|Date:||April 28th, 2011|
|Place:||City Winery, NYC|
In the afternoon before his show at the City Winery in NYC on April 28th, 2011, I sat down with Matt Duke for an hour to interview him, asking questions specifically for help in creating a Wikipedia article about him. Research was conducted beforehand from many different interviews and record label bios. This is the transcript of that interview. My words appear in bold. After the interview transcript are more audio transcripts from pre-song banter from the show he did that night, which explained some of the songs that he sang.
Evan Amos: I'm going to start from the beginning, with a bunch of short, pointed questions: birth name?
- Matt Duke: Matthew Thomas Duke
- Duke: January 20, 1985
- Duke: Vocals, guitar... I would just leave it at that, though I've played a bunch of other ones, like I played a bunch on the record, the new one.
Amos: I noticed that you had a piano teacher when you were younger. Do you still play the piano?
- Duke: I can, yeah, I do. From time to time.
Amos: Have you ever played a piano on one of your albums?
- Duke: Yeah, I played piano on my new record, keyboards, and stuff like that.
Amos: Have you ever based a song around the piano?
- Duke: Yeah, sometimes the fundamental parts of the songs have been written on the piano first, or I'll flesh a song's melody out with the piano.
- Duke: My mother Angela is a teacher. My father is Thomas, and he's a contracts negotiator.
Amos: I know that you grew up in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, but were you born there?
- Duke: No, I was born in a town called Reston, Viriginia, and I lived there until I was five, so we moved to Mt. Laurel in 1990.
Amos: Where did you go to high school?
Amos: Is that a private school?
- Duke: Yeah, it's a private, all-male Jesuit School.
Amos: Okay, let's go a back a bit, how would you describe growing up in Mt. Laurel?
- Duke: Very small, middle class, suburban town. We're actually close enough to Philadelphia, like twenty minutes away from the city, that all of these South Jersey towns feel like little pockets of Philadelphia. The further east you go it becomes more rural.
Amos: So if somebody asked you where you were from would you default and just say Philadelphia?
- Duke: Yeah, I would say Philadelphia, because if I said Jersey, automatically people think of North Jersey, which are two totally different things, North and South Jersey, so we would default and just say Philly.
Amos: What kind of jobs did you have before you started pursuing music full time?
- Duke: I worked constructions gigs. I was a sandwich maker at a company called [Roly Poly Sandwiches]. I was a picture framer, which I did both at the Jersey Shore and Center City, Philadelphia. It was almost two years as a framer, which is actually a really cool job. Gardening, too.
Amos: That's a lot of jobs.
- Duke: Yeah, a lot of manual labor, anything to sort of bide my time.
Amos: Were they temp jobs?
- Duke: Usually, the framing one was not, but the constructions and gardening ones were seasonal, but I did that for a couple of years. The framing one was full time before I really started to pursue music.
Amos: So you started to play the guitar at 13?
- Duke: Yeah, it was my mother's guitar. An old Penco from the '70s.
Amos: Did your mother play?
- Duke: She did, a long time ago. She doesn't play anymore, but she did teach me how to play "Puff, the Magic Dragon," which was the first song that I learned how to play. Then she told me I could teach myself the rest, which I did.
Amos: Did she pull it out of some closet somewhere?
- Duke: It was... around? I can't even remember how it was presented to me... I just told her that I wanted to start to play the guitar and move on from playing the piano. She could clearly see that my heart wasn't in the piano at the time, that I wanted to do the guitar thing. So she pulled it out from wherever it was and said, "Here you go, you can teach yourself."
Amos: So if you started to play the guitar when you were 13 after quitting the piano, when did you start to play the piano?
- Duke: Eight, maybe? Yeah.
Amos: You had a relationship with your piano teacher afterward, though, right?
- Duke: Yeah, he was the music minister at the parish. I went to the [Our Lady of Good Council] in Moorestown for grade school, which runs from kindergarten through 8th grade. He wasn't the music teacher; he was the music minister over there. He would do all of the services for the grade school, all of the services for the church; he was my piano teacher for every Friday afternoon, because my mom taught at the school, so on Fridays she would have a lot of time that she would need to spend afterwards, so to bide my time she would send me to him and I'd go play piano.
Amos: Oh, so she was just doing it to keep you busy?
- Duke: Yeah.
Amos: That's cool though.
- Duke: It was cool. Looking back, I almost took it for granted, because he taught me such wonderful things about music.
Amos: I think that I know a lot of adults, who have regret that their parents didn't force them to play a musical instrument. For example, I wasn't introduced to an instrument as a child, so I never really developed any musical ability. It's something that I regret, because I think that if I had been forced into something, even if it was violin, which isn't something that you would play in your 20s, that my life would just be much more different, so I regret it. I feel that doing it as a child is a lot easier than trying to pick it up as an adult.
- Duke: Yeah, it is, because it gets ingrained into your brain.
Amos: How much of the piano were you able to parlay into the guitar?
- Duke: It made it a lot easier, for the people that I've talked to who have done the same sort of transition, it makes learning the guitar a bit easier. It gives you a really good concept, like, your ears are in tune at that point.
