words: Chris Hutcheon
pics: Kevin Petch
Duels (neé SammyUSA) spent time suffering the wisdom of Island Records. Now they’re back.
Ever get a sense that you’ve been somewhere before, the feeling that what you’re hearing has a recognizable ring to it? The French call this illusion déjà vu but the fact that it is a trick of the mind does render it useless in knowing what is going to happen in the future, despite the path already seeming trodden.
Fortunately for Duels, the familiarity of their conversation with Sandman is borne not of déjà vu, but of their situation, which draws striking parallels to that when we last spoke over 18 months ago.
“I read that article the other day,” admits bassist Jon Maher – who alongside vocalist Jon Foulger, is catching up with us today, “it’s weird because we’re in a remarkably similar position in terms of the chronology of the band.”
It’s true, back then though the innovative five-piece were prog-fuzz eclecticists Sammy USA, they had just signed to Island Records and were brimming with enthusiasm as they knocked together some pre-album recordings. The future looked bright because in the band’s words Island had, “told us what we wanted to hear”.
Nowadays, having been released from their Island deal, they’re Bowie re-shaping, Britpop bedfellows Duels, they have just signed to Nude and are brimming with enthusiasm as they play around with some pre-single recordings and plan ahead to the making of their debut album, vaguely pencilled in for Spring 2006. The future looks bright because Nude are “intensely passionate” about their work.
That’s quite an eventful year and a half then, though in the first instance not as action-packed as they would have liked.
“After we spoke to Sandman we were just sat around waiting for something to happen and suggesting lots of things [to Island], saying lets do this, lets do that,” recalls Jon F, referring to the band’s ill-fated relationship with their first label, “but they said ‘lets not do anything, lets sit you here and when we’re ready we’ll release a record’ and we were stewing and getting more and more frustrated by it really. We were sat there on a label that wouldn’t let us play live and wouldn’t let us record.”
You could be forgiven for double taking at the puzzling declaration that Duels weren’t allowed to gig and it does beg the question, why? The reality is that there is no sensible answer and asking the question is like asking why X-factor isn’t called ‘Reality Check’ or why, when everyone apparently hates him, cherub-faced lounge-bore Jamie Cullum shifts so many units. It simply doesn’t make sense.
“How do you promote a record? How do you get anyone to know about the band?” enquires Jon F reasonably but also rhetorically.
You would assume, however, that a major label would know what they were doing, although the reason they gave, according to Jon F was that “they wanted us to be kept a secret until the record, which to us was just mad.”
Indeed, it defies logic and is obviously just one of those befuddling foibles of an industry that tends to pose more questions than it answers. Further discussion though does shed a little light on a more plausible reason for the label’s stance.
“Basically what happened in a nutshell was that our A&R guy had Busted,” explains Jon F before clarifying his statement to the relief of the former chart-bothering three-piece’s respective parents. “Then he signed us, then McFly straight after us. So basically the guy was a ‘pop’ guy, he was into those bands, he was very good at doing those kinds of things and I think he was a little bit terrified of us and didn’t really know what to do with us.”
Island’s dithering could have cost Duels dearly, the chance that people would forget about them meant that their enforced hiatus threatened to undermine all of the hard work they had put in prior to signing the deal, as Jon F recounts.
“That was our major concern when we came back as Duels, we had a good following as Sammy USA in Leeds and a little bit around the country as well from the gigs that we did. First and foremost we were signed as a live band, we did a lot of showcases even when we didn’t have a recording, we played to their people and they thought it was fantastic, they signed us on a live show, then wouldn’t let us play, and to us the major thing was to be playing live. So we spent a year not playing live and disappeared into our own realm.”
However, not a band to rest on their laurels, Duels used the time they were publicly inactive, productively, only to meet more indifference.
“We were away for a year basically, August (2003) to August (2004), with Island,” remembers Jon F, “in which time we wrote a whole album’s worth of stuff, towards the end of the Island thing anyway. We sat down and wrote ten songs, that’s where we were going to go with it so we knew exactly what was going to happen to us in terms of what our recordings were and what the band was about – but the label wouldn’t listen to it.”
At this point it became clear their relationship was not just on the rocks it was pretty much over save for the formalities, but the quintet were already admirably looking to the future and preparing for life without Island.
“Really when it came to being dropped we’d been expecting it to happen for the last few months,” muses Jon F, “they didn’t know where it was going to go, but to us it was a really strange thing because they didn’t come and see us and they didn’t listen to our recordings. We were happy about it though because we knew exactly where we were going next and we were off a label we weren’t comfortable with.”
