Interview: Dutch Uncles

Manchester indie prog pop five-piece Dutch Uncles headline the opening night of This Is Tmrw’s All Years Leaving festival on November 15 – 16, topping a sensational bill of acts including Yuck, Sky Larkin, His Clancyness, and Best Friends amongst others as well as the cream of local talent Boat to Row, Victories at Sea and Hoopla Blue.

In between tour dates with Everything Everything (and mouthfuls of toast), lead singer Duncan Wallis talks to us about the forthcoming date and what they’ve been upto since our last chat.

You’re headlining the bill for This Is Tmrw’s All Years Leaving festival in Birmingham in November. The lineup is great, is there anyone in particular you’re looking forward to playing with?

I suppose the obvious one would be Frankie and the Heartstrings – they’re really good friends of ours – we actually just played in their record shop. They’re a great live prospect and they’re also great guys – you can’t fault them really so it’s a pleasure to share a stage with them.

This will be the fourth time you’ve played for This Is Tmrw in Birmingham – what keeps bringing you back to them?

They are promoters who took an interest in us at an early stage and we like to work with people for as long as we can really. It’s nice to establish a familiarity. Every time we’ve played with This Is Tmrw, it’s always been a good gig and I think they’re very respectful towards us as a band. And that kind of thing really does matter when you’re on the road. This is just a one off for All Years Leaving and I think one reason that we really liked the idea of headlining was the lineup – This Is Tmrw have always curated the local support bands and we’ve always been really impressed – they’re got a great ear to the ground on the local scene so it’s really good for us to be associated, and being billed as a headliner is very complimentary – thanks guys!

You released your third album, Out of Touch in the Wild, in January this year. It received a really great reaction from both fans and critics – were you humbled by this?

We knew we’d done a better album that our last one and that was kind of as much as we could think about, because it’s dangerous to dream as to how far an album can take you. I think we were quite flattered because we felt quite rushed in a way. We actually found ourselves with six months to spare at the end of it all because we rushed ourselves to a date. We thought it was going to be released in the summer of 2012 but then we ended up waiting around another six months because it was a better idea to release in January and build up to the festivals in a better way – you don’t dry out the campaign. This is what all the red tape about when’s best to release an album is all about. But we felt flattered because we felt rushed, and then typical us we ended up thinking ‘god, imagine if we’d have taken our time!’ It would have been nice to have an 11th song and if we’d known we had another six months then that would definitely have been achievable. But there’s no regrets about the whole thing and it’s our best album to date.

Were you able to visit some fantastic places whilst touring it?

Well obviously every time we come to Birmingham it’s a pleasure! But it’s bizarre really because in the build up before writing this album and getting ready to go into the studio etc, that’s when we actually went to America to do SXSW, and we went to Barcelona and actually more interesting places without an album that we did with it! It looked like we were only going to be touring the UK with this album at one point but then luckily Paramore took us on tour around Europe so we got to see Budapest and Prague. We’ve been to Croatia recently – that was fun. We’ve gone further east this time than we ever have before. We were kind of hoping that we’d be able to get to Australia this time because the radio response out there to ‘Fester’ and ‘Flexxin’’ has been really good – their equivalent to Radio 1 has played it. Unfortunately no shows have come out of that yet – we don’t know what the magic word is yet but hopefully next time we’ll get there – we’ve plenty still to aim for, how about that!

You now have three albums worth of material to choose from when playing live. How do you go about picking a set list?

This is what we’re playing with at the moment because we’re about to embark on a strings tour around the UK. It’s just five dates – it was going to be more but obviously it’s quite expensive – you have to have session players and there’s quite a high level of production involved. We’re currently figuring out which old songs we’re going to play with strings and which strings songs we’re going to act out. It’s a simple formula – you have to prioritise all your new stuff so maybe all the new album, half the second album and three songs from the first. But it’s picking songs off the first album which is always quite tricky because there’s one song from it which we all like called ‘Feargoo’ and if we ever play it, all you’ll ever find is five people onstage with very smug faces and then a crowd just scratching their heads. There’s always been quite a good vocal response to ‘Steadycam’ – people are always telling us to play it and we’re always saying ‘no’. I think we’re coming to grips with the fact that we might finally have to put that to bed. So on this next tour, we’re definitely picking out a few songs to put to bed – not that we don’t like them, only that they just don’t relate as well to the new stuff. There’s always a 50/50 response from the crowd to first album material – we use the phrase ‘alienating’ a lot when we describe our sound because we always worry that we’re going too pop and alienating a lot of our older fans but the truth is that the first album really does split the crowd. It’s impossible for us to know which are the more popular songs unless we had a survey on our website but I think that’s cheating.

