Don’t tell our dark Drowned in Sound overlords, but I’m going to let you into a little secret of music journalism: interviews are scary. Am I going to embarrass myself (as you’ll see, the answer is yes)? Will I say something that makes me look like a bumbling, ill-informed idiot? You think job interviews are tough (again, more on that later)? Well try waiting for Neil Tennant to ring you, or trying to talk to a jetlagged Michael Gira on Skype; I’ve had to throw t-shirts away because interviewing musicians has left me with embarrassing sweat patches under the arms.
On the other hand, Dutch Uncles are always a pleasure. The feeling tends to be more akin to going for a pint with your much smarter mates: witty, thoughtful and entirely aware – more so than third party observers, it will transpire – of their standing in the music world, an hour or so in Manchester’s Brew Dog bar drifts by as singer/pianist Duncan Wallis and bassist/arranger of all those brilliant string arrangements Robin Richards speak as candidly as anyone we’ve interviewed before.
We caught up with the pair back in January because, uh, I really hate transcribing, around the time of the release of the lead single, ‘In and Out’. Since then, the Marple quintet have been reduced to four with the amicable departure of guitarist Dan “Sped” Spedding, but also released their fourth album O Shudder to great acclaim.
Here are some of the things they had to say.
DiS: The songs on O Shudder sound a lot fuller and have more going on than those on your previous albums, as though you’re ditching the sparse sound?
Duncan Wallis: We certainly wanted to step up production a lot. Obviously you want everything to be better than it was on your last album but I think the reason there’s a lot more going on in these songs is because we recorded it in three chunks. We did two songs over one weekend and then another four songs in June; we spread out the recording over a year. But then unfortunately we kept adding more and more to what we’d already recorded. ‘Upsilon’ [the album’s second track], for example, was the first song we properly recorded in the studio but then we spent another 10 months just adding another synth to it every time we got bored of hearing it in a certain way! I think that’s why it sounds busier, in a production sense, than [last album] Out of Touch, in the Wild.
Robin Richards: I think also Out of Touch... had a definite ensemble feel – we used things like the string quartet and the dual percussion as well as the usual Dutch Uncles line-up – whereas this one is in a way more expansive. We would say “that can more be synth-based” or “that one can have whatever. Again that comes down to recording it in a three-week session rather than over a year.
DiS: Did that way of recording in chunks allow you to channel your energy better and devote more to the individual tracks?
DW: It was supposed to feel that way, and when it worked it worked.
RR: When we went down for the last session we had, I think, seven songs to record in a week. Two of them ended up not making the cut, but it was worth doing anyway. We had so much to do and it was when the World Cup was on so we were always busy and I think that we worked so much better in that week, whereas there was one week we had four songs to record and-
DW: I remember I redid all my vocals from previous sessions in those four weeks. It's risky; it makes you realise every time you go into a studio there is such a random air to it all. You don't know if you're going to come out and do some of your best work or not. It doesn't really matter about the songs, it's about the ideas you bring to those songs on those days.
Obviously the more time you've got to think about it, the better. But then it's a very bizarre kind of pressure, knowing you've got to switch it on on three occasions. It's very weird to go "right, well we've got to make sure that we do these songs right," because when you're working to a budget you get nervous.
DiS: That's interesting, because to me this certainly sounds like your most confident album to date.
RR: I think we practised the songs more with this album than the last one, so I don't know if that comes across in the recordings as well, but we can actually play the songs better.
DW: I was relieved there were more songs. Because Out of Touch, in the Wild - even though, with the benefit of hindsight I now look at it really fondly and I didn't at the time - when we were making O Shudder I thought "Wow, Out of Touch... was really easy and quite enjoyable." But at the same time, Out of Touch..., to me, was always nine and a half songs and I was always worried about that fact. This time it was like "Well, at least it's 11". Traditional.
DiS: How many did you record that didn't make the cut?
DW: There was [pauses] was it only one of them? Oh no, no, no two.
RR: Three, kind of.
DW: Three. Two of them are still instrumentals. One of them's definitely a b-side, the other two should be b-sides at some point.
DiS: So they'll see the light of day at some point then?
DW: They should see the light of day at some point if they ever get put in the Dropbox and I can write lyrics to them, yeah. But until then, no! I'm a bit annoyed about that.
DiS: With all these extra instruments and with so much more going on in the songs, is that going to be a pain in the arse playing them live?
DW: It already has, yeah. We did some shows at the end of 2013 with a string trio and it was a great set of gigs and it didn't feel like an event. It was like "well this is how the songs are supposed to sound. These songs have these strings and that's why the string players are there; we're not just bringing them in to make the songs sound more lush." I suppose we realised at the same time that we can't really keep bringing the string players along every time because it's hard for us to add up the numbers properly.
