No Doubt’ period, Jimmy Nail was in Belfast to do some press stuff. He heard Ursula on the radio, loved the song and asked her to come out on tour with him.”
“But because of a labour strike at the record manufacturing plant used by her label, Ursula wasn’t able to get discs done up to sell on the tour, so she was never able to really capitalise on that big break. Actually, lately on the tour bus we’ve been watching the box set of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, which of course starred Jimmy Nail, so maybe that’s what made me think of that story!”
Talk turns to tomorrow night’s show in Paris. Chip is enthused by the idea of a full-band show.
“It happens rarely enough, so when we do get the chance to play together it’s exciting,” he explains. “Luckily, we’ve been able to come up with something between the two of us that works, but there’s a chemistry that happens with the full line-up. Unfortunately, we’re not always able to afford it and sometimes people just aren’t available. A lot of musicians played on Songs From The Deep Forest and most of them are very in-demand. I’m thinking of someone like Ben Castle, a genius saxophone player.
“Ben’s dad was Roy Castle, who used to present Record Breakers, and sadly died from cancer. Ben was actually offered the role of music director on The Generation Game, with Bruce Forsyth, but he didn’t want people thinking he’d got it just because of his dad. He wants to be recognised as a musician in his own right.”
After further chat, Peter suggests we head back downstairs to the bar, where the Divine Comedy and their crew are having drinks. Following a brief Spinal Tap interlude (when we get stuck on the wrong side of a door into the bar, from where some Divine Comedy band members can see us but are unable to let us in), we eventually join the party. Peter gets into a long, involved chat with a fan, while Chip and I talk to a couple of students from the nearby university who were working at the show, as well as Dennis from the group’s French promoters, who used to manage a club in Paris where Daft Punk played some of their first shows.
Eventually, Neil Hannon says goodnight. We stay for a little while longer, before Peter suggests that it’s time to pack up and head for the tour bus. Back in Duke Special’s dressing room, Clare is putting away her laptop and looking for something to eat. I’m introduced to the group’s Scottish sound man, Johnny, a big, ebullient character who has taken it upon himself to be tormentor-in-chief to the newly-arrived hack.
“I’m sleeping in with you,” he says, a comment which causes me to briefly consider getting the train back to Charles De Gaulle.
As it is now the early hours of the morning, it is officially Chip’s birthday.
“Let’s give him the bumps!” yells Peter.
“Let’s just go to the bloody bus!” retorts Chip.
“Yeah, let’s just do that,” I add, not having the energy to even attempt throwing him in the air.
“I don’t know why you’re so keen to get to the bus,” says Johnny. “I’ve pissed on your pillow.”
In the car park beneath the venue, the group’s driver (a hippyish Englishman in his sixties, with long hair and a straggly beard flecked with grey) is still asleep, so Peter and I crack open another couple of beers and talk some more.
“I was saying earlier about the step-up we’ve made since signing to V2,” he begins. “It’s something I feel I’ve got to make the best of, because most artists usually only have a finite amount of time with a big label. It’s tricky to keep growing as an artist and stay creative, as well as, you know, writing the kind of songs that get played on the radio.
“Like, the label are very enthusiastic about the song ‘Freewheel’, which is a catchy tune, but I’m wondering if there’s going to be pressure now to write another song like that. Plus, I’m aware that there are very few musicians based in Belfast who are successful internationally, as opposed to New York or London or wherever. So this is an exciting time for us, but there are challenges.”
By now, the group’s driver has woken up, so we board the bus and set out for Paris. Peter, Chip, Clare, Johnny and I sit around the table at the back of the bus, and drink and talk. As you’d expect, the conversation is wide-ranging. Clare mentions that a friend of hers recently did a stint playing with the French band Phoenix, whose front man, Thomas Mars, is currently going out with Sofia Coppola.
“He sent me a text saying they’d ended up at Francis Ford Coppola’s ranch in Napa Valley,” says Clare. “Apparently Francis was like, ‘Make yourselves right at home. Any wine you wanna try out, it’s yours!’”
Peter and I fall into a conversation about his musical background (he attributes his early fondness for the piano to his grandmother, who played the instrument) and go on to talk about, variously, Van Morrison (with whom Duke Special have played a support slot – “he has very little social skills,” remarks Peter, “but he is a genius”), U2 (“Achtung Baby is their best album – it’s Bono admitting how lost he is”) and My Bloody Valentine, whom Peter has plans to cover (the song turns out to be ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’, from Isn’t Anything).
Peter offers me another drink, but as I’m completely hammered and have been awake for 22 hours, I politely decline, say goodnight and go to bed. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of sleeping on the bottom bunk on a tour bus, but for those readers who aren’t familiar, it’s a bit like being buried alive. The next bunk is about six inches from your face and a red curtain blocks out the light. Nonetheless, I’m so exhausted that I immediately fall asleep.
I wake up a few hours later with the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life. I stumble down to the back of the bus, where Peter is asleep beside the table. I lie on the seating across from him and eventually fall asleep too. I wake up a couple of times, with early-morning Paris rolling by the window above.
The next time I wake up, the bus is stationed in the underground car park at the Olympia. It is eerily quiet and, in the absence of the violent movement which had contributed so handsomely to my splitting headache earlier, I head back to the bunk for more sleep. When I eventually crawl from bed, Peter is standing talking to the driver in the narrow entrance to the back of the bus.
“What was wrong with your bunk?” the driver asks me, somewhat gruffly.
“It was the movement,” I mutter. “It gave me such a bad headache.”
“Oh,” comes the withering reply. “So it wasn’t how much you had to drink then?”
Chip makes me a cup of tea and reflects on the touring life. “It’s actually nice to be on tour at the moment, now that I’m a little older and have a more bit more experience,” he says. “Even though things have been so hectic over the last while that we haven’t really had time to check out the places we’ve been visiting, it’s still enjoyable. And these days I feel like I’m better able to deal with the temptations that are there, like drinking. I mean, you’ve seen what’s it like, it’s just endless. But it’s not something I worry about particularly any more.”
Inside the venue, which has a capacity of about 2,000, the Divine Comedy’s crew are setting up their gear on stage. Neil Hannon stands smoking a cigarette and chatting to a couple of band members. We head for the canteen and enjoy a nice lunch. Peter has interviews lined up with French Rolling Stone and another Parisian music magazine, and family members and people from V2 and the group’s Irish publicity company are arriving over this evening, so he heads off to get ready. I venture out into Paris for the rest of the afternoon.
From start to finish, the show that night is superb. With the full line-up this time, all sharply dressed in suits, Duke Special deliver another excellent performance, with the addition of saxophone, keyboard and guitars making their exquisite musical mix even more beguiling. Hannon, meanwhile (who watched Duke Special’s show from a prime seat on the balcony), proves that he is probably one of Ireland’s greatest ever musical talents. Before a sold-out, adoring crowd, he delivers a dazzling set of Divine Comedy’s best material, throwing in an awesome cover of Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’ for good measure. He closes the show with a truly stunning version of ‘Sunrise’, his moving reflection on the Troubles.
Afterwards, Duke Special, the record company and publicity people, some friends of the band and hotpress head to a bar around the corner from the Olympia. I get into a long conversation with Charlie Pinder, the group’s A&R man from V2. Charlie has been with V2 for just over a year; previous to that, after graduating with a law degree from Manchester University, he worked for Sony’s publishing division, where he signed Travis and worked with Oasis, among other acts. Peter’s wife, Heather, a Belfast-based artist, and his eldest son, Ben (who celebrates his birthday in a few days), are over visiting, and they head out for a while to go sightseeing, with the Eiffel Tower the first stop on their itinerary.
Peter, Heather and Ben join us again a couple of hours later. By now, as we are in the early hours of Friday, October 25 2006, it’s also my 25th birthday. “Happy birthday,” says Charlie, raising a glass (Peter also threatens to give me the bumps, but eventually relents). By now, it’s a lock-in and a general air of surrealness takes over. A young Parisian man, wearing a black overcoat and bearing a striking resemblance to the young Matthew Broderick, builds a tower of drinks menus that reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Unbelievably, just as we are about to leave, I notice that (fittingly, bearing in mind the Irish theme to the whole trip) there is a hurley hanging above the bar.
Outside in the chilly Parisian air, everyone says their goodbyes and I grab Peter for a few quick words. “We just played to a sold-out Olympia in Paris,” he says. “We really enjoyed it and we’re just having a lot of fun right now. Life is good.”