Patrick Duff: Strangeness and charm

Patrick Duff went from chart success to rehab. Now he has a new album out. Phil Meadley meets the singer-songwriter
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The Independent Culture

In his previous life, Duff had been the lead singer of the Bristol-based band Strangelove, who, for a brief period in the mid-Nineties, were seen as the next big thing. Although their unique brand of experimental rock, vulnerable lyricisms, and goth-style glamour divided critics, they toured with (and befriended) the likes of Radiohead and Suede, and built up a loyal following which still exists to this day.

But Duff collapsed under the quintessential rock pressures of drink, drugs, and depression, eventually checking into rehab to check his downward-spiralling cycle of dependency and despair. "Strangelove was a ship that left port full of holes and dynamite," he says, now healthily sipping juice in his minimalist pad - guitars, old amps, Bob Dylan poster, worn 1950s oak dining-table, small kitchenette - in Clifton, Bristol. "It was totally and utterly doomed. I can see that now, but we didn't know it at the time."

The Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien once remarked that his band had changed a lot after touring with Strangelove, and the connection is something that Duff doesn't completely dismiss. "I've liked all their albums and I like them as people," he says. "They're quite unusual in the world of rock. I felt we were all trying to do the same thing, which was unusual. Normally there was tension with other bands we toured with, but with Radiohead it was different. Everybody got on really well."

Another band with close ties were Suede, and, when Strangelove split in 1998, their guitarist Alex Lee filled the spot left by Neil Codling, who had been forced to leave Suede due to his battle with chronic fatigue syndrome. However, Lee's stint with the band proved short-lived as Brett Anderson soon disbanded the group. Shortly afterward, Duff and his old bandmate began working on new material for Duff's solo album. "I'd already recorded some of the album with Adrian Utley from Portishead, and Damon Reece and Mike Mooney who used to be in Spiritualized. We'd gone down to this cottage in Dartmoor. It was like being on the Moon for 10 days, but we managed to get together four songs. Then Alex came on board and produced the album."

At the time he was without a record deal or financial backing, but that all changed when he and Lee discovered that EMI were working on a Strangelove compilation. "This guy Nigel Reeve was working on the catalogue side of EMI, but really liked the band and was trying to do a compilation. When we heard from the internet this was going on we wanted to have some input, so we went to his office to discuss things and, just as we were about to leave, I asked if he was interested in hearing the recent demos we'd been working on. After hearing them he said straight away that he'd like to work on the record." A decision was made to revitalise one of EMI's greatest subsidiaries, Harvest - responsible for the careers of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Kevin Ayers, and Syd Barrett.

The resulting album, Luxury Problems, is a radical departure for Duff, in both musical direction and songwriting. "Everything I did in Strangelove was completely spontaneous," he says. "If there was a guitar lying around and I had 10 minutes, I'd form a song in my head. I never wrote anything down. I'd be making it up in the studio quite a lot of the time, whereas this came from having a couple of years to think."

"I started off by busking in the street, then I was in a band for 10 years, and suddenly I was in a completely different space, trying to think about what I was going to do next. I found that I was living the answer, which was that I was a musician and songwriter and I didn't have any choice. So I started exploring loads of different avenues. Some of it came out of nailing down the past, some came from my imagination or from dreams, and sometimes it was spontaneous."

His lyrics often explore the darker facets of human nature, such as on the distorted harmonica blues of "Mirror Man", which is "about mortality and sex", or "In My Junkie Clothes" - an ode to a bohemian district of Bristol where people are "casting their pearls all over the pub floors". It looks at the irony of failed relationships in "DJ Yoga", a thinly veiled jibe at an ex-girlfriend that is also "a dig at myself for being so alone and having nothing going on", and the punk roar of "Refrigerator", about "this bloody fridge going on and off all night while my whole life had been smashed and fragments of it were going on and off in my head at the same frequency as the fridge".

Duff's new manager is Thomas Brooman, artistic director of Womad, who discovered the singer playing at his pub The Gin Palace. It was Brooman's idea for Duff to collaborate with the 83-year-old South African singer Madosini, a former shepherdess who plays "really weird, Captain Beefheart-type two-note riffs on her uhadi [a single-stringed intrument made from a gourd]". Duff had been transfixed by her performance at the Womad festival. "Within two months I was on a plane to South Africa to write music with her," he says, and since then they have been performing at Womad events around the world.

'Luxury Problems' is out now on Harvest/EMI