Interview

Dry Cleaning: “I’ve always enjoyed listening to people talk”

Having become a big band by accident, Dry Cleaning are set to release Stumpwork, a second album that expands their unique sound into thrilling new territory. In Southend-on-Sea, they explain how they’re never more authentically themselves than when making their strange, incisive music from all of our internal monologues

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In the restaurant of the Royal Hotel Southend, Florence Shaw is trying to order lunch. “Can I get the gnocchi?” asks the vocalist of Dry Cleaning, tentatively, after the rest of her band has gone for fish and chips all round, but apparently there’s none left. There’s a pause as Shaw, suddenly stressed, scans the menu again.

“Ok!” she says eventually, “I’ll get the scampi.”

“That’s a small plate,” the server advises, vacantly, “but you could get two?”

“Get two of them?” Shaw repeats, confounded, as if to check she heard correctly. “No, that’s crazy. I can’t get two small plates.”

Another pause, further frantic flipping through the menu. Finally: “Oh well I’ll just have the fish and chips too,” she says, followed by a resigned shrug as if to say I suppose we’re by the sea after all.

As the server heads back to the kitchen, a round of exhausted laughter-sighs circulates the table to acknowledge the drudging familiarity of what just happened. But what stands out about this little exchange is not only the sense of huh, typical, but also just how Dry Cleaning it all is: there’s the bleakly funny, depressive hedonism of being taken out to lunch somewhere quite nice but not being able to eat what you want; the mundane but slightly rushed pragmatism in the face of an unrealised treat; the mustn’t-grumble British stoicism and the bathos.

Linguistically, too, phrases like “Get two of them? No that’s crazy” and “Two small plates” have the same humdrum rhythm and found-text banality as so many of Dry Cleaning’s cut-up lyric phrases, and hearing those words delivered in the same speaking voice that provides the band’s unique character, around a dining table, makes for an uncanny experience: in Shaw’s presence, it’s sometimes hard to work out what is just everyday speech and what is quotation, and with so many references to food in their debut album from last year, it wouldn’t have felt that weird if, faced with the absence of gnocchi this particular lunchtime, Shaw had gone off-menu and demanded a banging pasta bake.

And then there’s the fact that all this is happening in the once-pretty, now-neglected seaside resort of Southend-on-Sea. On what we assumed at the time would be the last bank holiday before Christmas, its inhabitants and visitors are wringing one last drop of summer from overcast skies with pints on the prom at 11am and buckets of candy floss for the kids. It’s the sort of environment that Shaw never describes directly in Dry Cleaning’s songs, but which acts as a sort of lodestar for evocations like “Emporio Armani builder / I see shit everywhere / Hustling / Deal-making on the train” and “I’m not here to provide blank / They can fucking provide blank” that are less photographs of the slightly aggy, resentful, argumentative but buttoned-up mood of modern Britain, and more impressionist paintings of the same, with as much or as little detail contained in them as the viewer wishes to observe.

What’s more, it’s not that Southend, or this hotel restaurant’s half-menu, or a greying August bank holiday on the coast of south Essex are unique triggers: as Shaw reluctantly chooses fish and chips for her lunch, it becomes apparent that Dry Cleaning’s appeal – both lyrically and in the way those lyrics intertwine with the frayed, insistent but also rather abstract instrumental accompaniment – lies in an uncomfortable universality. Not universal in the sense that horoscopes or, say, Coldplay are, with observations mild enough to map onto any situation, but in the sense that their songs rhyme and chime with the very condition of being alive in the UK in 2022: tired, disappointed and powerless, but also comforted, stoic and accepting; gallows humour, making the best of it, cracking on, enjoying the absurd in the absurdity, revelling in dissociation because, well, why not? By never writing in specifics about time, place or events, Dry Cleaning have become accidentally applicable to everything, everywhere, all the time, and therefore the sound of that most inescapable space, one’s own internal monologue.

Not that that was ever the plan. “We don’t plan to do anything!” admits drummer Nick Buxton, midway through our conversation. “We didn’t even plan to be in this band! That’s sort of the story of Dry Cleaning really…” He’s right: Dry Cleaning’s story is indeed one of accidents and the embrace of randomness and ambiguity, and about a group of old friends whose (relatively) advanced years have allowed them to make music with utter self-possession. The result is the story of a band putting the inside on the outside, making the private public, about how, consequently, Dry Cleaning are now living rent-free inside all of our heads – and why there’s no sign of them moving out any time soon.

