Unless you're a flagrant exhibitionist, sharing your breakup with a roomful of strangers doesn't sound like the best time. But in February 2015, Duncan Wallis had to stand up in front of his fans and lift the veil on the quiet disintegration of the band he fronted. Dutch Uncles, the proggy, art-pop Stockport group, was about to lose guitarist Daniel "Sped" Spedding. He'd left the band – a mutual thing, no drama – and Duncan had to basically explain the split to crowds expecting to playing in-store gigs around the UK that month as a five-piece. And though the band is officially five albums in now, having released the ebullient, shimmering, kick-you-up-the-arse math-pop stunner Big Balloon earlier this year, it doesn't always feel that way.
"In a sense," Duncan says, chatting over the phone, "it does feel like we've only done two albums as the band we are now – and like we now have a shared 'persona' onstage." After almost losing their way sonically on 2015's O Shudder, then steeling themselves against the loss of Sped, Dutch Uncles – rounded off by bassist and songwriter Robin Richards, guitarist Peter Broadhead and drummer Andrew Proudfoot – are sounding firmly back. When I ring Duncan, he's running around trying to "source plastic cups and ping pong balls", telling me with a laugh that he's getting ready to run a beer pong round as part of a pub quiz side gig. "I don't really know how you do a beer pong round with potentially ten teams in it. That's like… 60 cups. I'm going to have to buy so much shit beer."
But I've not interrupted his day to make him tell me about cheap tinnies. We're catching up on the past few months while premiering the head-spinning video for the band's latest single "Streetlight" below, featuring dancer Gabriela Flarys and directed by longtime Dutch Uncles friend Nick Middleton. I've found myself returning to Big Balloon repeatedly, pulling new joys and worries out of its textures, listening to it leap from peering at austerity on "Same Plane Dream" to isolation on "Streetlight". At times it sounds like a falsettoeing guitar-pop band covering Low-ish Bowie, at others like Duncan just thought, 'fuck it, I'm going to shoot for ecstatic Prince.' Before Duncan grabs those cups, I want to hear how he and his bandmates have been settling into the contours of their four-piece lineup and end up hearing quite a bit about where Joni Mitchell, Hitchcock and tiny video budgets have collided along Dutch Uncles' recent path.
Noisey: Talk to me about how you're working through putting the album out, now that it's been a good few months but you still have people like me ringing you up to talk about it?
Duncan Wallis: It's weird, because the very first gig where we played these songs live was televised. It was for BBC Scotland up in Glasgow, and we played to an audience of people who'd entered their names in a sort of free ballot, and some were pulled out of a hat. So it was quite a bizarre and exposing moment in which to put these songs out there for the first time [he laughs], but we moved on quickly.
How did you get through that?
It made eye contact even more awkward. I think eye contact can be awkward anyway; I've never been able to look at a front row, and if I do, then I look too intensely. I remember seeing someone laughing. And when there's laughing going on when you're not telling jokes [he laughs] … I obviously started to get paranoid about it. Usually I tell jokes when we're on tour, and it starts to sound smooth after a certain point. You know, your patter kicks into gear, almost like you've been able to rehearse it, when you're touring.
How many albums in did you get that onstage patter "down"?
I think it took us about three albums. After Out of Touch in the Wild came out – a marimba-focused album where we introduced all these instruments we couldn't play, basically – I remember the tour we did for that album really picked up for us. I think we knew how to act on stage. But then we had a hiccup. When O Shudder came out, Sped, our ex-guitarist, left the band.
Yes, I've read you speak about that before, and how it felt to have to disclose it on stage.
Yeah, it was quite an unnatural fit with Sped – and I think he'd agree with that; it's not a personal thing. Even though, we were starting to pick up something on that third album there was … this obstacle. Unfortunately it was the fact that the five of us weren't gelling. Some people said things like, "you're starting to look like The Funky 4 +1 more," meaning the 70s funk band from New York [he laughs]. So, when O Shudder came out and Sped left the band, on mutual terms, we had to figure out what we were doing.
Sorting out everyone's place in it.
Ha, yeah. So if there are moments that require lots of audience interaction, I'm able to throw Pete into the limelight. He's got this very cheery look about him. When we supported Garbage on their tour two years ago, some diehard fans who were at every gig sent us a link to a forum that was talking specifically about Pete, saying things like, "Duncan and Robin and Andy, they look like they're owning their roles – you can tell they know they're rock stars. But Pete just looks like a competition winner, and we love that." [laughs]. So whenever the time is right, I can just put the attention on Pete. And I think with the first few albums we had, that wouldn't have been possible. We were still all fighting for that space right at the front of the stage.
I've noticed critics reacting to this album as though you "going back to basics" was something negative. How has that felt for you?
I did read the reviews we got sent, and I noticed that criticism: "If there's any criticism, it's only that they've played it safe." I didn't really agree with that. It sounded like people hadn't listened to our albums before. There's a reason we've gone back to making sure we can play songs as a six-piece, because y'know, when you've got woodwind quartets and harp players and all sorts of crazy crap that you could never make happen live… Let me say this. When we made O Shudder, the problem was that we didn't know whether the risk we were taking was a good or a bad risk.
