Interview: Simon Neil and JP Reid - Escaped crusaders

AYRSHIRE duo Marmaduke Duke are the stuff of legend. Not because The Atmosphere and The Dragon also happen to front two rather well-known rock groups, Biffy Clyro and Sucioperro. Oh no, that would be too simple. The Duke you see, is based on a trilogy of unfinished books smuggled into Scotland from Portugal, so that the rock alchemists Simon Neil and JP Reid could turn them into a series of concept albums.

Well, not quite. The pair befriended a Portuguese man who was living in Scotland, and he returned from a trip home with some of his parents' writing, unpublished and incomplete.

"When we were waiting to make our last Biffy record four years ago, we weren't allowed to do anything as it was all going between lawyers at the time, so me and my friend John just decided to go and make an album on our own. We did 18 songs in a week, and that was the first album," says Neil. "This second one was more or less written and recorded in the same time."

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Instantly inspired by the stories, Reid is ambitious when it comes to seeing them going beyond the albums to the big screen. "I know it is very rare to come across unpublished work and then write music for it," he says.

"A friend said it reminded him of Ninth Gate, that Johnny Depp film directed by Roman Polanski about the supernatural and the rare book trade. My larger ambition is a trilogy of movies that would be like a psychedelic version of Lord Of The Rings, maybe with a director like Guillermo del Toro involved."

Neil is clearly glad to be taking a detour from Biffy's dynamic rock path. His aim with Marmaduke Duke's second album, Duke Pandemonium, is to challenge listeners to dance to the complicated, surreal tunes.

"The first record was almost anti-music," he says, "and we wanted to make people feel queasy by the time they got to the end of it. That's what that record was meant to be like, but there are moments of release and moments of beauty, pure disgust and even loneliness. This record is the opposite, and I think people will feel pretty good by the end."

The Duke, he says, is a pretty regular 16th-century guy, while their alter egos, The Atmosphere and The Dragon, are the henchmen who keep him out of trouble.

This means dressing the part for the live shows, which both men evidently relish. "If I was to walk down the street in Ayr wearing this get-up I don't know what would happen, because you get enough strange looks just for having long hair and a beard," says Reid.

The one rule in Marmaduke, says Neil, is that he does not play guitar. "That's what I do with Biffy, it's the band's heart and soul. This takes me out of the comfort zone, and has me singing over beats, and playing keyboards live, which is weird.

"But music should be fun, it should be about mates out enjoying themselves."

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The third and final album is already in the advanced planning stages, with the current scheme being for it to consist of one 40-minute track with no vocals. Called Death Of A Duke, it's probably safe to assume a lack of happy endings.

Neil is certainly not conflicted, however, on where his musical destiny lies. "The two people I want to make music with for the rest of my life are James and Ben, whereas most people are doing something different," he says of his Biffy band members. "They want to get away from the folk they are in a band with. With Biffy I want to stand by every line, and work at it until it is just right and embrace it with my entire being. And with Marmaduke Duke, because it is based on stories, it is possible to be more carefree. Trying to be sincere dressed like a 16th-century gent can get a bit tricky."

Playing keyboards, dressing up in a cape, it all sounds terribly familiar. "Yes it is all very Rick Wakeman," agrees Reid, referring to the keyboardist for prog rockers Yes. "I really think we should investigate staging it as a pantomime on ice."

The new single Kid Gloves is out March 2 with the Duke Pandemonium album to follow. The band play Edinburgh Bongo Club, February 28; Glasgow Art School, March 6

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