Interview with Patrick Duff


From the Funky Mofo archives: C.B Lux has a chat with the Bristol singer about his debut solo album, ‘Luxury Problems’, as well as other projects.

Funky Mofo: What have you been up to over the last few years?

Patrick Duff: I’ve just been writing songs and I suppose the most significant thing was me working with an African woman called Madosini, I don’t know if you knew about that… Ok, about 2, maybe 3 years ago now actually, I went to South Africa. I saw a woman at Womad Festival called Madosini. She’d been a shepherdess in South Africa in a place called Tanskei and she plays instruments that she makes herself out of pieces of wood, made out of old pumpkin gourds and a wire, so it’s like a bow, but a wooden bow with a wire stretched between it and then it’s got a pumpkin on it (after investigation it turns out this instrument is called Uhadi). The wire is made out of bangles that old women wear, they wear bangles around their wrists and ankles. When they die they take the bangles off them and put them on a fire and bang them straight with railway sleepers. So this wire is stretched out and banged with a little stick and she rolls the pumpkin back and forth across her chest, across the flesh of her chest and it kind of goes (Patrick makes a sound similar to that of a didgeridoo) and she bangs the string and she can play two notes.

It’s really fantastic music, it’s really like old blues, really strange rhythms. She also plays a mouth instrument (Umrhubhe), a smaller bow that she puts in her mouth and scrapes across the same wire and she makes whistling sounds with it. She’s an amazing musician. Her grandmother taught her how to play and make the instruments, who was taught by her grandmother and her grandmother and her grandmother, just goes back and back in time.

Madosini had been sitting on the side of a hill until she was 80 just playing then somebody from Womad discovered her and they took her over to Womad, then 6 months after that she was playing at the festival when I was there, I saw her playing and it was really amazing! I was really moved by her music in just a deep way I suppose, it really did it for me. I just thought she was fantastic because she jumped up and down after the songs, sort of whooping, and she was very charismatic and the music was really haunting, a lot of it, really haunting in a really unusual way. I think that the purity of the expression of it just went straight into me.

I know the artistic director of Womad, Thomas Brewman, because he’s always supported my music and always really liked what I do and the next time I was out there playing him ‘Luxury Problems’ – it was just when I started ‘Luxury Problems’ actually, I’d recorded some tracks with Adrian Utley and I went out to play them to Thomas – I also mentioned how affected and how inspired I’d been by seeing Madosini play and he said that he thought I should meet her and do a collaboration with her. So I wasn’t expecting that! Within a few months he’d organised funding from the PRS society for me to go to South Africa and meet Madosini and work with her and write some music.

So I went to South Africa where I’d never been before, it’s the furthest I’d ever been from home actually up to that point. I arrived in Cape Town and met her there, she lives half of her time now in the countryside and half of her time now spent in Cape Town. She can’t speak any English so there was a translator there, this guy called Vuyo, who was a really important part of the project actually because he translated to Madosini what was going on. I stayed with him and his family in the township of Cape Town where you don’t see any white people at all. It’s an amazing place. The first night I was there I could hear guns going off, it was quite scary but also I saw lots of things that were really amazing, lots of music that was just going on, little kids playing marimbas and things, just amazing, like these little kids just going across these instruments at a thousand miles an hour but about 40 of them doing it at the same time, just incredible!

I met with Madosini and she was quite suspicious of me actually when we commenced work. She started to play her instrument and I was trying to play along with my guitar and it wasn’t really happening. I didn’t know what to do then and every day we spent on rehearsals, about three hours a day, was costing money for her and me. She’d come with her head sort of down and sit in her chair and she wouldn’t look up and she’d play her instrument. I’d try and sort of play along via the translator. It all kind of rested on my shoulders because I’d initiated everything so she wasn’t really sure of what was going on.

FM: I guess you would be if you were in her shoes, you would be very suspicious, “what does that white man want from me”?