Amos: Do you read or write music?
- Duke: I can read it, but very slowly. Writing, I've tried... I try, I continue to try. I've been taking a stab at composition in terms of actually writing out sheet music. It's like cracking hieroglyphic code for me sometimes, but yeah, I did mostly everything by ear. And like I said, I can read music, I can follow it, but that's about it.
Amos: When you were playing guitar for the first time, were you trying to make your own melodies, or was it like, "I'm going to play ‘Smoke on the Water’," or did you listen to the radio and play along?
- Duke: I played along with the radio, which was great; a really, really good way of learning. I'd also pick up tablature online of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, stuff like that; that's where I started. So I guess I was trying to emulate those alternative styles. Then I started writing just as quickly as I learned how to play. Wanting to sound stylistically like that.
Amos: When you started writing songs, were you going for the verse, chorus, verse format? I noticed it's not something that you do so much now. Did you start that way and sort of abandon it, or just never even try it?
- Duke: No, I started it in that way. The skeletal structure of a pop song is always verse, chorus, verse, bridge. That's how I remember every song was, so that's where I started, but then the older I got it was fun to deviate from it, then there's different influences that jump in and you start to pull from those.
Amos: Do you write words or music first?
- Duke: Usually the music would come first. The melody would dictate the mood of the song, and the mood would dictate the lyrics. So once I had a composition more or less fleshed out, not completely finished, but that was starting to come together with the melody, then I could start writing the lyrics, and it would become a hodgepodge until the end where it was finally completed. So, the music usually comes first for me.
Amos: So, you had been playing guitar, and writing songs for three years, and you did a show at the Living Room when you were 16, is that correct?
- Duke: Yeah, it was a coffee shop in Collingswood, NJ called the Living Room. That was back then; it's called the Tree House now. And, yeah, I was 16 at the time, so this should have been 2001.
Amos: How confident were you to be able to get up on stage? Because I know people who think that they can play guitar and sing, but getting up on a stage, or getting up in front of any people, is just that hurdle that they can't get past. I'm amazed that it almost seemed like something that you did casually. Was it something that you did casually, or did it take a lot of effort to get up there and perform?
- Duke: Well, I had been doing theater for years at that point, because I had been doing theater in grade school, and when I was in high school I did theater throughout most of it, so being on stage wasn't exactly a big issue, but the things that gave me anxiety were if I had new songs, and playing those out for people, just hoping that it would go well. To be honest with you, it was an excuse to get friends of mine who lived in the Philadelphia area who lived over the bridge, it gave them an excuse to come into Jersey, because they usually wouldn't want to come into Jersey, if they lived on the other side of the bridge.
- So that's how it started, but it's funny because those were the longest shows that I've ever played. They required me to play... I played there a couple of times a year, and it was with a buddy of mine, and it was just for fun. Just so my friends or people could come in for a bit and hang, but we would play for three hours. They would require you to do three hours worth of stuff, so I would be doing... at least 3/4 of my show was covers.
Amos: Three hours? I've never even seen that many shows that go on that long.
- Duke: Yeah, it was long.
Amos: Was that just some crazy idea the coffeehouse management had?
- Duke: I guess, but it didn't seem crazy to me at the time, because they were my first shows. I just thought that was the way it rolled. But THAT helped me out a lot in terms of work ethic, being if there's pay or no pay, you know, whatever they ask, and I can go for a while.
Amos: So you were doing stuff at the Living Room between 16 and 18, were you going to other areas or venues to perform at that time?
- Duke: It was really just the Living Room at the time. I did some open mics at The Point when it existed. The Point was a revered spot in the Philly area, like Jim Croce and Bruce Springsteen would play it; very folky, I would do open mics there. Jamming at parties, that too, but it was mostly that coffee shop until I decided to really give music a go.
Amos: Did you get your parents or other family to come out to see your shows?
- Duke: They did every once in a while, they'd come out to hang for a bit.
Amos: So did that really give them a sense of what you were doing, and how people were responding to it, like, this is something that he's really good at.
- Duke: Yeah, it was a nice mitigating factor when I decided I was going to leave school to be a musician, it made a big difference, so I'm glad that they got to see it.
Amos: Well, your parents gave you a present of recording time, was that a birthday, or just for whatever?
- Duke: It was a birthday thing, and they paid, I think, $200 for this guy to come in and record me and my buddy Brendon Lafferty who played hand drums for me, who had also played with me at some of the Living Room shows, just to go in and record for two hours. My family was just, "We know that you have a bunch of songs and I'm sure that you'd like to hear them on a CD every once in a while, so go ahead." That was the only intention for the recording, it wasn't meant to be handing out in press packets, it was just to have. I gave it to a bunch of friends.
Amos: How much of a catalog of songs did you have at that point?
- Duke: I felt pretty rest assured, I think there were 8 or 9 songs, I ended up doing like 6, but I had a whole slew of songs, but more than half of them were shoddy at best. There were six strong ones that I could get through in the two hour recording time.
Amos: Have any of those songs that you recorded on the demo made it through to today? Are they something that you'd play today, or did they find their way onto any of your records?
