The Dutchess & The Duke and the Writing and the Playing

Sunset/Sunrise, the second album from the Seattle duo The Dutchess & The Duke, begins much as its predecessor, 2008’s She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke, did: stark vocals, acoustic guitar, visceral lyrics. And then, with the sound of a booming drum, there’s a shift into a much more expansive sound. It’s a reminder that, although this is only their second album under this name, this group is far from the first time Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison have made music together. Notably, the lone single released by the girl-group-influenced The Sultanas is well worth tracking down.

Recorded by Greg Ashley of The Gris Gris, Sunset/Sunrise expands on the stark sound of their debut, retaining their garage-rock and punk roots but hearkening back to an even more primal sound. Comparisons to the work of Johnny Cash and Neko Case can (and should) be made. I spoke with Lortz, who recently became a father, prior to the release of Sunset/Sunrise; a version of our conversation follows, edited for space.

Flavorpill: There’s the point midway through “Hands” where the scope of the song suddenly feels much bigger than what’s come before. When did you know that this was going to be a very different-feeling record from the first one?

Jesse Lortz: We had the studio booked before the songs were even written. We knew we were going to record it with Greg [Ashley]. The stuff he records usually sounds big and kind of boomy. So I wrote the songs with that in mind.

FP: How did you and Greg originally meet?

JL: Just playing in bands over the years. Mutual friends and just…hanging out.

FP: What was that recording process like compared with your first record?

JL: The first one, we did with our friend, and he lives in our neighborhood, so we did it after work and here and there. But with Greg, we just went and worked from noon to eight every day for a week. It was more like a job, I guess.

FP: That was in California?

JL: Yeah, in Oakland.

FP: When I talked to you around the time of the first record, we talked about how that record sounded — was there more of a decision to hand some of those aspects off to Greg?

JL: I did all the arrangements; he didn’t really have anything to do with the instrumentation. It was more knowing what he was capable of, recording-wise. To go crazy with writing different parts with strings and piano and stuff like that. It wasn’t really a collaboration.

FP: When I’ve seen you touring over the last year and change, I’ve seen different people accompanying you at different shows. And I was reading about your set at Pitchfork, that there was a string section playing with you. Did that affect the sound you were going for, at all — working with different musicians?

JL: In regards to the live show, or talking about the album?

FP: Talking about the album — specifically, having the different parts in mind…

JL: Like I was saying, I made up all the string parts and all the piano parts. It wasn’t really coming in [and saying,] “Oh, here’s someone who can play strings. What do you want to do?” The live show is a little more collaborative, because Jered and Melissa live in Chicago; they’re from The Ponys, and they backed us. We only had a practice before we did a whole tour with them. I don’t know any of the names of the chords or anything like that, so they just had to wing it. That was a little more collaborative, but in a long-distance relationship, pen pal kind of way, I guess. That’s probably the most collaborative this band has really gotten.

FP: How far in advance do you tend to write? I can remember hearing some of the songs on Sunset/Sunrise when you were through New York last fall. Do you have different songs waiting for the right setting?

JL: Well, usually what I do is…on my phone, I can make a tape recording. So if I have a melody, I’ll sing it into my phone and record it. And basically, when it comes time to make a record, I have all these melodies on my phone, and I can pull a melody out and put lyrics on it. I write really fast. Besides those three songs that we’ve been playing for a long time, and one other song — “When You Leave My Arms,” that was actually going to be for another band — all the songs were written in a week. It’s easier to go out and write a bunch. It comes in waves. I don’t just write a song and put it on the back burner; I like to just get it out, I guess.

FP: Is there a specific kind of space you like to write in?

JL: It’s kind of funny — I’m actually writing some songs right now. I write in my garage. It’s separated from the house. We’ve got a baby now, he’s three months old, so it’s nice to take it outside.

FP: Is it you with the tape recorder and a guitar?

JL: Yeah. I make demos of all the songs. I’ve got an eight-track… [The sound of a baby crying] Uh-oh. He’s awake. [Laughs] I’ve got a Tascam eight-track. I’ll sit down and do the rhythm track and some lead guitar, and percussion and vocals and stuff like that, then come up with all the harmonies.

FP: You were saying that “When You Leave My Arms” had been written for an earlier band — when you write a song, are you ever unsure whether it’s going to be a Dutchess & The Duke song?

JL: Usually, I write for whatever band I’m doing at the time. That song — we had this girl group that we did a while ago…

FP: Was that The Sultanas?

JL: Yeah. It needed strings, and I never really thought it would be possible to have strings. But then we ended up having other songs with strings, so we kind of threw that on… I kind of feel like it doesn’t really fit on the record all that much. But it’s a good song. It’s easier to write for a band, I guess. And The Dutchess & The Duke stuff is — especially with the new record — it’s not like it has to be this way or that way. It’s easier to just write songs.

FP: When you go on the road later on in the year, is it just going to be the two of you?

JL: We’re going out in November, and Greg and Oscar from [The] Gris Gris are going to be playing bass and piano. And then Donny, a friend of ours from home who plays tambourine, is going to go with us. In December, we’re doing the Midwest, so it’ll be that Midwest band with Matt and Jered and Melissa. And in January, we’re touring the East Coast with this band from Connecticut, Medication — with that one, we’ll probably just do me and Kimberly, and pare it down a little bit. Sometimes, it’s nice to just travel with two people. It’s a little less of a headache than trying to organize and find places for people to sleep.

FP: Does any of the writing happen on the road, or is it more the ideas for bits and pieces of songs?

JL: More the bits and pieces. When we’re on tour, I’ll leave myself little voice-notes of melody or whatever. But I don’t really write lyrics unless I’m solitary — the “do not disturb” sort of thing.

FP: Do you find a theme for the new record at all, or an arc?

JL: I don’t know. I haven’t listened to it in a while. [laughs] We finished it a while back. It’s weird, with record releases with real record labels, how you have to get a date. It takes forever. I guess it’s more hopeful than the first record. It’s got its weak moments. Potentially… everything will be okay.

FP: “The River” is such a big, almost draining ending. Thinking about that, and about the last songs of your records — comparing it with “Armageddon Song.” I feel like they’re almost inversions of each other, thematically and musically.

JL: It’s the nice thing about writing — when I write, I’m writing the whole record, so a song can kind of go hand-in-hand with the rest of the songs. We knew “Hands” was going to be the first track, and “The River” was going to be the last track — that note, that discordant note at the very end, it just [makes a shuddering noise]. When I listen to it really loud, it kinda makes my skin crawl a little bit. It’s a nice little segue into the next record, whatever the next record ends up being.

Download MP3: “Hands”

Download MP3: “Reservoir Park”