PD: Yeah, and she’d already been ripped off quite a few times in the music business. It was quite difficult when it started off and that’s why I realised, what we just said then, on about the fourth day, thinking this isn’t going anywhere. I thought what it must be like for her and then I realised that I’d gone over there really with that attitude – I’d seen her at Womad and it had a really strong impression on me, Thomas had suggested going over there and it was really exciting and quite scary as well but I just thought yeah go for it, it’s such a different thing to do, you can’t say no to something like that! What I realised was that I was actually sort of interested in taking something from her, I’d seen what she’d done and I was interested in it and I wanted to go over, get involved and be part of it, and I realised that first of all I’d have to form some sort of relationship with her before I did that.

FM: So you had to reassess what the whole project was about…

PD: Yeah I did. When I got there it was really different from what I thought it would be like. So the next few days after that I just sat in a room with her and decided to stop trying to play along, just sit and just be with her and listen to her playing because that’s what she loves to do and that’s what she’s used to doing. So I spent time with her, just me and her in this room – that started changing something. But the thing that really did it for me was the house that I was staying in, I made friends with the little children there and they really trusted me and she saw that, I think! They really like my song ‘Refrigerator’! So I was like playing that with them and they were all running around the house going “Check out my refrigerator”. We were doing it and she saw that one day and that was the first time there was a real human interaction between me and her.

The next few days I just spent being with her and it was really amazing and one day I was sat across probably a little bit further away than you are and she was just playing away and I’d been listening to her for a few days and she just looked up and looked right into my eyes and just carried on playing like that. I could feel this electricity going into me, it was really amazing and after that we started getting on really well me and her. But nothing really got written in South Africa, it was just that we formed a relationship and I didn’t start playing guitar or anything. Right at the end I thought ‘what am I going to do? They’ve paid for me to come out here!’
We had one song but that was something I’d already composed when I was in England, it was like an acapella song and I knew that we could just get her to play a drone through and I knew that would work. So I knew that we’d have that but we hadn’t really created anything together and on the last day I just thought ‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen?’ But by the last day we had this really good relationship and I just thought “well that’s good enough in a way” but she said “I’m going to come to England, I want to come to England” so we managed to organise that as well and a few weeks later she flew over.

We got her somewhere to stay in Bristol, I went to meet her and she just said “now just get your guitar out” and she started playing and it was really weird, I could just play along with her, I don’t know how I could do it but I just could. Then she taught me how to play her instrument and I could just do that as well and she told me that she’d passed onto me what had been given to her from the ancestors so it was really amazing.
She said that nobody in her village is interested, there’s no young people in the village who want what she’s got and it’s supposed to be passed on only to females so it was really amazing that she passed it onto me even though I wasn’t black and I wasn’t a woman and it was an honour. That changed me and it got me back in touch with what I was first liked when I started music, which was very spontaneous, just full of the spirit of it really and not thinking about my career or where I stood in the big jigsaw of different bands and all that stuff – I’m not saying it’s a bad thing or anything but just the way it is for us when you’re a musician in England and you’re in a rock band and you get signed…

FM: …You have to have a plan, that’s the main thing at the moment: you almost have to have a business plan. What you’ve got to do is your first album, where you’re going to take it, what you’re going to do after…

PD: …and that’s become the main thing in a lot of ways, especially when you’re in the midst of it, it becomes very very important all of that – as soon as you’ve written something you’re thinking about getting it released and she hadn’t experienced any of that, she didn’t even know who Elvis was, do know what I mean? So she put me back in touch with that, it was really liberating, it made me feel really relaxed being around her and being around all that. I still love the music, the sort I like more than I like her music, you know, it’s in my blood in a way, it’s what – rock ‘n’ roll – I was brought up with, it’s still what I really love. But she put me back in touch with all that, she put me back in touch with what it was about music that I really liked and what I liked about playing instruments and what it’s really all about. I think that was really really valuable. I don’t think anyone else could have done that really, it’s just brilliant.

We never managed to get anything recorded because she was too suspicious to play in a studio. She didn’t want to play but that’s something I want to continue, I know that one day I’ll be in a position to call more shots and then I’m going to do an album with her, I know it. There is definitely something to be said through her music to the world! Her music is really pure.

FM: I imagine that obviously influenced your work on your new album ‘Luxury Problems’.

PD: I was writing songs around that time, it really helped me to get back that kind of spirit, not that I had lost it, I’d just forgotten.

