An old television painted yellow. A pink lounge chair. A spray-painted umbrella. A full length mirror. These are a few of the items used onstage at a recent Duane the Brand New Dog performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit — and they were all incorporated into the performance.
This was Duane's first solo show in Detroit without the backup dancers he's performed with in the past. He was recently flown out to Warsaw to play at the annual Festival of the Artists at the Zachta National Gallery of Art, which was also his first time playing outside of Michigan. He was very well-received in Warsaw, and hopes to return soon to tour Europe.
Duane describes himself as "a musician who's a performance artist," but that doesn't really do him justice. He's an electric and unpredictable performer with a unique and sometimes frantic energy. He struts, screams, and everything in between. "There's lots of improvisation, 'cause I get nervous when I try to plan things," he says. "Whatever happens happens."
His background in art may help explain his approach. "I used to sing in church and in school talent shows," he says. "I mostly did art though. I went to Detroit High School for Performing Arts. I was into drawing, painting, fashion, sculpture. I was an art major, but I wanted to do music secretly. So I would sneak into the music technology classes and get on the computers and learn Garage Band. By the time I got out of high school I was like, 'I want to do music.'"
Soon after graduation, Duane burst onto the scene with a debut performance as Duane the Teenage Weirdo at Detroit's now-defunct R & R Saloon in 2010. Techno legend and Underground Resistance cofounder Mike Banks happened to be at the show. He immediately called UR label manager Cornelius Harris and told him to get down there and catch Duane's set. Although he didn't make it in time to catch Duane that night, Harris soon contacted Duane and signed him to Harris' Alter Ego management company. The two have worked together ever since.
A devotee of '80s pop and Pokemon, Duane has often been compared to Grace Jones, David Bowie, and Prince. He quickly became a local sensation, gracing the cover of Metro Times and gaining national attention from folks like Jack White, the Black Lips, and Vice magazine. He even went down to Nashville and recorded a single for Third Man.
He seemed poised to take over the world, but after opening for White at Detroit's Masonic Temple in May 2012, he disappeared. Fans wondered what happened.
The timespan between May 2012 and June 2013 is what Duane refers to as his "year of silence." As he got increasingly more press coverage toward the end of 2011, he received offers from several labels. After four months of negotiations, he signed a four album deal with the U.K.-based XL Recordings. Over that year, the label was flying him to New York City to work on recording new material.
"They told me not to put anything online; they wanted to keep it quiet," Duane says. Though he had always said he didn't plan to use the Teenage Weirdo moniker for long, the label had other ideas. "They wanted me to be the Teenage Weirdo forever. They wanted me to lie about my age. When I got to New York, they were like, 'We got a brand for you, you gotta make songs for the kids!' and I'm like, 'What the hell is going on? This is so weird, what are you talking about?'" Duane says.
"And when I was there, I was doing stuff I just was not happy with. And at the end of it all I was like, 'What did I waste this whole year doing with these people?' It was just a lot of conflict and head-butting with the A&R people, lots of arguments back and forth. It was depressing. I didn't like what I was doing so I came back. Stayed here. Got in a little bit of a depression, didn't put anything out. That whole year I didn't play a single show. Then at the start of 2014, I said I'm gonna do the Brand New Dog stuff."
What's with the new name? "You know the phrase, 'dog eat dog?' The business aspect," Duane says. "I think I've seen a little taste of what all that's like, the shadiness of all that record label crap. I know about the 'dog eat dog world.' Now, I'm a new dog. I'm the new guy in town. I have a little knowledge about the business. I'm a little smarter now. I'm not gonna be a little child about it and trust everybody.
"I'm by myself now, I'm doing everything myself. The way it's supposed to be done."
His new song "Brand New Dog, Same Old Tricks" seems to emphasize this point with the mantra, "Lo fi freedom, hear the sound of my Casio drum."
Duane's been keeping busy since re-emerging as the Brand New Dog. He self-released his CDR EP and CDR 2 EP online and made a video for "Brand New Dog, Same Old Tricks." He's played many shows, including twice opening for the Black Lips, with whom he remains friendly. He will soon release his first 12-inch on Detroit's Chambray label. A white label version of the 12-inch was available for the Movement festival.
