How two Scottish rockers made one of the electro records of the year
The Atmosphere and The Dragon lay in the middle of Carnaby Street, central London. With their backs flat to the cold stone pavement they gazed at the sky. Day shoppers that dodged the beaming charity muggers in their Shelter bibs rubber-necked, snail-crawled passed and began to pull out digital cameras. A shot for the holiday album; two of the most flamboyantly dressed ‘jumpers’ you’ve ever seen; backs broken, their bent bodies twisted and marooned between Office and Whittard teashop. Nowhere to be seen was their master; an aging, sexually perverse party enthusiast known only as The Duke.
“That was fun,” said The Atmosphere, clambering to his feet, brushing off his large feather collar and grinning a wide red lipstick smile. And The Dragon agreed from within his purple tights and knee-high boots, letting out another loud, smoky laugh.
‘Fun’ is the very fuel that propels Marmaduke Duke: a secondary project for Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro and fellow Scottish frontman JP Reid of Sucioperro. This we find out twenty-four hours prior to a cold afternoon on Carnaby Street, laughing with The Atmosphere and The Dragon before they adorned their Watchmen-on-a-mystical-gimp-tip disguises for our photo shoot.
“We’re both‚” not guilty of it, but we do take ourselves seriously in our other bands,” admits The Atmosphere. “You want to be so connected to people and you’re so connected to the music that you want people to understand everything you’re doing. With this, there is that complete detachment from it, and you can make a complete arse of yourself, because you’re not necessarily even up there as yourself, you’re up there being part of something. Hopefully our music is good too, because you need to get that balance right. Marilyn Manson, I always thought that everything was perfect about him apart from his music is absolutely rotten. He could have been that [Ziggy Stardust] figure but just ran out of puff, y’know?”
“I think Muse are a funny band,” continues The Dragon “but I think they’re an impressive band, they’re really intense. Even something like the riff from ‘New Born’, that’s funny! I can imagine them having a laugh, like, ‘yeeahh’, and I think there is that in our other bands that people don’t always get. It’s funny because you don’t want to be a comedy band; we don’t want – because we’re dressing up – people to think they’re coming to a fucking circus with ‘The Duke’.”
The Atmosphere: “We want it to be fun rather than funny.”
That’s a fine line, right there. Simply ask Justin Hawkins, and then play him Marmaduke Duke’s forthcoming second album, ‘Duke Pandemonium’. It’s the balance done right; fun but not a joke, accomplished but not poe-faced or snobby, like ‘The Slim Shady LP’ or Gnarls Barkley’s ‘St. Elsewhere’. Featuring sleazy, lo-fi electro (‘Heartburn’), corrupt funky disco (‘Pandemonium’), beautiful pop ballads (‘Kid Gloves’) and a track so Radio-1-in-the-summer-time that it may even threaten the continuation of this band being a mere secondary concern (‘Rubber Lover’), it’s part two of a trilogy that Simon and JP have wanted to make since reading three manuscripts written by a friend’s Portuguese parents.
The tales of The Duke – the most sinister of protagonists – may be as magical and fantasy-peppered at a J.R. Tolkien read, but as cutesy as The Lord Of The Rings they ain’t. It’s all far filthy than that, as illustrated by Marmaduke Duke’s 2005 debut album, ‘The Magnificent Duke’.
Mirroring the spiralling madness of The Atmosphere and The Dragon’s vicious master, their first record was far closer to a Biffy/Sucioperro hybrid than ‘Duke Pandemonium’ is – “We wanted to make it ugly, which might mean that we’re quite ugly inside,” notes The Atmosphere. Featuring snarling guitars and live drums, it was largely an angst-ridden affair that received a hushed release via the now defunct Captains of Industry label. Now, The Duke has pulled himself together enough to let down the hair he keeps under his top hat. “It’s mainly a hedonistic vibe on this one,” says The Dragon of the new dance-influenced record.
“The Duke becomes a horrible bastard,” furthers The Atmosphere. “It’s meant to be creepy and sleazy, and sexually perverted, even though we’re not singing about sexual acts‚” it’s Razzle,” he roars from his thick, black beard.
The Dragon: “Yeah, it’s more Razzle than Mayfair‚” or Reader’s Wives: the musical equivalent.” And with that Marmaduke Duke fall about laughing again.
The definite lifespan of any trilogy though means that the laughter must stop at some point. It’s taken four years for Simon Neil and JP Reid to soundtrack two thirds of The Duke’s rotten life – namely due to their other bands’ downtime rarely aligning to work on more Marmaduke material – but whether they conclude this project next year or within another four, the end is in sight; The Duke must die. In their alter-ego guises, The Atmosphere and The Dragon promise a spectacular ending to this depraved ordeal.
“Yeah, it has to be just these three records,” confirms The Dragon. “It’s a much more romantic notion, because otherwise what reason would we have to keep it together? There are only three manuscripts.”
