Fashion Designer Keanan Duffty on Crafting Classic Alt-Rock With His Band Slinky Vagabond

Slinky Vagabond (l-r): Keanan Duffty and Fabio Fabbri. credit: Marco Arici For about 40 years,…

Fashion Designer Keanan Duffty on Crafting Classic Alt-Rock With His Band Slinky Vagabond

For about 40 years, Keanan Duffty has built a long and award-winning career in fashion design. The New Yorker by way of Doncaster, England, started his own fashion label under his name in 1998, dressed the Sex Pistols for their 2003 U.S. tour, and collaborated with David Bowie in 2007 on a clothing line inspired by the legendary rocker for Target. Additionally, General & News Duffty is the founding Program Director of the Masters in Professional Studies-Fashion Management at the Parsons School of Design. But amid his impressive resume in fashion, Duffty never forgot the other creative passion in his life since the late 1970s: making music.

Duffty’s current project is the band Slinky Vagabond, which the British singer and songwriter fronts with Italian musician and producer Fabio Fabbri. The sound of their new album King Boy Vandals (due out December 6 on CD and vinyl) recalls ’70s glam rock, ’80s New Wave and post-punk, and ’90s alternative rock augmented by electronic music influences. Further shoring up the band’s sound, King Boy Vandals also features guest appearances by the likes of Midge Ure (Ultravox), Tony Bowers (Simply Red, the Durutti Column), Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love, Guns N’ Roses), Dave Formula (Magazine), and Martin Turner (Wishbone Ash).

“Fabio grew up listening to and playing that kind of British rock and roll sound,” says Duffty. “He kind of grew up with that and the New York influence. It’s there for me as well. My formative years were spent in a schoolboy punk band, and then in an electronic New Romantic band when I was a teenager. Those sort of Brit influences have always stayed with me and I wear them very much on my sleeve.”

Slinky Vagabond began in 2007 as a supergroup featuring Duffty, guitarist  Earl Slick (David Bowie), bassist Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and drummer Clem Burke (Blondie). That incarnation of the band performed shows, including one at New York City’s Irving Plaza supporting the New York Dolls, and recorded an album that remains unreleased. “It was a very kind of synchronistic start,” Duffty says. “Then the Pistols got back together, and Glen was busy with that. Blondie started touring again to a greater degree, and David Bowie started recording The Next Day. So the guys got busy. We didn’t fall out, we’re still actually all very good friends. But it kind of dissipated, and so I sort of put that on one side.”

About 10 years later, Duffty later resurrected Slinky Vagabond featuring himself and Fabbri. The two met in 2017 at a masterclass that Duffty was presenting at a university in Florence, Italy, that also featured Matlock. “He [Fabio] came up to us after the lecture. He said to me, ‘I’d love to invite you to my studio.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll come along and listen to music, play tunes, and have a bit of fun.’ We did that and we got along really well. We kind of figured there was something there. And so every time I was back in Florence, which was fairly regularly, I’d go over to Fabio’s studio and we record stuff.”

The duo had worked on about 16 tracks before the pandemic happened; by that time they roped in Tony Bowers on bass along with a drummer.  “We didn’t have a master plan of what to do with this stuff,” says Duffty. “We just thought, ‘We are enjoying it. Let’s just record.’ When the pandemic was in the throes of happening, we thought, ‘We’ve got an album, let’s do something with it.”

For his part, Duffty reached out to friends he knew such as Ure and Fortus to play on King Boy Vandals.  “Pretty much everybody that I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ You can send over the stems, you throw it up on Logic or Pro Tools, and they could lay down their part. So we got a bunch of great players starting with Midge. I’ve known Midge for a long time, and I asked him if he would play on a couple of tracks. He was like, ‘Yeah, send me the tracks and I’ll see what I can do.’ Midge’s an incredible guitar player. He’s a great singer. It just kind of escalated from there. So we ended up with all of these really amazing guests.

