It’s a warm, late-winter afternoon and Dutch Uncles are huddled inside The King’s Arms, a pub in Salford that hosts gigs, plays and even a Monday evening knitting society. Blending downtown squalor and home comforts, the pub has become the art-pop oddballs’ second home. Upstairs is the studio where they spent the tail end of 2014 polishing ‘O Shudder’, their fourth record, released earlier this year, which manages to be studious, bubbly, charming and antsy at the same time – all descriptors you’d assign the members themselves. Downstairs, on faded leather seats, the band – now down to four members after guitarist Daniel ‘Sped’ Spedding left last week [NME‘s photos were shot before his departure] – sit nursing pints of lager, trying not to catch anyone’s eye. “We still don’t know the bar staff,” admits singer Duncan Wallis, flashing a gold earring as he peers nervously at the bar. “But I’ve left it too late now. I can’t just go, ‘By the way, What’s your name again?’”
Like their idols Talking Heads, Dutch Uncles possess an eccentricity that’s symptomatic of their bewilderment with the outside world. Buried in their music is a deep alienation from our age of technology, austerity and social connectivity. Hammering the last point is ‘Upsilon’, a pinballing synth-pop tune that chronicles a teenager’s fumbled attempt to abandon social media. “The character realises they won’t get invited to anything,” Duncan observes, “because the only way to find out what’s going on socially now is on the internet.”
As if to illustrate warring voices in his head, Duncan sings darting between a tender croon and boyish mewl, while his alluring lyrics on ‘O Shudder’ toy with quarter-life quandaries such as sexual entanglements, extended adolescence and, on ‘Decided Knowledge’, a harsh rejection from the suits-and-ties world of job-hunting. Their approach, at once mysterious and mystifying, distinguishes the group from their brainy peers: where old tourmates Wild Beasts wax sensual and Everything Everything spin humour from 21st century disillusionment, Marple’s finest treat adulthood, romance and the modern condition like dark riddles to be untangled.
Still, for all their lyrical tricksiness and tendency to skirt a subject, Dutch Uncles don’t shy from bold statements. Shooting the video for lead single ‘In N Out’, a slinky tune about bedding a close friend, Duncan stripped naked to illustrate the sex-brained narrator’s vulnerability. “You do have to train up for that sort of exposure,” he admits, grinning. “You look at yourself in the mirror and go, ‘You look great. You look fucking great. Get out there and do it.’”
Last summer, deep in the Welsh valleys, Dutch Uncles set down their portable devices in order to start recording the follow-up to their breakthrough third album ‘Out Of Touch In The Wild’. Since their mathy 2009 debut, the band’s process hasn’t changed: Robin Richards, composer and bassist, recorded instrumentals at home (“usually to avoid doing something else, like changing the cat litter,” he says) before the band came in to “tear them apart”. What comes out are intricate pop symphonies complicated by funky swivels and busy, criss-cross rhythms, which ought to be as alienating as the metropolitan rat-race they seem to imitate. But rather than falling in a chaotic heap, the songs expertly flourish and weave.
The last puzzle-piece is Duncan’s lyric sheet, which he puts through a punishing boot camp, though months on from recording he’s still not satisfied with his work. “We didn’t plan for [‘O Shudder’] to be this voyage of doubt,” he muses today. “‘Babymaking’ starts the album by saying, ‘Question everything, and then think if you’re suitable to have kids’. It exposes a lot of my own weaknesses, but the only reason it’s about that is because when I heard the instrumental, I kept hearing the phrase ‘baby babies’ going round my head.”
“I always thought that one sounded quite optimistic,” offers drummer Andy Proudfoot.
“Yeah!” Duncan responds, lighting up. “It’s like when everyone’s got a negative impression of Nietzsche. But the only reason he’s saying ‘God is dead’ is because he’s saying the meaning of life is within the human. That kind of optimism’s definitely where I’m trying to get to.”
Central to the record’s doomed optimism are Duncan’s murky tales of sexual entanglements, with songs like ‘Drips’ and ‘Given Thing’ apprehending the deed in relatively blunt terms: “You need a bath? I’ll help you out”, he whimpers unconvincingly on ‘Drips’, before the latter song suggests “maybe it’s just a lovely stranger you need”. Given the romantic strife his songs address, do dating apps pose a brighter future? He frowns. “I find it quite remarkable how normal people accept a lot of this Tinder behaviour. I mean; it’s on everyone’s phone, so no-one talks. They all just sit around tables and have little Tinder parties, trying to see if these people are in the room. It comes back to the idea of gratification and narcissism. People need those very obvious acceptances.”
As validations go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more gratifying than Dutch Uncles received in 2013. Shortly after releasing ‘Out Of Touch In The Wild’, the band read an NME piece in which Paramore guitarist Taylor York namedropped them while discussing the emo overlords’ new material. “As soon as we saw the NME article, we were joking to ourselves, ‘That tour’ll come around soon!’” recalls Duncan. As it happened, it did. Three months after the story broke, the band cancelled their summer holidays and prepared to open Paramore’s European stadium tour.
For a few weeks that summer, Dutch Uncles were invincible. At one show, Pete, gripped by the moment, strutted onto a stagefront catwalk extravagantly bashing his electric marimbas, only to spot front-row kids so tightly packed in they were fainting from body-heat. “You’ve been queuing for five hours,” says Andy, “and then you’re gonna faint to us.” Another night, meandering towards their merch stand post-gig, the band were mobbed and hustled away by a flotilla of misty-eyed teens. “People would come up to us and scream, ‘Where’s Pete? Where’s Robin?’” laughs Andy. “I can imagine what was going through their heads,” Duncan adds: “‘Oh my God, Hayley Williams has touched them!’”
For your average indie-pop hucksters, it’d be the stuff of dreams. Instead, Dutch Uncles’ foray into superstardom taught them what dreams are really made of: paranoia, broken fantasies and good old self-doubt. One particular memory sticks: a chirpy, pre-pubescent Paramore disciple who immediately trained his sights on the plucky openers. “He’d already messaged us on Facebook, saying, ‘I don’t like you’,” remembers Duncan, affecting a menacing European drawl. “And we could see him in the crowd, because he had distinctive blonde hair. And quite a big beard for a 12-year-old.”
Adds Pete, “He said something like, ‘You may think you rock, but you don’t rock like Paramore’.” “You think the show’s great,” Duncan sighs, “but then it’s like, ‘No, there’s the 12-year-old with the beard’. Look, if he’s not rocking out, I’m not rocking out.”
If Dutch Uncles’ chronic self-awareness partly explains why their own fans won’t fill stadiums in a hurry, it’s also precisely where the love comes from. “Paramore were really surprised,” says Duncan, “because we were one of the first support bands they’ve had that weren’t mithering them all the time, trying to be mates.” He chuckles. “We were like, ‘Nah, we’re just five Louis Therouxs here. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts’.”
Besides, once the madness subsides, there’s always a cosy Salford pub where everyone knows your name. Even if you’re too shy to ask for theirs.