Gig preview: Duke Special at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Duke Special
Duke Special
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“It’s the first album in a while where I’ve not set a title initially; I let the songs kind of grow and come out as they wanted to,” reflects Duke Special on the significance of the name of his latest longplayer, Look Out Machines!

“Inevitably you have to call it something. I was thinking is there a theme? It felt like some of the songs had this idea of taking back what it means to be a human being – a need for community, a need for friendship.

“It’s a warning to machines, to systems, that we are coming for them – hence the artwork, it’s a bit War of the Worlds.”

The singer songwriter – real name Peter Wilson – has described this album as a “photograph of where I am right now”. Thirteen years into his career as Duke Special, the 44-year-old Ulsterman explains: “It’s always exploring, like any album is. It’s a photograph of that particular time the songs were written and recorded.

“It touches on themes that I’ve always written about and always will – regret, love, the search for meaning. I hope to always be in a place striving to find some meaning.”

Look Out Machines! features collaborations with a number of other musicians and songwriters, including Iain Archer, formerly of Snow Patrol, Boo Hewerdine and Gary Clark, once of Scottish pop group Danny Wilson.

“Some are people that I’ve worked with a number of times before,” says Wilson. “Phil Wilkinson [an in-demand session musician] is a long-time collaborator – he wrote a song for me on my third EP [Your Vandal, released in 2005]. He’s drummed on many of my records. Boo Hewerdine was somebody I would always like to try to write with a couple of times a year.

“Some are people I’d never met before but wanted to write with. I’m still learning so much about the songwriting process. Gary Clark and Iain Archer I’d wanted to worth with to stretch me and for myself to keep learning.”

To pay for the making of this record, Wilson returned to Pledge Music, the fan-funding website he’d used before for his 2010 triple album The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen. Wilson viewed the previous campaign as “very successful” but admits now that “you create a mountain for yourself to climb with all the different things you have agreed to do”.

This time he says that having raised enough to fund the recording sessions, he licensed the album to Stranger Records.

“I had lots of artistic freedom at the beginning; I’ve got an experienced team to now lean on to put the record out. It’s a great combination.”

One pledge, however, he’s had to put on hold – to break the Guinness World Record for the most concerts in 24 hours. “We tried desperately to make it happen but the red tape proved too much – every gig has to be in a licensed venue. From 3am to 8am it’s tricky to get places. You have to charge as well. Instead I did a night a few weeks ago of singing songs from 5.30pm to 1.30am. I couldn’t speak the next day.”

When not working on his studio albums, Wilson likes to keep busy on other projects. In 2009 he worked with the National Theatre on a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. In 2011 he wrote a suite of songs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on the work of pioneering photographers Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. He also presented a documentary of the life of 50s singer Ruby Murray.

“I’m writing music for a stage play of Gulliver’s Travels at the moment,” he reveals. “I find all these things although many are not that commercial they really enrich me as an artist. I find I grow a lot. It’s really interesting being involved in these things rather than writing songs to get played on the radio.

“I love the twists and turns and little side routes I’ve gone down. I see myself as somebody who will always do these occasionally then come back to the main road.”

Another “side route” of Wilson’s is his Gramophone Club.

“My dad had a small collection of 78s that I was always playing,” he says. “I was fascinated by old records.

“When I started performing solo in 2002 I used an old gramophone as a prop beside me on stage to play interludes. Back in the days of MySpace I was approached by a guy called DJ78, from Norwich. He offered to DJ in the foyer of an arts centre before my gig. Then I met the Shellac Collective who are 78 enthusiasts and I’ve become part of that collective. They encouraged me to DJ in Belfast.

“It’s wonderful, this great music from 1960 and before – early rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, gospel, blues, lost and found.”

Duke Special plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on April 21. For further details visit