Nearly a decade has passed since Manchester’s Dutch Uncles made their entrance on the scene with their self-titled debut album. However, the group’s newly released fifth album, Big Balloon, has critics calling it their best album to date. Shortly before the album’s release, Alex from Ashes to Ashes interviewed Robin Richards, bassist and main songwriter for Dutch Uncles, about the new record, “Dad rock,” and what advice he would have given to his 16-year-old self.
Image credit: Sebastian Matthes
Are you anxious, excited, or a bit of both now that the public will soon be able to hear the new album?
Mainly excited, as we’ve been sitting on the record for a few months waiting for it to come out. It feels like Big Balloon has just been ours since we finished it. After February 17th, it belongs to everyone.
The group recorded the album in Granada TV studios, where both the Sex Pistols and Joy Division made their TV debuts. What prompted recording the album there?
The recording studio within Old Granada Studios was on the brink of being demolished, when our producer Brendan Williams was invited down to look around and see if anything could be salvaged. The potential in this space was obvious to see, so when Brendan took charge of it and mentioned that we could get studio time there, we jumped at the opportunity. The space has a unique natural sound that we knew would compliment the direction in which our music was going in, and it was an honour to be the first band to record in there for several decades.
Was there a feeling of awe recording your album in such a setting?
We had all visited Granada Studios as children when it had been open as a theme park and offered tours of Coronation Street. Having access to the whole place whilst making the record was really exciting. I suppose there was a slight feeling of awe hearing about the artists who had recorded in the studio, but also, walking around the complex into other rooms with memorabilia that had contributed to televisual and northern culture was a fun addition to the recording process.
Speaking of Joy Division, as the group started up around Manchester, a city with a rich musical history, were there any local bands that you were in awe of, perhaps thinking that since they made it that maybe you could as well?
I think we would all cite The Smiths as our favourite Manchester band. They always made music on their own terms, and I think that was definitely an inspiration on the way we have approached our work too. Unfortunately, they split up before any of us were born, and it is extremely unlikely that a reunion would be on the cards…
At least based on the two singles off the new album (the title track and “Oh Yeah”), it certainly seems more propulsive than the last album, O Shudder; at least sonically. What would you say are the main differences between the new album and your past work?
O Shudder was very much a studio-based album, to the point that we had to work out how to play a few of the songs live after we’d recorded them. The densely layered arrangements on the record also meant that some songs were impossible to replicate. With Big Balloon, we wanted to make sure that we could play the songs as well as possible before going into the studio, so a lot more of the pre-production time was spent rehearsing full-band rather than behind a computer. We also wanted to inject some of the energy from our live show into the recording process, which probably allowed for tempos to increase naturally.
In describing the album’s musical inspirations, Big Balloon has been described as being influenced by “Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes, Low-era David Bowie, some slightly-less fashionable records belonging to their Dads and East European techno.” I’m curious, what are some of those less fashionable records belonging to your dads?
It’s mainly a lot of prog-rock records. Bands like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, ELP and yodelling Dutchmen, Focus were embraced during the making of this album.
The group have also described their sound as “Dad Rock.” Do you find yourselves to be perhaps unhip, or outside current musical tastes?
A lot of our fanbase is made up of Dads who appreciate our prog-rock sensibilities.
In terms of genre, do you find there’s even a purpose in trying to label your sound, or the styles of artists in general, because Dutch Uncles certainly has a sound that, while being pop, avoids obvious classification?
People will always want to categorize music and I don’t think it is necessarily an issue. We’ll settle for prefixes to pop such as prog-pop, art-pop or wonky-pop.
Are you excited to be sharing the new songs live in front of audiences?
Definitely. We feel like the songs are going to translate really well live, and integrating them with the older songs in the set is going to be a tricky, but interesting experience.
Do you prefer the writing and recording of your songs, or performing them in public?
That’s a difficult one. When we’re writing and recording, we are longing to be on the road and when we’re on the road we can’t wait to get back into the studio. Catch 22.
Do you feel like with your songs you’re not sure how good they are until you perform them live and get a reaction from the audience?
This has definitely been the case for songs we have played before live going into the studio to record them. During next month’s tour, we’ll be playing 6/7 songs from the new album that people will never have heard live. It is almost like an audition for those songs to see if they can remain in the set for the rest of the year along with live staples from the first four albums.
Lastly, it’s been nearly a decade since Dutch Uncles’ debut album. If you could go back in time to your younger self, what advice would you most want to share with that younger you?
Even though we were only 20 years old when we recorded the first album, we had already been playing together as a band for a few years. If I could go back and talk to my 16-year-old self when we started the band, I would tell him to always stick to his guns and always make music that he enjoyed first. If other people enjoy it too, that’s a bonus!
Big Balloon is out now via Memphis Industries. Watch the video for Dutch Uncles’ latest single “Oh Yeah” below.