Wednesday, 23 May 2018
Music, Catharsis and Anarchy: An Interview With Interrobang's Dunstan Bruce.
Early this year something wondrous and perfectly formed appeared in our midst...the Interrobang album had been released! If you haven’t heard it yet that’s several months of your life that have been musically poorer than they needed to be-get to it! Interrobang are like a wonderful cocktail that includes hints of The Jam, Gang of Four, Pulp and Blur while always maintaining their own distinct sound. Intelligent, witty, self aware lyrics embedded in vivid, cleverly textured and shaped musical landscapes that always enhance what’s being said. You can tell that this is a band that have spent time thinking about, honing, road testing this collection of lean, perfectly delivered songs. Ego-less collaboration, not an easy thing to find. Dunstan Bruce, Stephen Griffin and Harry Hamer have created a work of art that honestly and courageously explores the experience of being a 50 something dissident still bothered about the inequality and injustice they see around them, ”I’m sick to death of being told to keep calm, no danger of that happening any time soon, I’m angry, still angry after all these years, I’ll never calm down, never ever” (‘Mad as Hell’), still with a sharp mind but, disconcertingly, a waning body, ”…I’ve been privately browsing middle aged concerns, and I’ve been googling the 50 something blues…I’ve been denying existential truths and I’ve been ignoring hashtag cancerous news…” (‘Asking For a Friend’). The overtly political and those aspects of life often considered more personal (although of course the ‘personal’ occurs in, and is affected by, a social/political context) are kept in perfect balance as the album engages with the wide gamut of life (and death, both of a parent and the contemplation of one’s own) including apprehension of the next milestone “I’m in a car wash and frankly I’m terrified…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?” (‘Breathe’),
As he had spent some time out of music between Chumbawumba and Interrobang I was intrigued to ask Dunstan Bruce how in retrospect the whole experience of returning to music, being in a band, releasing an album and touring again had gone...
Interrobang formed in 2012 and the album was released in 2018, in that time were you conscious that you were engaged in a valuable process of perfectly realising a vision and there were no shortcuts?
That’s a long gestation period isn’t it? We obsessed over this album, this project, this labour of love. The last thing we wanted to do was pour our heart and soul into this and watch it go out with a whimper not a bang. We spent a long time developing the songs, getting them tighter, more economical, more less-is-more-ish, honed into incredible little gems. And then life comes along and distracts you, kicks you in the balls, knocks you sideways. So you put everything on hold and then when you’re ready you throw yourself back in. This was too precious to us all.
I was reading a couple of interviews you gave (1,2), in them you mention that the album has been gestating, at least lyrically, for about 8 years, how did you feel as the launch day approached?
There has been a wonderful feeling of validation, of purpose, of value. It was a massive step for me lyrically, baring my soul, letting the world in, sharing my confessional. I had hit a point where my ability to communicate with the outside world had almost ground to a halt. Where I was incapable of expressing an emotion, where I embraced curmudgeon as an affectation rather than an affliction. It was a dark and lonely place. So I approached it with trepidation. And a glorious feeling that I was taking a leap again. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I had butterflies. I loved it.
The album has been really well received!! Were you surprised by how many people completely 'got it'?
I’d got wind that people were digging what we were doing from the gigs. Middle aged men coming up to me after a show and sharing their own stories about their difficult relationships with their dads, about feeling invisible, about never giving up. I discovered it was a common experience that I had gone through. Talking about stuff like that at a gig rather than at some men’s group was incredibly rewarding. Without the rarefied atmosphere, but just that visceral shared experience it was easy to talk and to share.
The album speaks to those of us who are wondering what dissent looks like when you are 50 something but it also explores mortality, relationships and the fear that one is fading into irrelevance. Did you find it difficult to write so honestly, did it feel vulnerable or did it feel a like necessary catharsis?
