Interview: Dutch Uncles
Masters of punchy art-pop that is unashamedly ‘80s, channelling everyone from Bowie to XTC and Talking Heads; Dutch Uncles have consistently put out witty, eccentric and infectious records. With their fifth – and arguably best – album out this month, Mark Perkins collared frontman Duncan Wallis for a chat about the band’s longevity, love, relationships, loneliness, and getting inspiration from their dads’ record collections.
How do you feel your songs and sound have changed over the five albums?
Somewhere along the way, our aspirations have changed. When we first started, like every other band we thought we could change the world, or at least a very little part of it. You want to change the way people view a subject or what a band could be through your input. Then eventually you start using the band to change yourself. It becomes a personal endeavour and you stop thinking about what people are going to make of it. That initial aspiration never goes away fully, mind you; it’s just that you stop thinking about it.
You’ve toured with some pretty big names. One of the bands, Paramore, even said you’d influenced their music. Which of the bands has been the most memorable?
Every band we’ve toured with has left some kind of imprint on us, even Sky Larkin! And you can learn just as much from being first on at The Deaf Institute in Manchester to being first on at the San Siro Racecourse in Milan. I couldn’t pick a favourite, but I would say that touring with Wild Beasts across Europe back in 2011 was a special one because of how unique their Smother record is. To be able to witness such an amazing album re-enacted every night for a fortnight was wonderful and emotionally devastating at the same time.
The ‘guitar sound’ seems to be more to the fore on your new album. Was this a conscious move on your part?
It certainly was. Firstly, I feel this was the record we should really have made after Out Of Touch, in terms of reigning in the instrumentation, but secondly, I suppose we saw a challenge when our guitarist Daniel Spedding left the band just before the release of our last album. For some reason that gave us an impetus to make an even more guitar-based record than before. Also, we love a bit of symmetry, and wanted to make an album that referenced our first ‘German’ album (all those years ago) and something that reignited our old influences.
Your songs always seem to be about something other than just love and relationships. There are songs about the austerity cuts and coming to terms with loneliness on Big Balloon, and it’s refreshing to see bands actually putting some thought into their lyrics. Do you think that this is an opportunity other bands miss?
Perhaps, but it takes an awful lot of talent to successfully remove personal emotions from a song and create a similar head-clearing feeling. I think Jonathan from Everything Everything is probably one of the best lyricists in the country right now for the way he’s able to create such interesting emotional strands from news stories without making it sound remotely preachy. To be honest, as I’ve got older, I’ve got more involved with songs about love and relationships. I’m fascinated with how desperate the feeling gets as you age. You’ve just got to know how to present the situation better is all. Big Balloon as an album is trying to be about love and relationships, but I decided to focus on the loneliness, as I feel we’re in an increasingly isolating society these days. Also, only having yourself to talk to is what happens in the end anyway. Given enough time, we will only be left with ourselves, but I think there’s some positivity to be found in that.
You’ve said that there was some influence from Ukrainian techno music on Big Balloon. That’s a tad random. How did it come about?
Robin wrote the music for the song ‘Sink’ when he was out in Ukraine researching for his classical project Pripyat: Birdsong. I asked him to write some music for a song where the protagonist would be aching at the fact that they know of a happiness somewhere in the world, but removed from where they currently are. He wrote this piece inspired by his travels. I used that lyrical idea for another song in the end, but Robin came back with this prog/Donna Summer/Todd Terje groove that was a goer. The song is just about the opposite to what I intended it to be now, which is typical really, but that suits us just fine.
I also hear you’ve been listening to your dads’ record collections. How did that filter through to the album?
That’s kind of how the whole band started out, so we don’t see it as being particularly special to this new record. It was getting shit-faced and listening to my dad’s copy of Pet Sounds every night for a solid year that made us change our band name and musical approach to what it is now, and that was all way back in 2007, so listening to some Focus now is a drop in the ocean to our shape really.
This is your fifth album release. When you started out in 2008, did you ever think you’d still be working as Dutch Uncles in 2017?
Quite honestly? … Yes!
Exposed reviews Big Balloon
Dutch Uncles are fast becoming a phenomenon. Well, OK, it’s taken eight years – but who’s counting? Releasing an album every two years, and this is their fifth, they have become the most consistently listened to band in my (admittedly small) music world. If they’d been around in the 70s they’d have toured with Kate Bush. The 80s? Talking Heads. 90s? David Bowie.
They’ve somehow downloaded all that art-pop influence from your Dad’s vinyl collection, infused it with bit of the Manchester alternative rock scene, and made what is quite possibly their best album yet. They know how to push the envelope just enough to keep their fans on board and still make new and interesting music. ‘Streetlight’ is currently the track that has me selecting repeat; string section on point, swirling Steve Reich-style keyboards playing. It’s perfect. 9/10 MP
Big Balloon is out now