Interview: Duncan Wallis of Dutch Uncles (Part 1)

By on Friday, 10th September 2010 at 2:00 pm
 

Before they head off with Sky Larkin on a tour of the UK, Marple’s Dutch Uncles are currently hard at work in the studio this week recording tracks for their not-yet-named second album due out sometime next year. I was able to steal singer/piano player Duncan Wallis away from their work for a chat. In part 1 of the interview, Duncan tells me about how the band formed and why the right clothes are important, and we attempt to define the Dutch Uncles sound.

Hi Duncan! How’s the weather in Manchester today?
[smiles] Good! Typical Manchester. But it could be pissing down rain later…
How is the recording (for the new album) going?
My part (to record) is on Wednesday, I think. So I’ve got another 2 days yet. My job is basically to make sure I like everything they are doing.
Oh, so is it a complete democracy (within the band) then?
Yeah! I mean, yes and no, you know?

No, that’s good! So the first thing I have to ask you is the question on everyone’s lips. Why ‘Dutch Uncles’?
I was in a band, myself. I was drumming in a band that I had started in college called Dutch Uncle, without the ‘s’. My band played with the other four members’ band, they were actually named after the bassist. And then we got together. I joined them on vocals, of course. We weren’t called Dutch Uncles straightaway, but we had a name in college for ourselves which I don’t want to say…[laughs] because you can trace stuff about it on the Internet. But it was a very boring name that we stuck with because we couldn’t think of any others. But then we got a bit depressed about it, people kept saying it wrong, putting a ‘the’ on the end. It’s a bit like Dutch Uncles now, but the sound was changing. So we came up with a name that was the oldest name that we had. It’s from a book that I have, I’ve got…in my dad’s book collection, I just remember this book, Dutch Uncle…it’s actually a play [a play by Simon Gray, CBE – ed.]. It just looked really nice written down, really! That’s about it.

Because I was under the impression that all of you were English. So I was wondering where the ‘Dutch’ part came from!
That’s another part of it. The choice of words suited what I thought – or where we all thought – band names were going. Band names are a trend, really. Everyone comes out with similar names at similar times. Like barely anyone has a definitive ‘the’ in the beginning of their names, it’s things like Flats. Or Errors. Or Neon Indian. Just too oddly matched words. Like Egyptian Hip Hop. Like Egyptian Hip Hop had, I wanted…it felt like a good idea to have a country name in there, like ‘Dutch’. Just trying to be interesting about it, really.
Now do you get really irritated one someone sticks a ‘the’ in front of Dutch Uncles (name)?
Yeah, but only on Spotify. When our tracks are down as ‘the Dutch Uncles’…well, our single is anyway (‘The Ink’). And there’s another band in America called the Dutch Uncles, and they’re horrifically different to us.
Well, I guess that means when you come over here to tour, you’re going to have to think up with a name…like add something to it like the Charlatans did (in America, Tim Burgess’s group is known as the Charlatans UK).
Yeah, we were talking about this before! I think it’s more of a case of we need to see where the two bands are by the time we get over to America. Because whoever can get over to the other person’s country first wins. Like, if they get over here before we get over there, then we’ll change our name to ‘Dutch Uncles UK’. If not, I want them to be ‘the Dutch Uncles US’! [laughs] Or even for Spotify to get it right! If we were just ‘Dutch Uncles’ (on Spotify), I’d be fine.
You know, we don’t have Spotify over here yet, so you’ve got them trumped…there you go!
[laughs] That’s bizarre!
Yeah, we’re a bit behind on the time. I would really love to have Spotify, because I’ll see an update on Twitter from a band that says, “come listen to this on Spotify!” and I can’t get to that site.
You’ve already got bands kind of choosing not to use Spotify until the very last minute already.
Oh really?
Yeah. And you can’t get any King Crimson on there, so it’s not that great.
So was it a conscious decision to put your music on Spotify? Was it ‘The Ink’ you put on there?
Yeah. The song was on a compilation, a Rough Trade compilation. But it’s spelled wrong. [laughs]
Have you put in a word to them to get it fixed?
Yep, already have.

