Dry Cleaning: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features Dry Cleaning
Dry Cleaning: The Best of What’s Next

For years, Paste has introduced exciting, up-and-coming artists to our readers. This is the return of The Best of What’s Next, a monthly profile column which highlights new acts with big potential—the artists you’ll want to tell your friends about the minute you first hear their music. Explore them all here.

“This doesn’t really feel like a song- but more like speech with music playing in the background. It’s genius.” “Abstract prose set to jackhammer rock and roll.” “Everything here is an absolute fantasy!” “would it be weird for me to observe that her skin is perfect.” “I tried to get a suit cleaned there, but the whole store was closed for Flu ! So I had to wear this silly thing I got on now.” “Who agrees that Dry Cleaning somehow fixed the world?”

It feels only apropos to introduce Dry Cleaning using other peoples’ words, piecing YouTube comments together like physical found objects, as vocalist Florence Shaw once did. Like flint scraped against steel and tossing off sparks, the combination of certain commonplace things can create something special, an alchemy that’s hard to fathom—two plus two equaling 10. In Dry Cleaning’s case, Shaw’s coolly detached Sprechgesang vocals overlay wiry art-rock from guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton, a mesmerizing blend that even the London band themselves struggled to define when we spoke (minus Maynard, though I did get to meet Dowse’s dog) via Zoom in early March, prior to the April 2 release of their acclaimed debut album New Long Leg.

The beauty of Dry Cleaning is that even listeners who don’t straddle their Venn diagram can find something to love on one side or the other. “Personally, I think we all think it’s a combination,” says Dowse. “The vocals, of course, stand out and they do elevate it into a different area, because I think people are listening to it that don’t necessarily like guitar music, so they probably would focus on the vocals more.” “And vice versa, though, right? Vice versa,” adds Shaw. “I think some people listen to it who are really into guitar music who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in some of the subject matter or that style of delivery at all.” Their sound is like a Rubin’s vase, two concepts in one.

Similarly, the story of Dry Cleaning’s sound is inextricable from that of their origins. Before their formation, Dowse was playing in hardcore bands like San Pareil (fka Pariah), while Buxton and Lewis were members of funk-pop outfit La Shark. The three friends decided at a karaoke night to form a new band of their own, and Dowse later invited Shaw, whom he knew from art school, to layer her spoken-word stylings over their music, moving from the visual art world into an unfamiliar medium. Dowse recalled being drawn to recruit Shaw in part because she was “someone who wasn’t in a band, who had never done music before, and that was an interesting fact about her. But also her personality, it was just the texture of her as a person.”

“When we first talked about the band and me possibly joining, my perspective was it [was] just a project, like how I would do a drawing project, or I would take some photos for a bit, or I would make some films,” Shaw explains. “It was more a question of ‘Do you want to do something with your voice?’ [laughs] I didn’t really set out with any aims. It was more just like an experiment, I suppose.”

She went about that experiment her own way, speaking rather than singing, and pulling her lyrics piecemeal from the everyday. “I used to screenshot YouTube lyrics before I was doing music, just that I liked or that moved me […] When I was thinking about going to the first rehearsal that we had, I found them in the screenshots on my computer, and I was like, ‘Oh, I could take these … these are some words,’” Shaw recalls with a laugh. “I always thought of talking as an accessible way to be in a band. You know, if it was about singing, I found that intimidating at first. Like, a very intimidating idea. And it was the option of talking that allowed me to have the confidence to do it.”

Dry Cleaning formed in earnest in Maynard’s mother’s garage, a tiny structure in London’s Eltham suburb that has since come to loom large for the band. It’s where they played together as a quartet for the first time, dodging exposed live wires while packed in so tight, there was no room for anything but the music and each other. “If you parked a car in there, you’d struggle to get out of the car,” Buxton recalls. “We were literally on top of each other.” Needless to say, it worked out: They recorded their first two EPs there, 2019’s Sweet Princess and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, whose acclaim set them on the path to a deal with 4AD and the release of New Long Leg.

