Not so long ago, Dare Dukes was just another part–time musician and frustrated novelist living in a crummy flat on the Lower East Side of New York.
Everything changed when he got married and relocated to Savannah. That was in 2007, and by whatever stroke of magic, serendipity or plain old dumb luck – he isn’t really sure – the muse and he were re–introduced.
This week Dukes releases his second album. Called Thugs and China Dolls, it’s a finely–etched work of indie–folk, full of charming melodies, sharp lyrics and delicate acoustic arrangements.
Plus a few uptempo flat–out pop songs (see “Meet You at the Bus,” “These Inglorious Displays”) that you won’t be able to get out of your head.
Recorded at Popheart Studios in Athens, the album features most of the revolving cast of Dukes’ left–of–center band, the Blackstock Collection, including the incomparable Chris VanBrackle on mandolin and banjo, bassist Daniel Beauregard and accordion player Anna Chandler. Out front, as always, are Dukes’ acoustic guitar and idiosyncratic, doleful vocals.
The album, which is being distributed by Athens–based Mazarine Records, features appearances by Marla Hansen (of My Brightest Diamond and the frequently–winged Sufjan Stevens band), and members of Modern Skirts, TV on the Radio and Of Montreal.
One of the more complex songs on Thugs and China Dolls, the ruminative ballad “Simon Says,” was produced by singer/songwriter extraordinaire Jim White.
This week’s Savannah appearances are record–release shows, before Dukes and company set out on a three week club tour.
So the band you had back in Minneapolis, the Penelopes, was a tough power–pop band?
Dare Dukes: Yeah, it was heavily influenced by the Pixies and Fugazi. Those are the bands I was really obsessed with at the time. I played a Les Paul, and when I bought it I was told it was one of the guitars the Replacements played on Saturday Night Live and one of the Stinsons threw up in the air, and it broke. It had a broken neck that had been fixed. That might have been a lie.
How do you get from power pop to the acoustic music you make now?
Dare Dukes: I still hear the Pixies in my head when I write songs. They were a huge influence on me. And Fugazi in the way they arranged their material, and also in the way they had political content — it’s really hard to write political songs, and somehow theirs worked.
The song “When the Sky Breaks,” there’s a lot of Pixies in that song, particularly in the chord progression.
It could be age ... could be that easy (laughing).
When I was learning guitar in the 8th grade I was listening to a lot of James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Simon & Garfunkel.
So why aren’t you playing these songs real fast with a rock ‘n’ roll band now?
Dare Dukes: It’s not that I don’t want to play that music – in fact, I would love to. In fact I might, because this album was so acoustic I could see myself doing a lot of heavy guitar songs for the next thing. Or more kind of synth–y songs for kicks.
A lot of this record has to do with the fact that Savannah has a small music population, and it was hard to find musicians when I first got here. It took a lot of rooting around and asking people. And once I found people, that was the instrumentation, so I could have pouted and said “There’s nobody here that plays the kind of instruments that I want to play,” but once I had the mandolin and the accordion I started writing songs with them in mind.
I love horns. I could see “Simon Says” being done like that, with only horns. I like people who use interesting instrumentation. I love Tom Waits. But if I was in a place where there was only a clarinet player and a piano player, I would probably start writing for clarinet and piano.
Chris VanBrackle, who’s playing mandolin and banjo, I knew that he was a steady player, and when I wrote “Meet You at the Bus,” I heard a banjo in my head so I sort of wrote it for a banjo. With “Simon Says,” I was probably hearing a Tom Waitsy, accordion–heavy song.
The record is full of strong melodic hooks. Having intelligent lyrics and great hooks together, that doesn’t happen that often.
Dare Dukes: I like hooks. I like pop music. I like rock ‘n’ roll. I like music that grabs you in the first minute. And it’s easy to write a bad hook. It’s not easy to write a good hook.
And it’s really hard to write a perfect little love song. I kind of get bored easily, so I pick things to write about that have nothing to do with me, because it’s interesting and challenging. That’s why I often write songs about characters I read about in the newspaper and stuff.
Why are so many of your songs melancholy? The accordion, the mournful trumpet in the background ...
Dare Dukes: I guess I’ve just always found melancholy ... I just go there, I don’t know why. I mean, it’s where I go if I’m being lazy, or just writing without intention. I end up writing these slow, sad songs. But I’ll say this – “Lament of the Subway Rider,” that’s a Pixies chord progression. When I wrote “Mighty Love,” I was doing it intentionally, to write more of a happier song. A more positive song.
So I’m more or less aware of my habits, and I like to trick myself into writing stuff that I don’t write habitually.
What’s your writing process?
Dare Dukes: The music, the core elements of the song, that comes very easily. Nine times out of 10 when I sit down to noodle on my guitar, a melody and a chord progression will just pop into my head. I have a huge iTunes folder full of fragments.
And the lyrics are the opposite. That demolition derby song from my first record, I loved that chord progression, and it took a year for me to finally find the right lyrics. It’s not usually that hard but it does require patience.
Jim White produced just the one song, “Simon Says.” Why?
Dare Dukes: I had tracked basics for every song and was just working on overdubs. I played a show with him in Athens, and he said he really liked my music and that he would love to produce some of it. A couple of months later, I was really banging my head against the arrangement for “Simon Says”; it was always too bouncy and never melancholy enough. I was actually thinking of not putting it on the record. I sent it to Jim, and that’s all his arrangement.
How did you get Marla Hansen on your album?
Dare Dukes: I know her because she and I used to play the same open mic nights in the East Village. She writes really amazing music.
I had very loosely stayed in touch with her. There was one song on the record that we could just not get the female vocal part for. I was kind of at the end of my rope. I knew she had a lot of experience —she’s recorded with the National, Sufjan Stevens and all this — so I just sent her an e–mail and said “If I sent you tracks, would you do this?”
She did, she nailed it, it sounded really good. And then I said “Hey – she plays viola!” So that’s why there’s so much viola on the record.
Advice for Savannah musicians?
Dare Dukes: I think if you want to be taken seriously, you have to travel. No matter where you are. If you’re not touring, you won’t have visibility outside the city you live in. No matter how good you are, if you’re not touring, nobody’s paying attention to you.
There are ways, of course, to tap into the Internet and stuff, but even still it only gets you so far. Nothing gets me excited, or people excited, more than live performance
I kind of dread performing live. I never like it until I’m onstage. And then it’s kind of fun.
1. Dare Dukes + the Blackstock Collection
With: John Wilkes Boothe & the Black Toothe, Jubalson, Delicate Cutters
Where: Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.
When: At 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan 19
2. Dare Dukes + the Blackstock Collection
With: Shovels and Rope, Winter Sounds
Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.
When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20