You could almost sense the desert landscape emanating from the songs of The Duke Spirit’s latest album, Neptune, lending an added degree of mystery and soulfulness to its overall sound. Though the album has a strong nautical theme, if you listen closely, another uncharted, yet arid presence can also be felt in the details. As singer Leila Moss describes it, “That’s why the whole theme of watery submersion is so funny, with all the emotional watery tolls… The album has so much watery symbolism. Somehow ‘the alcoholic bit’ of the album was taken to the desert to dry out.”

The band’s decision to transport themselves from their base in London to record in Joshua Tree, California was actually an easy one. A year or so earlier, they’d been invited to producer Chris Goss’s studio in that desert town to collaborate on a song for the UNKLE album. Drummer Olly Bets remembers, “We spent the day there and thought it was amazing: the environment, the atmosphere, the people… it sort of cemented it. The fact that you don’t feel like you’re in a recording studio has a huge impact and how the music sounds. It has a much more laid back kind of vibe. Even though they do a lot of heavy punk rock records there, there’s something extra, a much thicker and more expansive sound that’s quite unique to that place.”

Moss adds, “We all agreed it would be really brilliant and fun to take ourselves out of our usual environs, plus, all of us are fans of Queens of The Stone Age and I remember Luke [Ford, guitarist] looking Chris Goss up and thinking, ‘yeah, he might be a really interesting producer.’ I like things like that, when it’s coincidental and it’s synchronicity, and you were slightly led. It’s like, ‘well, that’s a decision made for you.’ There were greater forces at play and we felt we were supposed to make our record there.”

Their isolated studio environment with its rich, natural landscape proved to be the perfect inspiration, allowing the band to source out new ideas and help expand the album’s complex, emotional levels. Moss says, “I think there are more evocative moments and more atmosphere and that comes about because of the reality of the takes we were doing. We stood in a room with a huge window looking out over a raspberry-colored sunset one evening: a huge full moon, a massive expanse of sky unpolluted by city lights.” She adds, “It really does make for interesting takes because you feel different. You feel closer to the natural environment and closer to some spiritual resonance. If you can imagine, one minute you’re launching into this punk-rock song and suddenly you stop and someone calls you out to the patio, saying, ‘come and check out this view!’ It’s a moment where something in you stops and you’re quieted down so it’s just your heartbeat and you say, ‘yeah, it’s great.’ That sort of stopping and starting and taking moments to compose was our experience. It was special.”

Recording with innovative rock producer Goss proved to be exactly the kind of inspiration and push The Duke Spirit had hoped for. Moss recalls, “At times, Chris would talk about how a song should look, saying ‘this song should be like a decorated Hindu elephant lolopping along.’ He would say, ‘you’re here to gild the lily, you’re not here to do fancy trickery or add tons of stuff.’ We were there to look at something that’s precious and simple, just gild the edges of the petals of the songs, not drench them with tons of digital effects or anything like that…” The band was excited to explore new ways of adding harmonies and other subtle touches to color in their songs. In the past, it was something they might not have done for fear of making their work sound “too pretty.” Moss adds, laughing, “Chris would say, ‘A song like ‘My Sunken Treasure’ or ‘Dog Roses’ is beautiful, so why worry about it? Let’s just enjoy it being beautiful.’ This kind of thing was great [to hear], coming from a big, tough guy like Chris.”

Neptune definitely shows the band’s growth, reaching to new territories beyond their well-loved debut, Cuts Across The Land. For album number two, the quieter moments of The Duke Spirit’s music glows, resonating with as much fervor as their harder rock parts. Bets says, “We’re quite happy to just call ourselves a rock and roll band, that’s what we are. We kind of like the idea of taking from more sources and more influences than just rock and roll. We have that heavier dynamic with what we do, but we’ve also got the softer stuff, and the softer songs have got to be really beautiful… we like blues, we like soul, whatever works can be infused into what we’re doing.”

—Madeline Virbasius-Walsh/photos by Tear-n Tan

  1. Great interview.