The London post-punk antipoets speak to Alex Denney about capitalism, charity shops, and the delirium that inspired their new album, Stumpwork
When Dry Cleaning released their first album, New Long Leg, in April of last year, they weren’t allowed to tour it. So they did what any enterprising band would do in their situation: they made another one.
The south London quartet had recorded their debut in 2020, confined to their studio digs at Rockfield, in rural Wales, by COVID restrictions. This time around, the band was able to decamp to the pub (“Imagine!” says frontperson Florence Shaw, eyes wide with mock wonder), along with the local branch of Mountain Warehouse and various charity shops. “Charity shops were great after lockdown,” says Shaw, “because everyone had cleared out their houses so they were full of the most amazing stuff.”
If you’ll pardon the metaphor – Dry Cleaning are a band that don’t really do metaphors – the image of someone clearing out the clutter from odd corners of the brain describes pretty well what this band is about. You can think of them as a strange dance between Shaw’s lyrics, which corral everyday thoughts into a sort of bizarrely non-sequitur-laden anti-poetry, and her bandmates’ alternately stinging and soothing post-punk melodies. The interplay is where the magic lives, yielding results that are laugh-out-loud funny one minute and shocking the next, as in the moment on “Kwenchy Kups” where Shaw undercuts the mood of excitement at a trip to a wildlife park with the line, “Peaceful fish meat lying dead and flat in a chiller”.
“The fish meat! That is a bit creepy,” says Shaw when quizzed on the line. She says the image came to her on a break from rehearsals at a studio in Bristol, when she came across a fishmongers at a local market: “I just saw it and the words were in my mind. If I see the thing, I don’t go like, ‘Mmm, how am I gonna describe that?’ I just write it down as I think it, even if it’s clumsy or not quite the right word.”
Shaw may have resisted prettifying the image, but there is something about that line, its sense of serene detachment (Why “peaceful”?), that speaks to the band’s essence. Though the album was recorded as COVID restrictions were being eased, an air of lockdown delirium – of that moment’s mix of the “geopolitical and the domestic”, as Shaw puts it – clings to its tracks. There’s a song about a lost tortoise (“Gary Ashby”, never found) and gloomy reflections on how everything is “opaque and privatised” followed by a moment of joy as a shoe rack is delivered to the door (“Anna Calls From the Arctic”). It’s [this idea that] capitalism is ruining your life but everyone indulges in it at the same time,” says drummer Nick Buxton, who notes that the band is defined by a “series of juxtapositions”, many of which they have learned about from observing other people’s reactions to their music.
It’s not just COVID that casts its shadow over the album, though – a touch of the everyday horror (“Am I part of the meal deal?”) that comes as standard in our age of permanent crisis bleeds through into everything Dry Cleaning do. When we speak, the (former) chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng is on a plane back from Washington DC to get sacked for tanking the economy, the sort of all-encompassing bin fire we’ve come to expect on an almost daily basis in the last few years of Conservative rule (RIP, Liz).
“If you’re a curious person you can’t shut out [politics]... When I listen to the icier ambient sounds on the record they feel to me like the fragility or the entropy of the political system“ – Tom Dowse
“I think if you’re a curious person you can’t shut out those things,” says guitarist Tom Dowse. “When I listen to the icier ambient sounds on the record they feel to me like the fragility or the entropy of the political system. We’re seeing it right now, we’ve had a chancellor that’s lasted a couple of weeks because he’s made such disastrous decisions. They [the UK government] feel so detached from us, and there’s something about the coldness of the atmosphere on the record at times. On Conservative Hell, for instance, I could imagine someone like Reagan Youth doing a song with a name like that, a kind of Oi! punk sound. But the reality of it is not like that; it’s like a jangle-pop song that collapses into this icy landscape.”
One way this detachment manifests is a recurring thread in Shaw’s lyrics about having her brain hijacked, whether she’s declaring on the title track that “I am not in charge of what I do” or succumbing to strange fantasies about being taken over by a parasite (“Icebergs”). Is the thought a frightening one for her? Or might it really be nice, given the pervasive sense that no one is at the wheel as far as the future is concerned, not to have to think for a while? “I honestly had no idea that was something I do, that is freaking me out a bit,” says Shaw. “I mean, I do generally like control: I like tidying, I like categorising things a lot; that’s a big calming-down thing for me. I don’t like to be at the whims of something else; I find that scary and I think most people do, unless you’re like a real adrenaline-seeking nut. So the idea of being taken over is kind of frightening but also slightly exciting for that reason.”
But as much as it’s tempting to parse Shaw’s lyrics for shards of meaning, often it’s the random interjections – “Woah, just killed a giant wolf”; (passive-aggressively) “Can you not?” – that lodge deepest in the brain. “In the writing, I’m just feeling my way towards something, attempting to express myself like [solving] a puzzle or something,” says Shaw. “When it comes to how I feel about most things, an indirect route feels more appropriate than just being really on the nose or something, which I don’t even know if I’m capable of doing.
“You don’t really sit down and think, ‘I need to write a part about that,’ it’s enough to just live your life,” says Dowse. “It’s like in interviews, you always get asked what your influences are, and—”
“You want to say ‘cheese’,” says Shaw, laughing. “You know, you want to say what your influences really are, which is way more likely to be something like doughnuts.”
Damn. That’s our next question torpedoed. Time for one more. But what will it be?
“The answer is cheese,” announces Shaw, confidently.
Dry Cleaning's second album Stumpwork will be released on October 21 through 4AD.