Mile High Music Festival Q&A: The Duke Spirit

Forming in London in 2003, the Duke Spirit has evolved a sound that brings together elements of garage rock, soul, the blues and swirly, noisy atmospheric rock. Rather than sounding like's trying to do too many things at once, act's music sounds rich with textures and emotional landscapes. A perfect mixture of the gritty and the sublime, the Duke Spirit employs an impressive palette of sounds and moods. Frontwoman Liela Moss cuts a commanding figure on stage with an image reminiscent of punk-era Debbie Harry and Bjork from her days in the Sugarcubes. With numerous international tours and multiple television appearances under its belt, the outfit's live performances are revelatory for their confidence and seemingly boundless energy. We caught up with the refreshingly frank and thoughtful Liela Moss en route to Denver for this weekend's Mile High Music Festival.

Westword (Tom Murphy): What are the origins of your band's name?

Liela Moss: It came from a mystery book. A friend of mine used to be in the Cocteau Twins, Simon Raymonde, he has boxes and boxes of old touring stuff around his office -- loads of stuff from years ago. When we were starting out, we were around there struggling for a name. He suggested we look in his old tour boxes. He used to read stuff that hadn't gotten to print yet from publishers. It was from one of those; it was a mystery novel. It was a page, and it was the only thing that stood out in capital letters. We all agreed there was something essentially noble in it.

WW: Your band has been called "garage rock"? Do you feel that this is accurate? It seems to me there's much more R&B and soul -- among other things -- in your sound.

LM: I think probably people are referring to some of the trashier songs on the first album. The more sort of abrasive songs on that record. And perhaps, too, our initial sound -- it was a bit rougher than where we've got to now. But it was one of those lazy things that ended up on Wikipedia and then another twenty-five journalists use it. Then people think you're devoted only to any band that was on the Nuggets boxed set and garage rock in general when in fact your tastes are much broader than that. That's just the nature of communicating in only sound bites. Of course I think we have a much broader sound than that.

WW:  I feel lucky to have caught the Duke Spirit during a life-changing show opening for Mercury Rev. Your band was surprisingly great and filled out the bill nicely. I was wondering how you got hooked up with that tour?

LM: Yeah, it was snowing, and it was icy. It was an agent type of thing -- the political side of that. I was a big fan of Deserter's Songs; I love that album, so we were happy to jump on board. I remember we sold T-shirts afterward and people talked to us.

WW: What was it about "Baby Doll" by Alex Chilton that drew you to cover that song?

LM: It was this funny thing we did with this little project we did with McQueen's clothes. They had incorporated this image of a Blythe doll into their advertising campaign. I think they thought it looked a little like me because I have quite a wide face. We were sort of joking about this sort of doll character; we thought the campaign was almost a bit naff because of this doll thing. But it was kind of funny, kind of strange. They wanted a piece of music to go with it as soon as possible -- a new piece. It was right at the end of a tour, and we thought, "You've got to be joking, we can't write a new piece of material by next week; we're on the road." So we just joked about cover versions. We thought we should do "Dolly Dagger" by Jimi Hendrix. We thought about doing just some filthy, quite nasty doll-related things. They came back and said, "No, couldn't you do"...and were really naff with it. And we were like, "I know, even better, let's do this song." Alex Chilton, completely out of it, so fucking off his tree. It's really basic, it's really jangly, it's a very raw recording. Someone else comes in on the recording and starts talking. It's so totally someone junked out. We thought it would be hilarious and it became a kind of in joke with the band. Doing a song that went with that ad campaign originated from a really trashy source. I love Alex Chilton but that song was from one of his really bad periods.

WW:  Why did you call your last album Neptune?

LM: As it's been pointed out before, there are lots of references to water and the sea. I was trying to work out for myself why I was using so many water symbols. I'm not entirely sure. It became quite an enjoyable thing as an artist to play around with. That symbol can be so delicate and rolling and breaking. Moving and transforming, cleaning and cleansing. It could also be the huge power of the sea. It can be something you cannot contain or resist. It could be a brutal force. It kept recurring and I wondered what was going on with like it was some kind of sea god character. It sort of tied that up into one motion.

WW:  That song "Into the Fold" is one of your best songs because it is so sonically diverse and driving. What inspired its sound and lyrics?

LM: The sound, I guess, was punk rock. It's what we love to listen to. Other songs are ballads and reflect other tastes. This is us feeling absolutely like we're hurtling toward a fire. It's us in a more urgent situation. "Into the Fold" is probably one of my more spiritual moments. I'm thinking about what happens when an audience or any group of humans get together, you're always stronger in numbers, I think "Into the Fold" is sort of everyone throwing themselves towards their own best self and get together. As a singer in a band, you probably get to see more than the audience realizes, standing slightly above and in the middle of tons of people gathering together and kind of, as I said, being their best selves. Everyone is united and everyone's at their most human when they're seeing something at the show that is pure and authentic. I think it's a bit of a response to literally seeing that happen and also gathering around to doing something important collectively.

