Dunstan Bruce still dreams of revolution: Interrobang‽ Interviewed
Dunstan Bruce is a man in his 50s, discontent to slip quietly to the wings: full of wise saws and modern instances, he still has a part to play centrestage. His lines have changed – from anarchopunk insurrection to the private browsing of middle-aged concerns – but he still dreams of revolution. His Interrobang‽ are releasing a storming, poignant, eponymously titled album (reviewed here) and they’re off on a DIY tour with a difference. Cassie Fox talked to him about such things.
Louder Than War: Who’s this album for then?
I started writing this album when I turned 50. I’d reached a point where I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life. I felt as if I was treading water. I felt like I’d lost direction. I wasn’t particularly happy and I just wondered where I was going and what I was doing. And it was at a time where there were lots of bands reforming as nostalgia acts and it was really, really irritating! I found it strange that there were all these bands of people in their 40s and 50s singing songs they wrote when they were teenagers or in their twenties. And that’s fine, but it wasn’t really speaking to me – I found that really unrewarding. I remember when all that sort of thing started I went to see a few bands like Wire, and they did the old stuff, and then pretty quickly after that they started to do new stuff and that really made me think about the idea that you can still try to be relevant and do something contemporary. Wire were a classic example of a band who could still be going on tour, playing those two old albums, and there are bands who do do this all the time. For me, it’s not rewarding at all. I wanted to do something that said something to our generation about our situation now. Cos I didn’t believe that I could be the only one that felt like I did. When you hit may be regarded as middle-age, you do wonder about how relevant you are and how invisible you become to the rest of the world. So I thought it was important to talk about the things that were happening to me as I get older, and how I fit in in the world.
Do your audiences seem to relate to this?
There’s a song on the album about my relationship with my dad, which wasn’t a particularly good relationship. He died in the ’90s. I wrote this song about how we didn’t really communicate that well, and I thought it was fascinating, doing the song live and having men of a similar age come up to me and say, “Wow, that song!” – and then tell me their experience with their dad. And that’s something I never expected to happen! Men, of a certain age, opening up, to other men at a gig and talking about their dads. That blew me away, it was a really powerful thing. Much more so than getting up on stage and shouting about something that’s a bit more polemical. As much as I love getting up and shouting “unrest is progress, contentment death” it doesn’t impact on people as much as getting up and singing about your dead dad does. I found that a really rewarding experience. I thought that reflected the way that my way of approaching the world, and politics, and what was achievable, has changed as well.
Tell us about this tour that’s coming up
I set up the tour myself, getting in touch my promoters all round the country. I found an enormous amount of goodwill from a lot of people who might have thought that Dunstan Bruce had sold out back in the day and wouldn’t want anything to do with him. I found people really forgiving and interested in what I’m doing now. Maybe that’s because it is going back to a grassroots sort of thing, going back to basics – I don’t know. But I thought, yeah, this is brilliant we’re doing a tour, it’s what I always wanted to do, to put our name on an album and do a tour! But then I didn’t want it to just be part of a rock ‘n’ roll circus; I didn’t want to be going out and doing gigs just for the sake of doing gigs. So I decided that I wanted each gig to be something involving the local community in each place we played. So I contacted all the promoters we were playing with saying at each gig we’ll have collection for a local homeless charity, or for refugees. The response from all the promoters has been incredible – they’ve all come on board with it. It really feels like what we were doing wasn’t just a an isolated, one-dimensional experience – we wanted it to mean a bit more than that and involve more people.
I notice you’re involving lots of female bands on the tour…
It’s hard to say this to you … how inspired I was by Loud Women, but that’s part of it! [Cassie Fox, your interviewer here, runs Loud Women, an organisation promoting and supporting women in grassroots music scene.] Coming across this really fantastic organisation, you may have heard of … Going to various Loud Women gigs and festivals, and being totally inspired by that, and thinking – I don’t want to be playing gigs where it’s just a load of blokes getting up on stage. Blokes are largely quite boring: you know what you’re going to get, they’re largely quite traditional. I just wanted to organise a tour where there were women on stage as well. It seemed – particularly in this day and age – like it was an essential part of what we were doing. Being in Chumbawamba where there were three women in that band who were a huge part of the organisation. There were some really strong female role models in that band, so that’s always been my experience. So it’s weird now being in a band where there’s no women.
It doesn’t smell as nice does it?
That’s really true. Cos I’ve been on tour with The Levellers and that’s a real olfactory challenge I can tell you. The atmosphere is complete different as well. It’s so much nicer. I just love women, me. I prefer being with women than being with men, they’re far better company and they’re far more fun!
