Refusing to get knocked down, Chumbawamba's Dunstan gets back up again

Top, Interrobang, with Harry Hamer, Dunstan Bruce and Stephen Griffin
Top, Interrobang, with Harry Hamer, Dunstan Bruce and Stephen Griffin
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Former Chumbawamba vocalist Dunstan Bruce is on the road again, and – as MALCOLM WYATT learned - remains as committed as ever to making an impact, this time with Interrobang?!

By the time I picked up the phone to call singer-songwriter/film-maker Dunstan Bruce, I was already loving the eponymous LP by his new band Interrobang?!‽

And you can see his three-piece – completed by fellow ex-Chumbawamba bandmate Harry Hamer on drums and Stephen ‘Griff’ Griffin on guitar – for yourself in Lancaster next week.

When I called he was at home in Brighton, ‘folding lyric booklets’, having been recently mentioned in my interview with fellow Sussex-based frontman Mark Chadwick, making a film about The Levellers in 2012.

“Chumbawamba played with The Levellers in the ’90s, and I knew them from way back. We had a lot in common – with something to say in our music, vilified by the music press, fighting in the same corner.”

Dunstan got involved in films via his partner, Daisy Asquith, setting up a production company a decade ago, with his directorial debut: a film about Sham 69, following ‘the first British punk band to tour China’.

“Ah, that you cannot see! I was stopped from releasing the film – Jimmy Pursey didn’t want it to come out, as it wasn’t about his Sham. There’s an official and original band, and I got caught in the middle.”

While born in County Durham and based on the south coast, there’s a strong link to Chumbawamba’s spiritual base in Yorkshire, too, with Griff and Harry in Leeds. Do they send new songs via the internet?

“That’s how we started – Griff sending ideas, me putting vocals over the top, sending back, him re-recording. Then we got into a room, developed it from there.”

Their ‘mood-board’ of influences including Dr Feelgood, The Fall and Wire, they see themselves as ‘hard-faced macho dandies shouting about the intellectual midlife crisis,’ and ‘relentless dream of revolution.’

Dunstan adds: “We came together with a clear vision to create something current and relevant 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? How relevant are we? How do we make ourselves heard? 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 motion.”

Haven’t they just made a concept album though?

“It is, weirdly. You’re totally right – you busted me!”

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But if the concept in this case involves midlife crises, don’t expect Dunstan to get a tattoo and buy a Harley Davidson. It’s more about frustration. For all their past campaigning, things hardly move on.

“I started writing this when I turned 50, thinking about how I fitted into the world, my role, what you could possibly achieve as a 50-something dad, what you’re doing with your life. Songs like Am I Invisible Yet? are about trying to deal with becoming less relevant as you get older. I told Griff what I wanted and he really wanted to engage with it. We’ve given each other freedom – he never questions what I write, I don’t question what he comes up with. We both have a respect for each other’s creativity.”

Their name denotes a punctuation mark combining functions of the question mark and exclamation mark. Sentences ending with interrobangs ask questions excitedly, disbelievingly or rhetorically.

“I love that symbol (above left). That graphic attracted me, the idea of seeing that everywhere. And the dictionary definition seemed perfect for what we’re trying to do – being appalled by and at the same time questioning the state of the world.”

It’s not empty rhetoric, Dunstan instigating a charity aspect to their tour, particularly homeless projects.

“I do a lot of outreach work in Brighton, on the streets, especially in cold weather, handing out food and drink to homeless people, and I felt this tour could be about something more than playing rock’n’roll.”

While Dunstan’s not one to dwell on the past, I inevitably ask about his and Harry’s Chumbawamba days. It was after all him up front on 1997 smash hit, Tubthumping.

“I totally embrace that, and I’m proud of that. It allowed us to do things we’d always dreamed of, having that platform to say something in the mainstream media. It was a wonderful opportunity and led to other things. But while a lot of our references are from the past, what we’re saying is contemporary.”

Chumbawamba formed via West Leeds’ squatting scene in the early ’80s, disbanding after 30 years in 2012, although Dunstan, Harry, Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon – who famously tipped ice over Deputy PM John Prescott at 1998’s Brits – left in 2004. Are they all still in touch?

“We’re still really good friends and have projects that overlap.”

Most of the band remain ensconced in the arts, as film-makers, artists, playwrights, novelists, activists...“It’s great seeing people fighting their own battles, whatever they’re doing. It’s important to be creative in the midst of all the s***. That’s a really powerful thing.”

Perhaps their debut LP, I suggest, is an extension of Tubthumping. If that was about the resilience of the ordinary man, this 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.”

Interrobang?! Year of Birds play The Yorkshire House, Parliament Street, Lancaster, on Wednesday, April 4, with profits going to the Imagine Independence mental health charity.

For tickets and more details go to https://www.facebook.com/events/229856980092/

The band also plays Jimmy's, in Manchester, on April 9. Visit https://www.skiddle.com/whats-on/Manchester/Jimmy%27s-/Midweek-Music-Club-Presents---Interrobang8253/13126479/
For details of the 14-track self-titled Interrobang?! debut LP, out on March 30 in various formats, head to www.interrobangband.co.uk/ or go to https://www.facebook.com/intrrbng