There’s no guarantee that something like this was going to bring me any sort of love, peace or understanding but it certainly did. Catharsis yes. definitely that. It cleansed my system. I kind of re-booted myself. I opened up. It was scary and I felt incredibly self-conscious at times. Even just bringing those words to the rehearsal room - a safe environment – I felt exposed. But part of getting to my age was that front part of my brain loosening up, that bit that says stop being so uptight, let it out, don’t give a fuck, that part just let go. I’m 57. What have I got to lose? This is my one go at this; I decided not to waste it any more. So weirdly now I feel like a bit of a fraud getting up in stage being that character who wrote those words. I’m not quite sure that’s me any more. Cliched I know but I’ve been on journey and I think I might just be coming out the other side now…
How have men responded to it, have they whispered/mentioned casually to you that it speaks to/for them?
Less of a whisper, more of a shout! It’s resonated for sure and that’s been great. There’s some tricky stuff on there, taboo stuff, awkward stuff, difficult stuff. I made a decision to put it all out there. Whether it’s entirely me or not. It’s all in there/out there and we’re all going through it. Sometimes I wonder whether not talking actually makes us ill. I’m almost evangelical about it. Almost…
How about women-has it resonated with them as much? Or is their experience shaped differently by society?
There’s no denying that what I say is very male-oriented and deliberately so but still there are shared ideas, shared themes, simple ideas that cross genders. There are lots of universal, communal conversations going on in there too.
Up till about 2005 you were in Chumbawamba, who identified as an anarchist band, how have your politics evolved in the last 10 years or so, would you still identify as an anarchist?
In the way I think we should organise, yes. In the fact that we have to take responsibility, do it ourselves, fight injustice and inequality, call out the egregious, take on the man, not rely on others, believe in a better fairer world also yes. But an anarchist who can bend his own rules, who can collaborate with the broad left, who can find links and connections and not exist in a bubble. Anarcho-outwardism.
Anarchism because it is the best way to preclude social injustice and inequality or because you prioritise personal freedom?
Anarchism because common sense.
I saw a clip recently of Benjamin Zephaniah talking to Krishna Guru Murphy about anarchism (3), and KGM appeared to be struggling! Have you had similar experiences, that people find it hard to imagine something other than a tweaked version of what is?
I loved that Zephaniah interview! He’s putting out those radical ideals but we know his heart is in the community. He’s no high-falutin head in the clouds fantasist. I love that. His feet firmly on the ground but he’s aiming at the stars. He’s a beautiful role model. I haven’t got any 5 point plan to change the world and whilst I might still dream of revolution I know that it’s unlikely. I love that Audre Lorde quote “Revolution is not a one-time event”. I also like that Howard Zinn quote ““We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
What next for Interrobang? Is there going to be a second album?
It’s taking some small, initial, faltering steps. There will be a second album. There must be.
Any early ideas about what sort of subjects it might engage with?
Only that it will be different to the first. I’ve come through that process. I’m on a different adventure now. Audre Lorde again “ Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now”.
So, album out and tour complete-any final reflections on the whole experience of starting from scratch in 2012 to releasing a brilliant album and going on tour again in 2018?
At the age of 50 it felt like I was on cruise control, freewheeling downhill. One of the first lines I wrote for Interrobang was a stolen mashed up quote from somewhere or other that was “I’m embracing adventure with comfortable shoes and a clean place to shit, yeah that’s it”. I’m still on that adventure and I’m loving it all.
Any plans for more dates later in the year?
The autumn yeah; Ireland, Germany, hopefully a few choice UK shows. We’re still specifically waiting for the call for a Scottish jaunt too… I miss playing live. I miss Griff. Griff’s a genius. And a style guru. And a guitar god. We’ll be back though. Shouty man and loopy guitar man. Getting all hot and bothered under the starched and pressed collar…
(1)Dix, J. (2018) ‘Interview: Dustan Bruce from Interrobang’ https://www.echoesanddust.com/2018/04/dunstan-bruce-from-interrobang%E2%80%BD/
(2)Fox, C. (2018) ‘Dunstan Bruce still dreams of revolution: Interrobang Interviewed’ http://louderthanwar.com/dunstan-bruce/
(3)’Benjamin Zephaniah on Windrush, anarchism and his time in North Korea’. Channel 4 News (2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zowOkv0Cuhk