Ahead of their headline show at The Academy 2 in Dublin on November 18th 2011, Music Scene caught up with breaking Manchester band Dutch Uncles. Laura Rai talked to lead singer Duncan Wallis about recording, touring and how their name came about! Here’s how it all went…
Last week I got in touch with Duncan from Dutch Uncles while the band was in Hamburg; one stop on their tour supporting Wild Beasts in Europe. Their latest record ‘Cadenza’ marries complex musical arrangements with accessibility, creating a little family of wonderfully catchy pop songs each their own character but united as one. He spoke to me about the band’s writing process, influences, live performances and of course, where they got the band name from!
How has people’s reaction to your music in Europe been so far?
It’s been great; we haven’t been to Europe since working on the latest record. To see people’s first reactions to stuff is great, it’s obviously the best opportunity to try out the new stuff, which is the aim for this tour really.
You released your first album off a German record label; Tapete Records. How did that come about?
When we were playing as a band in college, we got offered it through a manager, it was all very coincidental. They were looking for a U.K band for their roster. When we started as Dutch Uncles, we accidently CC’d (the record label) video footage of a gig. And they said oh you know, we really like these songs, wanna make one album? A one album deal seemed like a good step forward, to get that down quickly and I guess we’ve seen the way bands build up in the press, singles and albums, but I guess we kind of thought it would be a good idea to put the album out straight away and use that as a tool. We did tour Germany, but then half the band started university. It was weird because we didn’t know much about the industry, so we thought it was a good idea… it probably wasn’t a good idea! But it led us to this point, and we’re in a good place!
Has the whole experience of growing up and going to university after the first album was released reflected in your music; is your music different now?
We’ve been quite slow in learning how people would best understand out music, because obviously we do write very technically. It’s not challenging I guess but the trick to writing in time signatures is to always make it sound like 4/4 , to always make it sound like it isn’t a time signature, and we know that. I think what we’re learning, and as I say we’re learning it again in Europe with first time listeners is just basically how to make our tracks most likable from a first listen perspective; just keep it pop and don’t indulge ourselves. Pop can be a dirty word really, it’s not dirty pop obviously! We always think we might be selling out and then we’ll listen to the song two minutes later and realise it’s absolutely ridiculous to ever think that anyway.
So when you’re writing you have the audience you’re going to be playing these songs to in mind from the beginning?
Yeah totally, it’s an interesting situation because, like I say, we never want to indulge or appear wanky… it’s so easy to in progressive pop, it’s so easy to alienate your audience. Our number one priority live is the audience, it’s not for us; what are they (the audience) going to get the best kick out of? But then when you start to write, you have to be critical when you write, you also have to be cynical. You basically have to be wanting to write for yourself, then the audience probably becomes second on that. That’s probably the best way the listener will get to hear what you’re really trying to do. It’s two different perspectives; recording to live performance. We know we have some dedicated fans from the first album, and then some who didn’t like the second as much as the first maybe, and we’re very aware of these things and want to keep everyone onboard. We’re not trying to make too many big decisions, simply put we’re just trying to write the best album we possibly can.
You mentioned the atypical time signatures and complex arrangements, where does the influence for that come from?
Well our bass player Robin, brings all the original music to the table and then obviously we analyse it and make it a song as a band. He has always just naturally wanted to write in interesting time signatures. Back when we were in college the whole idea was just to make it in 4/4 and just work on a chorus, it was a terrible idea for us. It wasn’t natural for us; it wasn’t natural for Robin to do that. His Dad got him onto prog records at an early age really, not just prog, Super Furry Animals, alternative stuff.
So is everyone in the band from Manchester then?
Yeah we’re all from Manchester, we’re all from Stockport, or Marple, if you want to get really technical. We all went to the same secondary school, but I’m a year above the other four and I didn’t really meet them until I started college.
There are a lot of bands coming out of Manchester, there’s Egyptian Hip Hop, and Delphic. Do you guys all hang out together?
