Q&A: Duke Special
On Brecht, Steve Albini, and meeting Paul Auster
The critics had the knives out for your recent foray into theatre, didn't they? Reviewing Fiona Shaw's West End version of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, for which you wrote the music, one writer said the production was "full of sound and gimmickry, and signifying almost nothing".
Overall, the reviews were great. There was one particularly amusing one. The critic didn't like [director] Deborah Warner. He hated Brecht. He said the best thing about the play was me. Even then he said "they bring on this white guy in dreadlocks". I discovered theatre critics often know what they like before they go in.
Having started out playing rough-house bars in Belfast, a hushed theatre must have been quite a change.
What I found strange is that you'd do a song and then go off stage for 20 minutes. Your adrenaline is going everywhere. For the first couple of weeks myself and the whole band were standing at the edge with our scripts, panicking in case we missed our cues. But we did 65 shows. After a while you kind of instinctively know "okay, I've got 10 minutes. I'll go backstage and read a book".
And you don't get people jumping out of their chairs dancing at the theatre.
The audience is there and you are presenting something to them. And at the very end you get a sense of whether they enjoyed it or not.
You're reprising the Brecht music for your new live show, along with your musical paean to Paul Auster's Book of Illusions, The Silent World of Hector Mann. No chance of you throwing in Freewheel at the end, we suppose?
Er, no. I very consciously wanted to do something different this time around. It wasn't a case of doing the greatest hits. This is a step into the theatrical world. It is somewhere between a concert and the play. Rather than mixing the songs up, we're doing it in two halves. Each recording has a quite distinct mood and tone.
For the Hector Mann album you went to Chicago to work with indie guru Steve Albini, a man notorious for not suffering fools.
I loved it actually.
Really? A lot of bands find the experience rather challenging.
He's a master engineer. He wouldn't describe himself as a producer. If you're looking for a producer, he wouldn't be the guy. He records what you give him. There were a couple of occasions where we said "what do you think?" And he was like, well, "I have no opinion about it." You're kind of on your own to make your own calls. You have to call on your own instincts. A very good experience, I think.
Did you get any feedback from Auster?
Yes, we went to lunch. He was over giving the Beckett Address in Ireland. I gave him a copy of the album and he loved it. I was over playing New York. I invited him to the show. He couldn't come. He invited me to lunch. We chatted in this little deli in Brooklyn. Talking to him was fascinating. He writes everything by hand and types it up. He has an assistant to sort his email and stuff. On the surface his books have this narrative thing. But underneath there are always multi-layers of intrigue and mystery.
Duke Special plays Dolans, Limerick, tonight, Cork School of Music, Saturday, Model Theatre, Sligo, Sunday, Roisin Dubh, Galway, Monday, Backstage, Longford, Tuesday and Tripod, Dublin, Friday