Dutch Uncles were one of a plethora of art-rock bands to come from Manchester in the late noughties who were tasked by the music press with saving the city from it’s reputation for churning out terrible lad-rock bands (I’m looking at you, Courteeners). Some of their piers have gone on to achieve mainstream success (see Everything Everything), whilst others have seemingly disintegrated into different projects (see Delphic, Egyptian Hip Hop). Meanwhile, the hardy Maple four-piece have released five critically acclaimed studio albums and carved out a loyal fan base, at least in some cities (WARNING: York, Norwich and Sheffield dwellers may be offended by some of the content below).
I caught up with lead singer Duncan Wallis and bassist/composer-in-chief Robin Richards in the canteen at Manchester’s Dancehouse before their sold-out show there the following night. Competing with the excitable background babble coming from actors waiting to audition for a theatrical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, we discussed the band’s most recent album Big Balloon, as well as the departure of guitarist Daniel ‘Sped’ Spedding, feeling unfashionable, go-karting, and Bristol gig-going legend Big Jeff.
Have you played here before?
Robin: No, no we haven’t.
Duncan: It’s been on our list for quite a while.
R: I’ve never even seen a gig here, so it’s going to be very interesting.
D: I got invited to see Stealing Sheep sing with Whyte Horses here a couple of months back but I was DJ-ing somewhere in the end so I couldn’t go. So yeah, we’ve never seen a gig here so it’s kind of good that we’re sound-checking the day before, as it means we can kind of get a feel [for the venue]. I mean it’ll just be like any other of our gigs I suppose. I’m not sure there’s much we can do to really make a difference.
Because it’s all seated…
R: Yeah, so that’ll make a difference.
D: It’ll be interesting to see how the seating thing works. I’m gonna have to keep reminding people to stand up.
What’s your favourite venue you’ve played in Manchester?
R: We’ve played the Deaf Institute about 10 times and it’s still fresh.
D: Yeah, you know what you get with Deaf, and I do like Deaf. I’ve always seen Deaf as being that venue that feels as if you’re playing a very attractive girl’s bedroom, with an excellent taste in music. I don’t mean that in a seedy way! I like that.
You did the 8th birthday there last summer…
R: Big one! Yeah, that was fun.
D: We might have to do our 10th first album anniversary gig there because that’s where we launched it. We will do that.
So that’ll be 2019?
R: Yeah, I think so. If we do it from the release date.
D: Yeah. Just got to keep things going till then. Fill out the time!
When you play in Manchester do you get particularly nervous? Do lots of your mates comes along?
R: Friends and family. It is a different crowd.
D: It’s a different atmosphere.
R: It’s usually a lot rowdier. You get people shouting things about football and stuff.
D: I’ve never really enjoyed it that much in previous tours, except for when we did the Ritz [in 2015]. When we played the Ritz it was great. that was just a night when it went off. [It] was a smooth gig. We didn’t know how it was so smooth at the time.
R: Yeah it was Neil our guitarist’s second gig with us.
D: Yeah there were absolutely no hiccups with the order or anything. Barely even a mistake either. It’s kind of strange. You find people talking through the quiet moments a bit too much [when playing in Manchester], because you’re not really playing to your fans, you’re playing to people that are just there otherwise.
R: The thing is they’re probably talking about the gig.
D: Yeah they’re probably going “this is a great gig! Why aren’t they bigger?” And it’s like “because you’re talking through this quiet song.” But I’m really looking forward to tomorrow, just because it’s such a different thing, and it’ll be new to us as well as everyone else.
I remember Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy) saying he used to get more nervous before Manchester shows…
D: Yeah, well I’d say I definitely feel more dread.
R: And we’ve done it quite a few times where it’s been the last show of the tour, so it’s always building up to this being quite a big event.
D: And when you do it like that, it kind of adds more emotion to the situation whether you’re aware of it or not. Although I think we have finally learned to not think too much about what we’re doing. Even during soundchecks now, the setlist we’ve made for this tour is a much simpler one to master for us, and we’re not having to soundcheck particular songs just to ensure a certain thing is working anymore. We can just pick certain songs that cover everything.
Because Big Balloon has influenced the other songs you’ve picked to play, right?
D: Well they compliment it at least. That’s not to say it’s a samey gig. There are definitely movements within the setlist, like we have our synth section, and we also have our malletKAT section.
R: [The current set is] the songs that we perform the best I think, and the ones we have performed the best over the last eight years, and we’ve brought some back that we haven’t played for quite a few years.
