Interview with the Dusk Brothers
Words: Anne Estella
Bristol-based brothers Graeme (Gray) and Iain (E) Moncrieff are better known as the two-man band, Dusk Brothers. Their trademark dark, gritty, bluesy style derives from self-built instruments made from anything they can get their hands on, which, combined with growling vocal harmonies, produces visceral live shows and an incredibly huge and distinctive sound of their very own
Dusk Brothers are described as a 'dark swamp Blues' band – can you tell us what that sounds like and why you chose to play that particular genre?
[E] We used to call our style 'dirty Blues' which we thought was a phrase coined by one of our fans... it turns out that it has some pretty funny connotations (probably not exactly what we were wanting) so we changed it to 'dark swamp Blues'. The description is kind of a fallacy really because there's no way you could do what we do in a swamp! We have a very distorted slide guitar sound with foot stomping beats behind it. Both of us use metal or resonator pans in our guitars, which adds a bit of depth to the sound. There’s definitely an 'authentic' Blues sound when you get a resonator and growling voice which throws you back to the likes of Lightning Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf... we kind of use that sound as a base because it's a sound that everyone knows but we really go to town to build something bigger.
Everything we build, from the amplifiers and effects pedals right the way through to our choice of cymbals, has been chosen or adapted intentionally to fill certain frequencies in our sound. The result is a different sounding style of Blues that you feel like you know, but sounds quite original. 'Dark swamp Blues' really describes slide guitar music with a sharp edge to it. We didn't really choose the genre - it chose us as our songs and sound developed. It kind of feels natural to us to play this type of music.
When and why did you decide to form a band together, just the two of you?
[E] We started Dusk Brothers in the summer of 2015 and the unspeakable truth about it is that a lot of it was born out of necessity rather than choice at that point. We didn't have a lot of time or money so we made what we needed and kept it to just the two of us so that we could rehearse any time we wanted in our workshop. We even sneakily dug up a road by hand just to get power out to where we rehearse so we could plug in. That was a hell of a day! We had no idea at the time that in a few years we'd be playing packed out gigs and using homemade versions of the greatest amps in history! It really has evolved through blood, sweat and tears but it's never felt forced or difficult. We've had to learn a lot of new skills along the way to get us to where we are now... not just building things but social media, design and video editing. The whole thing so far has been done by us, with the occasional help from close friends to do things that we can’t do ourselves (at the cost of a few beers!) It’s been a great journey so far.
Who’s the ‘boss’ of the operation?
[Gray] There’s no boss, we both agree on most things anyway, so we don’t need anyone to be ‘boss’. I write the initial songs, and when we work them out as a band Iain has his input - he’s excellent quality control and if something isn’t right he’ll say we should cut that line, or change those lyrics, etc. He’s no stranger to song writing and he’ll come up with plenty of suggestions to make the songs better and get the sound right.
You make and play your own instruments – what was the first instrument you made and how many have you made to date? What sort of materials do you build them out of and how long do they each take to build?
[E] We are a long way from being a production line! Usually a build only happens when we either get an idea, find something cool in a charity shop or reclamation yard or if we desperately need something. We've both built two guitars - our first efforts saw us through the first year but they were pretty basic, and as the sound developed Graeme realised he could play basslines as well as guitar and added an extra pickup to do just that. The second guitars we built were much more considered and gave us a more defined tone and much more flexibility. The fact that there are only two of us means everything we make needs to do as much as possible in as little space as possible. That definitely makes you think differently when designing them.
[Gray] The first instrument we made was actually a cajon (a Spanish drum box) made from plywood. Then the guitars came along. By now between us we’d made a few guitars, several percussion instruments - stomp-boxes, foot tambourines, etc. We build them out of whatever we find inspiration from. My guitar/bass is made from a 1960s metal box that used to contain fire extinguishers. I made the hardware from bits of ebony I had left over from making the fretboard and an antique silver-plated jewellery box I bought from a car boot sale. I use ‘drums’ made from an old milk can and a copper pan.
Iain made his guitar from a cool old wooden jewellery box. He made a drum by attaching a kick drum pedal to a big old metal case. It sounds amazing! Iain started building effects pedals too and really got into electronics. He’s built several valve amps, including the ones we use now. He makes effects pedals with big old vintage components and they look awesome. No one gets to see the insides unless they open them up, but it doesn’t matter, the fact that they’re in there makes them cool as hell. That’s art!
You describe yourselves as “two one-man-bands playing simultaneously” and have created a sound and a band that’s very different from anything else out there – how has your unique style been received?
[Gray] The reception has been fantastic. It’s rare that people hear music that sounds like nothing else out there, so when people see us live or hear our recordings for the first time it’s always a fresh new sound for them. It sounds simultaneously authentic and brand new. And the way we play - because there’s only two of us it forces us to be creative in how we arrange the music, so the whole thing just sounds like Dusk Brothers. The driving, stomping beats and the growling vocals make a very primal sound, particularly live. There’s also an element of surprise and amazement when people hear this huge sound and they can see there’s only two people on stage, and they watch what we do and try to figure out where all these sounds are coming from.
You released an EP in February of this year called ‘Storms, Rum, Liars & Guns’ – what’s it about and how long did it take to write?
[Gray] Most of it was written within a short period of time back in 2015 when I was writing the first Dusk Brothers songs. A friend was going through a hard time and we were caught up in the whole thing, so the inspiration came from that. I created these ‘outlaw’ sounding stories about betrayal and revenge as a vent for the whole thing, and it’s just stuck and become a kind of unofficial, underlying theme for everything we do. Rum River was a later addition - that song is about rum…
It makes good driving music for some reason. I’m not sure what it is about the EP, whether it’s the sound or the songs themselves creating some kind of magical time-warp, but people have mentioned they’ve been listening to it on repeat in their cars and it’s taken them a lot of listens before they realised there are actually only four songs on it. It gives the impression that you’re getting an album’s worth out of those four songs.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
[Gray] It’s getting better and better at the moment, there are a lot more people turning up to see us at our shows and we’re playing better slots at the festivals we do. A turning point was our EP release and the launch gig we did at The Oxford in Bristol. That was the first gig we did where we played in front of a packed house to people who were there to see us. There was a lot of excitement in the place - it was a very memorable event. We filmed our music video for Hold On there that day (you can check that out on YouTube) so it’s set in history now. That will always be a highlight for us.
What do you plan/hope to be doing in 2020?
[Gray] We’ve already been booked for several gigs throughout the year, so it’s looking like we’ll be busier. Fans have started asking about when the album is coming out too. It got a bit awkward last time as we took so long with the EP. It’s probably going to be the same this time, but now we have a lot more fans, so it’s going to get even more awkward! We’d like to get ourselves into the studio and nail down an album. We already have all the songs we’ll need.
If you could tour or collaborate with any other band or artist, who would it be and why?
[Gray] Of the ones who are alive now, Nick Cave would be an amazing person to collaborate or tour with - he’s definitely a Dusk Brothers influence. Songs from the Murder Ballads album get regular plays at our late night post-gig hi-fi sessions (Iain built the hi-fi system in our workshop too). Nick Cave can deliver a line like he’s insane. I love that!
What’s “The dream”?
[Gray] “The Dream” is to be able to keep playing and doing what we do now, but do it more. And a bigger, better van - one with a driver included so we can have a couple of rums at our shows. If we could also have a place to rehearse and drink rum and listen to music that has a roof that didn’t leak, we’d be pretty happy with that!
Watch the music video for ‘Hold On’, filmed at the band’s EP launch show in February 2019, here: