THE Duke & The King have been picking up great reaction to their debut album Nothing Gold Can Stay which has been hailed as a classic of Americana. This soul-folk-glam ensemble mixes influences as diverse as Marvin Gaye, The Band, Smokey Robinson and Paul Simon. They take their name from two travelling hustlers in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
We caught up with The Duke (Simone Felice) and The King (Bobby ‘Bird’ Burke) on their current UK tour to talk about trashing guitars, music as ‘religion’ and the pitfalls of being famous!
Q. Which artists did you listen to when you were growing up?
Simone Felice: I grew up in an area that was really rich in the tradition of music. I grew up around Woodstock, New York in the shadow of all the music associated with that area. So, it was the first stuff I heard when I was cognizant enough to understand music aged four-years-old. My folks were playing The Beatles, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell – it was the first music I really heard. So I just feel lucky to have grown up in the ’70s and got to hear that stuff when it was fresh and real and new.
Q. Do you enjoy mixing up musical genres as a result of these influences?
Bobby ‘Bird’ Burke: We’re really not afraid of sticking to the rules of certain stylistic boundaries. We love toying with the many beautiful forms of music we’ve been inspired by. We don’t allow boundaries to limit us.
Q. Do you consider yourself to be musical rebels?
Bobby ‘Bird’ Burke: I feel that we’re a little bit of that. We’re not afraid of taking chances inside the music genre that you sometimes get pigeon-holed into. For us, Americana is just as much Sam Cooke as it is Neil Young or Bob Dylan. And Neil Young’s Canadian! Ultimately we like to think of music as a language that everyone can understand around the planet and I think everyone vibrates more or less the same way. We don’t feel limited by vibrating under the rules of one format!
Q. The Duke and the King’s songs convey a yearning and nostalgia for childhood and youth. Where do those feelings come from?
Simone Felice: When we’re children the world hasn’t got its claws into us and we still believe in magic. When you’re a child you’re just enamoured by the simple things and you have wonder in your eyes. When I close my eyes, I try to get back to that feeling before I knew too much, before man’s whole twisted hold took over us.
Q. If You Ever Get Famous on the current album is about the pitfalls of being successful. What are you feelings about fame and stardom?
Simone Felice: I wrote that song at a point in my life where I’d been exposed to a lot of fame and famous people when I was playing in the Felice Brothers. We were travelling around and touring with people who were more famous. I wrote it as a mantra to myself – basically, ‘don’t forget about where you come from’ and the people who love you and care about you. You see people get famous and they change. It was a very emotional thing for me to write because it was at a crossroads in my life with the music and my career. The song was a catalyst for change and doing what I’m doing now with The Duke and the King.
Q. How would you describe the new Duke and the King album, which is due to come out later this year?
Bobby ‘Bird’ Burke: It’s a wallop. A huge wallop! What’s really exciting about this record is that this band has a really special energy and magic. Luckily, the new record will be reflecting a lot of how our relationships have developed and how we’ve come together musically. Everyone’s voice is on the record and everybody is singing together. Stylistically, I would call it “the melting pot of music”. It’s an exciting thing. It’s pretty eclectic. It’s ‘Neil Young caught in the ‘hood of Detroit’!
Q. Does it cover similar themes to Nothing Gold Can Stay?
Simone Felice: You’ll have to judge that for yourself. Some of the themes are similar to the first record so we cross-over a bit. But we’re going to go in some different directions. I wrote a couple of love songs for the new record. You’ll see some new and different highways – the river branches but the river always comes to the sea. It’s been a great experience. I can’t wait for everybody to hear it.
Q. There’s a lot of warmth on stage between the band members – tell us about the relationships and dynamics within the band…
Bobby ‘Bird’ Burke: The relationship we have together comes from the fact that we absolutely love each other dearly. The band was a family that was waiting to come together. Simone and I have been friends for almost 15 years. As soon as we met we were instant buddies. When no one was around to see us, we used to sit around and write screenplays and act them out for days. And we’d write songs. This was during a period of our lives when people would just laugh at us. We were making absolutely no money – and we didn’t care. But our hearts and spirits were just nourished by allowing ourselves to go in that wonderful, creative place.
It was the same thing with Nowell – we had a relationship that was developing. Then Simi (Stone) came into the picture. I’ve know Simi for years from Woodstock which is home for us – and I was always very impressed by her. One day we were doing a show in Woodstock and she was doing a solo set opening up for us and we asked her to sit in and jam out with us ‘cos she’s such a great musician. Then Simi came into a rehearsal and we replaced around eight other musicians in one shot! She had to be in the band – she’s a magical goddess. We just embraced her with open hearts and were really happy that she was the sister we’d been looking for all our life.
Q. At one gig on this tour you likened yourselves to the “early Christians”. Do you consider yourself to be musical evangelists?
Simone Felice: No, we don’t really see ourselves as evangelists. But I think the beauty of all religion is that it starts in a pure way, whether it’s punk rock or any kind of religion. When we’re on stage it’s like everyone in the audience believes in something, whether it’s the songs we’re singing or that feeling we have in the room together. It’s that feeling that you can just ‘let go’ and take your armour off – and there’s room for new things to come out of you. That’s a lot of what the band is about – being honest with ourselves and with the music. We feel very lucky to travel around and meet people – and that people respond to our music like they have on this tour.
Q. At last night’s gig you trashed your acoustic guitar in a true Pete Townshend moment – what was going on there?
Simone Felice: It was the first time I’ve ever done that in my life! The guitar was playing up so we had a moment together – a little jamboree. I felt like it was the right thing to do!
A highlight of your live show is One More American Song. Is it intended as a political statement?
Simone Felice: It was about friend of mine who hung around my town. It wasn’t meant as a political statement although there’s an underlying core in the song that speaks about the decline of America as a great super-power – a frail concept. But I’ve seen our country fall apart at the seams so that’s what the song is about.
Q. You had a near death experience as a teenager? How has that affected your outlook on life?
Simone Felice: Greatly. I was 12-years-old so it was a long time ago but it’s always stayed with me. I did die in the hospital but I came back – so I always feel my time here is precious and I have to do something with it.
Q. A lot of your songs are about redemption. Do you think music has a healing power?
Simone Felice: Yes, I do think music is a big healer – and poetry too. It saved my life before and would never want to take a pharmaceutical drug or go to a psychiatrist. If you have a hard time, you listen to music and I think that’s better than any pharmaceutical drug.
Q. You’ve also a writer and poet so how do your music and writing co-exist?
Simone Felice: These days I put all my poetry into my songwriting. But I’m an author too and I’ve just finished my first official novel – Black Jesus – and there’s a company who are going to put my book out next year. That’s really exciting for me.
Simone will be coming back to London (hot news!) on May 4, 2010, to play an acoustic date – an exclusive solo performance at Camden Hawley Arms!