The origin story of Dry Cleaning feels fairly comprehensively told by this point, but a recap here for context won’t hurt. Guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton had been bouncing around garage bands for the best part of twenty years when they decided to put together a new one in 2018, familiar enough by now with the way these things go to expect no greater success than simply having a bit of fun together and making some recordings to send to their mates. However, when Dowse persuaded his non-musician visual artist friend Florence Shaw, who’d never been in bands, to join them on vocals, a eureka moment happened, and the quartet began attracting attention beyond their peers with their unusual combination of motorik, angry/weird post-punk and darkly comic collaged spoken-word lyrics.

Three years and a multi-album deal with the venerable 4AD later, their debut album New Long Leg was released and quickly feted as one of the best records of its generation; this month, album two, Stumpwork, arrived with the sort of anticipation that prompts music magazines to offer up their front covers and take them to Southend, and by then the band will be well into a world tour that will keep them on the road until at least April next year. It’s quite the development for a group whose initial aims were just, according to Dowse, “hanging out together, trying to recapture that early joy, keeping it nice and simple.”

“The idea of having anything like this happening never arose,” he explains, referring to his current life of touring and recording, “because we’d already made our lives doing other things: Flo and I lectured together at the same place, and Nick had a cabinet-making business…” Indeed, so humble were expectations of the band well into their initial lift-off phase that all four of them held onto their day jobs for as long as they could, even after signing a record deal, mainly because they liked what they did. “The feeling for us wasn’t like an ‘Oh wow we could be on the cusp of something really cool here,’” remembers Buxton fondly of the moment that Dry Cleaning’s rise started to feel inevitable. “It was more like a phobia. It was more like ‘Shit, I might have to quit my job to do this? I don’t want to fucking do that!’ because I really enjoyed my work.”

The sense that Dry Cleaning are grown-ups, then, is inescapable, and actually works hugely in their favour. For one, there’s a likeably lived-in, rounded self-assuredness to each of their personalities, with not a hint of the sort of messiah complexes or callow off-the-leash approval-lust often found in buzz bands 15 years their junior. “It’s not like we’re unambitious,” Buxton qualifies at one point, “but it’s maybe just that our ambitions are different from what they’d be if we were younger. I think maybe we’re ambitious less about being out-and-out successful, and more about satisfying ourselves creatively or making something that’s interesting.”

“And based on the evidence of what’s happened so far,” Dowse chips in, “it’s not a bad strategy. Y’know: trust the process, trust your band members who are all chucking in influences—”

“And those contributions are also a result of being a little older as well,” adds Shaw. “Like, I definitely used to have the same music taste as all my friends when I was younger. But then you grow out of that, become more idiosyncratic, and grow your own world, and now I can bring it to the others.”

“And that’s perhaps the most essential thing about being in a band,” returns Buxton, “that you respect one another’s tastes. Everyone in Dry Cleaning brings really good stuff that opens up new avenues. I’ve definitely been in bands where I’ve hated other people’s music tastes, and that’s not cool.”

Talking about their writing process, too, it’s clear that years of experience with the frustrations of Being Creative – whether that’s in music or elsewhere – pays dividends in the studio. “I think having taught at art school helps because I know how to force myself and others to make things,” laughs Shaw about what she can offer to the writing room. “Like, even if I feel fucking terrible and I haven’t got any ideas, I can still do it, which is so much of what making something creative as a job – which is what we’re essentially doing now – is about.”

Equally, a mature approach to listening and being openly self-critical plays just as important a role in making the songs as performing does, and there’s little preciousness involved in recording – another function of age, explains Dowse: “One thing I struggled with in earlier bands is the finality of documentation,” he remembers, “but over the years I’ve come to realise that it’s helpful to think of the record as just the blueprint. There’s a really good Ian MacKaye quote where he says the recording is the menu, and the live show is the meal, which is a really helpful way of looking at it.”

It all adds up to a realisation that Dry Cleaning simply couldn’t exist as a bunch of 21-year-olds – their tenacity, calm and slow-acquired wisdom is at the centre of what makes them such a good band, with their interpersonal interactions the key. “The band is the relationships. That’s all you have, essentially,” acknowledges Buxton, “It’s the filter, again – it’s our collective taste and accumulated experiences, that’s what this band is, and I back everyone here.”

“And the strength of the band,” continues Dowse, “is that when all four of us are in the zone, it’s undeniable.” 

In short, Dry Cleaning’s modest sophistication suggests a group far further into their lifespan than a single LP. Indeed, Stumpwork, far from being a Difficult Second Album, is a demonstration of that maturity. Compared to New Long Leg, it’s more layered, richer and more musically ambitious, with more unusual arrangements and song structures. Despite that, though, it also feels just as lean as its predecessor – another tribute to the way the band writes. “I think the goal when we write is always to keep it as short as we can,” explains Dowse, “so with the longer ones on the new record, that’s never self-indulgence. They had to be that long because that’s where the vibe was.”