How did you record the album?
We spent ages working up these songs, me and Griff [Stephen Griffin, Interrobang‽’s famazing guitar genius]. It started when … I’d starting writing some words but I didn’t know what I was going do with them, and he said I’ll provide a sort of ‘music scape’ thing. He was experimenting with doing this loop thing with guitars so it was just fortuitous that we were both trying to start something at the same time. So it took us a very very long time – we were creating stuff in GarageBand and passing it back and forth and just creating songs through that. Griff would send me loads of loops and I’d choose ones which fit with certain lyrics, and then we’d work out chorus bits. So it was quite a long process of stuff going backwards and forwards, and then we got in a room with a drummer and tried to work things up that was. Each of us was responsible for our own instrument – it was up to me to work out what I was going to say and how I was going to say it, and it was up to Griff to work out what he was going to do guitarwise. When Harry [Hamer, also formerly of Chumbawamba] came along it just massively clicked into place and we knew we had something that was going to work. We decided we would play live for a year as much as possible. Then we went into a studio and recorded loads of demos, and some of them came out as a couple of singles, so then we went back into the studio and recorded everything live at Chairworks up in Castleford. Griff did all the loops live. We’ve been talking to Grant Showbiz – he’s worked with The Fall and Billy Bragg and The Smiths and stuff like that – and he suggested this way of us recording it, which was to do with how we mic’ed the room up and how we could get the best out of doing it live. So we sort of followed his instructions and he was really helpful. So then we handed the album over to Richard Formby. He’d worked with – I dunno, some band that has horses in the name … [he means Wild Beasts] … we handed it over and left it up to him to mix it. In Chumbawamba we always mixed everything ourselves, but this was quite liberating, handing it over to someone to see what they come up with – and fortuntately we really liked what he came up with. He totally got what we were trying to do. What I’ve found is that people really do understand and acknowledge the importance of the lyrics – we’re no a band who just write lyrics just to fit in the song – the lyrics are the important bit of what we do.
Does the album reflect your live show?
Live we’re a lot … ‘rockier’, no that’s not the right word … just louder – it’s more intense. I made a decision early on that I wanted it to be a performance rather than being the sort of band who came on stage and chatted with the audience – I was so anti-banter at the time, I thought we’re not going to do that! I’d just watched this documentary about Kevin Rowland from Dexys and he’d said he doesn’t play gigs cos he wants to be mates with the audience – and that’s a bit extreme, but I like the idea! From past in Chumbawamba I’m used to that theatrical thing. So that’s why we wanted Interrobang‽ to be a performance. We get the songs to run from one to the other, I say as little as possible to the audience, so it’s like we’re at a theatre and I won’t break out of character. Me and Griff on stage aren’t like me and Griff off stage – we’re completely different characters. I do get told a lot of time that I’m really intimidating and I seem really aloof and I think how I perform in Interrobang‽ certainly reinforces those things. Whereas, off-stage I would see myself as a lot more cuddlier than that. We thought about what we like in going to see bands, and you want to take the best elements of that. We did a mood board before Interrobang‽ started! The stuff that was on the mood board was things like 1970s Dr Feelgood, Wire, Gang of Four, Fugazi, No Means No. All these sort of bands that were really intense in the way they played, and we wanted to be part of that sort of lineage in Interrobang‽. You know, if you were organising a night out and you wanted to have a laugh, I don’t think you’d necessarily want to come to an Interrobang‽ gig, but if you wanted a visceral, intense experience, you would!
We’re starting on another record. We wanted the next record to be quite different to what we’ve just done: this album is quite an intense ‘watching us perform’ sort of album, and I think I’d like to do something where it’s a bit more like, I dunno, people moving their feet a little bit more. Something a bit more dancey, or a bit more … I wouldn’t say ‘good time’, cos I know I’m still writing lyrics that are still as miserable as they are on this last album, I think we’ll just present them in a different way. So we’ll do a different kind of album. Which weirdly is the philosophy that Chumbawamba had as well I suppose – we were always moving on. For me and Griff it’s taken us a long time to get this album done so I think we feel we should be doing something that’s a new challenge now.
Dunstan Bruce’s Interrobang‽ launch their eponymous album on Friday 30 March
Find Interrobang‽ at interrobangband.co.uk and catch them live on tour:
Fri 30th March TODMORDEN Golden Lion with Liines
Sat 31st March WELLINGBOROUGH Horseshoe Inn with Eastfield. Wreckage
Sat 14th April SCUNTHORPE Café Indiependent with Eight Rounds Rapid, Addictive Philosophy