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Sep 25, 2008

English indie-soul rockers The Duke Spirit endured broken bones and label drama to come back stronger than ever.

By Michael Tedder

Initially, 2006 wasn’t very kind to The Duke Spirit. The English rock ’n’ soul outfit had formed three years earlier when flaxen-hued singer Leila Moss met guitarist Luke Ford at art school. And considering the year they were having, most sensible people would opt to abandon their dreams of music and return to higher education.
For starters, in the middle of a lengthy American tour, the group had all of their equipment stolen during a stop in Portland, Ore.
“At first, we were really quite pissed off. But you know, it’s weird how things work out,” says the drummer, Ollie “The Kid” Betts. “When our gear got stolen in Portland, we were left high and dry. But we were totally overwhelmed at people’s generosity. We had people driving two hours to lend me a drum kit…It restored our faith in people within the course of a day.”
Then, on the night before they were to play the prestigious Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—a launching ground for the careers of many celebrated acts—bassist Toby Butler broke his elbow. Betts says the group was “gutted.” To compound problems even further, the group had recently parted ways with its original label, Polydor.
But apparently one doesn’t get to play in a group named after nobility and fortitude by mere chance.
“I think it just made [Butler] more determined to not miss out on Coachella the next day, and he was just a complete trooper,” Betts remarks. “He sat down and took some Vicodin to relieve the pain and got on with it, and that was really great. It made us stronger and brought us closer.”
Not only was that Coachella performance the group’s most high-profile U.S. appearance up to that point, but “the new record label in the U.K. and in America [You Are Here and Shangri-La, respectively] saw us play. And the reason why we are doing it now is because of that gig,” Betts say. “It really makes you feel that things happen for a reason.”

The Step and the Walk: Watch our video interview with The Duke Spirit.

American Spirit
After meeting at art school, Moss and Ford hooked up with Butler and moved to London to start a band.
Their first group, called Solomon, imploded. But amid the rubble, the three Americans were introduced to the individuals, including guitarist Dan Higgins, who would soon become The Duke Spirit’s founding members. The new unit bonded over a shared love of hard-edged indie rock bands like Sonic Youth and The Pixies as well as pop songwriters like Otis Redding. (During a recent tour stop in Detroit, the group woke up at a decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll hour to visit the Hitsville U.S.A studio at the Motown Museum. “It was brilliant!” raves Betts.)
The group’s debut album, Cuts Across The Land, was highly lauded by the often-fickle British rock press following its release in 2006. Betts says that for the debut album, “we literally went from the demo stage straight into the studio” before the outfit had done much touring. “In hindsight, we were an inexperienced band.”
But while many U.K. groups will play five or six dates in major American cities and then wonder why they never made it in the States, The Duke Spirit followed up their debut album by playing close to 300 American shows.
After a few years on the road, the group gelled together into a real unit, honing the material that would make up this year’s Neptune during sound checks and live gigs. The results were songs like the driving “Into the Fold” and the cinematic “My Sunken Treasure ,” both of which blend noisy riffs, bubblegum melodies and vintage pop vocals.

Listen to two of The Duke Spirit’s songs: “Into the Fold” and “My Sunken Treasure.”

The group’s fascination with America continued when it came time to record the songs that would become Neptune. They recruited producer Chris Goss, who they admired for his work with former tourmates Queens of the Stone Age, and laid down tracks at his desert studio.
“We’d recorded a lot in London in quite sterile studios, but working with Chris was different, because he was so laid back in his approach, and he brought the best out of us at the time,” Betts says. “And the studio ranch was just insane…it’s just like a bungalow in the desert. It was like an alien environment for us.”

What’s currently tickling the ears of The Duke Spirit’s main songwriters? In our interactive graphic, found out. Surprisingly, it’s a little bit country.

Tune for Neptunes
When writing songs, The Duke Spirit typically brings Moss a rough outline of a verse, chorus and structure.  Based on the excitement level in his voice, what happens next continues to surprise.
“She will just kind of jump in and adlib, and she’s just really great at developing melodies. That just comes so natural to her,” Betts says. “I’ve never heard her—ever, ever, in all the years I’ve known her—hit a bum note. I think singing comes as naturally as talking to Leila, and it shows.”
For “My Sunken Treasure,” Neptune’s standout song, the group wanted to highlight those vocals with an epic ballad that recalled their hero—the notorious girl-group producer Phil Spector.
“We love the whole Spector production—layers of reverb and wall-of-sound kind of atmosphere. So I think from the off we had a real definite idea of how that song was going to come out.”
The unabashedly classic feel of the song is perfect for a group that never hides its roots.
“I think one thing about us is, a lot of bands claim to be completely original, and we’re not like that. Luke was saying the other day—and it’s so true—there’s no harm in wearing your influences on your sleeve,” Betts says.
“There are people—young kids—that perhaps haven’t heard a Phil Spector song or known that they’ve heard it. And then they hear ‘Sunken Treasure.’ It’s your way of getting people into your influences and sharing your love of music.”

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