- Duke: “Listen to Your Window” was one, “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” was another, “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” had another verse and it sounded a bit different. Those were the two that survived ultimately. Oh! And “Focus”, that was another one.
- The CD was called the Floating Mass Demo and it was also backslash The Major Joke EP. This CD sometime after got the attention of Mad Dragon, because there was this grade school friend of mine, who was at Drexel University at the time and brought that demo to his A&R class at Mad Dragon. Mad Dragon then approached me about a promotions deal because of it. So that's how that happened, which was actually pretty cool.
Amos: So it was just pure chance, you never had a dream or real ambitions for a career when your friend took the demo CD that you had made to his class that really got the ball rolling for you?
- Duke: No, not really.
Amos: So what were you doing at the time?
- Duke: I was dealing with personal issues of my own, and I had dropped out of school and I was working. I was just trying to get my shit together, when the opportunity just presented itself. In my heart of hearts I always wanted to make music my living, because I was very passionate about it, but I also grew up in a generation where you're told to go to a four-year school, get a degree, do all of that stuff. I was taking a sort of a sabbatical, to collect myself, and to figure out what I was going to do next. Thought the thought had crossed my mind that it would be really awesome to be a musician, to be a songwriter full time, if it hadn't been for that opportunity I don't know if I would have pursued it or not. It was a very, very lucky the way that it happened.
Amos: When Mad Dragon had picked you up, that was when they had just formed, and were they like, "Do you want to come here, get on the ground floor of this, and we'll see where it goes?"
- Duke: Exactly. It was a one-year promotional deal with them, kinda no-strings-attached. I would use their studio, use their resources with their students. That was the big thing, to use their students and have them be involved. They were like, "When we're done with the product, we've got two other girls coming in, we're thinking of putting together a compilation album."
Amos: The XYX album?
- Duke: Yeah.
Amos: And it was Trisha O'Keefe and Julia Othmer?
- Duke: Yeah.
Amos: Did you guys record at all together? Or did you meet up after the fact?
- Duke: We met up after the fact. We all recorded on our own. In fact, Julia did her recordings elsewhere. She was just approached about taking some of her tracks and throwing them on the compilation. Trisha came in and she used the Drexel studios. I met her, like you said, after the fact, so we all had done our own thing and it all got dumped onto the XYX thing.
Amos: As far as XYX goes, you said it was recorded at Drexel in their recording studios? What time was it actually? It was released May 24, 2005, but when was your music for it recorded? Do you remember?
- Duke: It must have been in the fall, that previous fall of 2004.
Amos: You had some experience before, because you had done the demo recording, the church thing, before, but what was it like getting into a more professional recording experience? Where you would have other people with you? Were you your own producer?
- Duke: There was a guy, an engineer, named Jim Klein, he was in-house, the teacher, also a professor at the school. He was behind the console. He was the guy, I don't want to say, "barking the orders" but he was the one that had the sound mind to be able to do the engineering and also the producing. He and I got along great. Yeah, but I was very, very green. I didn't really know much about proper recording studios. It took a couple of stabs getting used to it.
Amos: Was it a situation where you went in and were like, "I'm going to record and perform the song the way that I play it myself" and then they'd hear that and give you feedback and help you change it?
- Duke: Yeah, I made a couple of concessions, but not many. It was a lot of as-is, so that was good, but yeah, the part about making the concessions was a big wake up call. Like, people might start chiming in with their opinions and critiques, which was a big life lesson to learn what to take and what to disregard. That would go on for years... to this day, actually, to learn what to regard and what to disregard.
Amos: Since we've already gotten to this point, I want to step back a bit, so you graduated high school, summer's over and you enroll into college, what college did you enroll to?
Amos: But you left soon after enrolling.
- Duke: Yes, I didn't stay in college for too long.
Amos: How long after you left college, did the Mad Dragon thing happen?
- Duke: Uh... maybe less than a year. It had to be less than a year, yeah, maybe like eight or nine months?
Amos: So you get to Mad Dragon, get through to recording what became XYX, and then they asked you to promote it?
- Duke: Yeah, we did a very, very, very short run in the Northeast mostly. Just a couple of dates and that was it. We didn't really do much else outside of that. A couple of shows in Philadelphia, a couple of events, that was about it for the publicity, for the promotions, for all of it. It was very short-lived. But from there, they then moved on almost immediately to wanting me to record Winter Child and sign a deal with them, to make that record. That all came pretty quickly.
Amos: So you just finished touring, and they're like, "Let's keep it going, let's work on a full album."
- Duke: Yeah.
Amos: What happened to the other two artists on the XYX album? Trisha O'Keefe and Julia Othmer? Did they get similar deals?
- Duke: I don't know what happened with them. I think that Julia, she headed off to LA, maybe, or back to Kansas City; she's from Kansas City. Trisha, I'm not really sure, we haven't kept in touch, but either way, I think that she's still pursuing what she's doing, but I don't know what happened with them.
Amos: It seems to me, that it's a recurring thing, that when people encounter your stuff, that they're very excited about it. To having them want you for Mad Dragon just from a demo, then to XYX and they're just asking you to continue on for a full CD, then Ryko just picking you up from the Mad Dragon label for their label. That must have been a confidence booster, like maybe, "I am doing something good here, people are responding to my work."
- Duke: Yeah, it was baby steps. It felt really, really nice that I wasn't taking two steps back, but always something going forward. Very small steps, but always steps going forward.
Amos: Did the stuff from your demo change that much to XYX? The sound, style?
- Duke: I supposed sonically it was different, just because it was recorded proper in a studio, but there was something that I was really drawn to about those demo recordings, because they were recorded in this church, and it really gave it this holy feel to the sound, it's weird, with the echo and reverb. I really like the way that the location made it sound, which was lost when you record in something sterile like a studio. But the songs translated fine to the XYX thing, for a first time go at making a record, a few little tracks on a compilation.
- But I knew that it needed to be stepped up a bit for Winter Child, from XYX, that was why we reached out to two producers... [interruption that causes interview to take a break]
Amos: When we left off, during the production for Winter Child, did you have to write a bunch of new songs, from XYX to Winter Child?
- Duke: I think that the only ones that appeared on Winter Child that were previously written was “Listen to Your Window” from the demo, and “Don’t Ask For Too Much.” Aside from that, everything else was new. That whole process was funny, though, I started recording that record with Jim Klein, the guy who did the XYX CD, and that recording sessions--as much as I love him-- just was not sounding very good. I decided to move onto another producer, which caused a controversy, and Jim Klein got a little bit upset and asked that at least five of his tracks that we had cut, be used on the Winter Child record. We took five of his tracks, we remixed them a bit, so five of the tracks that were on Winter Child were co-produced and co-engineered by Jim Klein, because that was part of the deal.
Amos: The producer that you went to from Jim, was he part of the Mad Dragon program, too? Or was he someone that you brought in from the outside?
- Duke: It was a guy named Stewart Lerman. He was somebody, I can't remember who knew him, I feel like Marcy Wagman or Terry Tompkins might have known of him. They played him some of my stuff and he was interested in doing a record. He had worked with people like Darwin Williams, The Roches records, things like that. He had a really, really nice sound, an adult alternative/contemporary thing to him. The studio was actually up in New York, or was up in New York, I don't know if it was moved, and he insisted on having one of his buddies produce as well, his name was Steuart Smith. Steuart Smith has been The Eagles guitarist, like the fourth guitarist, for maybe a decade at this point. He insisted that be a two-man job. The two of them were wonderful. Steuart did a lot of the instrumentation on the record. We brought in Steve Holly to play the drums, who was amazing.
Amos: How do you write songs? Where do you put yourself when you write? Is it at home, or when you're out and about? Do you sit down and write, or write wherever an idea will pop into your head?
- Duke: A lot of musicians, if you have a really good song idea, it will pop up at the most inopportune times: walking down the street, in the shower. That stuff happens, and that's fine and you make do, but otherwise it's always... sometimes if you're having a jam session with friends and pow-wowing, but I tend to prefer isolation. I just like to be by myself. In terms of a vibe, like a glass of wine, or a couple glasses of wine, then just sit and write.
Amos: When you're writing, will you take an idea all the way to the end even if it's not feeling right? Will you end up with a lot of work and then have to trim that down?
- Duke: There is a whole basket of files, hundreds of song ideas that I have; it's always snippets, little tidbits of things. Maybe one day they'll work their way into other songs, but that to me, is abandoning songs, just these hundreds of ideas. Sometimes there'll be an idea that will sit and I'll just try to power through it. It could take days to figure conceptually where it's going to go, the composition, and at the end of the day it's not nearly as good as the song that I wrote in 20 minutes. The song that was super heartfelt and in the moment that came out in 20 minutes, that took very little thought. It tends to be a crapshoot, but that's the beauty of it, you just keep writing; good things happen.
Amos: When you get to the point where you have a song finished, I know some artists like to go into the recording studio and record 30 songs, listen to all of those songs and then whittle it down to the 12 or so that actually make it onto the album. Do you go in with like 15, or a lot and then trim it down?
- Duke: Definitely 15 to 20, and then really focus when it's time to do the basics for the songs, then really focus on the 10 or 12 that feel like they're working. But I do know what you mean, there are a lot of bands or artists that just go into a recording studio and make a shit ton of songs, then whittling down. I don't know, we put a lot of TLC into our songwriting, but I tend to fixate on certain songs that I want to be recorded, which usually are the ones that do end up on the record.
Amos: When you have a song that could possibly be more complex, in terms of writing, what I mean I'm thinking of songs that might be very lyrically simple. Does that require more effort to write these songs which can really focus on lyrics and creating a story?
- Duke: The simple love song, to be honest, might require a little more effort. It just depends on what you're predisposed to growing up, and what feels natural. For me it's my go-to place, my default, the place that I draw from the most is my spiritual upbringing. Growing up Catholic, religion, spiritual unrest, all of things were the perfect fodder for material, and it sorta never runs out.
