Dry Cleaning – Interview

In existence as the current line up for little more than two years, London-based Dry Cleaning brought together longtime friends bassist Lewis Maynard, drummer Nick Buxton, and guitarist Tom Dowse, before they recruited vocalist Florence Shaw at the end of 2017. An artist, university lecturer, and photo researcher, she had never performed live before, and had never been in a band. But she always kept notes and lists, for her artwork. Lists of headlines, neuroses, grievances, advertising copy; words, and comments culled from the media, social media, youtube commentary and the like.

Dry Cleaning was properly born when Shaw got involved, her matter-of-fact, conversational spoken word delivery somehow perfectly gelling with the spiky, tight, expressive, post-punk grooves of the band. They have become that rare thing, a late bloomer in musical terms. While Lewis, Nick and Tom had been making and playing music for a number of years, and Florence had never performed before, they have nevertheless hit the veritable nail on the head with Dry Cleaning. Their records have sold out, and their gigs are selling out. There is a lot of love for this earthy outfit, as they get your bodily bits moving to the unpolished sounds, whilst listening to cut-and-paste tales of modern anxiety, and modern mundanity. It is indeed interesting that they largely eschew social media – their Facebook presence is minimal, and they have no Twitter or Instagram accounts. So far, the artist-friendly Bandcamp is really the only virtual place where you can properly check the band out.

“We’ve been to Gibson, so Tom could get a new guitar,” says Lewis, a few days before he heads out with Dry Cleaning on a headline UK tour. “And we went to the pub to celebrate!”

Is it a freebie, I ask? “It’s a freebie for a couple of months. And then you have to give it back.” That doesn’t sound right to me. It might be scratched or scuffed, or something… “I was thinking that when I was in there. They all look brand new. I mean he’s taking it on tour… They were like, ‘you’re just using it for recording, right?’ ‘Umm, no, I’m going to be taking it on tour for a few weeks’. ‘OK’. I said to Tom, ‘that’s not going to come back in the same condition’. If anything, it’s going to smell more.

Yes, the joys of touring, smells and all, something that Dry Cleaning are getting increasingly used to, as they juggle jobs with music, but with music quickly taking over their lives, to the point where they may soon be jacking in the remnants of any jobs they currently have (Florence and Nick both lecture).

After their UK tour they head out to the States for a few weeks, including a visit to the legendary SXSW festival, before returning to the UK to get their heads down again with recording. There is a new deal with an esteemed record label to be announced soon, and a selection of festival dates plus a UK tour for the Autumn have already been hatched.

“We’ve just finished recording the demos for the album,” says Lewis. “We’ve got the songs kinda down, and we’re looking to record when we get back from the states, April time.”

I understand you recorded your previous two EPs in your Mum’s garage? “It literally was a garage that had been converted illegally; there was still a garage door on the front. It looked like a functioning garage, but behind was just a brick wall, and inside it was very small. You could probably get a Smart car inside it. And that’s where we wrote the first two EPs. But the property has since been sold, and we started writing the album in a normal studio. We were in a very large room, and we missed that small space. So, we decided to downsize that rehearsal room, and I think it suits us very well, in connecting with each other. But, it also makes everything a bit more… if you don’t need to play it, don’t play it.”

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that that both the Sweet Princess and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks (no, not the Boundary Road here in Brighton…) EPs were both in effect demos, both recorded at the Total Refreshment Centre in London. They were recorded by a guy called Kristian. For the first one we told him we wanted to record some demos. It took us about three hours, doing five tracks. And because we still had lots of time, we decided to work on a song that became ‘Magic of Meghan’. We thought they were going to be demos, so they were just a snapshot of where those songs were at the time. And Florence had never recorded before. So, it was all very fresh and new. And now were at the same phase with the album. We’ve done that again, tried to keep it quite snapshotty, to the point where we’re like maybe we can release these, they sound good enough. But, I think we’re going to take it into a studio and try and re-create it.

We’ve been so fortunate with our position, everything keeps happening, that we’re constantly learning to try and understand what works best for us, writing and recording wise. So far we’ve just recorded snapshots of where the songs are at the time, mistakes and all. There might be a bit of a bum note, but that’s what we settled on. We’re very happy with the demos, so maybe we’ll just try and re-create that in the studio.

