Playing the Dukebox
Duke Special, aka Peter Wilson, gets recognised for his role in children’s TV, but it’s as a successful singer-songwriter that he’s most renowned. As he gears up for the three-day Belsonic music festival in Belfast, he tells Edwin McFee about his rise to the top
Next weekend Duke Special, one of Ulster’s finest purveyors of perverted pop tunes, will curate his very own festival as part of the three-day Belsonic bash in Custom House Square, Belfast.
Delightfully dubbed “Dukebox”, the day-long affair will feature acts that the Lisburn-based performer feels is close to his own villain heart as well as a show-stopping headline performance by the man himself.
It’s possibly the bravest undertaking he’s ever attempted and, when this writer met up with him in a special blacked- out VIP pod on the Belfast Wheel, he was literally buzzing with excitement.
“Dukebox came from a desire to do something different every time I play in Belfast,” grins the Duke, AKA Peter Wilson. “The last few shows I’ve done here (which included five nights with a different theme each night at the Empire, the big rock ‘n’ roll show at the Ulster Hall and the gig with the orchestra in the Waterfront) have been quite grand and I was eager to see if I could top them.
“The bill consists of acts such as Jerry Fish, the Magic Numbers and Bell X1 — basically artists who I’d toured with or admired from afar,” he continues.
“The festival’s not just music either. There’s going to be art workshops, an outdoor speaker’s corner which will feature slam poetry and up-and-coming writers too. I hope everyone comes down early.”
Peter is also keen to point out that anyone expecting Dukebox to be a vanity project for his own (non-existent) ego is completely missing the point as the performer wants nothing more than the gig goers of Northern Ireland to see some great acts.
“I want Dukebox to be an annual thing,” he reveals. “I was reluctant to do it initially because I didn’t want people to think I was trying to create my own empire or anything like that. It’s not like that at all.
“Basically I just want to play a great gig and what I want Dukebox to eventually become is a vehicle to bring amazing talents that I’ve seen whilst on tour to Belfast. I also aim to put on something really high quality in the city and I like the idea of getting acts from across the water over and saying ‘this is my Belfast, here’s what I love about the place.’”
This generosity of spirit has been a quality that has been present ever since the first Duke Special performance in the now defunct Larry’s Piano Bar in Belfast in 2002. Now, with three EPs (2002’s Lucky Me, 2004’s My Villain Heart and 2005’s Your Vandal) and two studio albums under his belt (2006’s Songs from the Deep Forest and 2008’s I Never Thought This Day Would Come) Peter is using his reputation as one of the country’s brightest lights to bring over acts that are challenging and diverse.
“I always bring in support acts that I think the crowd will love. However, I realise that artists like Thomas Truax mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t please everyone. I brought a drag act on tour once, and we turned up at the Opera House and some people actually walked out.
“I love throwing a few wild cards to the audience and seeing how they react. In my opinion the lazy thing is to listen to music that sounds like other bands you like.”
And no one could ever describe Duke Special as “lazy”. One of the hardest-working performers on the circuit, he’s about to try his hand at something new in September when he stars in a new production of Bertholt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children and the singer relishes the chance to try his hand at something new.
“Well I’ve just finished the first two weeks of rehearsals and I have also written music for it as well,” he says.
“It’s on in the National Theatre in London and the last time anyone saw a performance of the play was in 2006 and it featured Meryl Streep in the cast. I’m about to go into a whole new world and I know it’s going to really affect me.
“I’m going to absorb so much from doing it and I don’t think my music will ever be the same again after it, and that’s the way it should be. As an artist I need to keep changing and growing and taking in new influences. I think it’s really healthy that I go away and tour lots of different places.
“Remember when you were at school and you’d come back after the summer holidays and you could hardly recognise your mates because they’d grown so much? Well that’s the way I want it to be for me and Belfast.”
Of course Peter is no stranger to the world of acting. He recently starred in an episode of the kids TV show Sesame Tree and while the tone of the programme isn’t quite as brooding as Mother Courage, he did find it challenging in other ways.
“Sesame Tree is a mixed blessing,” he laughs. “The acting skills from me and the band were definitely sketchy to say the least. I had quite a few lines and acting with puppets can be tricky. A guy called Paul Currie from Belfast did most of the puppet work and he is one of the most talented people I know. I have to say, they dangled a huge carrot in front of me by offering to let me appear on the final episode if I wrote the theme music for it. How could I refuse that? Even now, people come up to me in trains in London and stuff and ask about it all the time. A guy once came up and said — are you Duke Special? My children love you.”
With Dukebox just around the corner and a long stint in the West End to contend with, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Peter will be taking a break next year, but he reveals that nothing could be further from the truth.
“Well I’ve recorded an EP based on Huckleberry Finn and another based on the silent movie star Hector Mann that I’ll be selling at Dukebox and then in the spring I’m bringing out a new Duke Special album. I’m just going to record it when I’m ready though.
“I’ve also got my work visa for America. I was on a watch list as someone dodgy has the same name as me and it took them six months to figure out that that wasn’t me, but now it’s sorted. It’s been a lifelong dream to do a coast-to-coast in America but we’ll see what happens.”
Dukebox is at Custom House Square, Belfast on August 29 as part of the Belsonic festival. Gates open at 3pm, tickets are £29 and available from www.belsonic.com