Dutch Uncles, defined on Genius, are ‘an English indie pop band from Marple. They are known for their use of atypical time signatures within a pop context, and the androgynous vocals of frontman Duncan Wallis.’
Marple is eight stops on the train from Manchester. The band have spoken in past interviews of how unMancunian they are in terms of the typically Manc laddy bands like Oasis and Stone Roses. Dutch Uncles put themselves in a bracket with Everything Everything and Kiran Leonard, as well as label mates Field Music.
‘They’re a huge influence,’ says Duncan. ‘Field Music are one of the main reasons why we signed to the label, Memphis Industries. Tones of Town was my personal favourite, though the first one is so good.
‘We followed them round the North-West. I saw them play in Leeds Irish Centre with Deerhoof. We’ve seen them develop. They’re a lot less self-critical on stage these days. They’re having a lot more fun as a band.’
Robin (Rob) Richards, who plays bass in Dutch Uncles, had introduced Duncan to the band’s music while at college. The pair of them formed their own band, releasing their first album in 2008, and are now promoting album five, Big Balloon. We met downstairs in the spacious dressing room area of Village Underground in Shoreditch, where they were to play a brilliant eighty-minute set that evening, fuelled by a rider of Kronenberg and Greggs.
Louder Than War calls Dutch Uncles ‘one of the finest, yet most underrated bands that the UK has to offer’. Their live show is fun: Robin compliments the crowd on their whoops, admits to having dropped one of the songs on account of it not passing muster, and the band never let up until the encore.
At one stage Duncan joins guitarist Pete on the electronic xylophone ‘for our King Crimson moment’. The band are not scared of strange time signatures (6 beats, 7 beats in a bar), and admire prog band Porcupine Tree’s stature in Italy. ‘If you get the Italian prog market…’ Rob sighs. ‘We’ve done two gigs in Milan.’
“Now we’ve got five albums people are seeing more meat to what it is we are”
‘Now we’ve got five albums people are seeing more meat to what it is we are,’ said Duncan. The band, to the uninitiated, sound like Dutch Uncles: a little bit of contemporary rock, a little prog (but not too much) and a lot of personality. Marc Riley of 6Music (more on him, and the station, later) is a big fan.
Rob writes the instrumental tracks for the band, and Duncan writes words over the top. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before… Indeed, Duncan looks more like a child of Morrissey, while Rob is more of a Johnny Marr.
In terms of songs they wished they had written, Duncan goes for A Dream Goes On Forever by Todd Rundgren. ‘If you’d written that, you can play that wherever, however. It plays itself. Like most of our set!’ Rob, laughing at the tour bus joke, chooses Coffee & TV by Graham Coxon.
Dutch Uncles know what they like, and what they don’t. Big Balloon is (tick for music reviewer bingo) a return to form after their difficult fourth album O Shudder.
‘We were writing songs quite cynically, writing singles,’ says Rob. Which brings us to Ed Sheeran, where Duncan goes off on a very eloquent rant.
‘Shape Of You? It’s a dry hump of a song, it’s horrendous. It’s not cynical, but the body thing was just charmless.
‘It just sounds like he’s gone, “Bieber had some of those reggae beats, let’s do one of them.” I have no problems about being playfully objective with sex within pop music – the kind of thing Prince would do, you find a way of mentioning it – but you can make it sexy and cool and funny.
“Shape Of You? It’s a dry hump of a song, it’s horrendous.”
’It’s not an honourable industry.’ (Oh he’s still going…) ‘The BRITs puts itself in a position where it comes across like it’s an honourable industry.’
Rob feels the same about the GRAMMYs. Duncan was surprised to learn that, though Lauryn Hill was the last black act to win Album of the Year two decades ago, Herbie Hancock won it too.
With an album of Joni Mitchell interpretations.
Lest I start Duncan off on Rag N Bone Man or, as Rob calls him, ‘Raging Binman’ (once heard, never forgotten), I bring the focus back to Dutch Uncles. How have they evolved from their first LP?
‘We’ve learned how to write better music in general,’ Rob said, before Duncan adds: ‘I was afraid for fear’s sake. It was so daft. The fear of the process of being in the band…
‘We had a year spent touring O Shudder and the 18 months writing before it. Even though I was fearful about a lot of things, I wasn’t afraid of the band ending. I didn’t think we wanted to write O Shudder. We were doing it because it was the job.
‘The new album is about removing the fear. It’s a big challenge to say, “This could be the last one, make it the best”. I wanted to bring our sound back on track, to give us something to go off the next time we try and start writing an idea.’
