"Math Soul"? DiS meets Dutch Uncles
One flamboyant resident of the capital of Northern England once sang: “Manchester, so much to answer for.” Well, as you’ll see, it’s actually Germany that’s to blame for the fact that one of the city’s finest acts have been slightly obscured from view. Until now, that is. Dutch Uncles release Cadenza, at the end of April, on Memphis Industries. It’s their second debut album (this should make sense if you read on), and we reckon it’s going to be worth a listen, if only to find out exactly what they mean by “math soul”.
DiS sat down with Duncan Wallis (vocals) and Robin Richards (bass) to find out more about the past, present and future of Dutch Uncles.
DiS: Your first album, 2009’s Dutch Uncles, was put out by a German label, Tapete Records. How did that happen?
Duncan Wallis: Well, back when we were a college band we had a manager pretty early on and it was all a bit daunting for us. We thought we were much further on than we were, because actually we were crap. But we had this manager and the German label approached him and they said “We want this band in Scotland”, and he said “I’ve got this other band” – that was us – so it was sort of coincidental. We did this tour and they offered us a four album deal afterwards, and we were like “That’s ridiculous! Four albums, that’s a lifetime!” So we said no to that and we didn’t hear from them. We changed our name and became Dutch Uncles and our first gig was televised for Channel M [regional TV station, based in Manchester], and the label somehow got the video e-mailed to them and they offered us a one album deal and it became a stepping stone. You know, “Let’s get these songs down and start from there”. Cadenza is the album we’ve made as an album whereas the Dutch Uncles self-titled LP was much more “This is where we are right now, this is the starting block”. I think that’s how we like to think of it. Obviously it’s seen differently, it just looks like a second album, which it is, I understand.
DiS: What was it like being in Germany? Were you actually living and working in Germany?
Robin Richards: We went out there to record the first album, so we were in Hamburg for two weeks and then we did a few festivals over that summer, and then a tour. So it was back and forth, doing the odd gig either in Manchester or London. It’s more like we were making a name for ourselves in Germany and there was never a chance for us to promote ourselves in England at that point.
DW: Our plan for Germany was, to try and do what American bands did in England. Obviously only one well-known band has done that before and that’s The Beatles, to go to Germany and then come back to England. We saw it as an opportunity to do that but we didn’t get given the tours to do it and everyone started university and it just crumbled very quickly. When the album was out we had a week of good sales and then no more press after that. It all completely vanished. It was very strange, very daunting. We didn’t know whether we’d been fucked over or not, it was hard to tell.
DiS: How do you feel about it now?
DW: Now that we’ve got our own UK label and we’ve got a great relationship with Memphis Industries and we’re very confident about it. When we look back on the German one, we see it as it was a building block to how we see the industry. It was good experience for how we go about it, but not something I’d recommend, because it could have gone… we could have split up. It took us a long time to get Cadenza made. It definitely wasn’t an easy way of going about it.
DiS: So do you have any regrets about the way your band started?
DW: I think it’s easy to pick over potential regrets. Not that we’re super-clever – but we know how things are going to turn out when we’re being given potential ideas for recording or gigging. We can see how it’s going to turn out and it means that we don’t really have the patience to think, “Well, it might be different”.
RR: In terms of regrets for what we’ve done before, we might not be here now if we hadn’t done that German album at the time.
DW: It’s like saying a footy match would be different if someone had scored at a certain point. It would have changed the score but it would have changed the whole game. It’s one of those situations where you don’t try to think about what you’ve done wrong, you just try to think about where you’re going.
DiS: Were you quite keen to get back and do things in the UK?
DW: One thing we realised was that the UK is the music capital of Europe in many ways. And we live in it, more importantly. I think we want to taste the advantages of being a rock band at home before we end up being one of those people that you wouldn’t know in the pub but they turn out to be really big in Greece. I don’t really get that. I’m not in any fear of it but I’d prefer to be known in England and then branch out. And we wanted to take a more traditional route so we’ve been more traditional and worked around making an album and not just writing the first ten songs that came to us.