Musically, there's a big difference between the Teenage Weirdo and Brand New Dog eras. "I'm a lot better now," Duane says. "Six years ago I couldn't play a note! The best thing that happened out of XL was they got me equipment to take home; I have a little studio at home now. Because before I had a '90s PC that had no programs at all. Now I have Logic and real monitors and microphones and stuff. It sounds way bigger. The big difference song-wise is [that] I got into house music."
Duane sums up the difference between the Teenage Weirdo and Brand New Dog eras: "Someone said it used to sound like it was made in '83. But now it sounds like it was made in '91 or '92."
Duane says the presentation has changed as well. "The music isn't as weird as Teenage Weirdo stuff. It's not, I'll admit that. It's more polished. But right now I want to do a little bit cleaner, fancier, sophisticated stuff," he says. "So I wear suit jackets now and suit pants and dress shoes. The music's more house, songs about fashion, and things like that. I'm still poor. I still go to thrift shops; I just make it look a little fancier. Because Teenage Weirdo was just rags."
His goals for the project have changed too. "I think I said some really silly stuff, like 'I want to be the most famous boy in the world.' [XL] really jumped on that. I wish I hadn't said that! I think the goal is to be happy and keep making the best art I can," Duane says. "I want to play a lot more. I want to do that tour in Europe, I really do. But that most famous boy in the world nonsense, I'm not really childish about that anymore. I can't be Teenage Weirdo anymore. That's over with. I'm a little more realistic and grounded now."
The latest development on the path to self-sufficiency is that Duane now performs solo without the backup performers. "All the Brand New Dog, I was using my girls as crutches, because I was scared to perform again," he says. "I had to go to Poland and I couldn't bring them; when you work with other people you have to rehearse and be on their time. It got to the point where it's better to do it myself. I'm more comfortable now."
Next up, he will be self-releasing his first full length, the CDR LP, which will be out by early fall. "I can't wait for everyone to hear it," Duane says. "I'm really picky about songs sounding the same; they have to sound like the same band. It's hard to do when you've got so many samples. But I did it. I'm making plans with Cornelius about getting it pressed, because I can't have it in formal packaging. It's the CDR LP. I'm trying to find a balance — be cost effective, make it look nice, and fit the theme." He explains the CDR releases as "redundant on purpose." He's also working on a music video for the new single "You Got Style."
Working on music is Duane's main focus. "Music, checking emails for job applications, and going to see my boyfriend in Dearborn. That's literally all I do," he says.
He's still technically signed with XL, and says they check in with him on occasion. XL "will get back to me eventually. Drop me, or work with me. I don't mind, but hopefully it's the latter."
Does Duane feel influenced by growing up in Detroit? "To be honest I just do what I do, but it gives you an edge," he says. "If you're from here, born here, it's like a golden ticket. I'm glad I am. I'm so glad I'm not born somewhere else, I feel so lucky."
While he says he feels part of the music community in Detroit, Duane says he doesn't really feel part of a queer community. "I would love to blend the two though," he says. "I try to play so many gay clubs; they will not return my calls! They don't even know I exist, but I think they would like me."
We spoke the day after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and I asked Duane his thoughts about it. "It's about time or whatever, really, serial," he says. When the DeBoer v. Snyder case was at the federal district court in Detroit in winter 2014, Duane attended the trial. "I took the bus every day, because I don't drive, in the wintertime at 6 in the morning to see that. I was surprised there wasn't that many people there. It was such a thing to watch.
"It made me think about how much money is being wasted to fight it. The evidence they brought was so laughable, it was like an SNL skit. I was like, 'Are you serial?' I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It made me think, these lawyers aren't stupid. They're taking these right-wing Republicans for a ride. They're taking their money; they know they're gonna lose. It made me think about how much special interest and money was going into that." The DeBoer case was later consolidated with several other cases and brought before the Supreme Court. Duane says, "Seeing it come full circle was just a relief. I woke up late yesterday at like two o'clock in the afternoon, and was like, 'Oh, shut up!'"
Duane will be performing with Human Skull and THTX at the Found Sound record store in Ferndale for their third anniversary show on Saturday, July 18, (which happens to be his 23rd birthday). Starts at 8 p.m.; 234 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-565-8775; Free.