Amos: What did you religious upbringing entail? Was it just church, mass… or were there more elements than that?
- Duke: I used to go to church every Sunday, Catholic grade school, private Jesuit high school, so most everything was shaped or revolved around my family's religion, but not in a bad way, it wasn't like our lives were completely dependent on our denomination and who we spiritually aligned ourselves with. We did go to mass every Sunday. I was instilled with The Golden Rule and all of those things, it still sticks with you, as long as it's been since I've actually been to mass, been to the church, I can still remember everything and it can still be very affecting. It was a good upbringing, but I don't want you to think that it was super staunch, rigid religious experience. My parents are a lot more liberal than I probably gave them credit for at the time.
Amos: But it was something that you stopped doing once you no longer were required to? You let yourself go from it?
- Duke: Yeah.
Amos: Would you still describe yourself as a spiritual person?
- Duke: Yeah, I'd say so. Not that... well, a lot of my music focuses around an aspect of something spiritual or something religious. I think I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't spiritual, but religious? I don't think so. Religious, no. Spiritual, yes. It was always very safe and therapeutic to question my upbringing through song, cause it's not like I could really question it anywhere else. It was an outlet to be able to explore different types of ideas.
Amos: Do your parent's have an opinion about the lyrics of some of the songs?
- Duke: Well, whether they agree or they disagree, not that they don't disagree with some of the sentiments, they're just very supportive that I'm questioning anything to begin with. That I have some belief system distilled in me somewhere, and that I'm just a good kid to them. They're happy with just the way that I was raised, I mean, I think that they would believe that growing up Catholic had a lot to do with the man that I am today, and I wouldn't disagree. But they're all right with it, though some themes they're not comfortable with, but overall all right.
Amos: To get back, you've recorded Winter Child, and you've got that in the can, Mad Dragon wanted you to tour to support it. What was touring for Winter Child?
- Duke: There wasn't much. I think that it was a handful of one-off shows in the Northeast. I didn't really go very far... well, I went down South. I did a tour with this guy named Erin Sidney, he goes by the moniker Syd, and he’s awesome. He was a mentor of mine, and he's one of the best people that I know. He, in terms of a work ethic, is a pretty incredible guy. He works very, very hard. He's part of a group now called Hotels and Highways. He's a self-made man; he did everything on his own. He was probably the perfect person for me to go out with in the very beginning, because I didn't know what it was going to be like to be out on the road, on tour, how I would feel.
Amos: Was this tour different than the one you did for XYX?
- Duke: Yes, it was just me and him and his band. We had a blast, but there was a lot of life lessons, in terms of how to cope with the day to day, how to manage your money, how to approach every show, he taught me all of that stuff in one fell swoop. But that tour was really the only substantial thing that I did for Winter Child, outside of a couple of press things in Philadelphia, some radio spots, but outside of that, nothing much.
Amos: How long did it take for Ryko to notice you after the release of Winter Child? Was there an affiliation with Mad Dragon at that time with Rykodisc?
- Duke: When I made Winter Child, I think that through the grapevine, through people at Mad Dragon might have known over at Warner Brothers or Ryko, they caught wind of the student-run record label concept, and Ryko was interested in using their distribution company, Ryko Distribution, to distribute the Winter Child record, so that's how the relationship started up between the two of them. It wasn’t a pairing, like, "We're going to grab your artists to use for our label, " it was, "Your content we're going to distribute, and then ultimately we're going to maybe ask that Matt bumps up to us," which is what happened. That was the, maybe, the year that the record came out, when that conversation started.
Amos: Was there a crop of other artists along with you when you were doing Winter Child?
- Duke: There was. There was Andrew Lipke. There was Hoots & Hellmouth. Andrew was out doing his own thing, and Hoots & Hellmouth were doing their own thing. They were there at the time as well.
Amos: Did any of them get picked up by Ryko, or was it just you out of that group?
- Duke: It was just me out of that group.
Amos: So Ryko has picked you out of this group, and has approached you with a record deal that would ultimately become Kingdom Underground. How long of a time period was there between that and releasing Winter Child?
- Duke: It was once we realized that we had exhausted our resources for the record, for any promotional budget that we might of had, so we decided to start over, to make a new record and we'll look for another producer, that was when the conversation started about me flying out to meet up with this guy named Marshall Altman in Los Angeles, to do the next record. So that was Ryko's hand in it, Ryko was like, "We know this producer, you can meet with him, he's interested." They brought him to New York, he heard a cut of the song “I’ve Got Atrophy on the Brain,” which I had cut with two students at Drexel just as a demo. He was like, "I would be very interested in making a record with him, so have him come to Los Angeles. We'll meet, we'll talk, we'll see what's up." We wrote for three days, we hung out for a little bit, then we decided that we'd make a record, that's how that started.
Amos: So at this point Ryko was taking the reins over as producer and promotions manager?
- Duke: Yeah.
Amos: Was your writing period for Kingdom Underground different than what it was for Winter Child?
