Having served up the finest wonky pop for the best part of a decade, Dutch Uncles manage to raise the bar even further on newly-released fifth album Big Balloon. We talk to Duncan and Robin ahead of their show at Electric Circus on 1st March.
The title and cover design of Big Balloon are simpler than previous albums, and there seems to be a shift away from the strings, woodwind instruments, etc. that featured on O Shudder and Out of Touch in the Wild – has there been a move towards a more minimalist, streamlined style on this album?
Duncan: I wouldn’t say it’s minimalist, but we really wanted to translate what we can do on a stage this time around, restricting us to 6 instruments most of the time. We still had an itch to make 10 very different songs in regards to tempo and texture, so there’s still some strings and a teensy bit of marimba at the end. Also, our sampler ran out of space so we had to make it as guitar driven as possible for the sampler’s sake.
Your lyrical themes look at the human psyche and the issues that affect the average person in daily life, sometimes in a slightly removed/indirect way – does Big Balloon retreat further inwards or expand outwards in this sense?
D: I’d say that BB retreats. The general idea was for someone to be just talking to themselves, and suffering from their own reactions to events because they’re not reaching out to anyone else before settling on an opinion. Every song is sort of set after or before the actual event it’s referencing. There aren’t any songs set in the moment, really, though it’s hard to tell…
Do you channel your songs through the point of view of a character or are the experiences and thoughts entirely your own?
D: They’re mostly my own. It’s a habit I slipped into on the last album, and to be honest in many ways I hated the finished product that it led to. This time I felt I had to try it again, but make it less indecisive and wimpy. Where the last album was born in fear of what was coming next (approaching ‘30s blah blah), this album shrugs any expectations or worries straight off the shoulder really, but at the same time it can’t help but absorb the sadness and disappointment of the winners & losers mentality that’s crippling our society right now.
How do your musical influences find their way into your music? Is it usually fairly unconscious or do you ever borrow part of a melody and work it into your own?
Robin: It can be conscious or unconscious. There have been vibes or moods in certain songs that I have aimed to replicate, but there have also been plenty of times when I have been more subliminally influenced by something that I have listened to an awful lot. For example, I listened to Never For Ever by Kate Bush on repeat during the writing of O Shudder, but I’d say I subconsciously borrowed sensibilities rather than melodies.
How relevant do you think genres are in music?
R: I think it’s pointless to pigeonhole yourself in one or two genres. When there’s such room for cross-over, it can make writing and producing records so much more fun and rewarding. I particularly enjoy playing around with contemporary classical and minimalist ideals within popular music structures.
D: I think a decent name is all you need really.
When writing the album, how important was it to consider how the songs would translate in a live setting?
R: It was extremely important when working on this album. We struggled to play several tracks from O Shudder live because of the vast instrumentation and production we purposely put into that record. I wanted to make sure all the songs on Big Balloon were possible to play as a 6-piece band, before we went into the studio. We rehearsed a lot before recording as well to make sure the live energy translated onto record. Having five albums worth of material means that we can filter out any songs we hadn’t particularly enjoyed playing in the past…
D: There’s certainly a few songs I wouldn’t want to air out in public anymore. Usually ones where I’ve completely forgotten what I was going on about at the time, and just saying awkward things for effect. In other cases though I tend to change the lyrics if it’s just one or two bits that bother me, which I think is fun and makes the live show unique. The idea that you can still carve a song through performance is relieving, because the studio can be an emotionally stoic place and not always the setting for your best work.
What do you want to get from the album yourselves?
D: Redemption, as always.
R: We ideally want the songs from Big Balloon to become mainstays in our set for years to come, and firm live favourites.