It seems only fitting that on the day I was due to interview Manchester’s Dutch Uncles, Storm Doris was in full swing. With hurricane-force winds knocking branches off trees left right and centre and (unusual for Manchester) pissing down rain ready to drop at any minute, the cycle into Chorlton to meet bassist Robin Richards and frontman Duncan Wallis had disaster written all over it. But the quartet have been hazardous themselves as of late, with Duncan recently injuring himself on a beach jaunt on tour, and prior to that their Destruction Derby-esque foray into the world of speedway at Buxton Raceway for the ‘Big Balloon’ video and a fan-friendly go karting event at TeamSport (described by Manchester Evening News as akin to ‘Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank’!)
“It wasn’t as weird as when we sponsored a West Disbury and Chorlton game.” Says Duncan. “It wasn’t as weird as that…”
We meet at local bar Electrik, discussing the events of the weekend just gone – the lads on hot drinks, unfazed by the potential chaos set to occur outside. The very idea of punters being able to race their favourite band in go karts seems absurd, but it follows a number of album launch gimmicks where Dutch Uncles have signed off their latest release in style. From themed burgers to football and ultimately, go karting.
“Had a wider appeal I think.” Adds Robin. “It was mainly our mates who came down to the West Didsbury and Chorlton thing, whereas this was genuine fans who wanted to race.”
The eventual victors to come out of the day’s events were actually Manchester musicians themselves, leading to talk of collaborations and guest spots on upcoming tracks.
“A very interesting networking event.” Says Duncan with a smile. “I was quite pleased with it, actually. I thought we’d done it properly this time. Once you start doing these quirky album events, you can’t stop doing them. People will be like – where’s the odd thing you’re gonna do this time? It’s like – Fuck sake, can we not just put an album out?”
Talk turns to the potential they have for the follow up to fifth album ‘Big Balloon’ and its checkered flag arrival. Robin humorously suggests it could work either way, with the narrative or concept of the album coming before or after the event is chosen.
“That was the great thing about the go karting. It slotted in with the ‘Big Balloon’ video. It made sense.” Adds Duncan. “Whereas when we did sponsor the West Didsbury game, it was just something that we’d taken on, just a passion of ours to have that.”
Fast becoming a hipster hangout, West Didsbury & Chorlton AFC games are often home to the likes of the Dutch Uncles lads and fellow Northerners Luxury Death (Duncan proudly confirms he’s an ‘Ultra’, whilst Robin laments that he’s only part time). For the release of ‘O Shudder’ (2015), the quirky event this time was for the local team to be played out to one of their latest singles. But on the day of the big match, given the lower-league nature of the surroundings, the intended team walk out to ‘Decided Knowledge’ was scuppered by a malfunctioning CD player, leaving the hometown heroes to instead come out to the much more puzzling ‘Given Thing’ – A “Kate Bush piano ballad” as Duncan puts it, with a laugh. “Very intimate song. Too intimate.”
The evening before the Sunday afternoon race, Dutch Uncles treated some of their nearest and dearest (as well as a host of lucky punters) to an Intimate live session at Low Four Studio (read a review of that here!) With it being so local, the band have been to numerous live showings at the studio themselves, catching the likes of Aldous RH and support for their upcoming show at Manchester’s Dancehouse Theatre, Francis Lung.
“I just felt sorry for our fans having to go through that.” Chuckles Duncan, referring to the live streaming aspect of the situation and the potential for re-takes and forced clapping. ”All they wanted to do was buy an album, now they’re being told to jump through hoops here. Where actually all they want is a beer, do this, maybe have a chat with us. I just felt sorry for them really, I just wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, really.”
“I think we wanted to keep it as much like a normal gig as possible,” Suggests Robin. “But obviously there are things that they need to redo to make sure that the content is as good as possible.”
Originally built as part of the original Granada Studios, the studio was once used to produce soundtracks for such classic dramas as Sherlock Holmes and Brideshead Revisited. It was also used for the small matter of recording artists like the Sex Pistols and Joy Division for the intention of later going on to mime songs on ‘live’ productions. Since its redevelopment and new initiative to “benefit the creative ecology” of Manchester, the first group through the door were, quite rightly, Dutch Uncles.
“The whole idea that we were playing it in the room that we recorded it in didn’t really occur to me until I had to say something about one of the songs at some point.” Says Duncan. “Great studio though.”
“We might have taken it for granted.” Suggests Robin. “We spent a large portion of summer with no natural sunlight in that place.”
Duncan agrees, noting a reappearance at the studio following rehearsals for tour leading him to call the studio “fucking great”, though better at night than in the day. Back to the summer and the album itself, not even half-price sushi from up the road could help at times.
