Music Interview: Cuff the Duke gettin’ lucky

Most bands never make it. They play as much as they can, get a local following and then sputter out, only to be remembered by pretentious snobs looking for something no one else knows about. Some of them even sign with a local record label but fail to make the big jump to international recognition. Then again, some bands get lucky, signing deals with prestigious labels at a young age. Cuff the Duke are one of these bands.

In 2002 the alt-country pop band released their debut, Life Stories for Minimum Wage, on Three Gut Record–arguably the most notable indie label in Canada before its recent folding–to positive reviews while most of the band members were barely over 20. 2005 has seen Cuff the Duke release their sophomore album on Hardwood Records, a label heretofore reserved for Canadian indie legend Hayden.

“We’ve been pretty lucky because we’ve always had the freedom to do what we want,” admits head Duke Wayne Petti. “With Hardwood it’s even better because we have the whole indie label feel with all the perks of being on Universal, with the distribution and having access to their publicist.”

This luck has allowed the band to develop an audience for their unique music. Cuff the Duke mixes a folk-country aesthetic with Elton John-style pop, intricate guitar interplay and Sonic Youth-esque atmospherics, the result is a mish-mash of styles refusing to be branded. Though this quality is the band’s strong point, it also makes it difficult for them to fit into a typical show, something they have noticed in the US.

“We’re at a weird spot,” Petti remarks. “We’re not indie rock enough to be indie rock, we’re not quirky, alt-country enough to do that Akron/Family thing. We don’t fit in with anything down there, which is fine. We’ve toured down in the States and it always goes well but we were always struggling to get a record out. We’ve started talking to labels now so it should work out. We also just got European [distribution] so things are starting to fall into place. It’s always taken us a little longer than it takes another band just because of the way we sound.”

Though it has taken awhile to crack the US, things have been progressing nicely for Cuff the Duke at home. On their latest album the band redefined their sound, adopting a more poppy feel and pushing the country influences to the back. Critics have responded with praise, proving the band is simply talented and not just the one album wonders their debut and the long wait for a follow up led some to believe.

“On the first album we kept getting great tours so we were always touring,” Petti explains of the three year wait between albums. “Then we’d come home and start working on the record but there were some personal setbacks, some deaths in families and stuff and then the Hayden tour was offered to us so that was a four month setback. All of a sudden we realized ‘holy shit, we have to get this record out.'”

The wait has proven worthwhile. The tours Petti speaks of, including a stint as Hayden’s backing band, the Elk Lake Serenaders, have molded Cuff the Duke into a tight, dynamic and charismatic band. The new album even branches out to cover different topics than the typical ‘lover done me wrong theme.’ “Take my Money and Run” is a lighthearted take on economic disparity, while “There was a Time” is a poignant look at the awkward stages of growing up where a character desperately assures his parents he’s not gay.

“That song was written by Paul, our bass player,” Petti explains. “He brought it to a rehearsal and we were all like, ‘what the hell is that all about?’ He just explained that when he was a teenager there was a point where both of his parents were asking him if he was gay. We figured there would be lots of kids who could relate to that.”

With any more luck it won’t just be sexually confused kids who relate to Cuff the Duke. The band has been lucky to date, don’t be surprised if their luck continues, landing them increased fame.

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