D: Yeah, we’re playing ‘I Owe Someone for Everything’. I think that’s one of the songs we’re playing best on the tour. I mean whether people know it or not, I don’t really know, but we’re having a lot of fun playing that, and that’s something we haven’t played since our first album days
There must be some hard-core fans who really appreciate the stuff from the first album…
D: There’s a couple from Bristol who are coming to the gig tomorrow and it’s their eighth gig of the tour, out of twelve gigs! I don’t want to see their bank balance. It’ll just terrify me!
R: Well they’ve bought merch most nights.
D: Yeah, they bought a different piece of merch at each gig!
D: But they always ask us different questions every time as well, so we’re paying them in lyrical wisdom.
Talking of Bristol, do you get big Jeff at your Bristol shows?
D: We usually do.
R: That’s when you know you’ve made it.
D: I think out of all the gigs we’ve done in Bristol he’s only ever not been at one, because, you know, he gets double booked! You can’t say fairer than that.
R: I think he let us know where he was.
D: Yeah he comes to our instores down there as well, when we play Rise Records.
R: Right at the front, every time.
D: Yeah, just dancing away!
How have the Big Balloon songs themselves been going down?
R: Really well! It’s nice to introduce a song and have a cheer before you’ve even played it. It’s happened with a few of the album tracks. I think it’s helped that Marc Riley’s been playing quite a few of the album tracks over the last few weeks.
D: Last night ‘Oh Yeah’ went down straight away. Like people recognised it straight away. ‘Streetlight’ is an interesting one. Whenever we’ve played ‘Streetlight’ people know what it is immediately because it’s got quite a long intro, and you hear them cheering for it like they’d cheer for ‘Cadenza’. When we played it in Edinburgh it went off. [There was] a little huddle of kids on legal highs, and everyone around them was about 60. There were just like five or six kids in the middle just tearing each other’s faces off! It was great!
I want to talk about the Big Balloon release, which you marked by going go-karting. You have form when it comes to releasing albums in unique ways, because wasn’t O Shudder launched over the tannoy at a non-league football match?
D: Yep. No one came to that.
Was the go-karting more enjoyable than the non-league football?
R: Yeah, I mean it took a long time to get going.
D: It was fun in the way it was terrifying. You’re signing your life away! You basically say “yeah if I die it’s my fault” and you go “death can happen here?” And I’ve never had a driving lesson. But as soon as you tell yourself it’s not actually driving, it’s just Mario Kart in real life, then it’s great.
Where did the idea come from?
R: It was in reference to the Big Balloon video, and also in relation to the press-release. We’re saying it’s our fastest album, so let’s match the speed of that. And watching the first race, when ‘Big Balloon’ was on, it was like “yeah this goes pretty well.”
D: I mean no-one in the cars could hear it. John Freeman from the Quietus was a bad motherfucker.
R: He was brutal.
D: He got black flagged!
R: He said he forgot that he wasn’t playing a computer game.
The track ‘Big Balloon’ really fires out of the blocks. Was putting such an up-tempo song first on the album intentional?
D: I think it was the strength of the song as opposed to the tempo. I came up with a track-list originally that had ‘Big Balloon’ fifth and then ‘Baskin’ sixth, so the first half of the vinyl would finish on ‘Big Balloon’, the second half would begin with ‘Baskin’’ – so fast into fast. But we changed it all round because what we wanted to do with this album was have ten separate songs, not necessarily a jigsaw that has to be figured out. And we definitely wanted ‘Baskin’ after it because it was like, “let’s just keep up with the fast thing.” If our statement is that we’ve made a guitar album and it’s our fastest album yet, we need to prove that. In the first four songs, we need those characteristics to come out. Which is why they’re all very guitar-led songs at the beginning, and then the synth-based tracks kind of creep in at the end. And even though the tracklist is different to the original one that had the narrative in it, there’s still a narrative there with the sound. The narrative of the sound of the tracks still reflects on what the original narrative was. Because the synth stuff begins to follow the protagonist – I do write about myself but I don’t see it as myself, so I call it the protagonist – mellowing out into complacency and then a bit of a destruction again. It’s a very destructive album, I think. And ‘Big Balloon’ as a song itself is kind of saying “it’s a mess, but fucking get on with.”
R: And then tempo-wise, listening back to O Shudder, quite a lot of them are similar tempos, or half-time, or attempting hip-hop kind of rhythms. So we wanted to experiment more with extremes of tempo. Some of the earlier stuff we’d written were the slowest songs we’d ever had, which didn’t actually make the cut in the end.
Syncopation is a key element of your sound. At what stage does that come into the music?
R: That’s developed in the songwriting stage, so I’ll start with an idea on piano in Sibelius, and the rhythms come from that, and the rhythms will change over time. I’ll bring a Sibelius demo to the band. If the guys like it, we’ll have a go at playing it. Then if an idea is to the taste of the band, Duncan writes some lyrics for it.
