Frequency: The Duke Spirit

HIGH ELEVATIONNonstop road trips, the Mojave Desert, soul music and vintage guitars boost spirits

In his play King John, Shakespeare wrote, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” His metaphor often gets paraphrased today as “gilding the lily,” an adage studio producer Chris Goss adopted as his personal mantra when guiding the Duke Spirit toward its latest full-length, Neptune (Shangri-La, 2008). Though the idiom suggests that adorning something already beautiful merely results in hyperbole, Goss — best known as a producer for Queens of the Stone Age — applied it differently to the five-piece rock band, which was looking to take its guitar rock in a new direction.

Hailing from London and invoking a punk ethos through straightforward verse-chorus-verse songwriting and an energetic live performance, the group — Liela Moss (vocals), Luke Ford (guitar), Dan Higgins (guitar), Toby Butler (bass) and Olly Betts (drums) — has garnered comparisons to The Pixies and Sonic Youth. Though they receive consistent, positive reviews on their live shows (they toured relentlessly for almost four solid years), their studio recordings received almost equally consistent inattention. They've had two consecutive label deals go sour, which yielded both an EP and a full-length, respectively, but neither project was backed with much distribution. Cuts Across the Land, the band's 2005 debut, didn't see a Stateside release until a year later, at which point the band had already been touring extensively through the U.S.

After their second label dropped them (Universal, which picked them up after their first — a tiny UK indie — bankrupted), they spent a year without a deal, not knowing if they'd get to record a sophomore effort. Then they got picked up by Shangri-La, which paired them with Goss and sent them to the American Mojave Desert to record at Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, Calif. The band eagerly embraced Goss' “gild the lily” approach.

“It was just adding these little colors and textures into the songs,” Butler says. “Not necessarily adding a whole piano part all across a whole song. A piano might just crop up in little bits of places and ways, making the song sound slightly more layered and have a more dimensional depth to it, with bits of noises coming out of nowhere and not appearing again.”

To achieve this, the band stuck to its old songwriting formula at first. Various members would write a melody or chorus, usually on a guitar. They'd take the idea to Moss' flat, where they keep a minimal home studio with a small mixer. They demoed each song at that early stage — using Pro Tools to cut and paste together recorded guitar bits — rather than taking the idea to a rehearsal space and flushing out all its parts in full.

Entering the studio with a set of song trajectories, they used Goss' methodology to add texture to the songs. “The studio we recorded in is just this Aladdin's cave of loads of organs and crazy guitars and pedals and amps,” Butler says. “It's like wandering around this crazy shop full of all this cool stuff. So literally when we were looking to color in the songs a bit more, we'd just start tapping on whatever was laying around. There was so much great stuff laying around that it was really easy — and it was all stuff we were really into.”

The band tends toward the sounds of vintage '70s instruments, using several late-'70s Fender Precision basses, a Gibson ES-335 guitar, Gibson acoustics and Epiphone Sheratons. Before even heading to Rancho de la Luna, Higgins purchased an Autoharp (made famous by June Carter Cash) and wrote the track “Sovereign” with it. Other tracks feature Hammond and Lowrey organs, a Vox Jaguar and a Farfisa Mini Compact. “Echo Song” features bits of sound that might pass for backward guitar or a dated organ but are really just chopped-up and tweaked guitar parts.

“The first album was basically just a guitar album,” Butler says. “It was kind of a raw, punk-rock album. This time we wanted to broaden the sound. As soon as we decided we wanted to do that, we kind of freed ourselves of any restrictions.”

One influence that made its way onto Neptune was also a result of the group's relentless tour schedule. In the van, in the dressing room and at hotels, Duke Spirit members found themselves increasingly popping in soul tunes. “It's sort of the one thing we all started listening to at the same time,” Butler says. “We never wanted to be a dark, gloomy band. We always wanted to be quite celebratory. We want to make people move. We want it to be sexy. Soul music encapsulates all of those things. Just listening to those melodies — those amazing hooks that you have in a chorus — that's something we really aspire to now, to get really killer hooks for a chorus and horn lines that can really grab you.”