FM: ‘Wandering’ is the word I would use to describe the state you fell in. I did find your album is fresh, it has the freshness, the urgency of some early material from Strangelove, especially on ‘Refrigerator’.

PD: That’s what it is, that’s definitely what it is. The musicians of the album have got that spirit as well, that’s what great musicians are, people who could conjure up that spirit. Everyone who played on that album has got that.

FM: That’s very interesting to see that all these experienced musicians have managed to retain such open-mindedness.

PD: Definitely. That’s what I think is great about someone like Adrian (Utley, also member of Portishead), he’s an amazing musician, he can do anything he wants technically, he’s an absolutely incredible jazz guitarist but he plays his guitar with a screwdriver to keep the tension! So he’s got that open-mindedness and so has everyone, Damon (Reece, ex-Spiritualized, Lupine Howl) has got that big time, so has Mike (Mooney, also ex-Spiritualized, Lupine Howl). I like that, I’ve always liked really early rock ‘n’ roll and things like that where you can just hear that something’s going on that’s new and exciting! I’ve learnt quite a few songs recently which I never did – well I did, that’s not true – I really went back and listened to songs that I liked and learnt to play them on my guitar, properly learnt how to play something, not just thumbnail sketches, which I can always bunk together a version of anything. I can sort of jam my way through it.

Also I ’ve started doing a workshop, just doing songwriting, I got a group of people together and that’s been really successful! That’s helped me to focus on what’s really important about the writing process. There’s an open discussion in this group going on the whole time, I think discussion is a really good way. If you’re an artist or a musician your natural state is to be somehow philosophical, you weigh everything up and you don’t commit. In a conversation you have to kind of stick your neck saying “this is what I actually think” (Patrick taps the table as to emphasise his explanation at the same time), conversation’s good, like planting a flag someway. Just seeing how much good can be done if you shine the light of enthusiasm onto somebody, you can watch them grow. How amazing that is, that’s really taught me that.

After the experience with Madosini I felt like I wanted to carry with the idea of passing things on. When I look back on my life what happened I was a busker on the street, then I was in this band for years, then I was out of the band, but I’ve got experience that not many people have got in a way and in that workshop there’s some use for that experience, not some vague thing hanging about in the air that happened to me.

FM: I’m very curious about your label, Harvest. Why did you choose to release your album with them?

PD: I didn’t choose that..

FM: …It was imposed on you!

PD: (smiling) It wasn’t imposed either, it was brilliant! They were putting out this Strangelove compilation album, me and Alex found out about through my internet site and we felt like we wanted to be involved in it, with what tracks were being chosen. So we got in touch with them and they were really pleased that we got in contact. We had our own idea about what we thought would be a good running order and things like that.
Nigel Reeve, who was really into Strangelove, was doing the album as a labour of love, it wasn’t as a financial concern for EMI, it was because he loved the band, and he felt like it’d be a good idea to have a compilation. So that was a good start, me and Alex, by that point, had decided that we would finish off the album I’d started making with Adrian together. We had no idea how we were going to put it out or anything, we just decided we were going to do it. We knew Paul Corkett, our producer, had offered us time at Moles (a Bath club/studio), everybody did it on favours really. We had some demos that me and Alex had done, with a little bit of help from Damon, and I also had the four tracks I’d done with Adrian. I played them to Nigel and he just said “I want this album!” straight away. He phoned me back and said “I really meant what I said, I think it’s a Harvest Records’ album”. I don’t know much about those sort of things but I do know who Harvest are ‘cause I was into Syd Barrett when I was about 18, I was obsessed with Syd Barrett and I’d seen it on the front of his records. I remember that weird little symbol. When Nigel said it to me, I couldn’t really believe this was happening. But it did happen.

FM: What’s your favourite pick of the album?

PD: Favourite track? There isn’t a favourite one. I like all of them.

FM: They’re all your children, you like them equally!

PD: Yeah, yeah! (laughs)

FM: What’s your opinion of people living in luxury?