When you started out you were referencing artists such as Steve ReichXTC and Talking Heads as influences. Is this still the case?

We haven’t strayed too far away from the staple sound of the band. I suppose that the Steve Reich and the whole minimal classical thing – there are other classical artists coming into our periphery as interesting chaps – I know that Robin {Richards, bass] was particularly influenced by Stravinsky on the last album. We’re always still listening to that music and still discovering pieces from those artists we’ve never heard before. We started out with five or six bands that we liked the sound of and obviously some of those we’ve stopped listening to – not because we don’t like them, just because you can’t listen to every band all the time. I think King Crimson has been overlooked recently. But you have to feel like you’re moving forward with what you’re listening to, even if that does mean actually going further back into time to find things. You have to feel like you’re being influenced differently on each album. Once you’ve listened to something then its influence is there forever but sometimes you might have to remind yourself to listen to a Tears for Fears album again because you haven’t listened to them for a while but you know that their pop sensibilities will save you in certain moments.

We’re not listening to music together so much anymore which has allowed us each to indulge in our own tastes to the point of guilty pleasures really. I know that Sped likes his riffy rock, I like my disco jazz, occasionally – Ian Dury kind of stuff. These are elements that you can’t quite bring to the band but there might be a bridge where you think ‘actually, I’ve been listening to this album for years for this one moment; this is what we should do here’. So we’ve now got five individual ears as opposed to one band ear.

Does your songwriting process still work in the same way or have you honed it?

It is essentially the same thing. I always ponder what it would be like to actually bring lyrics to the table before the music, but then I realise that actually it would be so shit. It wouldn’t really work like that because the style that people have got used to of Dutch Uncles (and the one that we want to prove has worked I suppose) is this one where the voice is more of an instrument as opposed to a vocal. Which we like doing. I also realise its faults but then I remember that we’ve come quite fare with it so there’s still more to this style that we’ve touched on. In terms of writing, we’re taking a lot more into our own hands because we trust ourselves and also because our sixth member / producer is much busier these days – he would say thankfully – the success of our latest album has won him some attention so he’s producing some other bands in his spare time and leaving us to demo our new stuff on our own. We’re kind of happy with that really because we need to learn at some point how we figure out a song together and if anything it’s much more of a band experience together actually figuring out what these demos are going to become. That kind of sounds like when The Strokes did their fourth album and everyone insisted that Julian wasn’t a writer anymore and they ended up making this absolutely pants album but it’s obviously not like that because our egos are minimal compared to what they must have been going through at the time. I remember reading  about that album being like a group thing and thinking, ‘that sounds like a bad idea.’ Anyway, I don’t know why I’m comparing us to that experience but what I’m trying to say is that it’s much more of a band experience now and I think that’s where listening to all kinds of music separately is nice because we’re not all coming to the table with the same idea.

You have some wonderful covers including a Tears for Fears number, Fleetwood Mac and Grace Jones’ ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ which you took to the festivals this year. Will we be treated to any of those in November or do you have any new reworkings on the go?

There’s definitely been talk of having a new cover for the final tour of this album although I do like the idea of just beefing up the Grace Jones cover with strings. It’s interesting really because our thinking behind the covers is if you’re going to do one then you should do something risky because if it ain tricky, what’s the point? We don’t wanna do a cheeky little cover that only about 10 people in the room are going to get – that’d be like playing first album stuff all over again! I think there’s still some more life in the Grace Jones cover but there’s been talk of another eighty’s classic but it’s a prog rock epic which we are toying with.

I noticed that your guitarist, Sped, is ‘going sober for October’ to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. How’s he faring so far – you’re on tour with Everything Everything throughout October pretty much – do you have faith in him?