- Duke: Winter Child took a year and a half to actually finish it, just because of all of the starts and stops, this one was going to be different because I had stockpiled a lot of songs, and we were just going to go for it and get it done in a month. To me, because of that, it felt like an authentic recording experience, just going in and being like, "We're going to start on Monday, and finish in 30 days. That's all we've got. We're just going to sit in this studio from dawn until dusk, until night, until whenever, and we're going to get it finished." So I went in with a bunch of these songs, but my intention was that I wanted them to sound different than the last record, just sonically. I needed it to feel different.
Amos: There was a big step-up in the way that they sound, Winter Child and Kingdom Underground. It was more effects, more backing band.
- Duke: That was all Marshall, and that was great, that was what I needed.
Amos: Were you thinking in terms of a sophomore album? Does that apply? Because there's a lot of times when an artist will do their first album, and it's made up of things that they had been saving up almost all of their life before that, then to go to the second album, you hear "sophomore slump" get thrown around a lot. Did Kingdom Underground feel like a sophomore record to you? Was it just another record?
- Duke: It only felt like a sophomore record in the sense that I had a lot more experience under my belt. So in the very literal sense, this is the second record and I know what I don't want to do. But, to me, there wasn't enough momentum with Winter Child to feel like Kingdom Underground was going to be a step back, it was, "We're just going to shoot for stars with this one." That was the biggest thing, with Winter Child, there was a bit of... I didn't really have that much control at all in terms of sonically where that was going. With Marshall it was more collaborative, it sounded more like a viable, pop record that would actually appeal to a lot more people than I thought that the first record did. So I was pretty confident. I didn't feel like it was going to fall into any slump, or anything that was sophomoric.
Amos: I know that there are times when an artist will do something considered a smaller record on a more independent label for their first album, then they get signed by a major label and release a fully-produced record, and that they consider that to be their debut album. Do you think that applies to your situation, or is Winter Child still your debut? Because they're two very different products, Winter Child and Kingdom Underground.
- Duke: That's not a bad way to look at it. If you look at it that way, then I almost look at each record as if it's a debut, because even my newest one, One Day Die, sounds a lot different than Kingdom Underground, they keep changing.
Amos: Going back to Winter Child, it was released in September of 2006, over a year after XYX. Did it take a long time to record?
- Duke: I feel like in the fall of 2005, maybe in the summer of 2005, and it just ran all the way into spring of 2006.
Amos: Was it a lot of small recording sessions? Would you go in for big ones with a lot of time between?
- Duke: There was the whole Jim Klein thing, where I was recording with him and then we scrapped it, then we had to talk about which songs of his that we were going to use, then recording with Steuart, it was weekends on, weekends off, weekends on, weekends off, it was very stilted. That process was A LOT different than the Kingdom Underground process.
Amos: Would you consider “Oysters” a single of Winter Child?
- Duke: Yeah, they tried.
Amos: Was it marketed at all as such?
- Duke: They were trying to.
Amos: Who produced that music video?
- Duke: It was directed by this guy named Dylan Steinberg who was also the producer as well. He came up with the concept; he decided to take a stab at it. He was a student at Drexel at the time, because Mad Dragon was almost all in-house. “Oysters” would have been the go-to single, and I think that they tried at first to push it out that way. Obviously it didn't do too much of anything, but that was okay.
Amos: What was the recording studio that you used in California for Kingdom Underground?
Amos: So Kingdom Underground would have been marketed a lot more than Winter Child, given that it was on Ryko. Was there a lead-off single and a follow up single for Kingdom Underground?
- Duke: The lead-off single was “The Father, The Son, and The Harlot’s Ghost,” the follow-up was going to be “Sex and Reruns.” Even without a lot of push behind it, it was getting picked up anyway by some radio stations, which was nice. But the idea was to put out “The Father, The Son, and The Harlot’s Ghost” first and then do “Sex and Reruns.” We didn't make a music video or anything like, we just were going to focus on touring, trying to get radio and trying to get reviews. We got a couple of each, it opened up to a couple of touring opportunities, but not many.
Amos: Besides Marshall Altman, did you meet other artists in your time at California?
- Duke: I met a couple, but just hanging out, no real writing or musical collaborations; it was mostly studio time.
- Duke: That was at the request of my record label, Ryko, they really wanted a supplement of acoustic tracks to the record. Personally, at first, I wasn't exactly into the idea, but they insisted that I do it, so I said, "Okay." They said, "We've got a producer that we'd like you to try, his name is Jason Finkel." He and I met up in New York, in Pyramid Studios, which is next to the Empire State Building. We spent two days there, two nights. That's when I realized that our working experience would be a good one for the next record. When it came time to choose for the One Day Die record, I choose to work with him. He was really close [in New York], we had a good relationship.
- Also, since in the beginning my heart wasn't in the project, he drew it out of me, to get me really invested into the idea of doing this acoustic EP, which ended up sounding great.
Amos: Was the stuff that you were recording for the Acoustic Kingdom Underground, was it a mirror of the way that you would do your solo, touring shows?
- Duke: Yeah, like on the track “Walk It Off” or “The Father, The Son” what I do live can sound much different than it shows up on the regular Kingdom Underground, but I wanted the acoustic version to capture that live version of the song.