RR: But we did do that.
DW: What, in Germany? Yeah, in Germany we did things too quickly, and that could be a regret. But yeah, no regrets!
DiS: You’re from Marple in Stockport, which is in Greater Manchester. Do you see yourself as a Manchester band, whatever that might mean?
DW: Yeah, I think we do. It all depends on what your expectations and connotations are of a Manchester band.
RR: Yeah, the thing is, Manchester is a city, we’re from Greater Manchester, we’re from Stockport and we recorded the album in Salford, so we’re a Greater Manchester band.
DW: Yeah, we’re a… oh my God, don’t put that. Oh my word. If some people want to sound like other things that have been and gone in Manchester and they want to do that in their own space then fine. But to us we’ll just be band in a city and most cities are full of cunts anyway. Although if you do well then you feel like you’re passing on the torch and that’s even better. There’s an extra satisfaction if you do well in Manchester.
DiS: Is it a help or a hindrance being in that kind of context, because like you were saying about what people assume about a Manchester band, a lot of people either think you’re going to be a lot like Joy Division or a lot like The Smiths or a lot like Oasis…?
DW: They don’t, they just think that you’re going to be a lot like Oasis or a lot like the Stone Roses. I think reviewers mention The Smiths and Ian Curtis more than the general public. It’s much more of a muso thing to mention those two other bands. And that’s the thing about Manchester: you never hear those bands get played in Manchester clubs. The local sound, technically, is Oasis and the Stone Roses, and they’ll have ‘There Is A Light…’ and they’ll have ‘Blue Monday’ but that’s hardly touching on what The Smiths and New Order and Joy Division actually achieved.
DiS: So is it a good thing or a bad thing to have the label of a ‘Manchester band’?
DW: It allows for lazy journalism and until people get to hear our album and make up their own mind then we’re going to end up being scuppered because people want to choose that as their opinion.
DiS:What’s different about the new album? You said you wanted to make it as an album.
DW: The first, most visceral difference would be the instrumentation. The first album was a live album. It was recorded as a live album like Is This It was. But obviously by no means on the same level whatsoever, which is naturally obvious to you and me and everyone reading this. But it’s a romantic way to look at it.
RR: We wanted a grander sound in general. It’s quite a progressive sound and a more cohesive collection of songs, but at the same time it’s ended up being quite an eclectic album.
DW: But not too smooth, I like to think. It’s got a little bit of grit. There’s always something to iron out in the next album, something to change. This was never going to be our final statement. I think we’re going to move quite quickly on from it.
DiS: And it was quite a long process to get to making it. It’s over two years since the last album.
DW: Yeah, one song in particular on the album is, like, two years old. It’s older than most of the tracks on the first album. [Duncan and Robin debate some of the details of their back catalogue’s chronology.]
RR: Since the first album, yeah, it’s been quite a long time. The first song we wrote after the first album has ended up being on the second album. It’s still one of the strongest songs, I suppose, isn’t it?
DW: Yeah, it’s definitely a strong song and a live song. It’s just hard to listen to it with the same enthusiasm after two years of playing it live in so many ways.
DiS: Is that a difficulty, having songs that are quite old and having them on what is a new album?
DW: Oh, no, I don’t think so. I think it’s easier to accept than having songs from the first album on the second album, which was an option at one point. I’m seriously glad that we didn’t go down that route because I wouldn’t be able to look back on our back catalogue with a smile if I could see on Spotify that there were some tracks on both albums. It looks so weak.
DiS: When other people have written about your band, the big influences have been King Crimson, Steve Reich and Talking Heads. Are they still the three bands that define you?
DW: We’re still very fond of them. We still love them.
RR: In terms of influences, yeah. I think on the second album we’ve taken more influence from those artists.
DW: They’ve had more time to set in.
RR: We’ve managed to listen to more of Steve Reich’s minimalist material and taken influence from that, and also got into Talking Heads in more ways since the first album.
DW: I take a lot of lyrical inspiration from the way David Byrne thinks and how it’s super-human, in a way. Not in a supernatural way, but in the way that it doesn’t sound human. I love that and I think on our first album I was looking at trying to be whiny and sound like I’ve got a weird tone in the voice. Whereas on the second album I took a lot more from the Fear Of Music album, trying to get my head around concepts and how he can do what he did on that album. And obviously not rip it off at all – I just love the way that you don’t have to equate yourself in your lyrics to what you’re singing about, and keep that ambiguity, in a more tasteful manner. It’s a very overlooked album in Talking Heads’ back catalouge.
RR: Obviously we don’t only listen to King Crimson, Steve Reich and Talking Heads.
DW: Yeah, you have to find new music every day if you can. It’s not that easy. I really got into a band called Yellow Magic Orchestra, but the problem is they’re Japanese and a lot of their songs are instrumental anyway, so it’s kind of difficult taking inspiration from that, but I’m getting somewhere.
DiS: Your biography on your record label’s website describes your music as “highbrow pop”. Is that how you’d describe it?
DW: Err… I like to call it “math soul” or “mathical”.
DW: Well, math soul is just taking the cold heart of math pop, but then mathical actually means ripping off classical music in a math context. So one or the other. It’s always got to sound like it’s having a laugh, to me, in order to sound interesting. You can’t take yourself seriously and call yourself something like that.
RR: If we called ourselves “highbrow pop” we’d sound like complete arseholes, so we have to have our own idea of what it should be referred to as. So I suppose mathical seems to work.
DW: Mathical is up there with “noir ‘n’ B”. That’s what Hurts are described as – noir ‘n’ B. Which, you know, it depends on who says it, but it makes it sound funny. Egyptian Hip-Hop were called “softwave” for a while but there wasn’t enough in it and it didn’t stick.
DiS: Do you think mathical is going to stick around?
DW: I do! I‘m not saying it will but it has potential. I think it sounds funny. New rave? What was that?
DiS: Perhaps what I was getting at with highbrow pop was, certainly when you listen to a lot of pop acts, it almost sounds like a contradiction in terms. Is that a balance you try and strike?
RR: I suppose we always have pop sensibilities in our music.
DW: But we’re still not a pop act.
RR: No. We’re all playing music that we naturally enjoy playing together. If we get to the point where we end up writing music that we don’t enjoy playing together then we probably won’t be in a band anymore.
DW: We were trying to be as poppy as we could be and we thought we were making a pop album for a while, but as soon as we got into the studio and put all the extra crazy shit on top then we realised, ‘Actually, this is poppier than the first’. But it’s just better, just all-round better, which is why we thought it was pop and we tricked ourselves. And hopefully we’ll be able to do that again and not water ourselves down on the third effort.
DiS: Another word that gets used to describe your music is ‘intelligent’. Is that something you ever aim for?
DW: No, I don’t think that. I think we just aim to amuse ourselves whilst we play. I tire very quickly of writing a samey lyric or melody, vocally. If we have something very basic, like the chorus to a song called ‘X-O’ – it’s a song on the new album – it took a lot of convincing from the other guys for me to think that it was worth keeping, just because it was that simple. And that’s only a general chorus anyway, I just couldn’t see it. I always want to keep moving and keep busy in songs. The intelligence comes from just keeping ourselves enthused.
RR: And musically, trying to make each sound a step up from the last. We always try to have some kind of musical rhythmic concept which underpins the music in the song.
DW: The important thing to point out about that is that we’re not self indulgent about it at all. At least, we’re never knowingly self-indulgent. We’re always thinking of an audience first. RR: We’re never wanky.
DW: Yeah, never wanky.
DiS: Is it hard to fit that intelligence around the cross-dressing [see the video to ‘Face In’] and writing a World Cup song [last year’s hilariously complicated ‘Fabio Acapella’]?
DW: There’s a lot to that song!
RR: You have to laugh at yourselves as well.