Accordingly, it’s easy enough to plot from the early EPs to the first album through to the new one what Buxton refers to as “a story of everything slowly opening out.” Despite the increased sonic scope, though, Stumpwork has retained the band’s early insistence and drive, and is just as oddly addictive as New Long Leg, thanks mainly to Dry Cleaning’s not-so-secret weapon of Shaw’s vocal writing and delivery that resembles the contents of a wearily supersaturated brain turned inside out like a rubber jelly mould and plonked onto a countertop, in the plonking perhaps also showing us the insides of our own, too. Of all the lyricists working in pop today, the obsession that Shaw’s everyday prosody inspires seems unparalleled for a band Dry Cleaning’s size.

Since the first EPs arrived in late 2019, there’s been an ongoing treasure hunt for Dry Cleaning’s lyrics, the kind at which the internet excels (and props to the sleuths on Reddit, Genius.com and elsewhere for the following nuggets). For example, in Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, published with money-spinning speed just six weeks after the Paris car crash 25 years ago, the chapter in which Diana recalls meeting Charles for the first time carries a sentence that starts “I remember being a fat, podgy, no make-up, unsmart lady…”, the guts of which would become the hook of New Long Leg’s third single. Similarly, the line “damp solutions since 1971” on ‘Her Hippo’ appears to be pulled from a sign above a shop called Tapco in suburban south-west London, and Dry Cleaning’s breakthrough song, ‘The Magic of Meghan’, features a first verse quoting the Sussexes almost verbatim from their engagement interview in 2017 as well as a headline on the Daily Mail’s Facebook page. Then there’s ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’’s anthemic “do everything and feel nothing”, an excruciatingly perfect nailing of millennial FOMO ennui that’s actually an unwittingly grim tagline for Tampax.

One of the appeals of this sort of cut-and-splat approach to lyricism is that when wrenched from their contexts, these found texts take on new resonance, or just become asemantic word-music, lexical jetsam as pleasing to the ear as the river of taut post-punk flowing around it. However, Shaw positions herself more as a curator than an exhibitor, eager to point out that the sources of these words are as poignant to her as their redeployment: “I find it quite moving, encountering things that some human somewhere has come up with,” she explains of her motivation, “especially when you get a taste of someone’s personality in a bit of copywriting – there’s something tragic but sweet about it sometimes, but then other times it’s just really funny. How these phrases then go together in the songwriting is pure gut feeling: when we’re jamming, I’ll pick bits and bobs, and as I’m listening to what’s happening in the room I’ll try to speak a piece of the writing, bouncing off the rhythm and the mood of what the guys are playing.

“I can imagine that some people might find that pretentious,” she continues, “but if you know me, it’s not actually that weird, because I’m genuinely interested in that sort of stuff – it’s not like ‘Oh now I’m going to be a person in a band and do this weird thing’. I’ve always enjoyed listening to people talk – that’s just nice.”

On Stumpwork, there appear to be similar found-text detritus: among ‘Kwenchy Cups’ lines about water caterpillars and otters, a reference to “St Mark’s trousers” delivers (at time of writing) precisely one hit on Google, namely for Scotland’s Forvie National Nature Reserve blog about treasured local wildlife, and ‘Conservative Hell’ nabs the copy from a particularly crass bumper sticker for one bracing line.

However, after two EPs and an album employing this decollage technique, Shaw was eager to switch things up for the new record. “At the start of the band, I had all this stuff in my phone that I’d collected just for my own satisfaction, and that ended up being a huge part of it. But now I don’t collect in the same way,” she explains of how the lyric-writing process has changed for Stumpwork. “I think it’s more a confidence thing, and also a restlessness, too: I don’t ever find it that fun to do something the same way for a long time, so now it’s more entertaining to challenge myself to come up with things out of my own mind.

“Original writing was always a part of the words in the past,” she continues, “but it was more of a half-and-half split of made-up stuff and found text. On Stumpwork, though, although there are some lyrics from my original collection that I’m still using up – the odd word or two left over that I never quite found a place for – it’s a lot less now.”

This new writing approach makes for a subtle shift in the nature of the lyrics on Stumpwork compared to Dry Cleaning’s initial run. For one, they’re less singalong and slogan-driven than hitherto, meaning that the lines that inevitably worm their way into your ear feel even more redolent of how one’s own mind moves, and consequently that much stranger to become stuck there, like you’ve crawled inside yourself, Being John Malkovich-style. For another, it means that there’s more of an undercurrent of meaning, too – albeit more a meaning that hangs in the air than dives down your throat – and less of a sense of randomness, something with which Shaw seems keen to engage.

