The Duke Spirit

Raspberry Sunsets

Apr 01, 2008 Photography by Crackerfarm Spring 2008 - Flight of the Conchords
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It’s hard to be a romantic anymore. Rationality has invaded nearly every facet of our lives. Feelings can be explained away as a set of chemical reactions, an anomaly to be treated pharmaceutically. We’re losing our connection to the natural world, to ourselves even. But remember, it’s a choice.

Take Leila Moss, vocalist of The Duke Spirit. When she recalls tracking vocals at Rancho de la Luna, the Joshua Tree, California studio, she doesn’t linger on technicalities: “Rancho offered that really evocative potential of playing while you’re watching a raspberry sunset go down in the window,” she says. “Or a full moon, with the moonlight shining down on you while you’re singing.”

Leila and her bandmates, Toby Butler (bass), Luke Ford (guitar), Daniel Higgins (guitar), and Olly Betts (drums) were there in the desert recording Neptune, their full-length followup to 2005’s debut album, Cuts Across the Land (which was released in the U.S. in 2006). Rancho de la Luna seems an ideal place to give yourself over to the surroundings, and escape the clock-watching that comes with the exorbitant rates of larger pro studios. “Inside it’s full of loads of gear, lots of strange organs, keyboards, and guitars,” says Moss. “There’s a real arcadian feel to the place, lots of very quirky, kooky antiques and kitsch nonsense all over the place, which gives it lots of humor. It’s just a very vibrant place to hang around and make music.”

The band worked with producer Chris Goss, known as the “godfather of desert rock” for his work with Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. The fact that the work of such six-string luminaries went to tape at Rancho was not lost on The Duke Spirit’s guitarists. “We didn’t really bring our own guitars over, because we knew that they were going to have all this stuff,” Ford says. The guitars on the previous album pale in comparison to this mess, the blistering fuzz and clatter of Ford and Higgins enveloping each song, ripe for adoption by eager air guitarists everywhere.

On Cuts Across the Land, Moss’ soulful rasp (and persistent tambourine) was the centerpiece, nearly eclipsing the rest of the band. Neptune, however, reveals a united front, a group of musicians awash in dynamics and wonderfully connected. This is no surprise given the two-year period of incessant touring between the two albums. “You have to realize the first album was recorded at a time when we, as a group, had not toured,” Moss explains. “We’re kind of a unit now, rather than the sum of our parts.”

“This time around, it was more about expanding the themes that we’d touched upon, and bringing in all these other elements and other instruments,” Ford says. “We just wanted to do a little bit more, you know?”

They did a lot more. The result is a quite glorious rock record, full of bluesy hooks, gritty guitars and attitude. Songs like “Send a Little Love Token” or “Into the Fold” are guitar-driven stomps that would make Sonic Youth proud, with Moss fiercely overseeing the proceedings. “My Sunken Treasure” is a laid-back Motown-flavored track, with its catchy shuffle and simple melody. “Lassoo” is like a noise-rock Pretenders, perfectly complemented, like some of the other songs, by a horn section. “It was cool to play with horn players,” Ford says. “We’d done that anyway, on the first record, but we just wanted to make it more of an integral part.”

Augmenting each track is a wealth of arrangement touches: horn sections, glockenspiel, autoharp, organs, and a very healthy dose of piano. Goss helped the band add just the right elements to each song. “He’d say, ‘There’s not a lot you need to do here. All we need to do is gild the lily.’  That was his phrase,” Moss says. “I really appreciate that notion.”

In addition to defying conventional lily-gilding wisdom, Goss helped show the band the moonlight. He worried them at first with his insistence they pay special attention to the soft-edged numbers. The band expressed concern that he perhaps envisioned a more, well, wimpy album. Says Moss: “He’s like, ‘Oh, hell no! The punk side of you, the urgent side of you—you’ve got that. That’s easy. What we should pay attention to is you guys relaxing into enjoying a little bit more harmony, and enjoying the space between sounds and tones.’”

The band found that space. Songs like “Dog Roses” or “Wooden Heart” are perfect proof. “Wooden Heart” is a crescendoing failed-relationship ballad, and “Dog Roses” is a wistful, atmospheric dirge over which Moss explores the hazy halls of memory, the “frightening nostalgia that you get when you think about when you were very young and you almost can’t remember anymore,” as she puts it. “It was almost like me re-running through the corridors and stairwells and the gardens of that old place, the one I moved out of when I was seven.”

The first verse, delivered in Moss’ singular, smoky instrument, is enough to evoke goose bumps, drifting between the tactile present and the uncertainty of previous experience: “Feel the breeze/That’s a real thing that touches your skin/But memories/Well, they’re not real.” She has a knack for writing just that sort of perfectly evocative rock lyric, vague enough to be universal while remaining poignant. There’s a particular ferocity to the ones in second person, “which, ironically, is often talking to myself about me,” she says. “Often the most spiteful lyrics are me looking at myself and feeling quite distraught.”

It is difficult to picture Moss sulking. Any live footage will show you that she belongs in the spotlight, shaking her hips and raising a tambourine above her head, channeling all that energy into the beautiful bombast that is The Duke Spirit. Being on stage again means safely evading the doubt that accompanies inactivity. “It’s horrible sitting around wondering,” she says. “You know, the moments where things slow down and nothing happens, you feel afraid, you feel like you’re not an artist, and maybe you’re kidding yourself, you know?”

The key, it seems, is to just stay in the moment, captivated with real things—wind on the skin, singing into raspberry sunsets, swaying to the timeless pulse of the 4/4 beat. It’s all how you look at it, no? Gild the lily.



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termite pest control
February 15th 2010
2:55pm

I live in the high desert - we have very hot dry summers and cold dry winter is with some freezing days - I think we are Sunset zone 11. I can take measures to protect plants and provide enough water, any tips to get raspberies to grow in my area - Any varieties that you recommend?