DW: I think we actually laugh too much about that kind of thing, which is why something like ‘Fabio Acapella’ comes out. Because if you listen to that song properly on a proper stereo, you’ll realise that the player’s names, not only are they in their own time signatures based on their shirt numbers, but the names are all panned in the speakers from left to right, based on where they play on the pitch. The key change after the – 66th bar…? Or is it the 44th…?
RR: After the 44th, for how many years it had been since England had won the World Cup.
DW: Well, when you can find all those things it would be criminal to not do it, once you’ve found all those little intricacies to put in to the song, even though I know it’s not a song at all. It’s just ridiculous. Also, after it was fully mastered, within ten minutes it was on NME Radio, which is a first for us. We’ve never had a completed song on the radio within ten minutes.
DiS: Another thing that’s gets written about in your live reviews is the way you are on stage [Duncan has some pretty distinctive dance moves and an intriguing collection of shirts]. Is that something you decided, or did it just come naturally?
DW: Well, before we were Dutch Uncles, when we were a college band, I did actually at one point try to embody Ian Curtis. Not intentionally, but I started wearing a lot of grey shirts. I looked a bit Control-esque, but this was years before Control even came out. But in terms of where I’ve gone in trying to be a stage performer, I’ve learned to love it, hate it and love it and hate it again. I never enjoy it, but I never enjoy thinking about what other people must think of me. But I think I’m getting somewhere on my own – somewhere that isn’t Morrissey and isn’t Ian Curtis, because if I wear a flashy shirt then it’s Morrissey, for some reason, because he wears all the flashy shirts in the world. The thing we often forget about Ian Curtis is he looks as if he’s physically trying to run away from something; I’m just trying to get into the beat. What people neglect to see is that I’m actually matching the music; I’m not escaping. He always looked like he was trying to get somewhere else. I’m going to make it more obviously different the better I get at it.
DiS: What about the rest of the band, in terms of the performance?
RR: Well, we all move.
DW: Yeah, you all move a bit too much for my liking. If they’re moving too much I just stop. I just think, “Nah, you can’t have four people all flying around”.
RR: We’re all moving and matching the rhythms we’re actually playing. DW: That was always actually the trick wasn’t it? It was always, “Let’s see if we can make people dance in 7/8”. That was always what Dutch Uncles was trying to say at the beginning, and that’s where all the dancing comes from. Whether it’s in my parody or Robin’s warbly knees.
DiS: What are your plans for the run up to Cadenza? Are you looking forward to promoting the album?
RR: Since we did the last UK tour, which finished at the end of February, Dutch Uncles haven’t done much band-wise.
DW: It’s all an initial writing period now. Before the album comes out we’re going to see how much we can get in ideas and start working as early as possible.
RR: I’m looking forward to it, the week when the album comes out, and then we go on this mad tour in May.
DW: We might actually play some proper festivals! It will be a first. I can only think of one grass festival event that we’ve actually played. [Robin corrects him – they’ve played two.] We played this place in Skipton, and we were up for it being a good gig and everything. Basically, the tractor journey from the artist liaison to the stage was probably the highlight. It’s a tractor with a flatbed and you have to sit on the flatbed with all your gear, going all the way over to the stage. Everyone had gone home and I had my shirt over my jeans and I was like, “This next song’s called ‘Dressage’,” and this guy just shouted, “Tuck your shirt in, you scruffy cunt!” And I’m like, “That is not the attitude – that is completely wrong”. But seriously, our main thing is to actually get some grass festivals down. Some good shows, where you get to chill out and watch other bands. RR: And some well-known festivals as well. DW: Yeah ones that we can name to our friends, and they’ll go “Oh, right,” ones that they can shut up about! You know, when you go back to your home and you bump into your friends from before, and it’s like, “What are you up to?” And you say, “Well, I’m in a band,” and they say, “Oh, how’s it going,” and you’re like, “Well, we’re signed to a UK label, they’ve got gold records in their corridor, you know what I mean?” And they go, “Okay, cool. So what festivals are you playing?” And it’s like, “We’re going to play some fucking big ones alright! So shut up!”
Cadenza is released on April 25th through Memphis Industries.