By the time I picked up the phone to reach Dunstan Bruce, I’d given the eponymous LP by his new band Interrobang‽ nigh on three listens, and was loving it. In the words of the mighty Stump – somewhat channeling dolphins in late-80s cult indie hit, Buffalo – ‘Exclamation mark, click-click-click …’
I say nearly three listens because our agreed time-slot crept up on me like mid-life itself (tick-tock, tick-tock) before I could get to the album’s climax, hitting pause and dialling his number after blasting out track 12 of 14, Billingham, a love letter of sorts to his County Durham hometown. It’s not obviously a love letter. The chorus makes that plain. As he puts it on the record, ‘We’ll never see eye to eye, oh Billingham,’ adding, ‘You don’t even know where you are!’
It’s been a while since my last visit to that part of Teesside, getting on for 15 years, taking me back to my newspaper days, reporting on an FA Cup preliminary-round tie between Billingham Synthonia and Chorley in August 2003. To paraphrase yer man, ‘I’ve never seen ICI’ since, but liked the Synners’ Central Avenue base well enough, and folk were definitely friendly. I guess it’s different if it’s the place you spent difficult formative years though. Maybe it’s just kind of complicated.
“It is, yeah. Well, you know what it’s like, the place you’re from … how that relationship is.”
I won’t say much more, hoping you find out for yourselves, but Billingham is one of many highlights on a blisteringly-delivered debut LP, with vocalist Dunstan, drummer Harry ‘Daz’ Hamer (who served alongside ‘Dunst’ in Chumbawamba throughout the band’s 1982-2004 period) and guitarist Stephen ‘Griff’ Griffin (ex-Regular Fries) on top form. Does Brighton-based Dunstan still regularly revisit his North-East roots?
“I do. My Mum and sister live there. I pop up and see them every now and again.”
When I called he was at home on the South coast, ‘folding lyric booklets for the tour’. And I mentioned how he came up in my recent interview with fellow Brighton-based frontman Mark Chadwick, of The Levellers, for whom he made 2012 documentary film A Curious Life.
“Chumbawamba played with The Levellers back in the ‘90s, so I knew them from way back. We had a lot in common, both with something to say in our music and vilified by the music press for one reason or another. We were fighting in the same corner, I suppose. I later had the opportunity to do some work with them, turning that into a documentary.”
“My partner, Daisy Asquith, is a filmmaker, and we set up a production company about 10 years ago. I started helping her produce films, then got an opportunity to go to China with Sham 69, the first thing I directed.”
Ah, I was intrigued by that project, This Band Is So Gorgeous, following the group as they became ‘the first British punk band to tour China’.
“That you cannot see! There are now two Sham 69s, one of whom owns the music and the other of whom don’t. I was stopped from releasing the film because Jimmy Pursey didn’t want it to come out, as it wasn’t about his Sham 69. There’s now an official and original Sham 69, and I got caught in the middle … through no fault of my own.”
It all gets a bit messy with these outfits sometimes, and doesn’t always end with big hugs all around, seemingly getting messier on the scale from The Beat through to UB40 …
“Yeah … and Buck’s Fizz.”
Well, they were always going to be next on my list, I suggested. Getting back on subject though, there’s a feature-length history of Chumbawamba out there too, the splendidly-titled, Well Done, Now Sod Off, having gone down well at Leeds’ International Film Festival in 2000, winning an audience prize. And true to the band’s ethos, it was self-released and sold via their own website, the group opting for DVD-R rather than a silver, factory-pressed DVD. But I’m trying to avoid mentioning Chumbawamba too early in the conversation.
Am I right in thinking Dunst was also involved with Sound It Out, the acclaimed 2011 documentary about the ‘last surviving vinyl record store in his native Teesside’?
“I had a very small involvement, but Jeanie Finlay, who made it, very kindly gave me an executive producer credit.”
His film-making empire is no longer based at The Levellers’ Metway HQ in Brighton, but he’s still nearby, although there’s a link more in line with Chumbawamba’s Yorkshire roots with his new band.
“I’m in Brighton while Griff and Harry are in Leeds, and I used to live there, so I’ve got good reason to go back.”
Do they tend to send music files to each other via the internet then?
“That’s how we started. Griff was sending musical ideas and I was putting vocals over the top, cut it up then send it back, then he’d re-record and so on. Then we got into a room and developed it from there.”
Dunstan, Griff and Harry describe themselves as ‘hard-faced macho dandies shouting about the intellectual’s mid-life crisis, irrelevance with relevance, and that relentless dream of revolution!’ In so doing, ‘Dunstan’s laid-bare confessional of sorts is perfectly accompanied by Griff’s sharp-staccato guitar loops and Harry’s tight as a squirrel’s ass drums.’ And altogether it’s deemed, ‘Perfect stuff for any self-respecting chin-stoking-pogo-er with a relentless tendency for reflection and revolution’.