“I’ve known Richard, since the ‘90s, around the East Village. And we’ve been friends, and I’ve always wanted to do something with Richard. I love his work with Richard Butler and the Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love. I’ve always been eager to do something with him. I thought Richard would be perfect to play on [“Fear No Evil”] that because his guitar style is just totally in that moment.”

Like “Fear No Evil,” the rocking track “Prima Donna,” which evokes Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” had existed before Slinky Vagabond’s first formation; it dates back to around 2004 when Duffty auditioned for the lead vocal spot in Velvet Revolver following the departure of Scott Weiland. “I got these backing tracks from the Velvet Revolver people,” Duffty says. “I went to this studio in Rhinebeck [, New York] with Earl Slick producing the session. “So I did vocals over the  Velvet Revolver backing tracks. When we came to do this record, Fabio rewrote it. And the way he re-wrote the music to me sounded like early Bowie and also Rich Kids, which was Glen and Midge’s band. That’s why I asked Midge to play on that track.”

Along with the rockers (“Old Boy,” “English Country Garden,” “Absolutely Dark”), there are some sublime moments on King Boy Vandals,  such as the majestic power ballad “The Beauty in You.” “There’s definitely a sort of nostalgia element,” according to Duffty. “Generally the lyrics are not what they appear to be about. [“The Beauty in You”] is really about abandoned towns. I was actually just in Ukraine a couple of weeks ago. They do these day trips from Kyiv to Chernobyl. I couldn’t go because I just didn’t have the time, but I actually wanted to go and see that beauty and decay. That’s a big lyrical theme. The other lyrical theme is the sort of nostalgic element of tracks like “Prima Donna,” for example. And there are others that have very definite references to a particular time in place, like the pirate radio of the ‘60s—“Black Leather Jacket” is really sort of a love song to that era.”

The nostalgic aspects of King Boy Vandals can be traced to Duffty’s early forays into music when he was a teenaged member of the punk band Sordid Details in 1978. “We wanted to be the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Generation X, all of those bands,” says Duffty. “We played in village halls and school gymnasiums. Wherever we could get a gig, we would play. It was great. Punk gave permission for people that didn’t have the technique yet to just get out and do it.” A short time later—during the New Romantic period—he co-founded the electronic collective Wonder Stories, whose music was reviewed in the popular British music publication Sounds. “Suddenly it was kind of like, ‘Wow, we can do this.’ And the review said we sounded like a cross between Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire and a broken Electrolux vacuum cleaner. And I was thinking, ‘This is great.’”

After Wonder Stories broke up, Duffty reemerged as a solo artist in the mid-1980s and recorded the pop single “Water Sport.” By that time, however, he was already eyeing a career in fashion and graduated from Central Saint Martins in London. In the early 1990s, he moved to New York City where he has lived ever since. “I looked at the music industry and I thought, ‘In fashion, you can have a career.’ There’s a lot of different facets to the fashion world. With music, either you’re a big hit or you’re nothing. And for me I love music, but I want to keep it as something that I do because I love it. I don’t want to have to be thinking about it as a career. So fashion was always the career for me, and music was always something that’s fed into that. And that’s why I’ve always done it. That’s why I always find time to do it, and I love it.”

Meanwhile, the current incarnation of Slinky Vagabond has not yet performed live yet, which is the next thing that Duffty hopes to do possibly next year. The band is currently working on a remix project and looking to making more new music “We’re very complementary,” says Duffty about the musical chemistry between him and Fabbri. “He plays in tune, I sing out of tune. He writes great melodies, I destroy the melodies. But I think there’s a personal relationship that we have that’s very, very good. I think also because we’re middle-aged guys, there’s no big agenda. We’re trying to do something that we enjoy and we’re going wherever it takes us. It’s not like there are no big plans to sign a record deal or do any of that stuff. Our dynamic is that we like each other a lot. We get on well, we like working together, and we’re doing it. It’s fun.”