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Keeping Rock Alive: An Interview With Duke Fame

by Dave heaton

There's rock bands in every city in America, if not the world. Find a bar on a weekend and there's a good chance some kind of band will be playing. But to be frank, chances are also good that the band will be absolutely wretched, that you'll get some musicians who sincerely believe they could be on the cover of Rolling Stone next week if the right person were to come into the bar and spot them playing. So they act like they already are superstars-macho attitude, black leather pants, and all. But in every town, look far enough and you're bound to find a band that plays rock because it's fun, because they grew up listening to it and remember how they felt the first time they heard it. Atlanta-based Duke Fame is one of those bands: they don't care what you think of their hair, they're here to rock. They're not getting rich from music and chances area good they won't ever be on the cover of Rolling Stone. But they play anyway, because they like to and, perhaps, because they need to. And they're all the better for it, making music you can blare in your car and really, really enjoy.

Duke Fame's album Regrets is filled with melodic pop-rock songs that take feelings like heartbreak, sadness, and disappointment and kick them away in a guitar-and-guts rock and roll fury. Their web site says the album was "recorded in about an hour and written in half that time," but you have your humor-detector on around a band whose name is a Spinal Tap reference. The point is, though, they're not worried about gloss or frills. The group's four members-Eric Zwieg (vocals, guitars), Steve Tockerman (guitars, vocals), Kevin Bell (bass, vocals), Mike Sudul (drums)-aren't about fashion, they're about music. They're also friendly, funny, and down-to-earth, as evidenced by their answers to the questions I recently threw at them over e-mail.

First off, I was wondering if you could catch me up on the story of the band--under what circumstances did you form, how long have you been together, etc.

Steve: Kevin and I have been playing together on and off for about 10 years. Basically Kevin got the bug one day and asked me if would be interested in starting a band again. We both agreed that it was important that the band be fun first and that we weren't going to play with assholes or freaks ever again. It's amazing how difficult it is to find people to play with who aren't jerks, drunks, or completely off their rocker. We've seen them all. First we got Steve our last drummer, who played on the CD, and then we took out an ad looking for a singer/guitarist. That's how we got Eric. Mike had played with Eric in a band in Buffalo and when Mike moved to Atlanta, they got in touch with each other. One day Mike came down to play just for fun and when he started playing that day Kevin and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. Without even saying a word we both knew that we had to get Mike in the band after just a couple of songs. He's too good to be playing with us. I think he's a little slow because he hasn't figured that out on his own yet.

Eric:They abducted me from a Payless shoe store. What year is this? I think it was back in `78 or `79.

Do each of you have a long history playing music? What sorts of other bands have you been in before Duke Fame?

Steve: We have all been at it a lot longer than any of us will ever admit. As for me, every band I have been in has been an original alternative/punk/pop band. I have always written songs for each band, though in some of those bands I was not the main songwriter. Stylistically, I have not changed at all though some of the songs have gotten slower. This band is the first where I get to sing. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing yet. I'll let you know.

Eric: I played tenor banjo for the infamous Les Purvey Shag, toured with Marvelous Sauce. I was thrown off the tour in 2 weeks.

Kevin: I have been playing music since I was 13, although you would never I originally learned how to play guitar. I was influenced by a childhood friend down the street, who just happened to be Brendan O'Brien. He later convinced me that I should play bass. I gave it a try and fell in love with it. I have played in big hair metal bands, blues bands and cheesy cover bands, I even once auditioned for The Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Are you able to make a living playing music? If not, what jobs, etc. fill up the rest of your time?

Steve: Are you kidding? If we make enough to cover the bar tab, that's a victory unto itself. Our next big step is to cover our expenses when we play out of town. To me, that would be a great leap forward. I think I would have a fucking heart attack if we could actually cover our recording costs. I've got a 9-5 job in medical software. It's not as glamorous as it sounds.

Eric: I Like to pretend play with fruits and vegetables at the Winn-Dixie supermarket. The older ladies love, especially when I juggle.