PD: One thing about going to South Africa, because I hadn’t seen poverty before, has made me realise that everything in the concerns of our world are a luxury compared to what’s going on in the rest of the world. To actually see it up close does make a difference to you, it does really affect you, it really does when you see people who haven’t got any opportunities and their lives are just… You can’t see how it can end, they haven’t got any money to eat, they really haven’t, and they’re starving right in front of your eyes and it’s different from it being on the television for some reason. It just changes you, you can’t ever be the same again. When I look at my life, the concerns of my life haven’t been about how much I’ve had to eat, have I got a roof over my head. I’ve had problems in my life but they haven’t been of that bottom line – food, shelter. Everything we got over here, most of what we think about and most of our concerns in this day and age are luxury problems.

On a personal note, as you go on in your life you refine your relationship with it and you get better at living.

That title came out of me saying… Adrian was talking about doing a new Portishead album and I said to him “you should call that album ‘Luxury Problems’” as a joke. They’ve taken ages to get their album together and they’ve got the best equipment and all the studios in the world! I just thought that’d be a good name for their album but I thought “actually, no, I’ll call that mine, I’ll save that for my own” because I quite like it. (laughs) It’s got a sense of humour about it, just those words make me laugh.

FM: You’ve always been strong with your lyrics, there’s always been a sense of honesty and disillusion at the same time, you’ve also quite a “sparkly” sense of humour. Where do you get your ideas from in terms of style of writing – not so much the content than the way you formulate your words?

PD: There are a lot of different techniques. This album is different because I used lots of different parts of myself. In Strangelove it was just about the way that I lived and my feelings, it was just about that, it was very intense. I lived in a way that was really intense, there wasn’t room for anything else. Now I’ve used my friends‘ lives, I’ve just butchered their lives and cut them up for my own in a way that I wouldn’t have ever done before, sort of observations. Some of it is about nailing down the past in a way, there are some things I really want to remember, that I don’t think I can remember in any other way than putting them into the form of a song. I try to make sense of my own life, not wanting to let things go and just wanting to have a little memory, a bit like Mr Benn when he came back from whatever land he’d been, he’d always have a little feather or something in his hand. Sometimes you want the past to be a bit different than you remembered it so you can write a song and actually change the past if you want and have it the way that you want it.

Some of the songs have just come out of my imagination, like ‘King of the Underworld, it’d came out of me closing my eyes and I saw the whole thing happening, all of it. I’d never done that before. Some of the songs came out of dreams, like ‘Song To America’, I dreamt the words. A young girl, who was about 13, spoke the words of the song to me when I was dreaming and I wrote them down in the morning.

This album has got more depth to it because it’s more of a fully-rounded person who’s speaking in different voices which is more true to what I’m really like. And I’ve always had a sense of humour but I’ve never been able to somehow articulate it in my work before so I’m glad of that.

FM: Your band includes old mates and new collaborators, even though they’ve all been on the scene for a while. How did that happen?

PD: I don’t really know how it happened. Just through being in Bristol, there’s quite an open generous attitude in Bristol, people have been generous with their time and energy with me. It came about working with me and other people, like I worked with Rich Beale and his band Applecraft, that’s how I met Damon and Mike and Adrian, and I’ve worked with Jesse (Morningstar) as well and that’s how I met Jim (Barr). I put some in and I got some back and that’s the way it worked.

FM: Is your refrigerator a SMEG (done in a Red Dwarf voice)?

PD: A what? (Patrick’s PR explains it’s a make of fridge which is not the one he owns). It’s a fridge that I had when I was living in a flat, it just used to buzz, like that one (there is a fridge in the room the interview is taking place, which has kept quiet up until that point!) but louder and it’d come on at night, keeping me awake. I’d turned it off and didn’t have a fridge for about two years but that was horrible as well! I didn’t have anything cold, I just couldn’t, it was hard to live without a fridge for two years but because the noise drove me mad I couldn’t have yogurts or something so I put it back on! The worst time was at night, just going on and off really loudly! I thought that was a great metaphor for your head just going on and off at night ‘cause that’s the worst time for that as well.

I thought I’d write a song where like I’d throw my whole life up in the air and watch it smash on the floor, pick up the little bits and stick them all together in a different way and have the chorus that says “check out my refrigerator”!

C.B Lux

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