“We always try to conceptualise it beforehand and build up ideas about where it would build and where it would drop,” adds The Atmosphere enthusiastically. “[‘The Death Of The Duke’] is definitely going to be one big long track and, live, we’re going to go out and do a couple of ‘Death Of The Duke’ shows where‚” the records going to have tonnes of guitars on it,” he explains “so we’re going to have it that the first ten people that come to the show can bring their guitars and we’ll do a run through before the doors open so people can actually play with us on ‘The Death Of The Duke’. It’ll be almost Kraut Rock-y, and very hypnotic and repetitive, but it’s just my absolute dream to have the first ten people come in to play. So it’s really going to become a communal band, and the shows, you won’t see them in big venues, but we’ll circle the crowd so that people can become part of the music.”
“I’ve got to ask,” says one rather non-descript onlooker, forgetting to actually ask. “They’re a band called Marmaduke Duke,” we tell him as the duo pose for more photos outside their record label’s Soho base. “Ah yes, I’ve heard of them,” comes the reply. “I seem to remember liking them, but I didn’t expect them to look like that.” A wave that’s reciprocated by The Atmosphere and the blank man is on his way having seen something special‚” or intriguing in the only way that two bearded men, half in drag, can be.
The track he remembers liking is probably the lead single from ‘Duke Pandemonium’, ‘Kid Gloves’. Not unlike most tracks that close post-OC teen dramas – or indeed Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ that saw Tim finally kiss Dawn in The Office – it’s a highly emotional and beautiful song. ‘Are we crazy or are we glad?/Keep your instincts to make a stand/Keep on searching for what we had/To remind us all’, goes its ambiguous but resolute refrain, capable of being interpreted a thousand different ways, which is of course its masterstroke. So too is its simplicity of processed drums (as are all of the beats on this new album) sitting next to little more than three notes played on a synth.
“That’s probably my favourite track,” says The Dragon “because the night we did it it didn’t feel like a song, more like a sketch. It took just three hours to do, from nothing to finish. Now when we play it it feels like a proper song, and that always amazes me with the Duke, when I feel, ‘wow, this is like a real song now’. I’m not trying to make fun of what we do, or be cynical of the music, not at all, but I was really surprised with that one.”
The passerby is completely right – the delicate and pretty ‘Kid Gloves’ is not the sound that you’d expect to be produced by a pair of tattooed beards who have seemingly raided your eccentric aunt’s wardrobe to pay homage to Slipknot but have wound up looking like‚” well, your eccentric aunt‚” if she were also something of a sexual deviant. And there’s no use looking to the rest of ‘Duke Pandemonium’ for an explanation either; the whole record is something of cheery pop masterpiece. There’s undertones of the rank Duke’s dirty business of course, and the demonic ‘Erotic Robotic’ (complete with the tongue-wedged-in-cheek lyric of “Erotic Robotic, despite the accents we’re Scottish”) is a more overtly underhand party in its deliver, but ultimately this second album makes you want to dance and smile‚” and request it on your local radio station’s drive-time show, where ‘Rubber Lover’ is concerned. “Oh, god forbid,” laughs The Dragon. “Run away! It’s nice of you to say but let’s hope it doesn’t [become a commercial hit], otherwise we’ll be doing ‘Rubber Lover’ for the rest of our lives.
“It’s funny that it became so pop,” he continues “because that was never our intention. We wanted it to be a funky record, but the fact that it’s so melodic is an accident. We didn’t think, ‘right, let’s get a couple of singles’, and the fact that we’re even putting out singles is quite an alien concept.”
“It’s great that people dig it so far,” notes his sidekick “but I think because we’re not doing it constantly we wouldn’t get carried away or know if everyone loved it. We’re doing six shows and then the albums out in a month or so, so even if everyone digs it, we wouldn’t know, because we wouldn’t be around to do anything about it.”
Like The Lemonheads covering ‘Mrs Robinson’ before them, we fear that Marmaduke Duke might just regret agreeing to release their ‘big pop hit’ as their second single, because neither Simon nor JP want this band to become massive. For Biffy or Sucioperro to have Edith Bowman gush over them is one thing, but The Atmosphere and The Dragon simply wish to complete their ambition of this trilogy in peace and quiet, whilst keeping the whole experience as special for those that are keen to be on board as possible. It’s exactly why they’ve only played twelve shows to date, with just a handful more in mind before The Duke lays in state.
“We don’t really plan what we’re going to do,” explains The Atmosphere of touring. “We might do some shows later in the year but we’ve got our other bands so we’re going to go and do records for them. It’s basically when we’ve got time. We like it to be a mini event for the people that dig it, not just like we’re coming through town again.”
