Making some of the coolest and most interesting pop around at the moment, Dutch Uncles have become a staple of the UK’s music scene through a string of art pop albums and their latest release, Big Balloon, is no different. Opting for a more restrained sound pallet, Big Balloon is an addictive concoction of 80s sounds and extremely likeable melodies with an added emotional edge. Ahead of the band making a stop in town, performing at The Haunt on 11th March, we spoke to Duncan to find out more from the band.
How did Dutch Uncles form?
We all met in college. I was in the year above them, and it was only when I failed my first year of college that I finally met them. I knew of them from this battle of the bands competition. There was this house party before I ended up in their year, and I said we should have a band practise. After we got through some Strokes covers, it materialised very quickly. We were a band in college for two years doing unsigned nights around Manchester. We had a manager very early on who saw five young bucks who were kind of proggy, but could probably rip off The Kooks a bit – needless to say it was shit. When college finished we realised that our fans were our friends and had all moved on to other universities. So you could say we spent our “gap year” reconfiguring things – we called ourselves Dutch Uncles and became more honest about the way we wanted to write.
What was your first break?
The first song we wrote was ‘Station’, and that was our kind of staple song. It all went from there. Through being in our college bands, we had this connection with this German record label who helped us out whilst touring out there and who offered us a one album deal. So we made our self-titled debut album straight away, which may not have been the best way to go about it at all, but we treat it like a very good demo – almost a ten track introduction to Dutch Uncles. From then we were playing around Manchester with the bands that impressed up, ending up with us going on tour with bands like Futureheads and Bombay Bicycle Club. We were lucky that a lot of bands threw us some bones when we needed them. It was during touring with them which made us think, “what do we do next?” So we wrote our second album, Cadenza, without a label – starting with ‘OCDUC’ and thinking that we may as well write another ten songs as this may be the only album we’ll ever write, but fortunately Memphis Industries picked it up.
How do you approach the writing process?
I write the vocal melodies and the lyrics, Robin writes all the music, then as a band we arrange the songs. Everyone has an equal say in it all. Me and Robin aren’t rushing it this time. The reason why Big Balloon is the way it is, is because we kind of felt very confused and disheartened by the last album, O Shudder. Mainly because we felt we mucked it up – it had some great reviews but it didn’t get the radio play we had hoped for. We felt this before O Shudder was released, so by the time it was released we were already into writing Big Balloon. I think we may have gone a bit too far in O Shudder, we almost got lost in ourselves. Robin and I didn’t really know what we were what we were writing and why we were doing it. Not to say we are not fans of O Shudder, there are some great tracks on there and the strings are beautiful. It is kind of like walking into a nastily lit room and you catch a gimps of yourself in the mirror and think, “who the hell is that?”
Tell us a bit about the Big Ballon?
We are really happy with how Big Balloon is, and its response commercially. Compared to O Shudder, we were more restrictive on the instruments we used. We wanted an album which we could easily play live, which is what Big Balloon came out of. It’s easier for people to get on board with, as we have been quite a handful for the ears. So it’s very unapologetic, it starts with everything playing at once. With the ten tracks that are on the album, we must have written 25 to 30 other ideas. We started with ‘Same Plane Dream’, ‘Achameleon’, ‘Hiccup’ and ‘Big Balloon. ‘Same Plane Dream’ was important as it was like our manifesto, its characteristic. When ‘Big Balloon’ came about, we were excited as we saw that as a big single off the album. With ‘Achameleon’, we wanted it to be a very New Order-type track and have a song that really related to Manchester as we love its musical heritage.
Have you been thinking about the next release?
Robin and I have an idea of the kind of textures we want to go with, but that is all I can really say at this point. I would want it to be less personal – I feel like the last two albums have been Adrian Mole pop to me. Big Ballon has got a fearlessness to it for me, when O Shudder is full of anxiety.
What has been a musical eye-opener?
I can vividly remember watching Stop Making Sense which I got free with a newspaper. That would have been my first real exposure to Talking Heads. I had heard Talking Heads: 77 and absolutely loved that album. But watching Stop Making Sense; I was like WOW, this is a band performing for an audience that isn’t just idolising a band. That was a big moment that made me think, we should be singing up to them and not just singing upwards so to speak. For Robin – I know that listening to Japan’s Tin Drum is what started the Out Of Touch In The Wild album.
Who would be in your ultimate supergroup?
Ryuichi Sakamoto (Yellow Magic Orchestra) on keyboards. Sly & Robbie on drums and bass. Chad Jankel on guitar (Ian Dury & The Blockheads). Grace Jones for a party and to sing. Paul Buchanan (Blue Niel) also to sing. And as sub and on theremin, Todd Rundgren.
What would be your perfect line-up for a concert you are putting on and where would it be?
It would be at the Deaf Institute in Manchester – that place is like walking into the girl of your dream’s bedroom and then finding out she’s also got a great taste in music. Arthur Russell on first supporting the B52s in the music hall, with Paul Buchanan down in the bluesy basement and Liquid Liquid DJing in the main bar.
If you could work with any artist from the past or present, who would it be and what would they bring to Dutch Uncles?
As a producer, I would say Tod Rundgren – you only need to see what he did with the Psychedelic Furs to see what he can do with a band. Hayao Miyazaki as an animator.