Though the band tend to think the garage has been a bit over-romanticized, they nevertheless agree with Buxton when he says, “I think the stories about the garage that came about when the first EP came out, probably of all the things that were written, [was] the thing that had the biggest kernel of truth in it. It was the thing that defined our existence at that point, as well as our sound and our mentality.” The homey setting even helped inspire their band name: “It was the oddness of a very domesticated, normalized word taken out of context and used as a sort of portal to some other weirdness” that resonated with them, says Dowse.

“Maybe I’m about to start something I regret, but it does feel a little bit like we’re always trying to get back to that,” says Shaw of the garage. “It’s one of those things [that], at the time, you don’t really value it enough, maybe. We loved it, but I didn’t think I would be pining for it.”

Now more than ever, it makes sense for Dry Cleaning to long for the simplicity of that place, though in a way, they still carry it with them. “Fundamentally, what we got from that experience was that the raw elements of what you need [are] the guitar, the drums, the bass, the vocals,” says Dowse. “I think what we do right now, we still go back to that. The foundation of everything is still those instruments in a room.”

In the beginning, it was Shaw who was the student, finding her way into the music world—now, with New Long Leg among the most acclaimed albums of the year, the entire band is on a learning curve. “I understand what my role is pretty well. I know how to behave [laughs] in the music world, largely,” says Shaw. “But it’s interesting because as soon as I was feeling more … it does seem a bit like when I want to have my feet on the ground in it, it suddenly grows in scope. I always feel like I’m a goat on a mountain a little bit. Like, oookay, where [to] now?” Currently, the answer is on numerous interviews, in front of BBC cameras and the like, which Buxton calls “totally new territory for everyone,” and Shaw sees as “a bonding thing.”

The album at the center of all that attention, produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Aldous Harding), finds Dry Cleaning refining and elevating the sound they honed in the garage and introduced to listeners on their EPs. Take lead single “Scratchcard Lanyard,” one of the record’s most arresting tracks, which arrived in mid-November 2020 sans any word of their album, cracking Paste’s list of last year’s best songs at the last possible minute. Maynard’s direct bassline and Buxton’s springy, drum machine-accented percussion lay a foundation for Dowse’s insistent riffs and Shaw’s hypnotic incantations, all combining to produce a third rail of a song, carefully engineered, yet undeniably electric. “I’ve come to learn how to mingle / I’ve come to learn how to dance / I’ve come to join your knitting circle / I’ve come to hand-weave my own bunkbed ladder / In a few short sessions,” Shaw deadpans, as if smelling bullshit but buying in anyway, more confident than ever in what she has to say. (That means no more YouTube comments, though it was the comments section of the “Scratchcard Lanyard” video that supplied the intro to this piece.)

The pandemic is both a reflection of and a deterrent to Shaw’s songwriting. While she’s unable to collect new collage fodder (“I get a lot of my energy from going on the bus, or on the train and observing things. I really miss going on the tube and going on the overground, and having just time alone to think in public”), lockdown has amplified the feelings she was already using as her primary colors: “I struggle with anxiety quite a bit, and sometimes depressive feelings I have trouble with, as well. And I think in a way, the lockdown felt like it […] put into place all the artificial elements of depression. It was almost like it created a depression for people. It was like having depression thrust upon you.” With nothing for society to (responsibly) do but stay inside and stew in such feelings, alone or with a select few others (“I can only live in isolation,” Shaw sang on Sweet Princess closer “Conversation”), Dry Cleaning’s music resonates more than ever, proving them an essential band for these fraught times.

“Feelings of overwhelm, in different ways, have been a feature of my life for quite a while, and I think it’s an interesting thing to investigate, because I often have a feeling of just going blank, or a feeling of where I can’t process any more information than what I’ve already got,” says Shaw. “It’s like I just got cut out, mentally. It’s an interesting thing to write about, because it’s kind of trying to write about nothing, but it feels like an underexplored emotion. Because people always talk about huge swells of emotion, but … what if you’re not getting that? What if you’re getting nothing? [laughs] But it’s distressing. It’s a distressing kind of nothing.”