WW:  On "Dog Roses" there's a beautifully Nico-era Velvet Underground vibe with a touch of early solo Bjork. What were you trying to evoke with that song?

LM: All those references are great because I absolutely adore them. I think we made that song to have lots of space and to put chills up the back of your spine. You might be listening to it with headphones somewhere and feeling like you're in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It has kind of a marching beat so I kind of picture myself sort of stomping through dry leaves on the forest floor and I'm completely alone. And I can't decide whether I might be slightly frightened or whether I'm enjoying being alone and thinking about memories. That's kind of what I was trying to evoke but I try not to be too specific so that listeners can create their own imagery.

WW:  Are there any singers that have been especially inspirational to you?

LM: Well, Bjork, definitely. She's someone I grew up listening to and have seen several times. There are just so many. Quite a lot of male singers, actually. There's a certain lineage of sort of dark, deeper vocals that I doubt that I sort of can emulate at all, but I notice they're with me. And that line goes from Leonard Cohen into Bryan Ferry and out through Nick Cave. Or maybe it's just that they're such sharp dressers [laughs]. Then of course, girl groups are really important. Patti Smith is essential when I'm getting myself together. If I'm going to tell the truth and not just name the coolest shit, I sing along to everything on the Motown boxed set -- Diana Ross "Touch Me in the Morning," I remember learning all the words and screeching along. Freddy Mercury, I was such a big Queen fan. I'm not really sure that has developed into anything beyond certain mannerisms with the microphone stand. And last night I wore some tight leather shorts that I think even he would have been proud of. They all go into the mix, don't they?

WW:  You come from a fine arts background?

LM: I did a foundation art course. For a minute I had aspirations of going to a fine arts college. I did it for a year and realized it wasn't what I wanted to do. The notion of being alone in the studio and working on material, visual things didn't seem enough. But I met Luke [Ford] there and we moved to London at the same time. I actually ended up doing literature and Spanish. I'm more kind of a chatterbox who likes to write stuff down and talk too much.

WW:  I recently read a review of your band written for the BBC a few years back that focused on your band's image and mixed it in with other odd observations. Have you found how you're portrayed in the press to be different in the UK compared to the US, Europe and Australia?

LM: Yes. The UK does really focus a bit more on image. We've had great critical pieces in Britain and we haven't gotten any kind of gripes with what's been said. But sometimes you read things and you think people haven't gotten what you're trying to put across. Like people seem to assume that we're some fashiony, into nonsense, more concerned with how we look rather than what we do. The truth couldn't be further from that. We're all insecure, skuzzy, we have no idea what we look like. We all get embarrassed when we see footage back.

In America there are comments about our look but they always get straight into the energy. Americans and Europeans get at the energy, the kinetic focus, which we really appreciate. We're on tour and energy is sort of a premium because if you haven't got much, the show's going to be shit. It doesn't matter if you look cool and have a fancy pair of leather shorts, it's not going to be any good. When we've had reviews where people realize the force within a group, you feel like they've understood you. The UK has sort of missed that a little too often. I think that's because in the UK, we're smaller and perhaps a little bit more pretentious because we think we invent culture. To a certain degree that's correct. We know when it's really happening when culture pushes up against the mundane. When you come around to the Midwest and see the mundane but then you encounter the counter-culture, you get that that's what important about culture.

WW:  On your bio it says that you never leave home without a copy of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Is that true?

LM: [laughs] I would almost say that's not true and that I was kind of joking. But no, I've actually got in my luggage the complete works of T.S. Eliot. It was sort of a truth. I like to have his work nearby. I just love his poetry and I don't know a huge amount about poetry in general. I know a little bit, but with Four Quartets there's a thin volume that easily fits into a handbag. So probably I was trying to think of what to write in that bio and it was on the table. It's a half-truth because I take it out of my bag quite a lot. If you had phoned me on another tour, I probably would feel I was lying but I actually have it in front of me in my luggage. I return to his writing a lot.

He'll describe sensations, feelings and depths of emotion that must have occurred after hours and days and he'll condense it into the first two lines of a piece of work. And you know that he's on to something. It's weird and difficult at times and then it slaps you in the face with some nugget of truth. Also, he wrote I think most of his best work when he was in London and being from London there are so many little things that signal... "Aw he walked over this bridge," or he overheard someone in a really dirty English pub boozing. It's a very London experience. Interestingly, he was an American. I just have an affinity for his work. If you read all his works, you'd find little bits and pieces that have gotten into our songs but I won't tell you what they are. Maybe that'll encourage fans to go and read his work.

The Duke Spirit perform at 1:30 p.m. this Saturday, July 18 at the Mile High Music Festival in the Westword Tent.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.