Dutch Uncles: ‘If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have left the band’
For many bands, lockdown was an inconvenience. But for Dutch Uncles, it was a time of reflection and reconnection that prevented them from splitting up.
Back in March 2022, I met frontman Duncan Wallis and bassist Robin Richards at Stretford Food Hall to find out how their sixth album was coming along, only to discover that it nearly didn’t happen. We were in the exact location where Wallis nearly quit the band.
“I think if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have left the band”, the lead vocalist revealed.
Dutch Uncles formed in 2008, when the indie scene was booming. Their first few managers were obsessed with getting them signed to a major label, which Wallis said was like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
Comfortable with their cult status and proud of their quirky sound, Dutch Uncles released five albums between 2008 and 2017 that bookended their twenties. Now, six years later, some of the band are married with children, and they are all ready for their sixth album, True Entertainment.
But just before the pandemic, they felt differently.
One day, the band met at Stretford Food Hall to talk about their podcast, Chips of Chorlton. Wallis had started to feel uncomfortable discussing his industry experiences on the podcast because they had not released anything for a while. He believed that if they wanted to keep up the podcast, they needed to make another album, but this process they had done five times before was proving difficult.
“The trends were getting further and further away from what we naturally do. It felt like every day that goes by that we’re not doing something, it felt more like five days”, said Wallis.
“I kept asking Rob to try different ideas, and he was giving me the goods every time. But I still didn’t know what to write. I didn’t know what my position was supposed to be. Politically everything was fucking kicking off, like Brexit and Trump. It felt like a time of different voices coming through, and not essentially four white guys from Chorlton, which without getting too identity political, I think there’s definitely some weight to that. It wasn’t really a time for bands like us to be like: ‘Oh, you know what the problem is’. It just didn’t sit right with me. So in my head, I was like: ‘I might just leave the band.’”
The frontman was looking for a departure date, but the first lockdown stopped him in his tracks. All of a sudden, he had time to write, revisit demos and try again.
“I stopped writing lyrics for years, but Rob, being the diligent composer, never stopped writing music”, Wallis said. “Rob, if you’d done the same thing that I’d done, we probably would have been fucked.”
For many bands, lockdown was tough. But weirdly, it blessed Dutch Uncles with time that prevented them from splitting up.
During lockdown, the band took part in Tim Burgess’ listening parties, which helped them to rekindle a love for their previous releases. “It was like: ‘Oh it was quite fun making that record’, and: ‘These tunes are okay’”, recalled Richards. “It got the buzz going a bit more between us.”
The listening parties also reminded the band of how appreciated they were by fans, who kept asking how they were and if they were still together.
Two years later, Richards said their fans are just as eager. “I put a picture on Instagram of us at the football and this guy responded: ‘Stop fucking around and get back in the studio’. Little does he know”, he chuckled.
The first song that came together for the upcoming album was about an experience Wallis had in Glasgow in 2019, when the question of leaving the band was heavily on his mind.
“There was a real duality of: ‘Wow, I’m in such a beautiful place’, which is built on music that I love. Yet, I’m considering destroying my own chance of being part of that creation”, he explained.
“When I got the first four lines, it was like: ‘Oh god, I’m in fucking bits here’. That’s when you know you’re onto something heartfelt and sincere.”
After that, an idea called I’m Not Your Dad came along. This was Wallis’ eureka moment. “Once you have that song that you’ve written in five minutes, you know that you can do this.”
Helping Wallis and Richards was guitarist Pete Broadhead, who got more involved with the initial song writing process than ever before.
“[Broadhead] would first get the vibe, rather than the harmonies. He’d send an idea, and then I’d shape the chords to make it make more sense as a song”, Richards explained.
Overall, the album has a collective theme. “It’s all about reconnections”, said Wallis. “Which I think might be a result of not doing it for so long. I think on your sixth album, you are allowed to get self-referential without it being too absurd.”
The album begins with the title track, and like a lot of songs on their 2008 debut, it is written as a character piece. This lyrical approach previously prompted Wallis to take inspiration from people he knew. But when he started singing along to True Entertainment on his way to a band meeting, Wallis realised he was singing about himself.
“I have a very public facing role outside of the band. I do pub quizzes and karaoke, and I love doing that stuff. But at the same time, there’s always a sense of disappointment or awkwardness when people recognise you from what you’ve done outside of that. They just see an Alan Partridge type figure.
“True Entertainment is about those awkward exchanges, and it’s an embellishment of the character that people think that I’ve become in my time away.”
The frontman added: “I took a bit of a gamble on the chorus. It has a bizarre reference to one of the most sung choruses of the 21st century, in a way that’s a bit like: ‘What was that?’”
Reflecting on his character pieces, Wallis said: “I think on previous albums I’ve probably been too honest whenever I’ve written anything from my own perspective. I kind of squint when I hear it back. But even though this one should be the most embarrassing, because I know it comes out of this misunderstanding of what is an awkward situation, it’s quite freeing.”
Wallis also described the album’s closer as “quite self-exposing” and “very partridge”. It was influenced by some of the unfair judgements they have received over the years.
“We’ve had a good run of nine songs. Let’s just take a big dump on it now in terms of lyrical integrity.”
Dutch Uncles recorded True Entertainment at Giant Wafer Studios in Wales, where they also worked on Out of Touch in the Wild (2013) and O Shudder (2015).
“With Giant Wafer, there was a sense of assuredness. Self-producing, you need to be comfortable and to have some comforts, in terms of the gear you’re working with and the atmosphere”, explained Wallis.
The studios had changed quite a bit since 2015. Wallis and Richards noted the library was bigger, as was the collection of Star Wars memorabilia, including a Yoda head that would watch over them in the mixing room.
“It was just a couple of mugs when we first went there and going back, it was like: ‘Oh, more figurines, posters, heads.’”
On the first night, Wallis took on the role of “drunken house husband”, as he made everyone pasta and lager-ritas. “I’m not like Freddie Quell in The Master. I don’t know how to utilise paint thinner. It’s just very potent.
“It really knocked everyone sideways on the second day, but after that, everyone was like: ‘Dunc, you gonna make any more?’. I was like: ‘The time will come. I don’t think it’s wise at this point.’”
In their spare time, they enjoyed watching football matches and Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back documentary.
Wallis recalled: “It was really strange watching Paul McCartney going off to say: ‘Well I’ve got to practice my piano now boys’. And I’d be like: ‘Shit, I gotta do the same thing. See ya later boys.’”
Videographer and friend of the band, Nick Middleton, spent three days at Giant Wafer filming a behind the scenes project to show how the band work.
Despite Middleton not being a musician, he got involved in the recording process. “They just said: ‘Nick, come and play this’. So I played some bells and shouted into a piano.
“You feel like you’re collaborating. It’s not just like I’m there.”
Middleton, who directed the music video for True Entertainment, expressed his excitement to work on visuals for the band again. And he is not the only one who can’t wait for the experiences that come with the sixth album’s release.
Richards said: “I’m really excited for it to happen again because it was such a big part of our lives for so long.”
True Entertainment will be released on March 10, 2023. Pre-order now.