Band To Watch: Dry Cleaning
Britons have a complex relationship with the Monarchy. Though adored by older generations and millions around the world, the Royal Family are almost exclusively met with scorn and contempt from younger Brits, and especially those who are left-leaning and in the music community. That makes “Magic Of Meghan,” the debut single from southeast London four-piece Dry Cleaning, all the more noteworthy.
“I fell in love with Meghan so incredibly quickly,” the band’s vocalist Florence Shaw states over repetitive, catchy post-punk, professing her adoration for the former Suits star and Britain’s newest Duchess. “She’s a smasher, perfectly suited to the role/ You’re just what England needs, you’re going to change us.”
Spoken more than sung, this initial offering from the band was fresh and interesting for its approach and sentiment as much as its musical style. “I always knew that people wouldn’t know [what I actually felt] because it seems so far-fetched,” Shaw says, gathered around a table with her bandmates in the Gowlett Arms — a pub in southeast London’s Peckham neighborhood, home to the most exciting music being made in the capital right now. This watering hole attracts plenty of them in particular; it’s King Krule’s favorite pub, and where he insisted on conducting every interview for his last album The OOZ.
“The usual way that people in bands feel about [the Monarchy] isn’t like this,” Shaw says. “Somebody was discussing it on the radio a few weeks ago, and they said it didn’t make any sense, that ‘this kind of music’ would have this kind of sentiment. It’s crazy that [they’re] so prescriptive about what ‘this kind of music’ can and can’t be about,” she continues, her argument gathering pace in the same way her improvisational lyrics often do. “Not to get too right-on about it, but that’s kind of a comment on who’s allowed to write the lyrics for ‘this kind of music,’ too. You have to have a particular viewpoint on life. I don’t even mean politically, because I’m super left-leaning, but in terms of how you feel about pop culture and celebrity. You’re supposed to think it’s all trash and a waste of time. I think that’s quite small-minded.”
These kind of themes — challenging the status quo, finding beauty in things that others immediately dismiss — are sprinkled all over the band’s debut EP Sweet Princess. Over punk music that skips along, rarely changing pace, Shaw throws out sometimes controversial, always hilarious lines, able to switch from musings on the dreariness of the everyday to furious rants in a heartbeat. It’s a debut collection that’s far from ordinary.
Today, the band’s announcing their rapid-fire followup, a second EP called Boundary Road Snacks And Drinks, which will be released 10/25. The news arrives with another new single, “Sit Down Meal.” “Sometimes I get numb arms in bed,” Shaw sings in a wonderfully deadpan tone, as captivating and disinterested as ever over a twisting, quietly anthemic guitar riff on another supremely exciting step forward.
“‘Sit Down Meal’ is relationship-based and romantically-minded, but about feeling powerless in a situation where somebody doesn’t want to be with you anymore,” Shaw explains of the new single. “I used some text from greetings cards in there, where they already have a message so that you don’t have to write anything. The theme of the lyrics is that feeling of being lost for words a little bit. Sometimes I work in an office and do picture research for a newspaper. The placeholder text they have in the articles says ‘Words to come in this space here,’ which is one of the lines in the song. It’s about being a little bit frozen by somebody hurting your feelings.”
Dry Cleaning didn’t start like most bands, and their messy, kinda perfect origin story is inextricably tied to how they sound: fresh, strangely naive, and an undeniable unit. Bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer and Nick Buxton played together for a decade in indie-pop band La Shark, while guitarist Tom Dowse has a history in hardcore bands. The rhythm section pair met Dowse through his girlfriend, who happens to be Maynard’s best friend, and also the twin sister of Buxton’s girlfriend. Coming together to write music as a trio, the pair wished for something fresh and unique, but hit stumbling blocks after trying out with all three singing, and testing a bunch of vocalists. With the well-travelled formula not ticking the right boxes, they approached Shaw, a friend of Dowse’s from art school and, as it turns out, a childhood classmate of the twins. A picture researcher, university lecturer, and artist, Shaw had no musical experience.
The first time Shaw came along to try out at a practice with the trio — bricking it, naturally — she’d exited a significant relationship a few days prior. “There was a healthy dose of ‘Oh, fuck it,'” she remembers of her intentions when she first headed to their practice room. “A huge amount of that went into it in general, and defined about the first six months of the band.”
As a hobby, Shaw often kept reams of musings on everyday life in the Notes app on her phone, with no real endgame except to potentially use them as part of future pictures or art prints. “When I was asked to try it out and if I was interested to do some vocals, I just printed them all out and took them along in no particular order,” she says. “Just in chronological order off my phone, eight or nine pages of just line, line, line. And I just read them out fairly randomly over the top of what the guys were doing, just to see if it would sound crap or good.”
This endearing lack of experience is the hallmark of Dry Cleaning’s sound, Shaw speaking over jittery post-punk with a mixture of eloquence and complete disinterest. “Have you ever spat cum onto the carpet of a Travelodge?” she asks without breaking face on recent single “Goodnight,” the kind of one-liner she delivers constantly across the debut EP — managing to be gruesome, visceral, and hilarious at once.
The music for the Sweet Princess EP was written without a vocalist in the band, and the last-minute entrance of Shaw into the process serves to accentuate the distance between band and singer, something that sets Dry Cleaning apart. When the music swells, her voice rarely, if ever, rises with it. Elsewhere, she explodes into a fit of rage in the second verse of “Goodnight,” while the band barely flinch behind her. “How dare you, I’m the best at what I do!” she spits. “How fucking dare you, don’t touch me! You stole my childhood CDs you fuck! I need you all to shut up, I’m going through a tough time!” Collected as a mixture of her own thoughts and comments she’s gleaned from random YouTube videos, any vague context for the rant is unavailable, but its presence would make the whole thing entirely less fascinating.
The fresh face at the front of the band served to reinvigorate the somewhat weathered musicians behind her, finding new life in seemingly worn-out formulas. “The first gig we ever did, we were driving there and I said ‘We’ve got to be there by 6:30 for soundcheck,'” Dowse remembers. “And Flo said, ‘What’s a soundcheck?’ and I struggled to put it into words. ‘Uh, you play a bit of music, and then someone who’s really irate shouts at you … and then when it comes to the gig, it sounds totally different!’ And Flo just goes, ‘Right, OK then! Better get there on time!'”
“It is quite improvisational, the way the songs are written,” Shaw says of the make-up of the tracks from the pair of EPs. “I don’t write them at home and take them to the rehearsal. I’d go to the rehearsal with the sheets and we’d piece them all together. It’s a stream of consciousness, or things I see in real time. Maybe you’re heartbroken, and you’re just writing down the names of shops, but the shops you’re choosing feel particularly pathetic or sad, because you’re sad at the time. I’m realizing I’m quite good at calling on certain emotions if I need to. I can pretty much be angry any old time. If I think about certain things, I just feel pissed immediately. It’s acting, right?”
As an actor, she’s somewhat perfect, mixing together the surreal and mundane in a brilliant, largely inexplicable cocktail. As a whole, Dry Cleaning consistently show an ability to glean significant thought and feeling out of things so seemingly uninspiring across their thoroughly exciting musical output thus far. “You don’t have to make much effort to do that,” she says simply. “I feel like life is just surreal and mundane as it is. I don’t even really think that’s an approach. It’s just what stuff is like. You just either notice it or you don’t.”
01 “Dog Proposal”
02 “Viking Hair”
04 “Jam After School”
05 “Sombre One”
06 “Sit Down Meal”
Boundary Road Snacks And Drinks is out 10/25 on It’s OK. Pre-order it here.