“No natural sunlight, just a load of half price sushi, migraines…” Continues Duncan. “ I had such a bad migraine when I was recording the piano parts. I was just there, head in my hands with sunglasses on, in the studio playing the piano parts to ‘Baskin’. I remember there’s a little kind of flourish or whatever I do in the middle eight of ‘Baskin’, I was just doing it just to kind of occupy my mind. I was like – If I don’t do this, I’m gonna be sick. Creative migraines.” He laughs.
”I think with any recording session, we’re very conscious of time. We don’t have unlimited time in the studio, it was like – we’ve got these three weeks to record, we’ve gotta do everything in this time period.” Says Robin. “It can be stressful. The odd bit when you absolutely nail a live take of a certain song can be really rewarding, so those are the bits you tend to remember afterwards, rather than the bits where you’re looking at your watch.”
University of Salford Studio Production lecturer and long time collaborator Brendan Williams was on hand, helping to co-produce on their latest album Big Balloon as he had done previously with ‘Cadenza’ (2011) and Out Of Touch In The Wild (2013). With time allowance already being a factor, this meant less time with Brendan in the studio and more time preparing finished songs in the practice room before bringing them into the studio.
“We knew it was gonna be the case.” Says Duncan. “This is us basically trying out a much more DIY system than we ever have done before.”
Both Out of Touch In The Wild and O Shudder were said to be more akin to “studio experiences”, with Brendan also working with the band throughout the writing process on those albums.
“He was there in the room when ‘Fester’ was being written, and he was also there in the room when ‘Upsilon’ was being written. He was there at the beginning of a lot of those songs for those last two albums.” Says Duncan. “So this time it was just a bit like him just going – right, well I’ll move that there and that’s that. Light touches, but effective touches, important touches. I’m not downplaying his role in it.”
“Then again, because we’ve done this so many times with each other, it was bit like – we fall for the same traps in a way.” Continues Duncan. “Brendan really likes to compress my vocal takes, to the point that I remember screaming at him during ‘O Shudder’ when we were recording ‘Upsilon’, because I was trying to sing the end of it and he had the compression up so high that as I got louder it actually got quieter in my earphones. I remember just screaming at him. We’ve had some pretty turbulent… It’s my fault, I’ve got a terrible attitude. I get that. I have ruined a working relationship there with Brendan, but this time it was a lot easier. It was just like – right, we’re gonna do three-four takes of these songs and we just see what we’ve got. At the same time, to me it was like – This doesn’t sound like how it sounds when I sing it in the shower…” He laughs.
Described as a “hurdle to get over”, even with time against them, there was still a sense of all hands on deck during mixing. A little Percussion here or some extra backing vocals there.
“During that time we were still recording parts, it was kind of an extension period.” Says Robin of their time in Bury, mixing the album. “We were probably there for two months.”
“It becomes such a stuttered experience that you just think – will it ever fucking end?” Says Duncan.
“We did two songs in different sessions before we did the full album session and we kind of wanted to get everything done in that space of time – three days per song. It never works like that.” Says Robin. “You can keep adding things for months and months. You need a deadline, definitely. We worked to it, fortunately.”
Production of Big Balloon actually began only months after O Shudder, with Duncan noting that there “was a lot of determination to get on with it straight away.” Following the departure of founding member and guitarist ‘Sped’ mere days on from the album’s release, the remainder of 2015 didn’t have much in the way of live shows – save for Stoke (“Stoke – you’ve got to do Stoke.” – Duncan).
“We had plenty of time to actually get started on the next record.” Confirms Robin.
“But even at that point, we’d known that ‘In and Out’ hadn’t made radio, ‘Decided Knowledge’ hadn’t made the radio, 6 Music Festival hadn’t happened for us, which effectively meant we weren’t going to get played on 6 Music. Commercially, we already saw the album as a bit of a failure.” Says Duncan. “Shit, this thing has lost steam in a matter of days. That’s what it felt like.”
“That determination to go – right, we’re just gonna get on with the next thing right now, ‘cus if we don’t start it right now we may never start this. If you wait till October/November to get going on the album, we might’ve just gone – fuck it, it’s too late.” Continues Duncan. “Just never have made it, just break up or hiatus or whatever you call it. So we had to get on with it quickly. It worked that way because – we wrote loads of ideas – but it meant that the important songs came around sooner rather than later. ‘Big Balloon’ came around kind of just at the right time – the song itself, that is – in the order of things. I remember we had ‘Achameleon’, ‘Same Plane Dream’, ‘Hiccup’ and then that – they were the first four of the ones that made it.”
The triumphant sounds of Big Balloon, characterised by its angelic keys, chunky bass and ripping guitar, really did set a precedent for the album – shooting straight into the BBC 6 Music A List and being championed by Leg End Marc Riley.
