Although initially lumped in with all the other thousands of landfill indie guitar bands that emerged in the mid noughties, Dutch Uncles have managed to avoid all of the unsavoury clichés that so many of their contemporaries fell prey to.
Wherever you decide to delve into the Manchester quartet’s growing back catalogue, there’s something varied and brilliantly odd to behold. 2008’s self-titled debut album came across as like indie rock’s older and brainer cousin, slapping tricky, atypical rhythms on thick with an audacious grin. Follow-up ventures Cadenza and Out Of Touch In The Wild were two entirely different animals – the former bouncing about joyously in dizzying piano-led repetitions, the latter delivering smart and danceable xylophone grooves.
Coinciding with the departure of long-term guitarist Daniel ‘Sped’ Spedding, their previous album (2014’s O Shudder) felt a lot more measured, tackling the anxieties of turning thirty and awkward sexual encounters with gleaming synth-funk melodies. Their quirky side was still on display on singles like In and Out, but this was a notably more mature and sedate Dutch Uncles, the sign of a band looking to grow old rather more gracefully than might have been expected.
However, with album number five – Big Balloon, released on 17th February – the slickness has been dialled back in favour of something more raw and vibrant. The title track and lead single appropriately sounds a lot more like the Dutch Uncles that charged onto the scene nearly a decade ago with the crunching riffs of Face In, and sets the tone for a far more defiant and lively album. Speaking to Dutch Uncles frontman Duncan Wallis, this was a very deliberate step by the band. “It was like ‘let’s just get back to being a fucking band!’”, Wallis exclaims.
Picking up on the theme, he elaborates: “We saw some symmetry with Cadenza and our debut album, it felt like it would be nice to go back to our old sound. We wanted to relive our early enthusiasm for influences like The Strokes, XTC, Interpol…guitar bands, rather than the eighties influences and xylophones. We’re trying to readjust where we got lost with O Shudder.”
Opting for a more guitar-heavy approach for album number five may just be exactly what the band need. Big Balloon has all the signs of a sparkling return to form for a group that have become renowned for artistic non-compliance. But rather than ditching progression by the wayside, they’re embracing the power of guitar-pop as a way of reconnecting with the world. “You don’t wanna be a conceptual band all of the time, it’s a bit proggy and over-indulgent. One of our objectives was to make ten songs that stand on their own. I actually had all the tracks down in a specific order and then we totally changed the order of the tracklist. So now it’s actually just ten individual songs with no specific narrative.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you treat people as something as objective as a fried chicken, you’re gonna go home with fried chicken…
They may have stepped aside from the Kate Bush influences for a moment – “Robin [Richards, bass] and I are massive fan boys” Wallis admits – but one thing that’s always certain with a Dutch Uncles record is its surreal lyrical content. A track that sticks out on Big Balloon, Combo Box, evokes a certain type of fast food chain. “It’s a reference to our local chicken shop, a Dixy Chicken one. I still don’t know what that songs about…well, I guess it’s a reference to the whole Tinder culture thing. I tried Tinder out for a week and it just depressed me to no end. I mean, you’re judging someone from their picture! It’s not a fair judgement. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you treat people as something as objective as a fried chicken, you’re gonna go home with fried chicken…”
This type of good-humoured juxtaposition is a common thing in Wallis’ off-kilter songwriting methods. “I always start with word sounds and go from there,” Wallis states. As a result, there are plenty more linguistically pleasing entries to Big Balloon’s multi-verse, such as Hiccup, Same Plane Dream, Achameleon, and Baskin’. Of the latter, Wallis reveals, “Baskin’ is all about a night out we had last year. We went to this old haunt in Manchester called Satan’s Hollow and we all just ended up doing pissed dad dancing. Before I know it, I’m sicking my guts up. When you’re 29, it’s quite embarrassing. It’s really about all the nights where I’ve completely overdone it. I forgot I was in Dutch Uncles once, and this guy was talking about the band and I was just like ‘yeah, they’re decent’.”
Like most musicians, Wallis was taken touched by the passing of David Bowie. “I’d say Blackstar was an influence. It was…art imitating life, or life imitating, or whatever the fuck it was! How can someone plan their exit so perfectly?” Like the godfather of art pop himself, Dutch Uncles are optimists, constantly evolving and maturing into something greater with each album. There seems to be no limit to what themes, sounds or instruments they choose to fit their misshapen mould. They are perfectionists who admire the abnormalities of existence and never seem to be fully content with their creations, with Wallis firmly noting, “we never write a half-arsed song. The ones that we finish have to have something special about them.” Big Balloon could just be the album that makes everybody sit up and listen.
Dutch Uncles release Big Balloon on 17th February. They play The Cluny, Newcastle on Thursday 2nd March.