Before Florence joined, what was the plan? “There was never a plan to be a band. Nick the drummer had been in bands, and we had played as a drums and bass section for various people, for I guess like 12 years, and we’re such close friends. Nick goes out with a girl called Alice, whose twin sister Elizabeth goes out with Tom the guitarist, and we hung out a lot, talking about projects, and one day we decided to just jam, and caried on jamming. Mainly because my Mum kept feeding us (hence the Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks title). We’d get a free dinner out of it. We did that for a few months, tried some vocals ourselves, which sounded horrendous, and only then started thinking about who could do vocals on top. And even when Flo did get involved we only thought we would do a cassette, just for ourselves.”

It sounds like you are influenced by old school American new wave and post-punk…Yeah, especially when it was just the three of us. One of the reasons we all started playing together was because of The Feelies, early REM, The Neccessaries, B-52’S. We all have fairly similar music tastes, but at this same point we were all listening to those bands at the same time. It is quite strange to be a British post-punk band, but more influenced by the American side of post punk.”

So, it’s been a pleasant surprise how it’s all turned out! “Yeah, that’s a bit of an understatement!” It wasn’t that long ago when you played a gig for the first time with Flo… “It was about a year and half ago. I mean at the sound check, the sound engineer was like ‘can you test your vocal’, and she just turned around to me and asked ‘what do I do?’ That’s how unused she was to that environment.

I mean she had never been in a band before. She quit the band about three times before she actually joined. She has always worked with words, as an artist, but had never thought of doing anything with that, musically.

“Myself and Nick have known her for the best part of ten years, through friends, and we knew of her other work. Her and Tom studied together, and lecture together… we knew her vibe, and we knew it would be something interesting. We’re very lucky in how well it’s landed, yeah!”

She’s not going to leave now, is she? “Hope fucking not,” Lewis laughs.

So, how does a typical Dry Cleaning song come about then? “We realised that no matter how long we give ourselves in a day to write or rehearse, its always at the beginning or the end where things happen. But, we normally just jam and we record everything to our phones, or more recently I’ve bought a little multi-track recorder, and we press record, and good or bad we record everything. And while we’re jamming, Florence will have multiple pieces of paper, lots of sketches of sentences and words, and she’ll work her way through it, and after a jam, we’ll listen to it, and highlight moments that we like.

Florence’s words are a selection of snapshots, conversations culled from a variety of sources, and then she jumbles them up and somehow makes a song out of that material. And her vocal delivery doesn’t give much away in terms of the emotion behind the song, apart from perhaps highlighting, and even celebrating, the surreal mundanity and banality of life in the 21st century. ‘Goodnight’ is a collection of comments culled from an Aphex Twin Youtube binge, while ‘Traditional Fish’ is a spliced together montage of signage, and newsstand headlines. And while there is long history of musicians railing against the monarchy and establishment, the ‘Magic of Meghan’ is a much more nuanced and multi-dimensional lyrical interplay between Shaw’s break up relationship, and the million-miles-away fantasy of this rather interesting royal – or rather, soon to be ex-royal – member.

And then there’s the surface lyrical mundanity of ‘Sit Down Meal’, which again juxtaposes ideas, this time mixing personal memories of a break up, with hyper banal greeting card messages. “You cling to details, things you did together and reel at their significance,” Florence has said. “If you smell their perfume on someone else you feel overwhelmed, but immediately and painfully aware of how lightning quick a relationship can evaporate into thin air.

“There’s something really interesting about things written from a marketing perspective or written to a template,” Florence continues, “and how that makes up so much of what you actually read. It tells you a lot about how people’s brains work. It’s that thing of ‘how do you write something that’s tantalising, and makes you want to know more, and doesn’t give you enough information, and is still a bit mysterious?’ I find that really compelling, I think so much writing on the internet is like that…”

The mystery of the mundane… A bit like the band’s actual name, Dry Cleaning. I mean, how everyday, mundane, and yet slightly exotic is that. At the same time it is suggestive of working class, artists and students, doesn’t it? I think it’s brilliant and it’s what immediately drew me to the band, before I had heard a note. Does Lewis have any idea where it comes from? ”No… But, another band we were listening to at the time were called Suburban Lawns. They have a song called ‘Janitor’, which is amazing. And we were trying to think of a name around that.

It’s come around accidentally – although it is a bit of a blessing – if you slightly know about the band, you see our name on every high street, which I kinda like. We also get lots of messages from other dry cleaners, trying to promote themselves, or selling dry cleaning products. And I hope that even people who hate it, see it more!

Jeff Hemmings