So take me back to however many years to when you guys formed Dutch Uncles, or the band that preceded it with all the five members you have now. Had you all gone to school together?
We had, we were all at the same secondary school. But I didn’t meet them until college though. I failed my first year and started again and then met the other four. Then we started this band…I’ll just say it now. We were called the Headlines. That was our name, and it was so boring! We did it all very fast. Within a month we already had six songs, recorded our demo and got our first gig under our belt. So we were always moving fast and never gave ourselves the time to think of a good name. But yeah, we just kept at it, really, you know? We’ve been playing together as a five-piece…it’ll be 6 years. But obviously 2 years of that is Dutch Uncles. And I would say there’s a difference there because, you know, we had a gap year, we had college. We experimented a lot. We tried doing lot of different things. Like jazz.
Oh wow. [laughs]
It was a waste of time, really. We didn’t have a game plan. But Dutch Uncles is the game plan, it’s the business plan. So I like to say we’re a band of 2 years. With the wisdom of 6!

Have you always sang in bands? Was there a point when you were younger when you decided, “ok, I want to be a singer”?
No, there’s never been an aim. It was never an aim to do that. I had favourite singers in mind when I took up the role of being the singer, but apart from that…I got into music through drums. I would rather be a singer than a drummer now, because I’m a better singer than a drummer. I did theatre in school, so I knew about performing and stuff. No, it’s odd. Our first gig, it was really crazy. The fact that I was onstage and not acting as someone else. Because you’re up there as yourself.
Right. And you’re basically selling ‘the Dutch Uncles brand’, so to speak.
Yeah, when you’re gigging, you realise you are putting on something. With atmosphere. That’s what you’ve got to do. No-one’s ever really themselves onstage…
Well…
No no, I’m talking about a very small percentage of acting. Less than 5% you’ve got to exaggerate some things.
Especially when you’re the frontman. You’ve got to be the most ‘flamboyant’…[laughs]
Flamboyant is one word you could use…[laughs]
Uh, how about exciting? I’ve always thought the frontman always has the hardest job, because all eyes are on you. Do you get a lot of stage fright before you go onstage?
I think it’s all down to the lighting if I have a good gig or not. Which is an odd thing to say. I never really think of it as I have to pull off this and this, and I have to remember to do this at this point. There’s never really any formula to it. Put on the right clothes. That’s the important thing! The right clothes, the right lighting, that makes a great gig for me, no matter what. But the other thing is, I know all eyes are on me, as you say, but at this stage in our career…like you said, bands do so many other things, like Twitter, MySpace, and all this lot. There are so many other ways to communicate with fans other than just gigs that actually, I think a lot of the people in the gigs at the moment, they know more about Sped, Pete and Andy more than they do about me, because I don’t have a laptop or a videophone. I can’t get in touch with fans that way. But I don’t really want to. That’s their thing. I do the shows. I wouldn’t say it’s all eyes on me. Most of the time.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s a good thing. I kind of let it bounce off. I don’t kind of soak in. And the music is so complex, so everyone is watching how they play. So I never think everyone’s watching me at all times.

Let’s talk about the Dutch Uncles sound. I find it very difficult to explain to people what you sound like. As an American music blogger listening to a lot of English bands my friends over here ask me, “what are you listening to at the moment?” And now when I say “Dutch Uncles” and it’s hard for me to compare you, American band-wise, what you sound like. How would you describe your own sound?

