The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra
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The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra

Champaign, Illinois, United States | SELF

Champaign, Illinois, United States | SELF
Band Pop Funk




"Orchestra uke-ing it up but band goes well beyond novelty name"

Attempting to describe the sound of the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra results in a sentence like this: Imagine Camper Van Beethoven teaming up with the Roches and Bootsy Collins, paying a ukulele-fueled tribute to Was (Not Was).

It helps locate the vibe a little, but it still doesn't quite capture the uniqueness of the band.

The group's name is actually a little misleading. Although the leader, David King, does play the ukulele, his role is more ringleader than soloist. His singing and ukulele work comprise merely one dimension of the septet's offerings. The five women and two men play tuba, violin, electric bass, drums, percussion, saxophones and whatever else is needed to carry out the requirements of a given song.

Friday the 13th, the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra perform at LangLab in South Bend in support of the band's new album, "April's Empire." Anna Hochhalter, who sings and plays tenor saxophone with the ensemble, describes how the new album works as a cohesive statement.

"It's not really a concept album, but it does have some themes that run through it as the songs progress," she says by telephone from New Orleans. "The first piece, 'April's Empire,' relates to the last piece, 'Spider Suite,' both melodically and conceptually."

King writes most of the lyrics, but the music and arrangements are a democratic process, with different band members stepping up to fill specific roles, depending on the song. Some of the tracks are simple, catchy pop, but for the three-part "Spider Suite," King and Claire Cannon worked together to implement a sophisticated musical architecture that is largely based on classical forms.

Cannon functions as a musical Swiss Army knife for the band, contributing vocals, violin, alto saxophone, cello, vibraphone and keyboards at various points. She's the linchpin on the "Spider Suite," which also features some creative lyrical conceits from King.

"It's a love song, with a moth falling in love with a spider," Hochhalter says. "It's a dark story about being consumed by your obsession. All the words are based in realities, real experiences, but they transform into fantastical stories, using insects as metaphors."

King salutes Cannon directly in "Claire's Song," a lovely, poetic portrait of the musician and her abilities.

The band's camaraderie is clear even from looking at photos. The musicians manage to project a lighthearted image that's very cute but without ever stooping to kitsch. Based in Champaign, Ill., the group has mostly toured in the Midwest, but plans are in the works for larger-scale ventures as far away as Europe.

The ukulele came into King's life when he traded a Gameboy for a uke at a pawnshop a dozen years ago. He plays it in so many settings that it's tempting to wonder why he doesn't just opt for a guitar. However, the guitar takes up more sonic space than a ukulele does, and with this band, it's important to leave room for the tuba, saxophones, violin, three- and four-part vocal harmonies, etc.

"It has a softer, rounder, almost a richer sound, like a classical guitar," Hochhalter says.

Three members of the group learned enough rudiments of trumpet playing in order to make a trumpet section part for "April's Empire," a testimony to the fact that the Novelty Orchestra is up for anything. The horn parts garner some Motown comparisons, but it's not as if the Duke of Uke is copping any specific Motown band's licks.

Hochhalter says that the Motown influence, like any other styles that have impacted the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra, is subsumed into the overall picture. There's never any outright imitating.

"We get bored if something sounds too much like something we've heard before," Hochhalter says. "If something sounds like what someone would expect it to sound, we change it right away." - The Baltimore Sun/The South Bend Tribune

"Live on ciLiving TV"

Live television news story. Be sure to click 'Play' button on bottom left corner. - WCIA TV

"Review: Duke of Uke's April's Empire"

It took mere moments for me to make up my mind about Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra. I remember the first time I saw them perform more vividly than I do nearly any other chance musical encounter. They were performing at the Independent Media Center nearly two years ago, sandwiched between the mellow acoustic folk of Mean Lids and the raucous southern rock of Those Darlins. The crowd was quiet and subdued, settled into their seats in near silence, yet when Duke of Uke began playing, the room was immediately electric. They boogied across the stage, weaving together an unlikely gang of instruments and influences into a set that was undeniably infectious. Against the odds, they filled the room with energy. I couldn’t help but eat them up.