Labelmates Field Music are often nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, so how would the band react to Big Balloon getting plaudits as an Album of the Year?
‘A band’s success off the back of a nomination or even a win is completely random each year,’ suggests Duncan. ‘For every Elbow, you’ve got Speech Debelle. But she’s got her own label. She’s doing what she wants to do. Wild Beasts had a hefty leg-up when they got nominated for Two Dances.’
Dutch Uncles are on the level of Wild Beasts: you’ll have a good time tapping your toes while dancing and thinking along to their tunes.
There’s the lovely brass on Overton, the brilliant bassline-led Streetlights and the synthy Hiccup. Sink, with its electronic xylophone and great textures, is akin to Human by The Human League, which was produced by Jam & Lewis who also worked with Janet Jackson. They admire the comparison, though Duncan says Sink is ‘quite a precise personal moment with an ex. I was trying to rip off Joni Mitchell.’
Oh Yeah is the song, currently B Listed on 6Music, that stood out among the new stuff, but the band were reticent about sending it to radio. ‘Big Balloon’s got a more immediate chorus,’ Rob said of the song whose lyric comes in on the third beat of the bar in the verse and the first beat of the bar in the chorus.
With Oh Yeah, the band were playlisted in mid-January, ‘the week Trump went to the White House. It was a particularly depressing week so we’re happy that people got into this happier mood.’
‘Let’s look at the timings,’ Duncan adds. ‘It’s a song that, not like Daft Punk as the Song of the Summer, but it looks towards the summer. It felt too fast.’
Same Plane Dream was inspired by Duncan’s late uncle, who was on benefits for over a decade and eventually passed away of lung cancer. We recommend Rutger Bregman’s new book Utopia for Realists, which argues that money should be given to poor people directly to help break the cycle of dependency on the state.
‘It’s more of a personal endeavour,’ says Duncan of the track. The album is less a political statement or polemic in the style of Sleaford Mods. ‘There’s a political awareness in the album, but there’s not so much an agenda about what the lyrics are trying to say. The second you step into that territory you become preachy without realising it.
“There’s a political awareness in the album, but there’s not so much an agenda about what the lyrics are trying to say”
‘You see someone else do it that well and you think, “That’s how it’s being digested and that’s their thing”.’ Sometimes Sleaford Mods are played in the same half-hour as Dutch Uncles on 6Music. All hail BBC Radio Peel.
Oh Yeah has been on heavy rotation for the last month, at least one play a day, usually at four in the morning, the lads tell me. ‘It’s been our sole lifeline insofar as getting any national exposure out of it. A band in our situation relies on 6Music,’ Duncan adds.
While the band were on 6Music doing their third Lauren Laverne session playing Oh Yeah the morning we met them, Nicola Sturgeon was announcing plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Dutch Uncles will have to get all the Remainers through another will-we-won’t-we. Won’t they?
‘They do their research,’ marvels Duncan of Lauren and her team. ‘They know what they want to talk about with you but we didn’t get prepped. In my head I thought, “Know what to say when they ask what the song is about.”
‘The song’s called Oh Yeah, and we started talking about Yello. Then Lauren started talking about other Yello songs, and we were like, “Err, I only know the single. Ferris Bueller ? Duff-Man?!”
‘That’s all we could really say! Lauren can completely make you out of your depth. Her musical knowledge…you have to be careful where you tread.’
‘And lots of namedrops!’ adds Rob.
A Live Band
The band will meet Lauren again in Glasgow at the BBC 6Music Festival on March 24. ‘Cate Le Bon is headlining our stage, but we can’t get to see [main stage headliners] Goldfrapp because we have to stay on our stage,’ says Duncan.
The band are fans of fellow Festival-players DUDS. ‘We were going to ask them to support us but we thought they were too good, intimidatingly fresh. They’d make us look a bit old!’ says the sprightly Duncan.
Duncan’s vocals are an amalgam of Talk Talk and Hot Chip, a topic that gets us talk-talking for part of our forty-minute ramblechat.
Duncan’s voice sounds like the voice of It’s My Life and Life’s What You Make It, which belongs to Mark Hollis from Talk Talk. Listen to the quiver on the vocal delivery of Big Balloon.
‘I bought some Talk Talk albums with a DJ’s ear,’ Duncan says, and he is in good company. Guy Garvey, lead singer of Elbow, is a big Talk Talk fan; the guys met Guy at Marc Riley’s Christmas party one year in Manchester.
Duncan was sitting in on Hannah Peel’s session for Riley, to whose show Dutch Uncles are also regular visitors, and had an idea to form a Blue Nile society for songwriters obsessed with Paul Buchanan’s work.
