Queer musician Michael Duane Gholston – formerly Duane the Teenage Weirdo, currently Duane the Brand New Dog – has been steadily bringing his retro music to Detroit (and even to Poland) over the last several years. Between his old-school house beats and attire straight out of a "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" episode, the performance artist is adding fuel to the fire of the early-'90s revival currently sweeping the country.
Duane, who talked to BTL right before his Dec. 5 show at Detroit's UFO Factory, has been performing since 2010, when he premiered his musical work at the now-defunct gay bar, R&R Saloon. Since then, the 23-year-old Detroit native's career has been whirlwind as he's opened for the Black Lips and Jack White and wrestled with the darker side of the music industry. Fittingly, Duane's latest single, "This Be That Time," asks, "Can you read between the lines?"
The musician is a Detroit native, though he's not entirely sure he would say the city influenced his work. "Yeah, I'm from Detroit. I've been here all my life," he admits. "I'd be lying if I said it (Detroit) did totally influence my work, but I do take a lot of references from a lot of big music that was crazy here in Detroit, like Detroit techno music, some house-inspired stuff from Detroit and Chicago. I do incorporate that into my music. But I'd be lying if I said, 'Oh, I listened to this music all my life.' I grew up around it, and I had a little exposure to it as a child, like listening to DJ Assault. I listened to that a little in elementary school from neighbor's house parties, but I didn't listen and think, 'Oh, I'm going to grow up and make this music.'"
What he grew up with did inspire his ultimate career, though, particularly when it comes to his 1990s inspiration.
"I'm a big retro music fan. I love mostly a lot of '80s stuff and slowly but surely have been getting into early-'90s stuff – stuff that came out when I was a toddler. I'm a huge Madonna fan, I love Technotronic and I love early-'90s pop music that was house-inspired."
This admiration for the era of bright colored clothing and loose fits is apparent in his own style. "I really do love (the '90s look). I'll watch 'The Golden Girls' and fall in love with outfits. I'll watch 'X-Files' – I love Scully's pantsuits. I love suit jackets; I love going to the thrift store and getting $5 jackets. Shoulder pads! Slacks. And berets – I love wearing berets. That's sort of my creation – do-rags and berets; I just like the shape of it. I'm not even sure where I got that from!"
With touches of Prince and David Bowie-inspired makeup, Duane says, laughing, "There's definitely an androgynous note. I am gay for sure."
Because Duane has such a unique look, gender or otherwise, he finds that describing himself to people can sometimes be difficult. "I'm a musician, I'm a producer, I'm a songwriter. I'm everything, I do everything. I'm an artist. The first thing I say is, 'I'm a musician,' and people ask me what kind of music I play, or what instruments do I play. If I say I'm an artist, people ask me, 'What kind of art do you make?' So I go into these long detailed things about what I do, and sometimes it's hard to explain. And if there's a really sheltered person, they're not going to get what I'm saying, or they'll have to see it just to believe it."
This self-described "Teenage Weirdo" grew from that moniker to the "Brand New Dog" in a fairly organic way: He grew up. "Well, I turned 20!" he says about the transition, laughing. "I just like to create new personas for myself – well, they're not fake, they're who I am – but people change in real life, and I want my art to reflect that. I like how David Bowie and Prince have phases and name changes and different looks and sounds, and I wanted to have a career similar to that. Right now it's the Brand New Dog, but two or three years from now it'll be something different. I grow as a person, and I grow as an artist, so I just want to reflect that."
While his Teenage Weirdo days are a bit more self-explanatory, Brand New Dog has a bit more "bite." "Honestly, I just like how the words sound. You take random words out of the air, and like how they sound," he says of the name creation. "I've thought about a serious meaning behind it, and basically, it's the term 'dog eat dog world,' which is the music business in general. I have a little bit of experience with the business side of that, dealing with label people and attorneys and all that, and I got to see how it's not all sunshine and roses. So I'm the brand new dog."
Duane specifically recalls dealing with U.K. label XL Recording. He told Metro Times in July that part of the problem stemmed from their desire to trap him into the "Teenage Weirdo" role – a move that clearly was at odds with the ever-evolving artist.
"That keeps coming up, and the more I talk about it, the more I'm asked!" Duane says when asked about the label. "I don't mind talking about it; I just don't want it to come off as a sob story or me bashing them, that's all I'm ever worried about. It happened so fast; I had my first show and a guy saying they were working for a manager signed me right on the spot, and that stuff doesn't really happen. You don't know how to deal with it all, because people make all this decision making, and it can be discouraging, but you just have to get back on the horse again."
Despite the semi fallout with XL, Duane has been finding plenty of success outside of Michigan, including a recent gig in – of all places – Poland.
"It was my first time leaving the country," he says. "Someone saw my show in Detroit in 2014, opening for the Black Lips at the Majestic. His parents are in Detroit but he's from Poland and his girlfriend's in Poland, and she works as a curator at the National Gallery of Art, the Zacheta, in Warsaw. Every year they put together a festival, and this was the third one. This was the first year they were getting an American act, and she suggested me to them.
"I was worried, because I'm used to being the odd man out to some of the more conventional acts here, and there I was the second to last to go on. I was watching the whole festival and there were a lot of weird, unusual acts, and I thought, 'Maybe I won't faze them at all.' But they really liked it – I was quite surprised!'
He hopes to continue to venture outside of Michigan in the near future, as well. "I'm trying to get together some shows, and I was talking to people, talking to friends of friends of friends, contacts, because I want to do a small tour outside of Michigan soon. Next year, of course," he adds.
Though Duane is gay, he rarely plays LGBT venues – but not by choice.
"You know, in all of the shows I do, when people see me, they automatically assume I will play mostly LGBT establishments," he says. "It's not that I don't because I don't like to or I have some aversion to it – it's that I don't get asked. And if I do go to gay bars or clubs, it's always an awkward feeling. I've just had not so good experiences. I've never been able to get in contact with anyone in the queer community. I know lots of gay people that go and see my show, but I've never been asked to play a gay bar or club."
He adds, "I don't mean to come off a certain way! It's probably just been misunderstandings. I want to bridge the gap."