What is it that’s so entrancing about Duke of Uke? On their first album, This Way Up, they impressed me with the plethora of genres they could so convincingly slide into, swapping sounds from song to song without ever losing their authenticity. They evoked ragtime, jazz, and classical music all at once. April’s Empire maintains that penchant for songwriting that is at once novel and familiar, but it brings a cohesion to Duke of Uke’s music that is absent in This Way Up. The vivid characters are still there — the funky crooner, the sultry lover, the romantic — but this time, they’re all telling different parts of the same story.

The title track opens with the buoyant sounds of spring. Bright horns burst through a dreamy haze of voices; sunbeams push through to illuminate the landscape below. It’s a warm welcome, and it introduces the musical themes that reoccur throughout the album — David King’s honeyed voice, Lorene Anderson, Anna Hochhalter, and Claire Cannon’s sweet, lilting supporting vocals, and a horn section that is a bold and spirited presence throughout April’s Empire.

“Rip it off!” takes a Motown turn, with King’s ukulele and Sarah Cramer’s bass leading into a “Stick it to the man!” anthem that’s revisited with “Jump Back” with a soulful, funk-influenced bent. The romantic songs serve as a counterpart to the funky numbers scattered throughout April’s Empire. “Pocket Petal” brings forth the romanticism that underscores all of King’s songwriting in a sweet, snappy number tinged with bells and oohs. “The Way” is a smooth, sixties pop influenced song, with lots of bop-ba-dahs moving forward underneath patient drums.

“Van Gogh-Gogh” is an old delight of mine from Duke of Uke’s shows (look for the synchronized dancing!), and on April’s Empire is Duke of Uke at their most playful, mixing wordplay with a hip-shaking beat for a catchy, crowd-pleasing song that always elicits a smile. It’s followed by “Claire’s Song,” which has emerged as an unexpected favorite for me, perhaps because of the simplicity and clarity of its refrain: “When everyone runs in to hide, she runs outside, she runs outside.” It’s a testament to the band’s songwriting that they can master both the clever and the candid with such authenticity.

So what is the story that Duke of Uke is telling? It’s one of antithesis, of the lovely and the low moments in life, a celebration of opposition and contrast. April’s Empire certainly has its sweet and its sassy moments. It sways back and forth between funky, horn-heavy tracks and light, lady-led numbers. It roars with an untouchable fierceness, then pauses to bask in the sweetness of life. It’s playful, it’s soulful, and it’s worth every minute.

Duke of Uke will release April’s Empire this Saturday at the Highdive, with doors opening at 7:00 p.m. Whether you’re a committed fan or a total stranger, a lover of classical music or indie rock, bringing your granddad or your kids, you’ll find something to love in Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra.

"Duke of Uke funks out the Crack Fox"

The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra were driving through St. Louis on their current tour and stopped at The Crack Fox Thursday night. Coming from Champain-Urbana, Illinois, this band has the most eclectic conglomeration of instruments made even stranger when you hear what they make them do.
They take a tuba, sax, violin, electric bass, rock drums and Latin percussion, and top it all off with a frontman on the ukulele. What comes out sounds like a gospel band playing New Orleans funk with a bit of the Blues Brothers thrown in from time to time. The instruments all blend together in a way I never would have thought they would.
Even without their instruments they managed to captivate us with their enchanting voices. During one song, the music stopped and four female voices harmonized in a way that forced my attention. When I looked around, I noticed that all conversation in the bar had stopped as all eyes were on the stage.

If you can, I highly recommend seeing the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra. They will be on tour through the southern Midwest this month. - St. Louis Nightlife Examiner

"Music: The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra"

The Asylum Street Spankers have retired, the late, great Tiny Tim has had archive material released in the last two years and Eddie Vedder just released an album of songs played on a ukulele. Could there be a better time for the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra to make their move? Although there is a Duke in the group (frontman David King) and there are actual ukuleles and an orchestra involved, the wildly eclectic group is not from Hawaii.