“There’s a lot of different levels to this,” she says, cautiously, after pausing to consider the question of where on the spectrum of pointed to pointless she likes her words to sit. “I mean, the lyrics are definitely not random, because a human can’t write random lyrics. There’s always going to be subconscious biases, or concern about the rhythm fitting, or you’re trying to say something personal in code, or something personal that’s on the nose. Or if it’s something observational, then that’s inherently political. But in terms of how meaningful the lyrics are, it depends on who’s listening too. It seems to me there are as many interpretations of our songs as there are people listening, and I’m not hugely keen to interrupt that. I don’t write thinking, ‘I really want this message to come across’, because then you wouldn’t be writing a song, you’d be writing an essay, and part of the beauty and the fun is that it’s ambiguous. What appeals to me most, though, is that I’m trying to be myself as much as I can in the writing, and if I think ‘Oh that might not make sense to somebody’, that doesn’t put me off.” 

That aim for personal authenticity is striking, particularly for Shaw, who exudes such a strong persona in her performance of the words – a sort of wan, laconic dourness; a vacant, anhedonic sighing with theatrical tics thrown in – that’s at odds with the approachable, engaged, almost upbeat person sat across from me now.

Then again, she suggests, perhaps I’ve got it the wrong way round: “It’s more like the way I am in everyday life is a persona that I adopt,” she reveals. “This,” she looks me in the eye and makes a back-and-forth hand gesture to imply our current conversation, “this is the persona. To get through life and be social and perform everyday tasks, you have to put something on, and I think that the way I am on stage and when I’m recording the vocals is a more authentic me than who I am the rest of the time. Obviously, performance requires simplification, and I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to put every aspect of my personality out there, but making a private bit of my personality public in this way is an interesting thing that I can offer.”

That must feel quite vulnerable, I suggest.

“Yes! But it’s meant to sound private,” Shaw agrees. “I guess my thinking is that I’m not a performer, so what can I offer? I can’t offer performing experience, I don’t have something I’ve thought up, but what I do feel is trepidation and nervousness, so rather than go to all the effort of covering that up, I just won’t, and instead I’ll just offer people a cathartic thing where I’m just showing myself, to a certain extent.”

The discovery that Shaw’s everyday life requires the kind of performance that renders her actual musical performance as paradoxically authentic feels revelatory to understanding a band like Dry Cleaning. After all, when I first heard New Long Leg, I eagerly described it to a friend as the sound of someone pottering around their kitchen alone, free-associating to themselves while 6Music played in the background, and what was so compelling about the album was how authentically that sound was produced, how closely representative it felt of my own cluttered train of thought, all non-sequiturs and buzz-phrases stuck on loop, punchlines unmoored from their set-ups and zinging comebacks to arguments arriving years too late.

With all that in mind, news of Shaw’s specific approach shifts Dry Cleaning, at least in my head, from being a piece of arch-engineered art-rock to a place of radical honesty, something psychologically purer, and almost more compelling still. It crosses my mind to say something along these lines to the band while they’re in front of me, but, unsurprisingly, my social filter, my interviewer-persona perhaps, prevents it. How very Dry Cleaning.

It’s impressive that a band with only one album and thirty-odd published songs to their name so far has so strong an identity as to already feel adjectival, for stuff outside of music to be identifiable as “very Dry Cleaning”, whether that’s the boring dystopia of crap marketing messages or the doom-humour of burnout brought on by an unmediated diet of city trudge and endless scroll. It’s even more impressive, though, when you realise that this isn’t even a band with much of a manifesto. Possession of a manifesto would suggest a sense of intent that Dry Cleaning have obviously never had, as well as a youthful idealism that was behind them long before the band was even born. Instead, you sense, this is just a combination of good luck and carefully honed creativity from a group of people who are expert-level world-builders.

At no point in our day together do any of them utter the awful rock quote cliche “We’re just making this music for ourselves, and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus”, but if they did, it would be easy to believe them, such is their impressively laidback, self-possessed response to unexpectedly becoming A Big Band, with top-ten albums and world tours. The trick to such level-headedness appears to be acquiring a deep experience of creative satisfaction that’s sufficiently detached from any notions of “success” long before the three-album deals and magazine covers came calling, remembering that none of the machine surrounding their work is really that important. “There’s a very high likelihood that at some point we won’t like our records anymore,” admits Dowse at one point, exemplifying their outlook. “That happens. We’ve spent the last twenty years making music that no-one likes, so we’re used to it!”

Equally, Shaw’s assertion earlier in the day, too, that “I don’t ever find it that fun to do something the same way for a long time” also seems as good a signifier as any of how the band see their future. More likely, however, given the group personality of Dry Cleaning, is that they’ll keep on slowly evolving just as they have done already, in the manner of John Peel’s description of The Fall, “always different; always the same”. Like a brain that never stops pulsating, full of memories and echoes but never repetition, or the almost comically overwhelming sense of inner-consciousness that they evoke so well.

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