Dare Dukes – which stands as both the name of the band and the lead singer who fronts said band – plays music which challenges listeners from just about every angle. These are songs with detailed, often bordering on convoluted, lyrics which are anchored to earth by deft arrangements which require repeated listens to fully sink in. But that’s really the crux of what he’s going for in the first place. Dukes, who hails from Savannah, Ga., says he strives to find the beautiful moments in the everyday, pulling from the margins the eccentric characters and bizarre events which form the heart of his adventurous blend of folk and pop. Put that music on stage and it’s a veritable powderkeg of creativity which, even when playing as the opening act for a Louisville native the crowd’s itching to see, is fully capable of getting a small crowd of early birds to sit up and take notice.
I got the opportunity to talk to Dukes face to face when he finished playing his band’s January 28th set at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville,. He spoke of meaningful music, his quest to write a great pop song, and why “it’s really fucking hard to write songs with really good hooks.”
What would you say is “meaningful” music for you?
Wow, that’s a hard question. I definitely prefer arrangments that, whether it’s hardcore or light folk, are “thoughful” arrangments. I enjoy arrangements that are surprising, so people who use weird instrumentation, stuff like that, is really enjoyable to me.
We saw a lot of that tonight, with all the instruments your band was working in. Is it harder to put all that onto a CD and then work it into your live show?
Yes, it’s very hard. There’s a ton of horns on the record (Thugs and China Dolls) and of course we don’t have any with us now. I wish we could, but that would mean two more people to bring with you. But the accordion can make up for a lot of that stuff.
The new album, Thugs and China Dolls – where’d that title come from?
I don’t know … sometimes music really pops out for me without me thinking about much, and the lyrics are harder to come by. But often when I have a melody and a chord progression that I like, I tend to mumble-sing to it while I’m working out the melody, and lyrics will just pop up. I’m pretty sure “thugs and china dolls” came out that way. So I built the song around that. People ask me what that song is about, and all I can tell you is that it’s a song about innocence: “watch out for these bad things in the world.” Thugs and china dolls are descriptions of people who are going to take advantage of you in one way or another.
I know I’ve compared you to John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats, but who are your other influences?
I like the Mountain Goats, but I wouldn’t call them an influence. There are a lot of musicians I realized I had an affinity with after I’d already found my sound. I’d say Laura Veirs is one of them. You may not hear Laura Veirs when you listen to my music, but particularly the way she and her producer, Tucker Martine, arrange her songs – that’s a huge influence because they are very thoughtful arrangers. But I totally love the Mountain Goats. He’s an influence in that he makes it okay to be as wordy as I want to be.
I got so sick of having to “score” music after a while; I was wondering if you think it is possible to quantify what is “good” music. Is there actually such a thing as good or bad art?
That’s another extraordinarily difficult question. My wife is a cultural anthropologist, and that’s been one of her subjects recently, the art market and how art is valued. There’s fancy-schmancy high falutin’ New York art, versus art that is considered crap by the people who decide these things. Not “found art,” because that’s got its own niche. But I would say, to a certain extent, I think the listener has to have a lot to do with saying whether music is good or bad. However, I do believe that there are people who work hard at their craft and make little miracles happen. By that, I mean they open up connections to things which move them past the daily world. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding pretentious, but I mean it.
And then you see sites like Pitchfork with the 0.0 review, which implies there’s no artistic or social merit to a piece of music.
The media does work really hard to push buttons. I’d say ninety percent of what the mainstream media does is decide who’s on the top of the hill this week. That’s what Pitchfork is doing – they’re not really serious reviewers. They’re just tagging. They’re saying who won the Superbowl of Music this week. And then there’s always amazing stuff which flies under the radar. You can’t get around it though, because I’m influenced by stuff like that all the time. But what can I say?
For people who haven’t heard your music, how would you describe your music? What should listeners expect from you the first time around?
They should expect songs about subjects which are kind of out of the box for pop music. Weird characters, weird moments – I like writing about weird people, not in a derrogatory way, but weird in the sense that people are surprising. People who resist the forces that want to homogenize or disenfranchize those of us who are strange. Because they’re strange, they represent that miracle I was talking about, those meaningful art moments. And even though the subject of my songs may be atypical when it comes to pop music, I really do love pop music. I’ve done art forms which are strange and I’m into that too, but I find it phenomenally challenging to write a good pop song. I love the challenge of trying to write a good pop song. I want to write songs with really good hooks because I love songs with really good hooks. But it’s really fucking hard to write songs with really good hooks!