When Clash phones Dutch Uncles’ singer Duncan Wallis he’s fresh from a round of go-karting. Organised as a means to launch their new album ‘Big Balloon’, the band raced fans as their latest opus blasted from the speakers.
“The go-karting was excellent, actually!” he exclaims. “It was in equal parts terrifying and fun. Especially for ourselves! I’ve never even had a driving lesson myself so it was a bit: oh my God, is this really going to happen?! But as soon as you get into the go-kart you realise it probably has nothing to do with driving whatsoever and it’s a lot more like Super Mario Kart than you thought it would be.”
It’s a typically wry, funny, and enjoyable move from a band whose material is all of those adjectives and more. ‘Big Balloon’ is a wonderful return – at times it echoes David Bowie’s Berlin period, at others a slightly more direct vision of early XTC. It’s an off piste pop vision, the kind of maverick indie that their home city of Manchester has long since turned into an art-form.
This time round, though, there’s also a personal edge - so much so, in fact, that the singer labels ‘Big Balloon’ a “splattered break up album”. Album highlight ‘Overton’ unites these two factors, with Dutch Uncles musing on the impossibility of reaching the heights of their heroes, while also factoring in a recent break up.
“I suppose it’s the fact that when it’s all you’ve ever known you’re sort of determined to see it out to the very bitter end,” he chuckles. “And that is kind of what the song is looking at. It’s quite a confessional song in a sense. It’s staring the impossible in the face, basically, and saying: well, we’re still going to go for it.”
“Obviously, there’s another curve in the narrative of ‘Overton’, in which it’s also about some couple’s therapy that me and my ex went through. Where, basically, we both realised what we wanted to do outside the relationship as well as with each other.”
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Often incredibly personal, ‘Big Balloon’ finds Dutch Uncles taking renewed risks, both musically and lyrically. However such intimate material shouldn’t suggest that the musicians use the band as some kind of crutch.
“I don’t see the band as being my coping mechanism. I don’t think anyone in the band views it as our vice, so to speak. I think our vice is going to the pub and watching non-league football. Watching our local team, and all that.”
“The whole album is very constructive, the whole album is based around holding yourself together no matter what. You’ve got to get through with it.”
Now five albums in, Dutch Uncles are able to use the benefit of experience as a means of navigating musical waters. Personally, too, the experience of ageing has shaped viewpoints, and helped provide renewed perspective.
The song ‘Streetlights’ for example, seems to echo Manuel Göttsching’s minimalist proto-techno synth epic ‘E2-E4’ before delivering lyrics about acquiescing with one’s own loneliness. “It’s about forgiving yourself, really, for feeling let down by what you’ve only been able to perceive as love at that point. Or at least a loving relationship. That connection between two people.”
“It’s just kind of saying, it’s OK to mess up. It’s OK to have got the wrong impression. Or to have let yourself be led astray. It’s about saying: you’re on your own again, and you’re finally OK with that. You can start again now. It’s about that, really. It’s more about that, really. That moment.”
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It’s about saying: you’re on your own again, and you’re finally OK with that.
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Packed with about-turns, rhythmic plunges, and unexpected deviations, you can’t help but view ‘Big Balloon’ in visual terms. At times, it feels like some lost Brutalist structure, like an old Soviet era swimming pool languishing in some rural Estonian town. Duncan chuckles when Clash mentions this, and points out that colour, not shape, is a recurring conversation within the band.
“Our writing structure is quite old fashioned in that Robin (Richards) writes all the music, and then I write the lyrics,” he explains. “The thing about Robin is that because he’s able to lay out every line of the song for us – pretty much straight away – we’re hearing the finished product, more or less.”
“I see colours a lot more. I think we talk about what colours the songs are. Like, ‘Big Balloon’ is a purple as opposed to the red of the album cover. We see more a colour scheme to it, really.”
Working together in the studio, ‘Big Balloon’ has the feeling of a band charging together, a close-knit unit working in tandem with one another. “We were very much together in the process. We tracked drums, bass, and guitar at the same time. There were very few guitar dubs. We tried to make this album as live as possible. There was a determination to make it sound like something that was constructed onstage, or at least in our live room. And I think that’s what we’ve got here.”
The driving synths of ‘Achameleon’ started as a studio jam, before becoming a salute of sorts to their Manchester roots. “I felt like we were trying to make something that would fit into the Manchester soundscape a bit more. I love being in a band from Manchester, and it’s annoying that we get put out there as somehow being a bit too clunky for the Manchester school of old. Everyone that likes The Stone Roses or Oasis. I’m not saying that I want to be like that, but I’m saying that we’re from Manchester and we like some of the same stuff. Not all of it – some of it – but we kind of fit in.”
In the press note constructed before the album’s release Duncan is quoted as describing the band as the ‘Adrian Moles of pop’. It’s a humorously self-deprecating remark, one that singularly conjures visions of a dry, grey United Kingdom deposited in the early 80s, and also a much-loved character.
“I’m always going to be my own worst critic about things, and that’s fine – I’m used to that,” he muses. “There’s a danger of liking music that’s founded on honesty, and I’ve just basically been listening to too much of Joni Mitchell and The Blue Nile. You see them pull it all off, really, and that gets you a fanbase for life, that mentality. But then you go out and you give it your own shot and then you realise that you’re just a kid from Manchester.”
But then, that’s where Dutch Uncles thrive: kids from Manchester who continually over-reach, and in doing so produce something personal, humane, and – almost without realizing – something pretty special.
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'Big Balloon' is out now. Catch Dutch Uncles at the following shows:
11 Brighton The Haunt
12 Southampton Talking Heads
13 London Village Underground
15 Manchester Dancehouse Theatre
24 Glasgow BBC Radio 6 Music Festival