We're getting Pete's [Broadhead, guitarist] brother, Henry, to come on board as a keyboardist and percussionist. All of us are still doing three things at once in every song.
But it somehow works itself out. I'm not sure how it gets there, but it does.
DiS: Speaking of the strings - and Robin, I guess this is your area as the composer-in-chief - they seem to stand out more on this album. Is that fair to say?
RR: I think my string arrangements are better on this album than on the last one. I suppose they are more prominent on the songs they're in. They're in more tracks on the last record. It was just which songs suited them. If, for example, I chucked some strings in 'Decided Knowledge' it was just be for the sake of it, whereas other songs definitely suited that texture.
DiS: and they're all live strings?
RR: Yeah it's a string quartet.
DW: It wasn't so much of a new thing this time around. I mean, this time the new instrument to play with was the harp. And we were really cautious about how much harp was going to be in there. For example, the last song, 'Be Right Back', the synth lines there were originally supposed to be a guitar and a harp - or was it a harp and piano? - but it sounded quite classical and that's where I got my inspiration, lyrically. You know, I was trying to write about the conception of religion: it sounded like old curiosities, at least that's what I was getting off those sounds, but then we changed it to synths.
I think the strings have levelled themselves out on this album because we just haven't thought about them too much. They just settled straight away, we didn't have to decide too much about them.
RR: Also they played them really well.
DiS: It's also a bit poppier; certainly the funkiest album you've made so far. Was there an attempt to shed that label you've picked up of being "math rock" or "prog pop"?
RR: Not too much, really. We've said before it's felt like a natural progression; it hasn't felt like we've tried to change our sound drastically to shed a label.
DW: We didn't actually know what we wanted to do at the time. It's not like Robin had gone off to the far end of eastern Europe and discovered some new underground jazz that was going to completely consume him and he was going to demand that the next album sound like that. So in the end it was just like, "Let's be more... poppy", I suppose.
It's a new wave album, I think. I know we get "prog pop" stuff, but I listened to it again this week and thought it's definitely a new wavey album. I'd call it new wave before pop, because it doesn't have the Top 10 hits on it, if you like.
DiS: It's quite a quick turnaround, after the last album came out in January 2013.
RR: We actually finished writing that album [Out of Touch, in the Wild] pretty much a year before it came out. So it's felt like longer; after we'd finished Out of Touch... we had to wait a few months before it came out, whereas this one we finished it and it was ready to go out there. Technically it's two years, but it's felt like longer.
DW: We couldn't have waited any longer.
RR: We got into a flow of writing [for O Shudder] about October 2013, so it's taken around about a year. We had books of writing for about a year before that.
DW: Like, 'Given Thing' was written in about July 2013, wasn't it? It was just a warm-up song, really, for me and you to try and get used to writing again. It was a really big mistake for us not to continue writing while we were touring. After we signed off Out of Touch... it was six months before it got released. We just refused to write anything in that time; we thought "Nope, we don't know what people want from us yet." It was a really bad idea, actually.
DiS: You don't think it was a good idea to have a break and give your creative side a rest?
DW: Maybe for a few months, but not for a year! Never give it a year off; it was like, "Shit, what are words again? What are notes?" It was really, really tricky.
DiS: Were there any old songs kicking around from the past that you used?
DW: There was nothing that really got brought up from the archives. We're not Prince with his big fat vault. God we wouldn't dare do that.
DiS: So that's not something you'd consider doing in the future?
DW: It's probably evident from how little material we'll play off our first two albums on the next tour. Always looking forward!
DiS: You mention the harp, and I remember last time we spoke you mentioned this new xylophone you had...
DW: The midi xylophone. Yeah it's a midi harp too - Jean-Michelle Jarre used it - it's like six lasers that come out the ground.
DiS: Is that going to be in the live show?
RR: We can't afford it [laughs]. It's like, ten grand.
DW: We'll see how much money we can wangle at MIF Festival. "Basically guys, we want a midi harp!"
DiS: Who is it that does the backing vocals on 'Be Right Back'?
DW: It's Stealing Sheep. We met them over some festivals in 2013 and they were fans of us, we were fans of them - we were always playing gigs back-to-back so it was like "Hey! It's you guys again!" We said just said to them "Hey we know that your three voices work really well together and you're only in Liverpool." I was actually over there on some passport business, so I could show them the song if they were interested in it.