“‘Same Plane Dream’ was kind of like a manifesto type track and then ‘Big Balloon’ was like – this is it, this is the song that really pins the album.” Says Duncan of the track. “So then we were able to just have more of an experimental time with the other six as they came through. It’s important to get down that track early, because with ‘O Shudder’, ‘Decided Knowledge’ and ‘In and Out’ were the very last songs to be written for it, because we got told we had no singles. So we had to write some singles. One of those songs was great, the other one just wasn’t as great.”
“It kind of felt that we were writing quite cynically.” Adds Robin.
“Exactly. Writing a song like ‘Big Balloon’ means that you don’t have to write cynically after that point. When you know you’ve just got – that’s our first single. Fuck what anyone else says about it, ‘cus we know that that will be the single. So there you go.” Says Duncan with a laugh. “We were just very determined to get on with it, we didn’t want to disappear, basically.”
Previously described by this very website as a “100% dick straightener”, ‘Oh Yeah’ is an alarmingly catchy song – One of the major highlights from an album made up of nothing but hits. Featuring the vocal talents of members of Everything Everything and Stealing Sheep, I’m alarmed to discover that there were initial reservations around the track.
“We’re really pleased with Oh Yeah. We weren’t too sure whether it had single potential ourselves at one point.” Admits Duncan. “Is this too fast?”
“Too much going on?” Questions Robin.
“There were still question marks from the label – do you actually have a single on this album? Yes we fucking do.” Says Duncan. “Let’s not get into this now. Let’s not go through this whole shit again. ‘Oh Yeah’ has proved itself.”
“With ‘Oh Yeah’, I remember writing that second verse about the avocado and the wine thing in seconds, and then I had to spend about a month writing the first verse.” Comments Duncan. “It was the first verse that really got me, but when you’ve got the chorus and the second verse all there, you think – this is so good right now, I just need to make sure I don’t fuck it up at the beginning.”
Prior to the release of their latest album, influences were discussed in the press, with notable albums being used as inspiration including ‘The Red Shoes’ by Kate Bush and David Bowie’s ‘Low’ – the first of his ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Though when the topic is raised, Duncan suggests Bowie’s latest album ‘Blackstar’ was the ultimate inspiration, especially on closing track ‘Overton’.
“…Overton kinda references the Blackstar thing – dying as a musician after spending your whole life being a musician, whereas in a lot of cases people only get five years at it or ten years.We’re on nine at the moment aren’t we?” He asks Robin with a laugh. “People don’t get to do this their whole lives like he did. I don’t know… As I said before, we felt like we were gonna disappear if we didn’t start writing this album sooner or later. Then his death – making such a brilliant album, life imitated art all of a sudden. He died as ‘Blackstar’ was coming out and it was all about him saying – people, I’m fucking dying! Shit, no one’s ever gonna better that. They’re really… Well, then Leonard Cohen did the same thing didn’t he. Obviously I was obsessed with that, I was obsessed with our own death as a band, ‘cus it’s just always on your mind.”
The alleged less-cool Prog-Rock favoured by Dad’s was also a topic of interest, with Robin taking great inspiration from favoured Dad-bands after hearing ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus on the radio, having grown up listening to a lot of Prog.
“The yodelling gets a bit annoying after a bit.” He says with a smile. “…If you cut off the fat, if you cut off the indulgent pixie moments – there is some real musical gems in there. It’s kind of honing in on that. Early King Crimson as well, just really good music. Just sometimes a bit too long. Too long and too indulgent.”
“We struggle to write anything beyond five minutes, don’t we?” Asks Duncan. “I think we’ve only ever written two songs that are over five minutes. Out of five albums, that’s pretty weird.” He laughs.
Having reached the end of my crib sheet, and with their cups nearly empty, I conclude our interview with one of the most notable aspects of the Big Balloon period of Dutch Uncles career – The matching jackets.
“It was a couple of emails I think. The label just saying – right, crew cuts and jackets I think, boys.” Shrugs Duncan, smirking at the mention of the jackets. “The jackets felt a bit creepy at first, but then when we had the photos taken, it’s like – they do work in a way. I mean, they’re shit jackets, but I’m kind of glad they’re shit ‘cus it means we can just sweat out in them at gigs and such. We’ll throw them away at the end of March, go into something else. It kind of made sense, we’ve been playing music together for 12 years. It’s only when you get the jackets on that people realise that there’s any sense of unity. It wasn’t any reaction to Sped leaving, we weren’t like – right, we’ve got to look tighter! Nothing tighter than going to watch fucking non-league football every Saturday with each other.”