Monday, August 17, 2009

The Duke and the King on NPR "All Things Considered"

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GUY RAZ, host:

If Simon Felice ever finds himself in hell, he'll manage to somehow make it sound pretty good.

(Soundbite of song, "The Morning I Get to Hell")

Mr. SIMON FELICE (Member, The Duke and the King): (Singing) The morning that I get to Hell, the devil take me up in his Ferris wheel, show me all the scenes of love. Tapping, tick, tack, tap on his black high heels.

RAZ: This song is off the debut album by three musicians who call themselves The Duke and the King. Simon Felice, Robert Burke and Noel Haskins are the three musicians. They got together last winter to record the album in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

Britain's Daily Telegraph called Simon Felice, the greatest singer/songwriter you've never heard. Well, we hope until now.

Simon Felice and Robert Burke join me from our New York bureau. Welcome to the show.

Mr. ROBERT BURKE (Member, The Duke and the King): Good day, Guy.

Mr. FELICE: Hey.

RAZ: This song we're hearing, "The Morning I Get to Hell," it's about an arrival to hell and it' strangely uplifting, it's almost like you're greeting the sunrise.

Mr. BURKE: We figured when you get to hell, there's definitely going to be a drum machine playing there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, you know, I grew up reading Dante. It was one of the first things I'd ever read that sort of really took my breath away. And I figured, you know, this is just another way to look at it. Maybe there's Ferris wheel there, maybe there's a television screen playing your whole life back to you. So it's just another kind of circle, a hell is the new kind.

RAZ: Simon Felice, you performed for the last several years with your brothers. Your band is known as the Felice Brothers. You had achieved some critical acclaim. You were getting some attention. Why did you decide to put that on hold?

Mr. FELICE: Well, we were at a point where I was just recording some new songs in the winter time with Robert. And at that time, my longtime love and I, we lost our baby in a late-term miscarriage. And…

RAZ: I'm sorry.

Mr. FELICE: Thank you, Guy. But, you know, it turned my life upside down.

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. FELICE: And I needed to be closer to home, and the boys all went out on a tour and I had to stay home to take care of her. And in that time, I wrote a bunch of new songs sort of inspired by that. Robert and I were recording and making the record. And we spent about four months up in the woods and kind of snowed in, and a lot of sadness and a lot of joy happening. And we really hoped that it all comes through on the tape. We want it to be a hopeful record.

(Soundbite of song, "Still Remember Love)

Mr. BURKE: (Singing) Seven times in my life I'm looking back. Just like a mirror, you know, smoky, kind of light. You and me running wild in the fields of snow to a different drum in the winter sun, chasing crows. Still remember, still remember love.

RAZ: Simon Felice and Robert Burke, this song "Still Remember Love," can you tell me about it?

Mr. FELICE: Well, that's Robert singing lead on that one. And him and I wrote that song together, all the lyrics. It was a special day. I came into the studio. We were supposed to record another song we were thinking of. And he was sitting on the coach with this melody, singing. And I've known him long enough that when he's got a certain kind of look in his eye…

(Soundbite of laughter)

…that's it's time to work on that song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, you know, I said, man, you just keep strumming that, get the mic set up, and I took a walk and I wrote all the verses. And he had written the chorus, still remember love, just thinking about, you know, love lost and, you know, all the trials of what it means to sort of fall in love and fall out of love. And I think we all know about that one.

Mr. BURKE: (Singing) Still remember love. Uh-huh.

RAZ: Simon, can you tell me about the name, The Duke and the King? I'm sure a lot of our listeners will recognize these as characters from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Why did you choose the name for this band?

Mr. FELICE: You know, growing up, literature and books were really important to us, me and my brothers. And I got "Huckleberry Finn" when I was kid and I probably read it 10, 13 times since then.

You know, the thing about the book that really changed my life growing up was I was in a really racist town. And there was race riots against the black kids in the school. You know, in "Huckleberry Finn," it's just a story about a poor, little white kid in the South, instead of turning in this runaway slave, he becomes his best friend, you know?

And that resonated with me in a really powerful way. And then they meet the duke and the king and, you know, they have all these crazy adventures. And I figured it was an homage to that great gift I got as a child from learning that lesson.

RAZ: The duke and the king are charlatans. I mean, they're these grifters who are pretending to be European royalty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURKE: I'm the rightful Duke of Bridgewater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: But I mean, this album is so authentic that it's almost sort of an irony that you've taken that name for your band.

Mr. FELICE: Well, I remember that other story I read when I was a kid called "The Scarlet Letter." I thought about it in that way, you know, when you're - if you wear that name on your chest then it'll help not to make those bad mistakes, you know, kind of like that.

RAZ: We're talking with Simon Felice and Robert Burke. The musicians perform as the Duke and the King.

I want to ask you about the last track on this album. It's called "One More American Song," and it's one of the saddest songs I've heard in a while. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Mr. FELICE: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Marine. My grandpa was in the Marines. And I had a friend who did go into the Marines, and he fought in Iraq and he came back really hurt. And he was over there doing what he thought was right. And I wrote this about him, and thinking back to the time when we were all kids and sort of listening to the boom box and first realizing that sort of music was our religion. And I just hope and pray that our country some day figures out a way to not have to send our boys over there.

RAZ: You brought a guitar with you into the studio, into our New York studio. And together, you will take us out with the last track from your album, "One More American Song."

Simon Felice, Robert Burke, thank you so much.

Mr. FELICE: Thank you so much, Guy.

Mr. BURKE: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: They perform as The Duke and the King. Their first CD is called "Nothing Gold Can Stay."

(Soundbite of song, "One More American Song")

Mr. FELICE: (Singing) If I had a cinder block for every lie I told, I could have built us a house fine as any city block to keep us out of the cold. Because the winter is long and it's longer in a dead-end town with a gas tank rusting down the street. And cherry tree and every boom box playing loud, and we'd sing along. We'd sing until dawn. It's just one more American song. John was a quiet boy in school. Johnny with the fiery, red hair…