Obviously with me being there in that room while I played it, it was going to be hard for them to go "We think it's shit," but they were up for it and absolutely nailed it on the day. I was really pleased with it. It would be amazing if we could play with them live in some capacity, but they're going to have their own business, their own album. We don't want to...
RR: Impinge on that.
DW: Yeah. But maybe do a gig together? That'd be sweet.
DiS: Drowned in Sound's editor, our dark overlord Sean Adams, will never forgive me if I don't ask about the tour you did with Paramore.
DW: You asked before if we were trying to get rid of our pop-prog label and stuff, and why our sensibilities are so pop-orientated on this album. Touring with Paramore was a bit of an eye-opener. That's a band that have gone from being a kind of heavy rock, emo band to being a pop-rock band. And yeah, it's like the Fleetwood Mac of its time! You see the drama that went on in that band, two of the members splitting, leaving them in the dirt and they had to pick themselves up from the ground. And they did it really well and unpretentiously. We saw something in that and we like pop music as well.
DiS: Were they an influence on the new album?
DW: There's definitely one song on which they're a direct influence. There's a song called 'Accelerate', which we were working on for so long before it got finished; when you [Robin] pitched it to us, you said it was a cross between Paramore and These New Puritans. He was kind of right, but then we changed it up so much you wouldn't recognise it as that any more. But a few of the things remain the same, so yeah there is a direct Paramore influence on the album in that one song. Combined with These New Puritans.
DiS: This is your fourth album, which I guess makes you a very established band these days. How has this affected your lives since OoTitW? Have they changed beyond all recognition or not?
RR: Well it's strange, we haven't done a gig for a year.
DW: That is a very odd thing. It's just an odd thing really - and this is something that's touched upon on the album - our mentality going into the album was that if we're doing this, we're doing another four of these or so. It's not like it's just a dip in the water for us: if we're going in, we're going to go for it.
In regards to how our personal lives have changed... I don't want to use the word "desperate" in a bad way, but you know how fickle it can be. What with people laughing at Hard Fi for being in their 30s. Your band name has a shelf life, doesn't it? Each of these projects has a shelf life and we have to do our best to make Dutch Uncles work and this is definitely us going for it.
DiS: So you feel Dutch Uncles has a shelf life?
DW: I think it's having one. It's four albums, like you say. It's remarkable that people are warming to us on our fourth album in a lot of ways. We really should remind ourselves a lot of the time that a lot of people just stop caring. If it's your fourth album and people still weren't interested... but a lot of people are.
DiS: I suppose the last album was a bit of a breakthrough for you.
RR: It did take it up another step.
DW: Yeah. And we're trying to establish that. We thought [second album] Cadezna was a breakthrough; Cadenza wasn't a breakthrough. _Out of Touch...** was a breakthrough and now it's time to establish that. So this is our second album.
DiS: I found you guys on a Love and Disaster compilation...
RR: Volume one of one.
DiS: ...in a tiny little back-end record shop in Paris. Are you aware of the greater recognition, internationally even, that Dutch Uncles have now?
DW: No, not really.
RR: We maybe see the odd tweets from Indonesian and Mexican press, but you don't really know what else is happening out there.
DW: The first single off this album, 'In and Out', has had some pretty good airplay across Europe, but in terms of us actually getting out there and playing some gigs it's only ever support tours. It's either Paramore or Wild Beasts.
I mean, our European tour was three gigs and they were all in France: Paris, Nantes and Lille. That was all we did for the album on our own. It was quite depressing!
RR: We'd love to do more, we'd love to be out there.
DiS: The press release I got for this album said the lyrics were "more personal and direct this time"...
DW: Yeah they weren't supposed to be, but they were. It was because nothing happened in my life, that's why! I was thinking about this recently. Like, with Out of Touch... there were certain songs that were written on the road - granted I'd already written a handful of songs - but after you've written that handful of songs you're kind of shaking the body. You know what it's about, now you've got to make sure there's a bit of everything going on.
Then this time round it was a year of domesticated stalemate, in a way. I didn't mean to make it sound that way, but it's true. It's fine. I didn't want it to be that way; I wanted it to be songs about everyone's problems. Maybe it does reflect more people's problems than I think, but I didn't mean for it to be personal.
DiS: I remember on the last album you said the overarching themes were "addiction and friendship"...
DW: Yeah it always made me feel weird that it was put out like that, but it was true. Speaking from an "artist" point of view - I remember this from studying art at school - I find it really hard to start making some "art" without the teacher giving you a subject. I've always needed something, a seed, to get started. Is that weird? I mean, [Robin] don't you?
RR: I need to be in some kind of frame of mind to write something, yeah. If I'm bored I find it harder to write.
DW: The idea of just 11 random songs doesn't sound like an album to me.
DiS: It sounds like Rattle and Hum, I guess.
DW: Ha, yes.
DiS: So is there an overarching theme to O Shudder?
DW: There is, actually. I tried to make one again. Maybe this is one problem with writing so close to Out of Touch..., because I did try to see the same kind of arch. The arch this time is about a descent into... at the beginning of the album the person is asked to look back on their life to see if they're really ready to be a parent. They look back on their life and realise they've never really been sure of anything at any point from a young age. And they get to the present day and they realise that they still don't know anything, but then it's left with a kind of carefree attitude towards that: "I don't know anything, it's fine, it keeps going". There's no closure.
It's about realising you never have everything figured out, but then I take some comfort in the way the album ends. It's like, "this is ongoing, but at least it'll keep me busy!" Some people might think it's a bit sad, or trying to find closure. That's why 'Be Right Back' works as a song: it's that constant rhythm all the way through and it's "yeah that's it, better get used to it because you're never going to fucking find out."
DiS: Were there any more specific themes you wanted to address that you hadn't thought about before? There was a mention for example about finding a job...
DW: Yeah the finding a job one ['Decided Knowledge']: I wanted to write a song about that experience I'd had. I didn't have a lot else to pick at at the time and I'd had this really cringey interview, I'd really fucked it up, and it was like "well, something good's got to come out of this!"
The song was there and I didn't have long to write it, I remember. That was a purposeful thing, but there's a lot of other songs, like 'Babymaking' - the only reason 'Babymaking' is about wanting to have babies so much is because I just came up with the line "Baby babies" in the chorus; I just kept hearing and thought "What the hell's that about? Shit just go with it."
It's the same with 'Be Right Back', which is about religion: I came up with that little bit in the middle eight, "You said I know it, I think I know it, You said he knows that is there, Is coming back, is it coming back?". I thought "What the hell was I talking about? Oh is he talking about Jesus, about religion?"
But unfortunately no, I didn't go "Right there's going to be a song about this and a song about this."
Naive DiS: When you talk about trying to get a job in 'Decided Knowledge', did you not feel that now you're an established band you're more disconnected from that kind of real-world event?
DW: Well that job interview was only, like, six months ago. 'Decided Knowledge' was one of the last songs written for the album and as I said, what happened in that year was a year of domesticated stalemate. We're all still unsure about being in a band, we're all still trying to find jobs.
RR: During the year, whilst you're writing, while you're busiest, you're not making any money from the band.
DW: And I'm sick of DJing all the time. So it was a job I actually wanted to go for. I thought I had a chance to get it and I messed it up. But I sound like such a fucking whinging bastard here, complaining about my first experience of a proper interview: "Oh it's a council job, oh it's all about work, it's all about quoting back your CV..." well that's life, fuck it.
I suppose I should just be grateful for the fact that I could make a song out of that very face value impression I took of it at the time.
DiS: Er, well, the next question was going to be about what you guys have been doing in the past year...
DW: Trying to get a job [laughs]. Basically hedging our bets!
DiS: We've talked before about all the 1980s bands that influence you, and you've described O Shudder yourselves as a new wave record, but is there anything from the last couple of years you felt you wanted to emulate on this?
RR: [These New Puritans'] Field of Reeds I really liked.
DW: Katy Perry.
RR: That was Andy [Proudfoot, drums].
DW: Andy and Pete, yeah. They just did not get enough of Katy Perry.
DiS: I'm with them on that, I love Katy Perry.
DW: Same here, but there's only so much I can listen to fucking 'Birthday'. You know, she's got some really good songs, but it was 'Birthday' specifically they just kept playing. In fact you can hear on 'Decided Knowledge' there's the 'Birthday' [makes percussion noises]. There for all the world to hear.
RR: I really liked the new Syd Arthur. It's unashamedly Canterbury prog, which you can't hear much of these days.
DiS: No that's... very niche.
DW: "Canterbury prog?!" God. A lot of the lyrical influences still come from the 1980s, just because singers were much more ballsy then.
RR: So do the musical influences to be honest. We're trying to make original music and write about original things. But it just turns out everyone had already done that in the 80s.
O Shudder is out now via Memphis Industries.
Dutch Uncles play the following live dates:
26 March 2015 - The Sugarmill, Stoke
27 March 2015 - The Ritz, Manchester
10 April 2015 - Koko, London
24 April 2015 - Belfast, Limelight 2
25 April 2015 - Dublin, Workman’s Club