The frontman himself adds, “We came together as Interrobang‽ with a clear vision to create something that is current and relevant; something that speaks to our generation who grew up in the shadow of punk, with hopes and dreams, full of rebellion. What happened to that spark? How do we express our anger now? How relevant are we? How do we make ourselves heard and where do we fit in now? This isn’t comfortable or retro; we reject wholeheartedly the idea of nostalgia, we refuse to live in the past, there’s no misty-eyed looking back; this is all forward, forward motion.”
That certainly comes across on their explosive first album, which grips you from the moment they launch into the introductory Here Now – with Dunstan’s spoken-word delivery as sharp as his suits throughout – and The Inclement Weather, his body clock frantically ticking away on this life journey. This is poetry as a life-force, the sound of the words and his enunciation perfectly complemented by Griff and Harry’s backing vox and instrumentation, each integral to a fulsome sonic experience.
On Asking for a Friend our frontman sounds like Salford poet Mike Garry fronting The Blue Aeroplanes, getting with the programme as he asks, ‘I haven’t actually checked, but is this trending yet?‘ Then, for Are You Ready, People? we change direction around the minute-mark, the call-and-response shouty vocals keeping the energy levels topped up.
Another gear is found on Mad as Hell, our man venting his spleen dramatically, forcefully proclaiming, ‘I’m sick to death of being asked to keep calm,’ over Diggle and Shelley-like guitar. But if that’s about Dunst being ‘angry, still angry’, there’s a surprising calmness to Curmudgeon, for all its underlying tension. It’s more reflective than you’d expect, but all the more powerful for it, our host exuding understanding as he paints a picture of, ‘A grumpy curmudgeon in a state of high dudgeon.’
For Music of the Gross, Griff is back to the fore with a wondrous six-string assault on the senses, on the album’s most Fall-like song. And by the time I reach Taciturn I realise they never overstay their welcome, another track done and dusted before three minutes are up. Then, on Do You Remember? Dunstan takes us all back again, this time borrowing from The Mekons’ mighty ’78 moment, Where Were You?
For Love It All, we get more Cooper Clarkesque one-liners, DB telling us, ‘I’ve got to tell you at this point, I never craved to be an astronaut. I was always too down to earth (for what it’s worth).’ And while we’re talking word mastery, Harry’s insistent beat sets up an echo of the Buzzcocks’ Everybody’s Happy Nowadays on Based on a True Story, Dunst confiding, ‘I’m not too scared to admit I think about my own obituary. I contemplate its contents consistently, it comes with the territory. There’s a playlist written in my head, says all there is to be said about me. Poignant, pithy, full of prose, that will bring this life to a close, precisely.‘ Genius.
It’s at that point that we head off to Billingham, the cry going out, ‘Man overboard, abandon hope!‘ And then we’re away on two more high-points, the spirit of the concept at this album’s heart there on Breathe, Dunstan soul-searching, asking, ‘If it’s a question of curiosity, what’s gonna happen when I hit 60? Will I still be hungry? Will I still be angry? And will I still have the energy?‘ Then, Griff and Harry are tight as hell as we depart in style in punk rock riff regality on Am I Invisible Yet? But before he becomes a memory, our man poignantly points out, ‘This is someone who was someone once‘.
On their website, the band mention a ‘mood-board’ of influences. and I tell my interviewee I’m not surprised to find Wire, Dr Feelgood and The Fall hanging there. What’s more, I tell him I hear late ‘70s Pete Shelley on something like Mad as Hell, and the afore-mentioned John Cooper Clarke there and thereabouts.
“Oh wow, well, that’s what I grew up with.”
He adds to that initial list names like Gang of Four, Grinderman, Sonic Youth, Art Brut, MC5, Fugazi, and ‘that sort of thing’. Meanwhile, I mention those Mekons signposts on Do You Remember? and ask how aware he was of chenneling that band – another with Leeds roots. His response? “Oh, of course. I rip that line off! I make no denial of that. We have Mekons connections, and Interrobang‽ played Mekonville, while Jon Langford’s a fan of what we’re doing.”
Getting back to those band descriptions, they also call themselves an ‘angry motorik loop-driven post-punk rock three-piece,’ creating their ‘very own agit-punk-funkstorm,’ citing an ‘angular, taut, urgent, pulsating and intense’ vibe, ‘tight, terse and to the point’. I should try adding my own description, but they put it so well.
I can see all that, I tell him, but will he allow me to let on to the world that this is – for all intents and purposes – a concept album?
“Yes, of course. It is, weirdly, a concept album. You’re totally right – you busted me!”
While the concept in this case is the midlife crisis, it’s a far more pro-active one. Don’t expect Dunstan to go out and get a tattoo, buy a Harley Davidson, or embark on some extra-marital affair. For him, it seems to be more about frustration that – for all those youthful ideals – things haven’t really moved on, politically, with this performer clearly not yet willing to slip into middle-age.
