Eleven years ago Dunstan Bruce thought his days as a touring musician were over. The man who sang lead vocals on Chumbawamba’s worldwide hit Tubthumping had hung up his microphone and was contemplating following in the foosteps of his wife Daisy Asquith and becoming a filmmaker.
“I sort of made the decision I wanted to do something else,” he explains today. “I would never describe myself as a musician anyway so I thought, ‘Right, that’s fine, do something else now.’”
“My wife being a documentary maker, she has her own production company, I thought I’d start off on that road making documentaries. I never thought I would come back to making music.”
Bruce made two documentaries – one about punk group Sham 69, the other on The Levellers, friends from Brighton, where he now lives.
It was while he was working on The Levellers’ film that their singer, Mark Chadwick, approached him about the idea of writing a few songs.
“At the time Mark had just come out of rehab and he was looking for things to do,” explains Bruce. “He suggested to me maybe we should do some music together. I had started writing some lyrics again, I’d got some bits and pieces, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do.
“Having just turned 50, I was thinking about how you approach the world. I’d come through punk and rebellion; it was about what do we do in our fifties, trying to channel all of that.
“Unfortunately for Mark, the mistake he made was believing I could actually sing, so it petered out, but that was what started my involvement in thinking I have these ideas, how do I bring it to fruition?”
While filming The Levellers on the road, Bruce joined the band on stage each night to perform Tubthumping as an encore. Enjoying the experience led him to want to form a band of his own again and he duly recruited guitarist Stephen Griffin of Regular Fries and ex-Chumbawamba drummer Harry Hamer. They call their group Interrobang?
Having decades of experience behind them, Bruce and Griff had firm ideas about how they wanted to go about things. “It did not happen by accident. We sat down and talked about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to present it. The first idea was that we did not want to do a song that was more than two minutes long.
“Some people can hear very early Chumbawamba in there, that’s partly to do with my vocal delivery. It’s what people are used to.”
As for the lyrical content, Bruce says: “Part of the idea is still being angry in your fifties. The difference now is I’m writing from a more personal point of view. It’s not only about the political world, but also about my place in it and how I feel about getting to a certain age. How do I express anger in my fifties?
“In your twenties you think you can turn the world upside down; once you get to your fifties you realise that’s not going to happen. You have other worries about getting old and what is going to happen to your body, you’ve got a family, all these other concerns.”
One song reflects on his upbringing in Billingham, Co Durham, and how “you can hate it as much as you like but that environment shaped who I am”. Another number is about his late father, with whom he had a strained relationship. From conversations with his mother, Bruce now understands the difficult childhood his father had and that “all he was trying to do was the best for his family”. Now he’s a father himself, the singer says he’s determined to talk to his own children “so they understand where I’ve come from”. The song, he says, has become a regular talking point with fans after shows.
Going back to playing in small venues Bruce has found “frustrating but at the same time really exciting”.
“We don’t take anything for granted. We’re so focused on what we are doing, we want to go and play and give everything to an audience and say something that we think is important.
“I’m so fed up with nostalgia,” he adds, “I’ve had enough of bands reforming and going out and doing an album from 30 years ago, having to listen to grown men sing songs they wrote when they were teenagers. I want to hear somebody telling me about what life is like now.
“I’m a great admirer of Nick Cave and bands like Wire pushing forward, doing new stuff that talks to me as a man of the same generation. Kevin Rowland wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s not looking backwards, he’s looking forwards.
“It’s a challenge but going by the response we get at shows there’s a place for what we are doing.”
Bruce particularly enjoys returning to Leeds, where he spent his “massively formative years” with Chumbawamba. “I still have my best nights out in Leeds,” he says. “I’m quite often up there without my family and I can still have a really good time, there’s so much going on.”
He fondly remembers squatting in Armley after Chumbawamba formed. “I’m privileged to have been part of that. As difficult as it was at times, it was an amazing time we had living there and everything that happened, it was incredible.” He now talks about it in lectures he gives at the University of Sussex and hopes to make a film about the band.
Interrobang? plan to release three singles – Are You Ready, People?, Love It All and Am I Invisible Yet? – via The Levellers’ record label then an album “by the end of this year or early next year”. It’s all rather DIY, Bruce admits. “There’s a lot of work and responsibility but it does mean we have total control over everything,” he says.
Interrobang? play at Eiger Studios on April 17 and at the Brudenell Social Club games room on May 9. For details visit http://interrobangband.co.uk/