Well…[exhales deeply] Good question. It’s been a while since we had to define it. The simple word would be maths pop. Especially with this second record. Our first record was much more of a compilation of tracks that weren’t necessarily coherent with each other. There was a very spiky flow to the album. But it was all the time signatures we used in the first album. What we’re doing with the second one is bringing some more flow between the tracks, and we’re using 4/4 (time signature). So for that reason I’d just say maths pop. Obviously we’ve got prog rock going here, there and everywhere, and I’ve been doing xylophone and vibraphone on this next album, so it’s got classical tinges in there as well in the instrumentation. But apart from that, it’s essentially maths pop.
The first time I’d heard you guys play live music was for Huw Stephens’s show (BBC Introducing on Radio1) back in…August?
In late July.
Yeah, and I was struggling (to come up with a comparison) and I thought of Field Music.
Whooo! [gives a double thumbs-up]
Is that a good comparison? Because I dunno…! I’ve never actually seen Field Music live.
I hear they go down really well in America.
Yeah, they do. Are there other bands on the scene now that you would compare Dutch Uncles to? Or would you say that you guys are your own thing?
I’d like to say we’re our own thing. I’d say the influences…in contemporary bands, we’ve taken…we have a lot of influence from the Strokes, but that was in our early days really , but it still lives in us. Because we still really like that band. But as you’ve seen the Strokes mature into this ‘thing’, we understand what they are and you can’t be influenced or completely rip them off anymore. Field Music are a major influence but we’ve taken a lot more from Steve Reich and minimal composers. And Kraftwerk. Obviously…even though they’re still going, they’re essentially a ’70s band. Stuff like that. And we like a lot of old bands. I really got into Yellow Magic Orchestra. It’s not really influenced the album but it’s influenced our taste and style. Which, again, is part of the songwriting, you know? It doesn’t have to be…oh, and Talking Heads. They’re not a direct influence. But at times they are, but most of the time it puts you in a state of mind for writing what you’ve written.

So you mentioned that for this second album, you want more flow between the songs.
Yeah.
Have you found while you’ve been recording this second album, are certain things coming easier to you during the writing/recording process?
Yeah. We’ve got fast tracks, slow tracks, in the middle of the road tracks! [laughs] The fast and the slow ones, like we’ve similar things in the past, we know what we did last time. We know what we want to do this time. Those are quite straightforward. All the songs have been written before we’ve actually come into the studio anyway, there’s been no pressure on the writing. It’s taken over a year to write this record. In a way, it’s kind of like a reborn first album, because we haven’t concentrated the writing process to, like, a month. That’s how kind of…a lot of bands when they get to….you look at Kings of Leon, for example. Obviously that’s a band that writes on the road. But I always imagine that when bands get to that fourth album, they go, “right, we’re gonna go into the studio for 2 months and whatever we write and record in those 2 months, that’ll be the album”. Because it’ll all sound similar.
Yeah, but then you lose a lot of the creativity in the process. And originality. To be honest, Kings of Leon isn’t my favourite band…
No, that was a bad example, bad example…but I like the idea of writing like that, because that’s how they did it back in the day. It showed real talent, for bands to be able to whack out an album. Like White Stripes. There’s a good example! Jack White, he just goes into the studio for a few weeks and comes out with the ‘Elephant’ album. He whistles a few tunes and suddenly they’re top 5 singles. But for this album, like I say, I want it to have the effect of a reborn first album.

Have you found any difficulties in this process the second time around? I know the first one you did in 2008…compared to that, have you found any difficulty in the fact that, well I’d say in my humble opinion that you’re sort of been thrust into the limelight a little. Now more people know about you. I did not know about you in 2008. I dunno, what do you think? Do you find any difficulty thinking about how you want album #2 to come out like in terms of the music scene these days?
Oh yeah, well I always regard whatever we do, there’s a scene, and there’s what we do. I don’t really consider us part of popular music right now. In terms of big pop and then there’s the alternative. Bands like Field Music, like you say, we don’t really worry about fitting into it all. I think we will. In 2010, the range of bands that came out shows that people want to listen to the weirdest thing they can. Like Yeasayer! You see how big that gets. We don’t have to fit. We just don’t want to sound too much like anyone else. We still want to know, “yeah, that’s Dutch Uncles. Definitely. You can tell by the signature sound”.

Stay tuned for part 2 coming up on TGTF next week!

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