Kevin: At this point, no we aren't able to make a living playing music. That has always (and probably always will be) an elusive dream. That's not really the point though, my first priority is to have fun…. and of course to get laid….lol. I install security, fire alarm, and cctv camera systems for a living.

What is your live show like? Do you tour much?

Steve: We just get up there and play our songs and that's it and hope that people like it and we are getting through to them. We're a jeans and t-shirt type of band. What you see is what you get. Lot's of drinking and lot's of noise. There is always room for improvement. I think we are still finding our way in that capacity. As for touring much, we try to play as much as possible locally and regionally around the southeast, but its very difficult to get shows if you are an unknown band. Clubs won't book you if you don't have a following. You can't get a following without bookings. Thankfully there are enough good clubs out there that will take a chance on unknown bands.

Eric: Terrible. No.

Kevin: The live show is pretty stripped down. It's a no frills rock and roll loud guitars, jeans and t-shirts, let's drink some beer and groove kind of thing. As far as touring…well maybe someday.

You seem to take a real no-nonsense approach to music, without a lot of posing or pretension. How would you describe the climate right now, either locally or nationally, for the type of music that you play?

Steve: Locally, I can't say enough bad things about Atlanta. Atlanta will never be a rock n' roll town, which I don't really understand. There are 3 big universities so you would think the climate would be good for rock music. There are a lot of bands here, and very few places to play. As for our music, I don't really know and frankly, I don't really care. We do it because we like it and hopefully other people do too. I write songs in the style that I feel most comfortable writing in. I suppose I could force myself to write a Country song or some shitty teen pop song but why? I would hate myself. Then there are bands that I worship that I could never write songs like them because I don't think that way. I write what comes naturally. My best songs have been written in 10 minutes or less. The ones that take a long time usually are crap. Many reviews say we sound very 80's, which I can see. There is definitely a "retro" feel to it but it wasn't by design. We have been compared to everything from the Replacements and the Ramones to Neil Young and early Bowie and personally I don't see that at all. How can we be all 4 of those artists? To me they are all pretty different. If I had to venture a guess about us making it, we probably don't have a chance but that is not our intent. The way I figure it, the people who really know anything about music is less than 1% of the population. They are the ones I am trying to reach and if it's good, they will find it. I don't really pay attention to the music climate. I have no idea who is popular. I listen to college radio. I couldn't tell you who is big on the X stations. I have underwear that is having a longer career than most of those bands.

Eric: Huh? You mean people actually make a living doing this?

Kevin: Unfortunately, the climate sucks. Good groove, no nonsense, gut rock and roll seems to be fading. Bands like The Replacements and Soul Asylum. It's like, sell out, or get out.

Your album Regrets has a fair amount of sadness running through it, even if the tone is always upbeat--would you agree with that? To what extent do the sadder emotions (loneliness, regret, etc.) inform your style of rock music?

Steve: I agree with you but I think a lot of the music is upbeat and the lyrics are not necessarily. Eric writes most of the lyrics and I wrote most of the music though we do write a lot of songs without each other's input. So musically there is a definite up vibe going on from me. Eric is an introspective kind of guy who takes the lyrics very seriously and it shows. That's where the sadness comes from. I, on the other hand, am a guy who just wants to rock so there is this constant push-pull thing going on between us. I'm more into the melody and how things sound. Lyrics are almost an afterthought for me. As long as they aren't embarrassing, I don't care. When I do write lyrics, half the time they are about nothing. I'm the Seinfeld of lyricists.

Eric: Its all about loss, loss and more loss. I keep losing my positive insight on life. I mean, I never had any.

Kevin: I would agree. Life is good, but it aint' no bowl of fucking cherries.

The song "Crowded" sounds to me like it has a punk rock influence behind it. Is punk a style of music you hear in your music at all? What are the types of music that influence you?