In the interview you did for the Quietus you talked about making a guitar record to counteract the fact that Daniel left. How hard was it to divert what would have perhaps been the natural change in sound caused by a guitarist leaving?
R: We just knew from the previous tour that the guitar heavy songs were going down a lot better live than the newer songs.
D: I wanted ten ‘Dressage’s. ‘Dressage’ is the song we finish on now. It’s from Cadenza, and it’s lasted that long. It’s still such a live favourite because of its energy and dynamic. The thing about Sped was that he never wrote anything. He did offer ideas, but the problem was that Robin’s writing was so characteristic straight away that [they] just seemed so obviously different.
R: The thing is, Pete [Broadhead, the band’s guitar and synth player] and Andy [Proudfoot, the band’s drummer] will experiment with their parts and with their sound, and Pete’s effects are a really important part [of our sound], and the way he plays the lines can really change songs, whereas Sped just played them.
D: He got very distant. It wasn’t what he wanted to do, musically. He got lost in his effects, and as he got more lost in his effects he stopped remembering how to play the parts. It was kind of a blessing that he left just before O Shudder came out because I remember when we were rehearsing it I was really quite worried about some of the sounds. I was like “this is just weird. It’s not cool, it’s not fun, I don’t know what I’m supposed to feeling here, but I just feel sick.”
R: You’d say something to him like “I’m not sure about this sound”, and he’d get really offended.
D: You’d have to find the positive things and say “why don’t you make it sound more like Adrian Belew?”, and even then it felt that you were always stepping on fucking toes. But he wasn’t even around for half of the recording of O Shudder, and Robin felt that he was just giving him parts so he’d just have something to come in and do. We wouldn’t even play these songs live because him and Pete couldn’t look each other in the eye anymore. They had a big falling out when we supported Everything Everything back in 2013, and it never recovered. We’d all had fallouts with him. Robin had a fallout with him on the Paramore tour – a big one. I had a big one with him as soon as I met him, and it never got any better after that. Obviously, you get by with things because you treat each other like brothers really. But when it came down to it it was not nice to be on your own with him. It could be like three of us, but as soon as it was just me and him, it would just be unbearable. But it didn’t feel like our position to tell him to leave. He left of his own accord and it was like “yeah, ok, we agree. It’s not the best timing but we’ll get round it.”
So it was a relief when he left really?
R: For him as well.
D: And we had our guitar tech Neil, who is a long-time friend of the band and a fan, and he already knew the music, so he slipped in straight away. It wasn’t a challenge to write guitar music. Robin was just writing music for a six-piece band, basically. So the fact that Sped left wasn’t a challenge for the writing.
R: I think that’s what was different about O Shudder, which was like writing music which could be for anything – an orchestra, or an orchestra of synthesisers – which meant it was really hard to actually perform it live afterwards. So we just wanted to make sure we could actually play it as a six piece.
Generally, your albums have been critically acclaimed, but there’s been nothing that’s crossed over to the mainstream in the way some of your contemporaries’ record have – Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven for example. Is that still something you want?
R: Yeah! It would be nice.
D: At the time of writing [Big Balloon] it felt like that door had closed on us. Doors have been closing on us for our entire career. Radio 1 stopped playing us after Cadenza came out. Zane Lowe’s producer went “they look smug in the video [for the song ‘Cadenza’], I’m not going to play it.” That was the reason they gave. They probably just didn’t like the song. That’s fine if you don’t like the song, but don’t fucking blame it on the video that we hate ourselves. It was a terrible video. No offense to the director. We should never have gone with that idea.
R: An obstacle [to greater commercial success] is more the budgets.
D: Yeah budgets. And it was just about getting 6 Music back on track really, because we didn’t get any playlisted singles for O Shudder, and that’s totally fine, I have no hard feelings about it. But it was scary, because it kind of felt like 6 Music was the only consistent support we’d ever really had. So to get that back, with ‘Big Balloon’ a-listed, was a huge relief. To get the festival was a huge relief. Never take it for granted, at all. And obviously doing a Lavern session yesterday…
R: Because we had [Lavern sessions] for the second and third albums, but not for the fourth.
D: It was great to touch base again with it all. This album for us has been about repairing that hole that O Shudder put over us.
R: We have realistic aims. On the record label we’re on, it’s going to be difficult to afford the kind of promotion that Everything Everything have.
D: I wouldn’t say we’ve ever had any cross-over [hits] though. It’s so annoying that ‘Flexxin’ has never had any Radio 1 plays. It was like “how has that not happened?” It’s got the video, it’s got the song, it’s got the chorus. That was our moment for a breakthrough and nothing came of it, and that was bewildering.
