After six years of navigating the ebb and flow of success, DUTCH UNCLES are ready to launch the latest craft of their broadening appeal here at Sound City, and they’re wisely agreeable at the prospect of their ship finally coming in.
Manchester-based outfit have amassed a growing audience since breaking the mould with their rebellious 2011 sophomore album Cadenza. Now a staple of the Memphis Industries roster, the quintet have found a niche in propelling the legacy of sleek 80s art pop. Indebted to the ethics of new wave artists, they continue to embellish the heritage of progressive arrangements, unorthodox time signatures and melancholic pomp.
Much like their stylistic predecessors Talk Talk and Heaven 17, Dutch Uncles have sustained themselves with a buffer of respect in the form of a compelling back catalogue, and a collection of material that is now four albums deep.
80s nostalgia is in vogue for northern bands at the moment. Acts such as Everything Everything, Field Music, Wild Beasts, and Liverpool’s own Outfit have mined the sound of the decade with varying levels of success, tentatively gauging the spike between accessibility and creativity. To their credit, they all aim to challenge our perceptions of credible pop music, yet Dutch Uncles’ flexxin frontman Duncan Wallis impresses on us to distinguish his group from these smart-pop contemporaries.
“Every time we did take a look at our peers – who at the time we considered to be anyone from 2008 – they were either splitting up, starting a new project, or had broken through to a much wider audience, so in that sense it felt like we didn’t really have a crowd to stand out from at the time,” Wallis tells us.
Even now, when many bands are abandoning the influences of 80s avant-pop for the next incremental wave of cyclical nostalgia, Wallis remains loyal to his palette of rich, shimmering instrumentation. “I think the reason it sounds shimmery to other contemporaries is mainly down to the instrumentation on the album. It’s hard to come across as grungey or ‘on trend’ when you have a woodwind quartet rocking out in 15/8.”
Coming from the more affluent Marple area of Manchester, the group were always going to err on the side of sophistication. However, a leafy, suburban formation, and the possession of some intellectual pop nous, does not insulate an artist from the perils of modern life. Their new album, O Shudder, demonstrates this portrait of uncertainty.
“The reason we titled the album O Shudder was in reaction to the idea of establishing yourself as a mature person,” Wallis explains. The album confronts the experiences, desires and expectations of the average 30-something. Each song documents the trials and tribulations of modern life: family planning is touched on in Babymaking; job satisfaction and employment are drawn on in Decided Knowledge; self-doubt is manifested in I Should Have Read, and all are channelled through Wallis’ transmission of cathartic inner-monologuing.
Long-term collaborator Brendan Williams has lovingly produced the album across various locations in Salford and the Welsh Valleys. Although the band have reigned in the erratic and indulgent tendencies that characterised previous release Out Of Touch In The Wild, the new album still harbours the complex timbres to which their audience are accustomed: marimbas, harp, xylophone, strings and woodwind arrangements have all been thrown into the mix. Outgoing guitarist Daniel Spedding has been replaced by a new keyboardist, Henry Broadhead, who ultimately provides the group with greater scope to exploit their material, as Wallis explains: “The material on O Shudder relies on a lot more synth action, which has brought a new dynamic to the live show already. And all of our old material was missing a line when we played it live before anyway, so whenever we play an old song now we can just say to Henry to play the line that’s on the record that none of us have a spare hand to play. So we’re finally playing songs as they are on record.”
In 2013, Dutch Uncles were bizarrely plucked from the UK indie landscape to support power punk behemoths Paramore on their lavish European jaunt. The strange bedfellows, who claim to be profoundly influenced by the Mancunian band, have subsequently exposed our jaunty brood to a lucrative new market.
“Their audience was a big eye-opener for us as well because they were surprisingly welcoming and made a hell of a noise,” says Wallis of the experience. “I don’t think we ever had a difficult moment with them, which made us realise the potential of our material.”
The capacity for Dutch Uncles to have genuine appeal with a wider audience throws cold water on the idea the band are operating within a cottage industry. Although it would be naïve to think that O Shudder will be the breakthrough record for a band seemingly camped out in the waiting room of pop’s elite, the album does have some moments that are reminiscent of the genre’s seminally influential icons. Drips could be an extension of Prefab Sprout’s anthology, while Given Thing and I Should Have Read could easily pass as Talk Talk territory.
Those who have diligently appraised the band’s more recent material may have noticed an excellent cameo from Liverpool stalwarts Stealing Sheep. The quirky trio are featured as backing vocalists on definitive track Be Right Back, an agnostics’ ode to nihilism. Wallis hints at revisiting this collaboration on Sound City’s Atlantic Stage. “This will be our first show in Liverpool since the release of O Shudder, so it’s going to be different enough in terms of material, and if the Sheepies fancy joining us for an extra-special sing-song at the end then that’s going to be a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Plus our puppet Muncan might join us onstage as well if he feels like it.”
This Sound City performance comes as part of a run of the band’s biggest headline shows to date. Alongside absorbing their new material, dyed-in-the-wool supporters can also expect to be rewarded with renditions of their now-vintage repertoire. “We’ve definitely warmed to the idea of playing material off our first ‘German’ album again since the last time we toured,” Wallis confirms. “I don’t know why that is, it’s probably an indulgent mix of wanting to re-live moments in the band that were genuinely carefree, and also a vain hope of provoking some hardcore fans.”
It takes a certain level of maturity to see that refining your sound is the best way to make the next step forward, rather than throwing more layers on top. In O Shudder Dutch Uncles have achieved this, while retaining all the enthusiasm of their precocious teenage selves. The past is safe in their hands.