He’s not really said much about it to us. It’s funny, we’ll  go for a post-show curry somewhere and order six beers only to realise that what we actually need is five beers and a sparkling water. But we don’t really hear about it – we keep finding ourselves with leftover rider at the end of the show and he’ll say ‘that’s mine, I should really take some of that’ which we don’t care about because it’s Fosters. He’s quite quiet about it with us but he’s got a Twitter page and I’m sure he’s venting the frustration and drama through that thing instead. It’s impressive and it’s good that it’s for charity…but it is only a month! Perhaps I shouldn’t challenge it as I’ve only gone about five days without a drink since I was 17 come to think of it…

Dutch_Uncles_550x366How are the shows with Everything Everything going – you’re playing some pretty big stages – how have you been getting on? You’re pals from way back, have there been any pranks or mischief or are you all very well behaved?

The first shows have been an indication that it’s a good lineup and in terms of the shows themselves they are what we’ve come to expect and we aren’t getting all nervous about them. We’ve got (or rather they’ve got and we’re on ‘em) two sold out dates at The Ritz which in other circumstances would be quite a nerve-wracking show – but that’s the advantage of having done those Paramore shows because once you’ve done a 9,000 room in Riwan, 1,500 in your own hometown should be a doddle really!

You’ll be heading off on your own headline tour at the end of November accompanied by an orchestra. Sadly you’re not calling at Birmingham but for the other dates, what form does this orchestra take and how did it come about?

It’s kind of an eventuality of making that third album, somewhere down the road we were going to have to re-enact all the strings that we put into the record. In some ways we didn’t want to do it because we know it’s such a done thing – there’s always a band that comes along, plays in a church and probably brings some more players with them and creates a whole new experience. But just because it’s a done format doesn’t mean that it’s not a good one and I suppose we had to remind ourselves of that. The string trio that we’ve got to play with us are absolutely amazing – we’ve already done a radio session with them and it was a very fun experience, which really makes everyone play better. I should reiterate that they only reason we were reluctant to doing something like this is because we always feel that instrumentation is always going to be a factor in our albums to come anyway – we’ll always have strings in future songs from now on but it could begin to feel like an exhausting thing if you’re doing this for every album. We are really really looking forward to it though, as a final word.

You’re a very interesting live band to watch – is the performance aspect of playing music important to you? What do you think makes a good live band?

It’s definitely something that we have to remind ourselves of – a lot of the fans we pick up are through live performances and not so much through radio plays, and we have to remember that it’s one of our strengths. When you’re doing the same show over and over again throughout the year, you’re changing the set list a bit but you’re not changing it so much that you really have to think about it – it’s essentially the same 16 – 20 songs. When you’re playing it throughout the year, you can start to get bored of it and then you can start to feel that you’re stale before the listener thinks you’re stale – you can get quite paranoid and quite critical of it all and it’s hard when you have to remember that the live shows are what keep you going as a band, both financially and reputation-wise. It’s a very fulfilling experience when you feel good about it though, so much so that it leaves a void – it’s the thing that makes you go back and write another album, because you want to get back on the road.

What are your plans after that – are you working on any more releases? Is there a fourth album in the pipeline?

There definitely is – we’ve holed ourselves up in a studio rehearsal space in Salford and we are slowly working through ideas. We’ve got a few – it’s looking interesting. There was a lyrical theme on the last album and I think there might be another one this time round because you kind of need a theme just to get yourself started – you need a starting point. And over these few months, I think we’ve managed to remember everything we need to remember about songwriting to now actually write a song which sounds really complicated but as a lyricist I have to remember to make things funny for myself which I forgot for a while, trying to be so serious. Once you’re in the zone though, you’re in the zone and you can hopefully write a few songs quite quickly within that – otherwise you can end up listening to the same demo for months and not really making any progress. It’s a very weird thing is songwriting. It’s going as well as to say that there will be some new songs on our strings tour. Though I believe the closest we’re playing to Birmingham on that one is Leicester…

Dutch Uncles headline All Years Leaving at the Hare & Hounds on Friday, November 15. Weekend tickets are now sold out but day tickets, priced at £15, are available here.

They play their ensemble show at O2 Academy Leicester on December 3. Buy tickets for that, here. 



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