The Duke of Uke, in fact, hails from that most exotic Midwestern locale, Champaign, Ill. Outside of the name and their primary instrument, the Duke of Uke has little in common with the music coming from the Aloha state. Much like the aforementioned Spankers and the newly resurrected Squirrel Nut Zippers, the septet (two guys, five gals) finds musical inspiration in every imaginable genre. In the course of an evening, you’ll hear airy wisps of ’60s Pop sweetness, Tin Pan Alley ham, Blues swagger, Jazz and Ragtime swing, Gospel reverence, Motown Soul and Classical precision, played with technical precision and jammy abandon. - City Beat

"Anything But A Novelty Act"

With a well-regarded new album (This Way Up) and a rousing live show, The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra have been getting a lot of positive attention lately in Champaign-Urbana. However, if all you knew about the band was from the recent press they have been gathering, you might mistakenly think they are a new addition to the scene. In truth, they've been around for nearly five years, slowly building their repertoire and their reputation. Frontman Dave King (aka the Duke), while appreciative, is slightly amused by some of this new attention. "I'd say we're taking the area by storm at very low humidity."

Regardless, the new album seems destined to grow their audience even more. With song titles like "Sassafrass ", "Happy", "Happiness" and "Smile", it is easy to get the wrong first impression. But it is not syrupy, nauseating ukulele sap. In fact, This Way Up plays much more like a jazz funeral than Bobby McFerrin. Throughout the album a narrator often seems to be using the music to make himself feel better, bouncing from total depression on "Heavy Head" ("I'm going to lay my head on the railroad track") to anger on "Smile" ("Don't make me put you in your place, wipe that smile right off your face") to self-inflation on "Only Up" ("I've been as low as you can go, and it's only up from here") to the all-out joy of marital bliss on the breezy "Wedding Song."

Though not a concept album, a definite theme emerged after the band put all the songs together. "This album is about falling in love and falling out of love," says King, who had just painfully ended a relationship when he wrote many of the songs. "I was going through a very difficult time, and the songs were very cathartic for me to write."

King bristles when asked about getting pigeonholed as "old-timey." Listening to the songs on This Way Up, it's easy to see why. While the band makes no apologies for their choice of instrumentation, they are much more than a knock off of the big band era. Early Motown is a clear influence throughout, especially on the Marvin Gaye- influenced "Only Up." "Breathe" revels in gospel, and "Smile" brings the funk. King says the confluence of styles comes from the band's diverse background and the band's songwriting process. "The songs just emerge naturally. We just let them do what they will."

Despite the band name, the other members are hardly a supporting cast. King writes the basic words and melody for most of the songs, but the writing is ultimately collaborative, with the final versions sounding very different from the initial sketches. Each member is clearly skilled, and the album showcases everybody at some point — the tuba in "Wedding Song," the melding of vocals on "Breathe," the funky bass-violin interplay on "Smile," the saxophone on "Happy" and the drums everywhere.

After solidifying their local following, it seems natural for the band to start looking to reach bigger audiences outside of the C-U marketplace. When asked about the possibility of touring beyond the local area, King is optimistic, but also realistic. "We plan to do some quick jaunts here and there. But we have a big band and some of the members have family to worry about. There probably won't be any long tours."

To keep their live shows fresh, the band has a large repertoire, and it keeps growing with new songs. King clarifies that the newer stuff is not all in the same vein as the material on This Way Up. But don't expect the band to play any slow dirges the next time you see them. No matter what happens, the music will always retain a certain playfullness. "I'm not blindly optimistic, but the affectation of gloom you see on the covers of albums by twentysomethings is just not my thing."