There’s talk of the band possibly playing Cream Fields this year, a prospect made somehow less bizarre by the costumes they wear; men in colourful tights, eye masks and makeup far less disconcerting at the dance festival than the face of rock titans Biffy Clyro amongst the gurners. Plans are still up in the air, as are those to organise a second tour to support ‘Duke Pandemonium’. The Atmosphere and The Dragon both have other bands they’re committed to, even if they do involve their existing band mates on this vibrant adventure. Simon recently said that he wouldn’t feel right getting onstage without Biffy bassist James Johnston and drummer Ben Johnston, so the pair help to make up Marmaduke Duke’s live band. Across from Ben sits drummer number two, Fergus Munro of Sucioperro. The three helping hands are as heavily disguised as the duo that have created the music, in ruffs and masks. Originally, these lavish veils acted as a blank canvass for Simon and JP to work from. They always knew that it wouldn’t take long for their existing fans to uncover their true identities but a certain freedom comes with ‘playing dress-up’ and presenting your music as The Atmosphere and The Dragon.
“They’re the names of two characters in the story,” explains Simon. “We didn’t want to be The Duke, we’d fight over that. The first record we also just slipped out and it was important for us for people to not compare it to our other bands. We knew that people would find out because we were going to do shows but didn’t know if people would care.”
Just twelve live shows to date suggests otherwise but a hunger for playing to an audience is an important part of life that Simon and JP insist on bringing to Marmaduke Duke – “Anyone can record 40 minutes of fart noises and put it out but have the fucking balls to go out and do it live,” demands Simon. “It kinda annoys me when someone does a side project, makes a record and then don’t do it live and back it up,” he continues. “We knew that to validate it you have to go and present it to people, regardless of what type of music it is. Why else should people give a fuck? There’re enough bands out there, with all kinds of music available, so you need to give people a reason to connect with you.”
The reason, The Atmosphere argues, is Marmaduke Duke’s sense of occasion in a live venue. Fans dress up like The Duke himself, in top hats and cloaks, waving canes and plastic weapons in the air, followers of the decadent fop. It’s a Mighty Boosh show that – let us reiterate – is fun without being funny. “It’s like coming to a Black Flag show,” we’re warned in tow of the band on their way to a date at Heaven. “When we start the show we go straight to the people,” says The Atmosphere “straight into the show. It loosens up the crowd. If you only knew ‘Kid Gloves’ you’re going to get a real fright.”
It takes a full twenty seconds, from walking onstage, for The Atmosphere to dive into the crowd, rush passed us with his mic, scream all the way to the sound desk and lunge over its protective barrier. Once again with his back to the floor he then repeatedly lets out metronomic yells of a Saw victim. If the man from the street was present he’d probably say, “That’s more like it, that’s what a band dressed like that should sound like.”
In The Dragon’s home studio, Marmaduke Duke was conceived almost by accident. The want to complete this planned trilogy was always there but ‘The Magnificent Duke’ “ended up being made without trying” as Simon and JP picked up instruments while having a casual drink one evening. ‘Duke Pandemonium’ was created out of a more conscious decision to write a second record, but with a similarly relaxed work ethic in place – at 10 0’clock the pair would enter the studio without an idea between them and vow to complete one more track for their new album.
“It would get to that hazy time in the morning, when everything’s kinda wearing off,” explains The Atmosphere with a grin to his partner. “Y’know, it was kinda like, ‘let’s get this done’, which is why some of the vocals on the record we didn’t go back an re-sing better, just because the vibe was there. All over the record you can hear – while one of us is singing – the other one talking in the background. That was the spirit of the whole thing, y’know, it really was meant to be a lot of fun. Music, when it’s what you do with your life, you have to put every ounce of your soul and energy into it, and thankfully we can do that in our other bands and mainly have the fun part on this. And the same with live shows – if something breaks we don’t think, ‘oh no, the show’s going wrong’; it kinda adds to a Duke show.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time smiling making the record,” add The Dragon. “It’s been a really joyous occasion. There’s no, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t learnt that song’, or any of the things you have in a real band. It was quite funny and disconcerting, I was saying to the guys last night that there was a point in the set the other night when I thought, ‘shit, we’re really good,’ it was like we had become a real band, and it worried me. ‘Oh my god, we shouldn’t have rehearsed, I know the chords now, this is nonsense.'”
Only ever listening back to tracks the following day – and thus at a time when it was too late to change them – is linked directly to just how diverse ‘Duke Pandemonium’ sounds. If yesterday’s session was a slow ballad, today’s will be the fastest thing we’ve ever written, the band would tell each other. “I think the cohesion comes from it all being done so quickly,” says the Dragon. “That’s the only thing that keeps it all together. There were no rules.”
The same will go for the Dukes funeral march no doubt, due to be with us within two years, which suddenly feels like an infinity. Perhaps someone can push him under a car so that we can hear the final instalment of this trilogy a little earlier. He probably deserves anyway.
Marmaduke Duke must die with their master – much like Frodo Baggins chose to when following Gandolf onto the elf galleon – only to be resurrected as Simon Neil’s next conception; a band called Empire State Bastards, who’ll write songs called ‘J Hames Brown’, ‘Bob No Hope’, ‘Heath Legend’ and ‘Bjorn Sci-Borg’. So things aren’t about to get ordinary any time soon. And for now there’s a party to had at the hands of The Duke. He’ll be the one trying to cop a feel as you pass the dry ice machine. Maybe he’s not all bad.
Originally published in issue 4 (vol. 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2009