Steve: Funny you should say that because we get compared to some punk bands, which I don't hear it all, and it's my favorite type of music, but I don't think it has influenced me a writer. I wish I could write like that but I can't, it's just not in me. I think of us as more power pop, with a punk ethos. I think this labeling of music has really gotten out of hand. I think of punk as an attitude more than a musical style. Punk today to me is meaningless. It's been so diluted. I remember when punk music was dangerous. When you could get hurt at a Dead Kennedy's or Black Flag concert. Now you have bands that are considered punk today being sponsored by some soft drink or something. You can buy all your punk clothes and paraphernalia at the local mall. It really has changed. Labeling music today either punk or whatever is pointless. Either its good or it isn't. It's really that simple.

Eric: Tubular bells and Gregorian chant.

Regrets is on Geeves Records. Is that your own label? What can you tell me about it?

Steve: Geeves is this wooden butler that Kevin has and it has become our band mascot for some reason. It's our own label. Not much to tell about it. We would like to find other bands that we like and put them on the label but they would have to pay for their CD like we did. They can utilize our resources like our connections and our studio but ultimately they would have pay some of the expenses. Ultimately we would like to see it grow but so far no one has come forth and sent us anything. There are a couple of artists considering joining the roster but nothing has come of that as of yet either.

Eric: Steve keeps pocketing all the profits.

Kevin: Geeves Records is our own label that will hopefully someday evolve into a legitimate indie label.

Your web site has MP3s of nearly every song on your album. What is your attitude toward the Web as a way to get your music heard? Do you find it easier to reach listeners that way?

Steve: It's a great way to get heard and a lot of people download the songs. I don't have a problem with that at all. We have had something like 25,000 hits on the web site and I have no idea why or how people are finding us. I'm just glad that they are. The CD has been reviewed in a lot of magazines so we are getting a lot of referrals from that too. The web has been our greatest ally in reaching people. All of the magazines and clubs that we have contacted has been done through the web. Without it, we would be in complete obscurity rather than then near-total obscurity we currently reside.

Eric: One word…..Luddite.

Kevin: I think the web is a great way to get your music out. If you are waiting on the corporate stooges and assholes that own and operate the big record labels and commercial radio stations, well, just keep waiting. Real rock and roll is dying a slow painful death, thanks to greed and those previously mentioned. There are no good commercial radio stations anymore. It's all this rock/rap morphed bullshit, it's really frustrating.

Tell me about East Point, Georgia, where you're from. What's it like?

Steve: East Point is just south of Atlanta, that's where Kevin lives. We all live in different parts of the metro area. Nothing really to tell. It's where we rehearse and have the studio because Kevin has a basement and the rest of us don't. It's not like there are competing bands from East Point. That's why we can safely say we are the best rock band in East Point without much of a challenge.

Eric: Home of Parris Farmer, the greatest unpublished writer south of Atlanta.

One last question: your web site states, "Duke Fame can drink more beer man for man than any band in America". Have you ever seen Guided By Voices play? They do their fair share of drinking on stage. What's the band's beer of choice?

Steve: Guided by Voices is my favorite band in the world and I have seen them well over 15 times. I am slowly trying to turn the rest of the guys into GBV freaks like me and so far I have been succeeding. I would kill to meet Robert Pollard and pick his brain for an hour. It's the band I try for Duke Fame to emulate, if not musically, then definitely from an attitude direction. They certainly do a lot of drinking and I can't see how they do it, but they do. We have been known to do that much drinking on stage but they do it nightly, we don't play nearly that often so it's easier for us. It's difficult to remember the beer you drank the previous night when you can't even remember where you were while drinking the beer the next morning. We don't have a beer of choice, but more Rolling Rock gets consumed than any other I would say. More bands should be like Guided by Voices. If it weren't for them, I would quit music. They give me hope that there might actually be something out there for us.

Eric: Genessee Cream Ale! Direct from Lake Ontario to you and by the way, those are props on stage for GBV!

Kevin: I think we could out drink GBV!…..the beer of choice would be Rolling Rock, or whatever somebody else is paying for!

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