“Duels were born two months before they appeared in public,” continues Jon M, “half of your mind is excited by all of these new songs but in a way we had to sit tight and keep quiet. We had to get off that label through the back door really, if they’d have come and seen us two months before they dropped us they would have seen Duels, with two-thirds of the set we’re playing now, but for some reason unbeknownst to us we’d been put in that folder of being dead, so we just bided our time until we got dropped and it was such a relief.”
It’s testament to Duels determination that they took a potentially morale-sapping chapter in their career and used it as a springboard. As one door closed they forced their way through another, their new identity making an early and successful appearance once ties with Island were officially severed.
“There was no moping around, we just got on with getting some gigs,” remembers Jon M, “that weekend we played our first gig, at Woodhouse [Liberal Club],” continues Jon F, “and it was probably the best gig we’ve done – we were loving it. It couldn’t have come at a better time really because we were on a real high about what we were doing.”
After all that happened though, the band naturally decided that they would treat their new incarnation with kid gloves, especially as they were unsure what the public’s reaction would be to their re-invention.
“Cautious was probably the way we went about it,” surmises Jon F, “our intention when we started Duels, after that experience, was to start from the beginning again, go back to playing live in Leeds, which is what we did and the best thing was that people accepted us straight away, got into it straight away. A natural reaction would be for people to be a little bit suspicious of you if you’ve been out of the game for a year or so and then come back doing something different but people got behind it.”
“Whiskas was big factor in it,” he reveals, “he put us on at the Dance To The Radio gig, was really into what we were doing and kind of restored our faith.”
The latter statement implies a certain level of disillusionment with the industry, but in conversation Duels are accepting and their positive outlook seems, so far anyway, to have stood them in good stead, especially as they have a sold out, and hence highly sought after, e-bayer’s dream of a single under their collective belts.
“That kind of siege mentality develops, internally,” Jon M ponders, “my philosophy on it, psychologically, is that if us five can, five days a week, go in the same room with each other and play music when deep down you thought there’s no chance of this getting out in public – the lowest part of having a record deal – then, if you can get through that…”
“So much is put on you that you just think ‘why am I doing this in the first place?’” interjects Jon F, “and it got back to why we were writing songs, how we were writing songs and what we loved about being in a band. That’s why Sammy USA changed to Duels as it is now, we decided that what we really loved was songs and being the kind of band we’d loved when we were 15 or 16.”
“The amazing thing is we’ve not been cynical,” he continues, “and despite basically having our childhood dream pissed all over, we’ve found it very easy to go back into it because we never thought let’s give up, it’s not working out. We just thought about what we could do next.”
Nevertheless, despite a strong desire to move forward, lessons were undoubtedly learned from their Island ‘adventure’, although Duels aren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, band to chase the seeming musical holy grail of a major label deal.
“The whole thing was a bit of a rude awakening really,” Jon F admits, “because when you’re a young band, you think ‘get signed and that’s it’ – all you want to do is get signed and you think ‘that’s my aim’ – so we all worked towards getting signed, you get signed and think, great, I’m going to release records now and release the album I always wanted to make, but that’s not the way it works. You get signed up and from there you’ve got to go on and do the work.”
Fingers suitably burned then, Duels have another bite at the cherry, this time with Nude, who enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Suede. The band are full of enthusiasm for the deal but, then again, Sammy USA were excited about he prospect of working with Island and by their own admission, Duels are in a very comparable position to where they were the last time we spoke.
“The main difference this time is that the guy at the helm, at Nude, is intensely passionate and excited,” insists Jon M, “and that’s what you need to feel from people because you’ve got to let these people in to where your songs are, where it all matters.
“The guy in question has been scarred as well after Nude folded, so he’s on his second chance as it were and we’ve got a lot in common with him. When you’re an artist, writing songs, the worst thing you can come up against is apathy and we just connected with the guy straight away.”
Thankfully, this time Duels do look set to do something Sammy USA never did - release an album - although when they do it is unlikely to contain any of the latter’s material, despite it being what attracted the interest of major labels in the first place.
“Sammy USA was a strange beast,” smiles Jon F, “there was that kind of song, this kind of song; we’ve always been like that, and still are like that in that we like writing different kinds of songs but I think we just got better at what we did, learned to write better songs. Those elements of what Sammy USA were are still there but we’re just a lot more focussed,” he concludes sounding very much like Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs, a band whose background, it can be argued, has one or two passing similarities to that of Duels.
Effectively starting again didn’t do them any harm so there are plenty of reasons for Duels to be cheerful as Jon M admits, “We’ve got this album to make, that’s Christmas as far as we’re concerned, that’s what we’re working towards but when your distractions are headline tours and great gigs in London then it’s happy days.”
True enough and long may it continue, let’s just hope that the next time we speak is to discuss a successful album and not to have this conversation all over again.