“What happened was that I started writing this around about when I turned 50, thinking about how I fitted into the world, what my role was, and what you could possibly achieve as a 50-something Dad and what you’re doing with your life. Do you still have a voice? And are you relevant? Songs like Am I Invisible Yet? are about trying to deal with becoming less and less relevant as you get older.”
Well, I’ve just hit 50, and I certainly get it. But when he talks about his inner Curmudgeon, ‘not much of a talker,’ is that really him?
“That’s about my Dad, and what I might have inherited from him. I’ve spent a lifetime battling that and now I’ve reached a point where … basically, that song’s about my dad dying and what happened then.
“It was quite a cathartic thing and helped bring a little bit of closure to my relationship with him. He died in the ‘90s, and that made me think about my relationship with him, and how he was from another generation and all he was doing was trying his best. He had a hard childhood and was of an age where Dads were not that pleasant … and he felt incredibly guilty about that.”
Dunstan, whose father was a fireman in Billingham, has teenage children of his own these days, aged 13 and 15, who he reckons are, ‘happy but suitably unimpressed with what I’m doing!’
Well, I reckon they’ll appreciate his worth soon enough, and while I’m at it, there are some neat post-punk style riffs here. How do they write though, so far apart? What comes first?
“I started writing when me and Griff had the idea, him thinking he’d do the music, providing me with the sounds. I told him what I wanted and he really wanted to engage with it and concentrate on that. We’ve always given each other freedom – he never questions what I write, and I don’t question what he comes up with. We both have a respect for each other’s creativity. The hard bit is getting it all together.”
You were working on a spoken-word existential project before, I believe.
“Yeah, I did that because Interrobang‽ couldn’t necessarily play all the time, so I had that outlet, a different way of presenting it – the same sort of thing but done a different way, which I think nowadays you can sort of do. I didn’t feel restricted by the band line-up.”
It certainly works in this form too, and while I’ve already mentioned JCC or fellow Salfordian performance poet Mike Garry guesting with The Blue Aeroplanes, elsewhere it could be Mark E. Smith fronting Dr Feelgood. In short, it’s right up my street. I love the name too, and can’t believe that was still on the shelf, as it were.
“Well, we had to use it with the symbol at the end. We do occasionally get messages for a rap band from Liverpool and possibly another in America, something I hadn’t realised at the time.”
So is it having the interrobang at the end of the interrobang that defines you?
“Yeah! And I love that symbol. It was that, graphically, that attracted me in the first place, the idea of seeing that everywhere. Then, finding the dictionary definition – the combination of the question mark and exclamation mark just seemed perfect for what we were trying to do, being appalled by, and at the same time questioning, the state of the world. It’s the perfect combination and works really well for what we’re doing and what I’m saying.”
That definition, by the way, is of a ‘non-standard punctuation mark used in various written languages and intended to combine the functions of the question mark and exclamation mark (known in printers’ and programmers’ jargon as the ‘bang’). A sentence ending with an interrobang asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question. For example: What‽ What the fuck‽’
While Dunstan has made it clear he’s not one to dwell on the past, almost inevitably I ask about his past in Chumbawamba, a band described in the Interrobang‽ blurb as an ‘anarcho-pop-cabaret troupe’. Besides, it is him sharing vocals on 1997 hit, Tubthumping.
“I totally embrace that, and I’m proud of that. It allowed us to do a lot of things as a band that we’d always dreamed of doing, having that platform, being able to say something in the mainstream media. It was a wonderful opportunity and led on to other things. That was about songs we wrote in our 20s, while we’re trying to talk to this generation, although a lot of those people grew up in the shadow of punk. A lot of our references are from the past, but what we’re saying is contemporary.”
There’s a quote from Interrobang‽ saying, ‘We all know by now that just singing a politically-righteous song isn’t going to change the world. In fact, as some band back in the ’80’s once said, ‘The music is not a threat; action that music inspires can be a threat.’ With that in mind, it seems that this LP is on some levels an extension of Tubthumping. If that was about the resilience of the ordinary man, perhaps this album is about hitting back, not just putting up with constant knocks.
“That’s a good way of looking at it. A nice connection. I like that idea.”
And how does this compare his pre-Chumbawamba existence in Men in a Suitcase?
“Ha! That was just about being inspired by punk and that whole idea that anybody could be in a band, anyone can do it – stop being impressed by musicianship and the fact that there’s a distance between bands and audience, get up there and do it yourself. Men in a Suitcase was really just one of my first fumbling attempts to get up on a stage, that desire to get up there and create something.”
What’s more, how does it work live, if he’s not playing an instrument? There’s no doubting the power of the voices, but most trios of note at least involve guitar, bass and drums.
