I wanted to tell you about my friend Duncan.
We became friends and bandmates in about 1997/8, and he was the frontman of the band that played at my wedding in 2006. Well, he died on the evening of 6th January 2010, aged 35, in the company of his close family.
All my friends who met him; my wife; both of my brothers; my mum; my nephew; even my nan – they all liked Duncan. He had this authentic public schoolish charm, undermined deliciously by his capacity for outrageous naughtiness, topped off with a grin and a twinkle.
I first got to know him when I went with my friend (his girlfriend and later wife) Catrina, to see him in a gig at a hostile Racehorse pub in Northampton. It was just Duncan – and a drummer who couldn’t count – desperately fighting to engage the Sunday night drinkers with his songs. It goes down as one of the most inspired and energetic performances I’ve seen; his acoustic guitar was spattered with blood by the end of the night.
I straightaway offered my services as a bassist until he could find a more permanent solution. Our first rehearsal together was up in his flat, where he taught me the bassline to his song ‘Something Covered’. We sat on the floor because his only chair had a sheet of cellophane taped over the seat to produce a ‘snare’ drum for the purposes of recording.
We began a weekly 50-mile pilgrimage to St Neots, where we would meet up with his old schoolmate (and new drummer) Trussy. There, for a couple of hours, the three of us would patiently work up ideas from the most obscure corners of Duncan’s mind into crackling punkish songs.
A solid core of about ten or fifteen of us in Northampton had musical ambitions, but you don’t have to don your rose-tinted spectacles to see that Duncan was head and shoulders above all of us. His artistic aesthetic, his standards, were far and away the highest, most developed and most original. More than that, he could actually sing! He had presence! He had the energy, the volatility, the charisma, the fearlessness, the unselfconsciousness to front a band. It was effortless.
Everyone could see it.
Most unusually, however, he was a man who genuinely cared for everyone else’s ideas. If you had an idea, he would leap on it and nurture it, and get everything he could out of it. He’s the only person I’ve known who’s ever really done that: he knew that the idea was king.
Two years on, and shortly before my temporary position in the band was permanently filled by good friend Dave, we marched into the Lodge Studios in Northampton to make a record of where we’d got to. Rather than the standard four tracks, we managed to record and mix a full thirteen in a single day. That session goes down as being among the most fondly remembered days of my life.
My favourite of Dunc’s songs from this time is On This Day I am The Flyer.
It’s not at all representative of the band’s restless, high-energy, melodic eccentricity, and I highly recommend you have a listen to them here.
These couple of years weren’t easy lifewise, but they were hugely creative. You can pack a lot of talking into 50 miles of driving every week, and we would enthuse about Dunc’s hopes for Orwell Music, and memories of his former bands Rudder and Strange New Creation, and about my hopes for my writing. Those years also form the basis of a large slice of who I am now, my creative thinking, my musical tastes: the Dirty Three, Mark Kozelek, Tindersticks, the Breeders, the Amps, Ride, PJ Harvey, Pixies – artists from the core of my tastes, many introduced to me by Dunc, and all of whom keep his influence alive and thriving.
I built the wedding band around the hope that the ten or fifteen of us from Northampton would play, and that Duncan would front it. I always felt it was a big ask for someone like Duncan – a man of particular tastes – but he showed nothing but warmth and enthusiasm for the whole enterprise. This is the main memory of Duncan that will stay with me, although I could just as well bask in the glory of the volatile, snarling, laughing frontman of Orwell Music.
These memories also provide the overriding feeling of the moment: here we are, all of us family or friends or bandmates – and we’ve lost our frontman.