That anti-emotion pervades New Long Leg. “Do everything and feel nothing,” Shaw urges on “Scratchcard Lanyard”—on the ironically titled “Strong Feelings,” she insists, “Too much to ask about / So don’t ask / It’s useless to live.” Even—or perhaps especially—when these feelings are rendered structurally, rather than explicitly, Shaw consistently conjures the brain fog to which many have grown accustomed over the past year. Flurries of language, some phrases familiar, others alien, pour from her microphone context-free, evoking the despairing short-circuiting of being forever a few steps behind the curve of a world that is one long explosion of information.

Dry Cleaning’s sense of humor is appropriately absurdist: “Are there some kind of reverse platform shoes / That make you go into the ground more / And make you reach a lower level?” Shaw sings on the title track, a laugh line that bruises when (or if) you think to yourself, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” Shaw appropriates the languages of sales and self-help, as if to expose the hollowness of their false positivities, shining a spotlight on the way we’re programmed to believe in and aspire to these things like they’ll fix us. “I’m just a conduit / Don’t look at me / I’m just the medium,” she murmurs on New Long Leg’s sprawling closer “Every Day Carry,” only an observer, humble in her lack of answers.

In playing more with form than feelings, at least lyrically, Dry Cleaning’s music may share more with hip-hop than it does with many of their indie-rock contemporaries. “I think that indie music suffers a little bit because […] it can be quite earnest music, and in a sense, it can be emotionally quite pallid and [has] this duty to express some kind of earnest emotions, whereas with rap, and rappers, they’re more playful,” offers Dowse, citing MF DOOM’s MM.. FOOD as an example of hip-hop’s world-building capacity. “They’re playing with personas, they’re playing with history, they’re playing with the actual shape of the words themselves,” he continues. “It’s more malleable, in that sense […] If you’re gonna sing something, it has to be heartfelt or really emotive, or something, whereas with rap, it can be everything. You can do what you want with it.”

If anything, it’s Dry Cleaning’s instrumentation, rather than their vocals, that conveys emotion, namely Dowse’s guitar playing—a divergence from his hardcore days of favoring “really interesting, weird chords” and “crazy, octave-y type things,” the album finds Dowse exploring more textured jangle- and psych-rock sounds on songs like “A.L.C.” and “John Wick.” He likens his instrument to a second singer: “I’ve become more aware of the dynamics of how guitar works, and I’m not really a traditional guitarist. I’m not really interested in being a technical guitarist, I’m much more interested in how much I can communicate emotionally through a guitar.”

On “Leafy,” that manifests as “literally one string at a time, fingerpicked almost, very gently, and just repeated almost all the way through,” resulting in “an intimate, quite tender song, a very vulnerable song,” while on “Every Day Carry,” Dowse recalls “trying to make as much noise as possible,” “trying to dig out as much as I can from the strings” as the song draws to an explosive end. “‘Her Hippo’ is the one that almost makes me cry every time I play it. It just feels the most close to my emotions.” And Dowse identifies the “Scratchcard Lanyard” riff as a particular point of pride: “I find it quite sad, but there’s also something quite triumphant and defiant about that lead, as if like, ‘I’m not gonna give up.’ When you play something like that […] it’s almost like that’s what you’re trying to tell the world.”

Like many bands still stuck in limbo, Dry Cleaning are looking ahead to what they’ll tell the world next, and eagerly anticipating a return to the road. “We’ve got a whole load of new material that we’re very eager to work with and create more of,” says Buxton, “and hopefully it looks like the summer is gonna present a fair amount of time for more of that.” Dowse says the band has a couple of new songs “really well-formed,” with another pair “sort of floating around,” and “a whole file of like 30 ideas we’ve got that we jam,” just waiting to take shape—“It’s more like 50 now. It’s really big,” says Buxton with a laugh. Once Dry Cleaning find the next room, it’s on to structuring LP2 in earnest: “As soon as we can get some space to do that again, that’s what we’re really excited about,” says Dowse, and Buxton adds, “There’s nothing quite like the thrill of new music.”

New Long Leg is out now via 4AD. Stream/buy it here.

Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.

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