Because that song is incredibly catchy. It seems like it’s just luck as to whether stuff gets played or not…
D: It’s luck and it’s fashion. Big Balloon’s about feeling unfashionable. If you feel unfashionable, just fuck it and get on with. And that’s why it has the stance that it has. And the fact that it’s been accepted and got us a foot in the door again at 6 [Music] is a huge relief.
You mentioned doing the 6 Music Festival. Are there any others in summer you’re allowed to tell us about?
R: Standon Calling.
D: Standon Calling’s the only one we’re allowed to tell you about.
But there are festivals planned?
R: Hopefully there’ll be more.
D: Festivals are very fashion orientated now. There’s a lot of private investment in music these days, and I’m not saying this to make excuses about the situation. We’ve seen this first hand ourselves. There’s a lot of private investment in bands now.
R: You see mid-sized festivals having the same line-up.
D: Yeah, you see a lot of festivals that have the same line-ups, and also you see a lot of bands there that have never played gigs starting their gigging career doing festivals. I don’t get that bit. But the other thing is we’ve done a lot of festivals. Our work rate has been very consistent. We have an album out every two years, it comes out around the same time [of year], we do the same sort of tours, and we’ve done places like Deershed and Liverpool Sound City three or four times now, and you can’t expect to get call-backs every two years. I completely understand that they have to show some variation. The only aspect of it I don’t get is the fact that festivals are sort of caving in to this pressure of putting on bands that no-ones ever heard of. I don’t know what’s going on there. We need to combine our go-karting thing with festivals. We could show up in my brother’s wood fired pizza van! Make a food stall. Do a little stage or something. That sounds so crusty, no pun intended.
How important is gigging to establishing your sound as a live band, and also on record?
R: It’s really important for your first album, definitely. It gets harder when you spend a year making a record which you don’t road test any of the material for, which kind of happened for O Shudder, and to some extent Out of Touch in the Wild. We managed to road test four of the songs last year which made it onto Big Balloon, and then there was one song that was in the running that we played once, and as soon as we played it we realised it wouldn’t make the cut. So it is really important for the way the songs make their way onto the record. But obviously touring is important for establishing yourself in the towns. Our old manager made us play in Leeds every month…
D: …just to establish a connection.
R: Yeah, and it meant that when we did our first tour as Dutch Uncles, we already had a following in Leeds. It was the second best selling gig on the tour.
So it worked then?
R: Yeah. Shame we only did it with Leeds.
D: Well we should have done it with everywhere really. We should have toured more…
R: …early on
D: I dunno, we have a pretty bad attitude to touring. We’ve blacklisted so many places now. We won’t go to Norwich or York. Last time we played York right we got a devastating review of it where it was like “[it was] a quarter full room and people started leaving during encore.” That was our manager. He was getting the train home. And it was like “the crowd looked bored, they were just on their phones all the way through.” Again that was our manager checking Twitter to see if anyone was tweeting about the gig. I mean he got sacked. Eventually. Not just for that! But when you have those experiences in those places you think “oh fuck this.” It’s either York or Leeds for us. We can’t be too regional about things! Luckily Oxford was really good on this tour. I’m glad that Oxford was good because I like Oxford. But yeah, Norwich, York, Sheffield. [Sheffield] was shite wasn’t it?
R: Yeah. It was a weird one.
D: I mean Tramlines festival is fucking banging. [We] love playing there. We probably won’t play there this year because we’ve already done that one three times as well, so fair enough. But whenever we’ve done our own gigs in Sheffield no one comes. I don’t get it at all. And yet we had a circle pit when we did our Grace Jones cover there on the main stage of Tramlines. It was incredible! It was ‘Slave to the Rhythm’, and there was just this big circle pit going on it the middle. You could see dust coming up!
That’s probably the only time that’s happened to that song!
This venue mainly hosts ballet. I know you like to do a bit of dancing onstage Duncan…
D: Well that’s another reason why we wanted to play here. I just like the pun. Obviously, I’m not going to put a tutu on, but I just liked the idea that it would be like “Ooh, going to watch a dance thing.” A more interpretive one certainly. And this guy [points to Robin], he’s got the knees going all over the place!
R: And there’s plenty of stage for us all to get our moves out.
D: Pete’s ready for his moment in ‘Flexxin’. He’s already eyeing up what he’s going to do. Swinging from the rafters. Swinging from the chandeliers. I’m really looking forward to it. We’re definitely going to make it the most theatrical gig that we can.
You can read our review of said gig here. Big Balloon is out now and available to purchase here [http://dutchuncles.co.uk/]. Dutch Uncles played at 6 Music Festival in Glasgow this weekend, look for it on the BBC iPlayer.