Amos: So after you get done recording the Acoustic Kingdom Underground, you went to record a collaboration album called TFDI with musicians Tony Lucca and Jay Nash. How did you meet the two of them and how did you end up creating what would become TFDI?
- Duke: That was an opportunity that came from Ryko talking with Rock Ridge Music, because Tony Lucca is a part of Rock Ridge Music. Him and Jay were going to go do a co-headlining thing, they needed an opener, I got the opportunity to open for them, so that's how we all met. It was through networking that our management people got a hold of each other, that we got to be able to do that and put together a really nice bill. We got along so well, that it made for a really good tour dynamic between the three of us on stage. It was fun. At the end of it, we were near Chicago, in Evanston, they have a studio that's there. Since I had been playing there a couple of times, they'd always offer their studio to me to come in and play and do whatever else, so when I came in with the guys, it was the same thing. "If you guys want to come early, you should use the studio and just record." Tony and Jay were thrilled with the idea of just being able to come in and do that so we did, and we ended up making what would become the TFDI EP, which was just us riffing on each other's songs.
Amos: So you were all playing instruments for each other's songs?
- Duke: Yeah, we all just sat around in a circle and played in front of these mics and that was it. It was easy; we were done. We put it out and, I think, to date it is still one of the better-selling things that we have. The whole thing was almost an afterthought, just something that was fun to do and put together. That jump started number two, because we started to go out again this past winter, which was great.
Amos: Before I get to One Day Die, I have to get to your hand injury, which happened before the album. When did that happen?
- Duke: That happened October 31  or I guess you could say it was November 1, because it was All Saints Day, early in the morning. I broke my right hand around here [near my pinkie and my ring finger.] The break was bad enough to where they just couldn’t pop it back in. I had to have surgery and they put pins in. I had pins in for a couple of weeks, about a month, then they pulled them out and then I did rehab for a couple of months. After that I was able to get back onto the guitar wagon, get my hand back in order.
- Me breaking my hand really pushed things back, because I was supposed to be going into the studio to record that November, less than a month after the break happened. After the break, everything got pushed back indefinitely. It was for the better, I think, because the material that I had at the time, that I would have been going into the studio and recording with, wasn’t very good. I realized that once I actually broke my hand. I had all of this time to think about it and not play the guitar, which I realized that I was taking for granted because I love playing music. Now I can’t play any music at all because my hand is broken, how that was really stupid of me to do to myself, but I really did have a lot of time to reflect, almost on my past as a whole, which is where the One Day Die record came from. It was these things that I should have probably tapped into when I had been writing Winter Child and Kingdom Underground, these experiences that came to me when I had all of this time to reflect back on these moments of my life, things that I had glossed over, things that were actually really important.
Amos: Was Ryko very accommodating for you at the time?
- Duke: Yeah, a lot more than they had to be. They could have just dropped me from the label if they wanted to, I suppose, because the situation did put things back indefinitely and it was a big pain in the ass, but they… we have a very good relationship, and I was very thankful when they said, “We’ll wait, we’ll be all right.”
Amos: And when your hand injury occurred, it was November of 2009?
- Duke: Yes.
Amos: I want to go back now, since we’ve covered a lot of your history up to now, and talk about your songwriting. You have a lot of literary reference strewn about your songs, how long have you been a reader? Do you own a Kindle?
- Duke: I have a Kindle. I love it. As far as reading, I didn’t start to really get into it until after I dropped out of college, because I didn’t have to anymore. That always seemed ironic to me. But I fell in love with reading, people like Steinbeck, Faulkner. Joyce I’ve tried to tackle, but it makes me want to shoot myself.
Amos: How did your songwriting change after you started really getting into reading?
- Duke: I think it got a lot more heady, but I’ve always tried my best not to make it too obscure. I don’t try to do anything that’s beyond me. My favorite part about reading is after I’ve finished a book and I reflect on it, to break it down into layman’s terms. At that point I’m satisfied, because the reading part, as much fun goes into it, as much imagination goes into it, you can find yourself trudging through a book to get to the end, but when you finish it you sit back and put it all together, that’s what’s good to me.
Amos: I’ve read that you’ve had aspirations to be a writer yourself. Do you have ideas for novels and stories?
- Duke: I wish I could write a novel. I know myself well enough to know that I will probably never write a novel, but that’s okay. I might take a stab at writing a short story. Whenever I sit down to write, it always ends up being lyrical or poetry. Even if I try not to, it always steers back to songs. I always thought that writing a play would be great, because I was in so many, but I actually like reading plays.
Amos: You said you were doing plays in high school, was it local theatre or school productions?
- Duke: It was our high school. Our high school had really incredible plays.
Amos: Was it acting? Singing and acting?
- Duke: The program was called the [Cape and Sword] drama society at St. Joseph’s Prep. I think in Philadelphia it’s revered as one of the best, if not the best high school theatre company in Philadelphia. They are that good. I was very fortunate that I got to be a part of it a couple of times. They still do it; I actually just went back to see them do The Producers, and it’s on par with seeing The Producers on Broadway. It really is good. They can get kids… girls from any girl’s academy in the tri-state area if they want to audition to get the best girls. The guys that go to St. Joseph’s Prep sometimes go to the school just with the hope of being a part of the theatre program. They’ll either go do football or they’ll do theatre, sometimes they get the best guys around.