“Well, the backing vocals are equally important. There’s no bassist – Griff is doing the thing with loops – putting guitars on top of guitars. We did try rehearsing with a bassist a couple of times and it just didn’t work. It wasn’t right. We were so used to not having a bassist that we couldn’t get it to feel comfortable. We knew the sound we wanted, and it would have been pointless to muddy it up with other instruments.”
My main excuse for talking to Dunstan was his band’s show at The Yorkshire House in Parliament Street, Lancaster, on Wednesday, April 4th, profits going to the Imagine Independence mental health charity (for tickets and more details follow this Facebook link). In fact, there’s a charity aspect to all the Spring tour dates, mostly for homeless projects. And as Lancaster show organiser Malika Mezeli put it, mental health issues are ‘often a prerequisite for being homeless.’
So, an obvious question maybe, but why the link to homeless charities?
“I do a lot of stuff down in Brighton, outreach work, out on the streets, especially in cold weather, handing out food and drink to homeless people. I’ve been doing that quite a while, and although it’s great to be in a band, going around playing rock’n’roll, It felt like it could be something more than that.
“Once upon a time I’d be up on a stage in front of thousands, or on television where millions would be watching. Now I could be playing in a pub to 50 people somewhere but it’s just as important to use that opportunity.
“Gigs are a place where people come together and have this feeling of communality, and that can be just as important as actually watching a band, having that experience. So it’s a good opportunity to actually say something that’s a bit more than just playing rock’n’roll.”
Support at Lancaster is from four-piece Year of Birds, featuring Oli Heffernan and Danielle Johnson, both also with Anglo-Dutch outfit King Champion Sounds, a band cherished by this blogger (with a review of their March 2017 show at The Continental in Preston here).
”They’re doing three or four of the Northern gigs. I really wanted to not have gigs that were just men on stage. We wanted women visible. We’re an all-male outfit and I didn’t want every gig to be awash with men. And I think Danielle’s a complete and utter inspiration. I love her attitude towards the industry and what she’s doing. It’s great.”
While Dunstan’s former band met on the West Leeds squatting scene in the early ‘80s, there’s a strong East Lancs link too, founder-members Allan ‘Boff’ Whalley and Nigel Hunter, aka Danbert Nobacon (also remembered for tipping an ice bucket over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards) coming from Burnley, as was the case with fellow early recruits Lou Watts and Alice Nutter. And that’s kind of relevant seeing as the Interrobang‽ tour opens in nearby Todmorden, supported by Liines, just across the county border.
As it was, Dunstan, Harry, Alice and Danbert left Chumbawamba in 2004, although the outfit continued until 2012, reaching 30 years together. Is Dunstan still in touch with them all?
“Yes, in fact, one of the successes of Chumbawamba is that we’re still really good friends and we all still have projects that maybe overlap, working in the same sort of world.”
And I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised that members of the band ended up deeply ensconced in the arts – as film-makers, in art, acting, playwrights, novels, and so on.
“Exactly that, yeah.”
Last I heard of, Boff (interviewed for these pages back in January 2014, with a link to that feature here) had pulled out – along with Nadine Shah – of an appearance at this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North on Tyneside, being staged with £5m from the Government’s Northern Powerhouse fund, with his Commoners’ Choir, protesting at event sponsorship from BAe Systems, unhappy with the firm’s latest arms deal with Saudi Arabia. It seems that they all still have that same campaigning edge, as I put it to Dunstan.
“Yeah, and Danbert’s over in America, with his own world of politics, activism, music and art. It’s great seeing people fighting their own battles with their own organisations, whatever they’re doing.
“And it’s important to be creative in the midst of all the shit. That’s a really powerful thing.”
The 14-track self-titled Interrobang‽ debut album is out on March 30 in a trifold digipak CD with eight-page booklet. You can also order a limited-edition deluxe LP with gatefold sleeve and coloured vinyl via independent record stores, with a small amount available on the Spring tour. The LP is also digitally available from regular download and streaming platforms.
Interrobang‽ UK Spring tour dates: Fri March 30 – Todmorden Golden Lion, Sat March 31 – Wellingborough Horseshoe Inn, Sun April 1 – Newport Le Pub, Mon April 2 – Bristol Louisiana, Tue April 3 – Leeds Brudenell, Wed April 4 – Lancaster The Yorkshire House, Thu April 5 – Newcastle Cluny 2, Fri April 6 – Nottingham Maze, Sat April 7 – Middlesbrough Westgarth, Sun April 8 – Birmingham Centrala, Mon April 9 – Manchester Jimmy’s, Tue April 10 – Milton Keynes Crauford Arms, Wed April 11 – Brighton Prince Albert, Thu April 12 – London The Islington, Fri April 13 – Ramsgate Music Hall, Sat April 14 – Scunthorpe Cafe Independent. For more info head to the official band website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.