The Blue Nile, unsung heroes of British melancholy and better than Ed Sheeran and Raging Binman put together, is Paul Buchanan from Glasgow. He has put out four records, each with about seven tracks, in thirty years, as well as a recent one under his own name, Mid Air, about which Duncan raves.
‘There are a couple of direct lyrical references to them on this album,’ says Duncan, to which Rob adds: ‘When I wrote the music for Upsilon, I brought it to the guys and you and Pete said it reminded you of Stay. I don’t know if I’d heard the song before!’
“One of my favourite singers is Nate Dogg,” says Duncan, “and if I could sing low, I would.”
‘One of my favourite singers is Nate Dogg,’ says Duncan, ‘and if I could sing low, I would. I’m naturally singing high to fit around the music a lot of the time. Rob’s got lower tones.’
The band, like Field Music and Everything Everything, is melodic as well as powerful. Rob says: ‘I write melodies within the music. Quite often Duncan doesn’t follow those, and it adds an extra layer of harmony to them.’
Duncan says this is ‘the Manchester Way, like Sumner and Curtis, Morrissey and Marr. We kept telling ourselves that was the right way to do it.’ He’s not wrong.
A more obvious reference point for Duncan’s vocal style is Alexis from Hot Chip, which prompts a grimace. ‘I still don’t feel like it’s my natural voice. I do put on the high voice thing. When the song Fester came out, the Alexis Taylor comparisons got me down a bit.
‘During that album cycle [third LP Out of Touch in the Wild, from 2013], we did a gig in Scotland where they were DJing after we were playing,’ continues Duncan. ‘I was so shy about the idea of thinking, “If they’ve heard of us, they may have heard that some people think we’re ripping them off.”
‘I’m a huge fan. The Warning changed our perception of what indie music could be and where it was going. The comparisons annoyed me so much that it ruined the band for me.
‘I’m not doing it to sound like him on purpose at all, I’m just fitting in with the music. It was a shame that that was bandied around so much.
‘People saw it as a negative thing on Twitter… But why should you pay attention to them? The vast majority of the time Twitter is for people that need to put something out there that nobody can bear to listen to coming out of their mouths. I get into the habit of drunken ones!’
“The vast majority of the time Twitter is for people that need to put something out there that nobody can bear to listen to coming out of their mouths.”
Dutch Uncles hope to win new fans at the 6Music Festival and on the summer circuit. Standon Calling is lined up for July, where they play underneath Orbital, British Sea Power, Clean Bandit and Steve Mason. Joe Goddard of Hot Chip (just to make Duncan aware) will be DJing.
‘Festivals are now getting squeezed because they have become such a fashionable quick route for a lot of breaking bands,’ says Duncan. ‘We were touring around with some bands. They had private investment, they had all the gear but were so new that they hadn’t done any proper gigs yet. People were in place there to ensure they were on the right bills, on the right posters, in the right places…
‘But nobody knew any of the songs, so they were all very sterile gigs. There’s no atmosphere, but it does work. Those bands can do those things, get something out on the radio and then people on the radio can say, “They were playing at this festival, so get on it!”’
Yet the stature of Dutch Uncles, supported by 6Music and great at entertaining a crowd, would be elevated still further with one simple three-minute BBC TV appearance.
“A Jools Holland slot is more guaranteed dial of success in terms of you selling gig tickets.”
‘A Jools Holland slot is more guaranteed dial of success in terms of you selling gig tickets,’ says Duncan. ‘If you want to make sure you can do a second tour, you need to get that. When we do our second tour, we’ll do what we missed out on this tour, but we might not have had anything regular on the radio for half a year by the time we do that second tour.’
Duncan says he often receives images taken by fans in the crowd, ‘with eyes closed, wincing away from the crowd. I want to keep people engaged. More often than not, people look away when I look at them, but every gig’s different. In Brighton people were holding the gaze and making me look away!’
The band dedicated their London gig to the late Guardian and DrownedInSound music writer Dan Lucas, who said about the band: “Dutch Uncles are always a pleasure. The feeling tends to be more akin to going for a pint with your much smarter mates: witty, thoughtful, and entirely aware…of their standing in the music world.”
We implore you to do what Dan Lucas can no longer enjoy doing: love Dutch Uncles and their music. Who knows, they may get that slot on Jools in the autumn after all.
Big Balloon is out now on Memphis Industries. The band play the BBC 6Music Festival in Glasgow on Friday March 24, which will be broadcast live at bbc.co.uk/6music.