I'm going to use a ridiculous example here, but when Hitchcock made Psycho, he had no way to tell if the audience was going to love it or hate it. Obviously, they loved it. When we made O Shudder, we didn't know whether we loved it or hated it, as a body of work. I mean, there were moments, but I never really stopped to think about what the hell was going on. We got lost. We got so lost in O Shudder. But it's also become a very special album to some of our fans along the way. As soon as Sped left, it felt as though we now had two good reasons to go back to basics – well, to proggy basics – and make a live album happen.
When it comes to visuals, how do you turn those stories into moving images that you feel represent what you're trying to say?
Without showing how the rabbit comes out of the hat and making it all sound slightly unimpressive, the visual side of things is very similar to the writing. Robin makes the music first, and I fill in the parts where the vocals can go in. And the videos happen in the same way, in a sense. This isn't a criticism of our label or anything like that, but we get restricted by budget. We know that whoever we get involved with, we have to have a conversation that basically goes: "You know, the budget you would've thought to make an idea? It probably isn't there. You just have to rein your ideas in, and whatever you say is possible under the budget we tell you? We'll just do that." [he laughs].
How did that work here?
In the case of "Big Balloon", we just drove around an abandoned petrol station in Trafford in Pete's car while our friend Nick filmed us. Then we went to Buxton. In the end we spent about £100. We've done so many of these ideas off favours, really. "Oh Yeah" involved us basically sweet-talking the roller rink in Bury, north Manchester to have us. And with "Streetlight", we just asked Nick what he wanted to do. Because I wasn't going to come to London and back up north, for budgetary reasons, he basically cut us out of that video altogether. He'd met the dancer, Gabriela, through other documentary work and it just worked out really well for us. I'm pleased with it, because I'm usually quite dubious about dancing videos.
They've become a borderline cop-out for when there doesn't seem to be much of a treatment or idea. 'Just put in a good-looking dancer and play the tune!'
Totally. It feels like it started out as a kitsch, retro thing inspired by reality TV, and now it's gone full circle. It just happens and people don't know why it happens. But I really appreciated the cinematography of what Nick was doing with it all, taking it out of the fixed room context. And for some of the camera work, one of the films that comes to mind – that Nick actually introduced me to – is Irreversible.
I have the feeling this is going to get weird.
We were in college, and it was very late at night – the early hours of the morning. On a school night as well. His parents were sleeping downstairs, and for whatever reason, Nick decided to show me Irreversible at full volume on his PC. Such a horrifying film for that, honestly. But the camerawork is just extraordinary, and there were some moments where the way Nick uses the camera in "Streetlight" reminded me of the nightclub scene where the guy is trying to find Le Tenia.
You've known Nick for ages, then?
Oh yeah, he was in the same year in school as the other three in the band. And he used to work for my dad. I've known him for about 15 years, and the others have known him for about 20. We're so fortunate to have not pissed him off earlier.
It sounds as though you have a really well-balanced relationship, across the band and with Nick too. Eerily harmonious.
Haha, it's been the case that our last album not only had that bit of a meltdown but – even though it had great reviews – it wasn't successful in terms of radio play. We didn't get anything playlisted and the singles that came out weren't the ones we wanted or in the right order. After that whole experience, we just made Big Balloon thinking, 'well, let's keep things tight; let's not try to draw this album out to the point where you get frustrated with it.' It's weird that it's taken five albums to get to that relaxed point with it all, but you're right – I'd agree that it is more harmonious now. It's there.
So you're pulling back from the album cycle a bit?
It's just a ludicrous pressure for bands on indie and major labels to try and make being a musician of this sort a full-time job. It's always going to warp your output and your approach, I think. When your album's released, your opinion of it doesn't really matter anymore. Once it's out there, it's almost like it's dead to you [laughs]. We're talking about it now: the album came out in February, the single just finished going on radio now – it feels to me like the work's already behind us. I'm already reflective about it.
Yeah, there's so much time between when you write the songs and then present them to everyone else.
You mentioned "Same Plane Dream", which is the oldest song on the album. It had been around for about a year before we recorded it. I was writing it when we weren't doing any of those festivals for O Shudder. But it was quite a politically driven song about political events in 2015, and now it's July 2017, and it's already kind of redundant. Obviously the austerity is still there, but the specific angle of what it was about has changed. That was about the mentality of people like my uncle Kevin, who passed away in 2014.
He had been living off benefits; at the time of his death he was terminally ill. And it was horrible to see a person in that situation who was kind of denial about their own health being demonised in the press at the same time. When you beat those people down mentally, they feel that's what they deserve. That is was meant to be, that they don't deserve a better life. So writing that felt like a proper 'fuck you' moment. It felt great, and my uncle Kevin was a really inspiring person for me. But two years later, the conversation has moved on. So now I've realised I better be able to see into the future by about six months the next time I want to write a political song.
Who knows who the scapegoat for all of Britain's problems will be in the press in another two years?
It's beyond comprehension, at the minute. As a writer you can feel guilty about just focusing on your world, that you're not really helping to ease that situation. When we were writing Big Balloon, I was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell's Blue and thinking about how it is possible to make an album about a very personal situation and have it be brilliant and uplifting and even echo out into a greater context. You've just got to make sure you do it really well, and don't feel guilty about it.
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'Big Balloon' is out on Memphis Industries