And that positivity keeps growing the fanbase in all directions. "Our audience actually started out older, but we've really been expanding. We've recently done shows at parties for punk rock kids, and they loved it." In fact, the music is so universal that the Art Theater plays it in their lobby because it pleases so many people. As King deservedly brags, "you can swing to it in any crowd." -

"A Toast To The Duke"

A truly great band withstands the test of mediocrity by creating a sound that has never been heard before. However, Champaign locals The Duke of Uke & His Novelty Orchestra do just that by melding together music that has been heard for years. Defying the restraints of one tightly-bound genre, they have acquired a musical style that is remarkably unique and simultaneously nostalgic.

“Our violinist Claire came up with a definition of we do, which is ‘popssical,’ classical and pop,” David King, Duke of Uke’s founder, said. “There’s no definite category. We’re actually kind of a hodgepodge of genres, so every song has its own taste to it. Some of it’s funky, some are ballads; it kind of depends on the song.”

While King and his band struggle to neatly categorize their music, they excel in playing intricate and versatile tunes constructed from remnants from the past. Influences range from classical composers such as Bach and Reinhardt to Tin Pan Alley ragtime tunes from the ‘20s to rock and roll artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“It’s kind of neat to draw on those things because I feel like a lot of people have forgotten them,” King said.

The band has grown immensely since its birth as a trio five years ago. Now a septet, the Duke of Uke exercises a dynamic collaboration process as the band represents so many different musical backgrounds and interests. The group’s coherent yet elaborate sound compiles ukelele and bass composition as well as rhythmic percussion, and it is beautifully embellished by the violin, tuba and saxophone.

The Duke of Uke’s first studio album, This Way Up, is to be released on Saturday, Feb. 6, at Cowboy Monkey in downtown Champaign. The accompanying show will feature mostly new songs from the album and some that have never been heard live before.

“Some of the new songs are just really pretty; haunting,” King said. “From the band’s point of view, [the release show] is a big celebration. It’s like we gave birth to this sort of a baby, and it’s a baby shower for this thing.”

When asked about plans for the future, King replied with an astute look of confidence.

“World domination,” he said.

Though his response may have been a sarcastic nudge, the fact that the Duke of Uke & HNO has taken the CU music scene by storm cannot be denied, and it doesn’t look like the band will slow down anytime soon. - The Buzz


April's Empire-2012
This Way Up - 2010
The WEFT Sessions - 2009
Head - 2009
Gold - 2008
The Duke of Uke (David King) - 2005



The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra is an orchestral funk-pop ensemble, based in Urbana-Champaign, IL, featuring 4-part vocal harmonies, ukulele, violin, tuba, saxophones, electric bass, rock drums and Latin percussion. The group has been compared to Tom Waits, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Amy Winehouse, the B-52s, and Captain Beefheart. Focusing on collaborative songwriting, the ensemble weaves together David King’s poetic lyricism with lush vocal harmonies, buoyant instrumentation, and solid, swinging rhythms.

They have been featured on stages throughout the country, including, Bethlehem, PA's Musikfest, Milwaukee's Pride Fest main stage, KY's Lower Town Arts & Music Festival, NYC's Cakeshop, Little Rock’s Stickyz Rock n’ Roll Chicken Shack, New Orleans’ AllWays Lounge, Chicago’s Quenchers Saloon, Cincinnati’s MOTR Pub, and Kalamazoos' Bell's Brewery amongst others. Locally, they can be seen at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, Cowboy Monkey, the Iron Post, and have been featured by the Pygmalion Festival, Boneyard Arts Festival and CU Folk and Roots Festival. Their first studio album 'This Way Up,' was voted #4 of the Top 10 Local Albums of 2010, and 'April's Empire' was voted #7 on the Top Ten C-U Rock Albums of 2012 on

The group’s second full-length studio album, April's Empire, produced together with Grammy Award-winning producer & engineer Gerry 'The Gov' Brown, is available on ReverbNation, iTunes, CD Baby, Bandcamp, and other digital outlets.

Tracks are available for streaming or download at: