INTERVIEW: Dunstan Bruce – Am I Invisible Yet? | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The story of Chumbawamba is a fascinating, exciting, powerful one, especially when you get to the point in 1997 when they had a bona fide pop hit and ruffled some anarcho-punk feathers by signing to EMI (“it wasn’t THAT EMI”, as Dunstan Bruce points out). It’s a story worthy of a great film, which Bruce – former Chumbawamba and latterly Interrobang singer – has made. It’s called I Get Knocked Down and it’s brilliant. But while Bruce and his co-director Sophie Robinson were grappling with licensing and distribution and that whole hellscape, lockdown came along and Bruce wondered what the hell to do next.

I’ve known Dunstan for quite a long time and this chat covered a lot of ground, from inter-band gossip to the sheer pointlessness of Keir Starmer and something scurrilous about Nick Cave’s penis. But here’s the bits that are relevant and will hopefully make you go and see the play.



So firstly, tell me about the hold-ups with the film.

We’re in the process of signing a deal with an American distribution company called Freestyle. And so that has pushed us into having to get everything sorted and pay for all the archives. Americans are so diligent about paperwork! And it’s expensive – there are some bits in the film that we’ve now had to recreate because we couldn’t afford them. Or we have to depend on fair use laws [where you can use copyrighted materials if it’s for the purpose of criticism – legal ed] so for example there’s a clip from The Simpsons where Homer Simpson is singing Tubthumping and I comment ‘that was the only time we ever let anybody change the words’, just so we can include it. And there’s a scene with Rosie O’Donnell talking about the band, I got three friends who were all actors to re-enact that scene word for word and filmed it because to licence that was going to cost us 16 grand.


Has going back to the film to make these changes led to you changing anything editorially?

Oh god no! I was in a post-production studio for the last couple of days, just changing a few little bits and pieces but the thing about making co-directing a film is I’m like, ‘Oh, Sophie, can we change this bit? Can we change that? But I really want to change that.’ And she says “Do you know, do you know how much it would cost for us to go back into all those little things? And we would have to rewrite the contract because if you change the film, you’re not delivering the film they’ve paid for.’



So how did the delays turn into the stage show Am I Invisible Yet?

When we finished the film, I said to Sophie, so do you think we’ll make another film together then? And she said no. She said, ‘it’s not that you’re not a good filmmaker, it’s that you’re wasted behind the camera. You being in front of the camera, or you being onstage, that’s the thing that you can do really, really well. And you shouldn’t be making films of other people getting up on stage.’ And that’s totally how I felt when I made the films about Sham 69 and The Levellers – I don’t want to be filming them, I want to be doing it. Meanwhile, Interrobang couldn’t get it together to write a second album and I had all these lyrics I wanted to do something with. So I started doing this one man show that was only about 25 minutes long, The Existential Angst Of Dunstan Bruce. It just wasn’t cut out for the gig environment, But then Sophie, who started her career in theatre, said, ‘look, make that 50 minutes long and I’ll direct it, we’ll do it together’. So we developed it and extended it. We started introducing, you know, other ideas of how to present it, so with a lot of projections and music. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the film and the show, there’d be quite a large overlap of the two, but it’s less about Chumbawamba and more about one man’s personal journey – ‘what do you do when you reach middle age, when you still want to remain relevant and visible, you’re still angry. Where’s your place in the world?’


What was the main idea behind the stage show?

Chumbawamba had a big theatrical element but that was never really my role in the band. And I didn’t want to do stand-up or ‘An Evening With…’, I wanted to do something that was poetry and prose and music, I use a lot Interrobang songs in the show and obviously I reference Tubthumping. I’ve never I’ve never felt any sort of ill will towards that song, it’s never been an albatross. I feel as though that song liberated me in a way, to do a lot of things I would never been able to do.



And was it scary being onstage alone for the first time after being in bands?

I’ve never felt so nervous going on stage as I do with the one man show. In Chumbawamba and Interrobang, I was really blasé – two minutes before going on stage, I could be in the bar having a drink. But with the one man show, for an hour before I just have to be by myself. I’m so wrapped up in it. It’s a new discipline, and it feels like I’m incredibly exposed, being on the stage by myself, even though I can’t do the show without Sophie because she controls all the cues and everything that comes up on the screen. it’s a massive adrenaline rush. And it’s something new, I think it’s brilliant that at my age I’m experiencing something new. It makes me think, you know, ‘what am I going to do when I when I get to 70? What’s the thing I’m going to do then that I’ve never done before?’. I’ve no desire to go skydiving or deep-sea diving or throwing myself off a cliffside, those sorts of things don’t really interest me. My challenges are always creative challenges because I’ve always suffered from this idea that I value my self-worth by what I create, what I produce, and if I have periods of not being productive, I can get into a bit of a fog, you know. But then sometimes that’s the place where the best art comes from, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know if this is a widely held view within Chumbawamba but I think I think there came a point where the albums themselves weren’t as hard-hitting as maybe the earliest stuff was, where maybe we were quite in quite a comfortable position and the albums didn’t have the same bite. I don’t think that’s unusual for bands you know, I think I think you’ve got to keep on changing and try and do something different. So leaving Chumbawamba when I did was actually the right thing to do even though I didn’t have a clue I was going to do next!



And did you develop the show with any particular style or influence?

I made a decision right at the beginning of the band to not engage with the audience, because I wanted to present the whole thing as one piece. I wasn’t interested in banter or asking people how they were. And that’s what you do in theatre, you’re not supposed to break the fourth wall. And Interrobang was the first time that I had complete control over the lyrics, and that was a really liberating experience. It didn’t go through an editorial process. It enables me to expose myself, it’s more personal. With Chumbawamba, it was never from a personal point of view, but now you get the vulnerability and the humanity as well, not just the anger all the time.


So what’s the plan with the show? Is there an end date or will it keep running?

Well, we’re supposed to be finishing in Leeds in November. But then there will be bits and pieces we’re going to do after. One of the things about going out with a one man show that you haven’t got any funding for, it’s hard work and you don’t make any money, you just about break even. Me, Sophie and Tom, the producer, luckily we all earn money in different ways so we don’t need to make a living from the show. But it does mean that Sophie and Tom can’t dedicate the rest of their lives to doing the one man show, it does have to have a shelf life. So I’ve been hoping maybe something will come up, I’ll get an opportunity to do something else on the back of the film. And part of that might involve filming the one man show properly.


So Dunst – do you feel invisible?

I mean, no – obviously I’m not – the title is disingenuous and self-aware. But the play is about the idea that we’ve all felt invisible, it’s not just me. We all thought we were someone once, you know, we all thought we were gonna take on the world, we all thought we were going to do these amazing things, and then our lives go off in directions we never expected or it’s not the thing we wanted it to be. Look at Harry (Hamer Chumbawamba and Interrobang drummer) in the film. he’s totally fucking sorted and what he’s doing is brilliant. And Alice (Nutter, Chumbawamba singer, now TV and film screenwriter) – that she’s just so fucking confident in everything she does is just incredible. She’s amazing. So in the early 2000s I became a father and thought, all right, maybe that’s my role now. That makes you reassess everything about your life and you know, you realise how selfish you’ve been. But being the person I am, I was craving a creative outlet, and the attention you get being onstage.



In the film Harry (who’s interviewed onstage in a clown costume talking about the band and about his life now and even voting Labour) comes across so well, so does Alice, they seem to have made peace with their situation on a way that perhaps you haven’t? So where do you place yourself now? And do you still have hope?

Can I just tell you one thing about Harry? As I said earlier, I was just in a post-production suite the other day and I took the opportunity to put a disclaimer at the end of the film, ‘Harry Hamer would like it to be known that he is no longer a member of the Labour Party.’ And he was absolutely delighted.

But where do I position myself? Do I still have hope? I think the film touches upon the idea, and the show even more, that the younger generation have, you know, been picking up the baton and running with it. And I’ve seen that more in the last five or ten years than I’ve seen in the previous 20 or 25 years. When you see people like Tamika Mallory or Emma Gonzalez, all these young strong women, I just think that’s fucking amazing. And that’s why we use the Loud Women stuff in the film, Petrol Girls and Dream Nails. people like that. They’re just amazing role models, such powerful forces for change, so that’s something that I find really, really encouraging… Okay, you know, we’re not on the brink of revolution and there’s a pretty massive shit show going on. But when I think about things like Loud Women in particular, it’s not just about the gigs, it’s about the community it’s created, and the support, and the love that exists within that community, and how co-operative those people are, and you know, how it’s like a huge collective. What I feel is really important about live music and live performance is that it’s not just about the performance, it’s about the creative space where these people come together as a community, that sort of thing has become more and more precious to me.

Me and Sophie went to a film festival in Warsaw a couple of months ago, it was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had, actually. Chumbawamba played in Poland in the early nineties, at a time when very few bands went, and you couldn’t take zlotys out of the country, it was worthless. We went and did some shows. An amazing, amazing experience. And it was weird going back to Warsaw with the film, because there were a lot of people at the screenings who had been at those shows. And part of the thing about the film is, you know, ‘Did I actually achieve anything? Did I have any value or worth?’, and I had people coming up to me in a very emotional way, in tears, saying “Look, you changed my life, you should remember coming to Poland in the nineties changed my life, it was just the most amazing experience, and people still talk about it.” And we ended up getting involved in a charity over there in Warsaw, raising money for Ukrainian refugees, who were pouring into Poland at a phenomenal rate. The charity houses refugees and finds them furniture and clothes and stuff like that, and just seemed like a really good thing. So we’re going back in January to do the show in Warsaw at a sort of left-wing theatre. It was a really humbling experience, you know, when you when you meet people who are doing so much selfless stuff, and it made me feel like all I do is get up on the stage, and ‘blah blah blah’ on about things. But then when you talk to those people who are doing the work, they say, ‘I couldn’t do what you do’, and made me realise that there was some sort of symbiotic relationship between being an activist and being an artist, we all fit together. And that was quite a heartening feeling. I realised that what I was doing did have worth and did have value, and it fulfils a role. It’s not that people who are activists want everybody to be an activist. We’ve got to help each, you know? It sounds really cheesy but we’ve got to be there for each other.


Dunstan Bruce is touring Am I Invisible Yet? until the end of the year, appearing at North Shields Exchange on October 8th and The Georgian Theatre, Stockton on 9th October. The film I Get Knocked Down should appear in 2023.

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