Amos: How did you learn how to sing?
- Duke: I don’t know, probably from my mom. She used to sing at church; she has a pretty voice. I’d listen to the radio.
Amos: So were you singing before you were playing instruments? Was it coinciding? Would you sing along when you were playing the piano?
- Duke: I might be humming. I know that my mom told me that I would always be humming. But, I don’t know, when I started to play the guitar, I’d play Nirvana songs and just sing along. At some point I realized that I didn’t sound so bad.
Amos: Were you recording yourself at that point?
- Duke: No, just playing and singing, when I finally heard myself on a recording it was weird. I’ve kinda gotten over that factor. It was just, singing and playing, I guess.
Amos: But were you singing when you were in the plays? Were you getting feedback from the director?
- Duke: Yeah, there was the one that I did where I actually sang, I mean, we did musicals in high school, too, but there wasn’t any musical stuff in grade school. There was a summer theatre program for the public school kids. They would do Disney productions until they got a letter from Disney saying that they would sue if they didn’t stop. They would do these incredible productions of Pocahontas, The Lion King, Hercules. Full-on costumes, the mothers from the community helped, all of the moms, all of the kids, incredible pyrotechnics that the kids were responsible for doing with older adults, a pit orchestra, all made of kids, with one director who did the whole show, it was awesome. That involved a lot of singing for the Disney shows. We were all very familiar with these Disney productions, so we knew what it was going to be for the next summer, and I only did… two of them? I did The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I did Hercules. You knew going in what you were going to sing, from the movies, and it was all really cool. That was the first time I ever sang on stage, I think ever. It went well, and I kept up with it.
Amos: Well, that’s all we have time for, so I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and go over some of this.
Pre-song banter during opening set: April 28th, 2011
Sex and Reruns
- Duke: This is a song about sex and Saved By the Bell.
I've Got Atrophy on the Brain
- Duke: Maybe this is apropos to the place that we're at now, at the City Winery, but I'm going to do this song next. I was sitting with my buddies, this was a couple of years ago, and we were watching The Today Show. This was the Katie Couric years. I don't know if she's coming back or not, I don't give a fuck, but either way, it was the Katie Couric years. They had some guy come on and he was talking about the physilogical effects of drinking on the brain. I was like, "This will be pretty interesting to watch," considering that we were fucking tanked at the time. "Let's do this!" We like to do mimosas in the morning. So we were watching, and the guy was talking about drinking, and he said, "You know, if you keep it to 14 drinks a week, that's two drinks a day, you're totally fine. Everything is totally okay. Now if you have more than 14 drinks a week, your brain will start to atrophy. It will get smaller, and smaller, and smaller."
- I looked at the TV and said, "I. am. fucked."
- I found a parallel with growing up a Christian. So, I decided to meld the two together, and I made a song at the time, after I had watched this thing, I think I had drank a bunch of Mimosas when I did it. This song is called, "I've Got Atrophy on the Brain."
- Duke: My mom always wanted me to write a song about her, and you know I should, and I did, but she would always bug me. She would be just like, "Matthew, I think that you have many things that you could say about me." "Sure, I could talk about how you gave birth to me but that would be weird. How I love you, I guess, but that would also be weird, because there's certain places in the country where maybe that happens, I don' t know. I'll figure it out one day." She said, "It's not that hard." "Mom, I love you, it'll happen."
- Well, this next song is one that's off the new record, too. Not to get sappy, but I will say that my mom's best friend, my neighbor, we grew up across the street from each other. Actually, our backyards were next to each other, there was this big path that cut between them. But her best friend passed away two years ago, and it was really hard for her. I don't think I've ever seen my mom have such a hard time coping with a death, and we've gone through a lot of them. That woman was strong, my mom's a strong woman, too. So, I figured it was time for a song.
- Duke: We were in Columbus, Ohio and we were playing at a breast cancer benefit, where they had a silent auction while we were playing for all of these paintings that were up on the wall. Being a musician, there's a couple of perks, well, I think the one and only perk is that you get free booze. So they gave us free booze, which was really great. We played our set, I got a couple of beers, which was awesome, and there was this one painting that I feel like I gravitated toward. It was of Adam & Eve, underneath the Tree of Knowledge, but there wasn't one serpent, there was, like, eight of them. They all looked really cool. At the end of the night, that painting didn't go, which sucked. The woman who was currating the whole thing, she comes up to me and she says, "You like it?" I said, "I do, but it sucks that it didn't go." "Give me a hundred bucks, I'll give it to you." "Okay." So I cut the check, as I'm signing it I hand it over to her and I ask her, "What is this thing called, exactly?"
- I figured that she was going to say it was something like, "Original Sin," "Tree of Knowledge," "Adam & Eve." She hands it to me, she goes, "It's called 'Sexy Times'." I didn't realize that Adam & Even were in a very, very odd position underneath the tree.