Well yeah, we’re all having a laugh! But it can be a long time until you see someone like Delphic or EHH around because they’re busy away writing something. We see Everything Everything an awful lot and they’re great guys. We’re all fans of each other’s music, we’re all supportive and like I say, EE took us on one of their tours.
I think we’re always very aware of sounding too similar to each other, I’d say we’re all kind of pushing each other a comfortable distance and the way of doing that is by having a laugh, being mates and talking about what you’re up to. And not bitching…
I see you’re doing a cover in your set, Everybody Wants To Rule The World, are you interested in doing more covers?
Well that was really a summer thing, this year we did festivals for the first time, and it just seemed sense to have one song, it was also because we could play it into one of our own songs and it just seemed like the right thing to do and we all like that song. We usually have a cover in our arsenal of songs to play on a tour. We’ve got Talking Heads covers or King Crimson covers. Our song X-O off the Cadenza album, that’s a Steve Reich song. That’s kind of like a cover because we’ve taken his music and I’ve put lyrics over it and that’s probably the closest we’ll get to an official recorded song that’s a cover on an album.
I noticed the songs on Cadenza have thematic aspects; some of them lead into each other (the last two songs on the album). Are you interested in doing a concept album?
Well I think that was a very Tears For Fears influence really, I think there’s a very similar thing on their album Songs From The Big Chair, where the song ‘Broken’ goes into ‘Head Over Heels’ in quite a similar fashion. There was a concept to Cadenza, I realised that every lyric I write is going to be a personal one, I realised that lyrically there is a story there of sorts. There is a beginning and an end but I can’t really define it. I could, but I don’t really want to reveal it. I think on our next album, Robin is thinking about a more musical concept about when instruments are introduced, like a building sound, and that may happen! We love concept albums, but maybe it’ll be a fourth album thing- very ambitious!
Where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics then, how do you go about writing lyrics for songs?
Well basically they come last in our process at the moment. I think that’s something we plan to change at some point because you can kind of tell how a song is written sometimes and hear enough examples of it… You have to surprise your audience, you have to surprise yourself. So I say this now, but it will probably change the next time you hear something. I work around word sounds more than anything else, and usually because the music is so complex, the key is to as basic as possible with the lyrics, but still characteristic, there still has to be a frontman with charisma, well, some sort of charisma! You still have to display a character there. Just try to make every part of the song the chorus!
You’re going to be playing Dublin in a couple of weeks, will this be your first time playing here as a band?
It certainly is our first time to Ireland as a band, I think it will be an alarmingly relaxing time because it’s not that we don’t have big expectations, but we just feel is if you know, first time listeners – it’s great to see, when people see what it’s like for the first time the message is a lot more powerful. We’re really looking forward to the Ireland leg of the tour.
What would you like people to take from your music ideally then?
Well hopefully an album! The strange thing about the situation of music in England at the moment and the appearance and attitude of bands, and the way that the press puts bands across… we’re not really followed, supported, by much of the music press in England, it’s to do with the songs to a degree and it’s also to do with how we are live and as a personality. I’m not saying we want to be like, cheery cheery pop, because it isn’t that. I’m not going to call it unique. It feels like it’s definitely in its own world; the setlist isn’t very formulaic really. It’s quite fast I think, and it makes sense. Basically out of the live shows we just want people to make it all click because people can be confused by the album sometimes and they go ‘why are you doing it like that?’, then they see it live and they realise why.
Before I let you go, I have to ask the question you’ve probably been asked millions of times before; where does the name of the band come from?!
Well it was literally on a bookshelf, I saw on a bookshelf the book called Dutch Uncles, and a friend suggested we call the band that years ago. We just thought the wordplay was interesting, it means a person who tells harsh advice to admonish or educate someone, so there’s a nice little meaning to it. We basically picked it for the wordplay, it’s an interesting word relation. It sticks in your head and after a while it means nothing like every other band name!