Dry Cleaning: 'If there’s any sense of disquiet in the music it’s a reflection of what’s going on in the UK'
He chuckles at The Yorkshire Post’s suggestion that their current location sounds like the cue for a song. “There are so many cultural references with the places we’ve been in the last week,” he says. “We’ve just been in southern California and travelling out here into the desert it’s pretty cool. I’ve never been here before.”
Such is the band’s popularity, their diary is now filled until April, with festivals to come over the summer. Buxton agrees with the idea that they may be making up for lost opportunities during the past two years. “But also I look at what other bands are doing, and everybody seems to be touring at the moment,” he says. “So it’s really intense, it’s all packed into four short months or whatever, doing pretty much a world tour, then straight into festival season, but hopefully if we do this now then we will have a bit of free time later to write a new album.
“It’s fine by me, I really love touring, it’s a massive privilege for me to be able to go around the world and come to places like this for the first time in relative luxury compared to the touring I’ve done in the past. Of course there are elements that wear at you – my voice is starting to go a little bit and I am by no means a party animal. It weras and tears at you being on the road, and of course you miss home, but there’s so many positives.”
Dry Cleaning’s first album, New Long Leg, came out in the middle of lockdown in 2021 and was widely praised, reaching number four in the UK charts. In hindsight, Buxton says, it was an “extremely weird” experience, but adds: “For us, we didn’t know anything else, we didn’t know what it was like to release a record on any kind of label, especially a big independent label (like 4AD)…It was all that we knew, really. The big surprise has been releasing the second album (Stumpwork) and actually discovering how it would work normally.
“But we can’t really complain about it. It sounds like an insensitive thing to say, but we kind of benefitted from everything that happened during the peak times of Covid. It doesn’t seem to have hurt our band in the way it does many other creative enterprises.”
Stumpwork emerged from a difficult year for the band, with the loss of bassist Lewis Maynard’s mother and guitarist Tom Dowse’s grandfather. Buxton feels they are even closer now as friends. “Friendship is sort of the foundation of our project, really,” he says. “I’ve been in bands in the past where they’ve assembled through different means, not necessarily friendships but just connections or loose threads. This was very much a band that came together through friendship, so it’s the foundation of what’s going on here. For me, 2020 and 2021 was such a surreal period, with people passing away, especially Lewis’ mum because she was so close to all of us, it just heightened the surreal aspect of it.
“All of a sudden it felt like we were living in a parallel universe and I did struggle to comprehend that much of the time. I’ve been trying to do a psychological analysis of what happened in the last couple of years through all of these things and I’m still struggling to really comprehend some of them.
“When we do interviews together as a group, it’s interesting because everyone’s different history, or a version of history, comes together to create a rounded picture of what happened. When you talk to us individually you probably get a psychologically skewed idea of what went on, but yes, of course it brought us all together. They’re seismic events, those are the sort of things that shape lives and attitudes and approaches to creative work.”
Musically, Stumpwork marks an evolution for Dry Cleaning, with vocalist Florence Shaw’s sprechgesang vocals framed by a more varied array of styles than on New Long Leg. Buxton says “the one thing that keeps bands going is maintaining an interest in what’s happening and you have to evolve”.
“It’s finding an area that you are comfortable in but also where you’re challenging yourself simultaneously to do something different,” he says. “I think that’s what we were trying to do here. Some of that happens naturally, with some of the events that transpired the music took a certain trajectory, and I think the environments that you’re playing in and rehearsing in, they have an effect on what’s going on, and then obviously Covid and the lockdown, that would have an influence on the lyric-writing. But we did want to challenge ourselves and part of that was in the studio maybe trying things we hadn’t done before, trying different approaches to recording.
“When we worked with John Parish in the past, we would usually record all of us at the same time in a room with separation so you’re keeping the audio clean, and then do some overdubs afterwards. We did that largely again but we had more time for the overdubbing, trying out different instruments, playing new things, trying out lots of things and seeing if they worked.
“On the first record we didn’t necessarily have time for that, it was more like ‘that’s not going to work, let’s move on’. This time he kind of indulged us a bit more. We were able to try radical ideas, for us anyway, where we took something out of a recording completely and tried to record something else.
“Then there were a couple of songs, probably most notably Anna Calls From The Arctic, which is the first song on the record, it was recorded back to front – instead of playing the drums, I had a drum machine, and I was playing the keyboards and we reecorded that live, and then I overdubbed some drums later. It was like a reversed process but one that we really enjoyed, working that way then editing things afterwards. Using the studio more as a tool as much as anything was quite an exciting process.”
As well as coaxing out their best performances in the studio, Parish is particularly good at “knowing what’s good”, Buxton feels. “When you’re working in the studio and there are all sorts of pressures going on, you’re not necessarily in the right frame of mind to be objective about what you’ve just done,” he says. “His job is sometimes to say ‘That’s the take, that’s really good, that one’, whereas you might be going ‘What are you talking about? That’s crazy’. You have to learn to trust someone to make that judgment.
”He can say a multitude of things to try to encourage you to do something better than what you’ve just done, and he’s really good at that, whether it’s taking the soft approach – ‘Let’s take a break, do something else, play table tennis for a bit, go have some lunch’ – but he can also be really brutal and go ‘That’s not working, you’re going to have to do something completely different’. You might have been writing something for six months and he’s telling you that it doesn’t work. He’s a real master, he wouldn’t challenge you like that if he thought you couldn’t deal with it.”
As a band, Dry Cleaning tend to write in a room together. “Most of what we do as a band comes from playing and jamming, as it were, but I think we’re interested in exploring other avenues as well as that,” says Buxton. “If someone brings an idea, and it could be any one of us, what tends to happen is that idea becomes something very different by the time everyone has had a bite at the cherry and contributed something. It’s gone through the wringer of discussion and what everyone thinks is good and bad. Different songs take shape in different ways but generally that’s the way it works.
“I would say broadly speaking we’re interested in finding other ways to collaborate rather than just being in a room playing our instruments. I’m really excited to see how that shapes the music that will come from this point onwards.”
Buxton admits to being pleasantly surprised that the distinctively British humour in their lyrics has found an audience in many countries whose first language is not English. “Obviously the humour is so striking, especially with the early material when we first started the band. Of course I was aware that the songs are so funny, and there’s a massive humour element to what Flo is doing, but I never really thought that it would go anywhere, so it’s a surprise to me that it travels,” he says.
“But the people that like the music, everyone talks about something different that they like about it. There’s a lot of people out there that love the humour and there’s some people that never mention it at all. But I’m happy and proud that it translates especially to non-English language countries. If we’re playing around Europe or South America or Japan, wherever it is, I find that pretty fascinating because to me it is quite niche, but that stuff is quite remarkable.”
Given the state of Britain, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would also intrude into the album. “We’re just a product of our environment,” Buxton says. “You can’t avoid it. It’s so crushing at the moment in the UK.
“It’s great that we could channel it into our music, it’s obvious in the lyrics and I would hope the music reflects that as well. If there’s any sense of disquiet in the music it’s a reflection of what’s going on in the UK at the moment. If you have a voice I do think it’s important to try and use it, to show people that like your music how you feel, and hopefully that’s a reflection of how they feel if they’re interested. But for us, it was unavoidable.
“New Long Leg doesn’t really feel heavily political, but this one certainly was. It seems that things have ramped up so dramatically in the last few years in the UK that we didn’t really have much of a choice. If you’re a musical artist in the UK, it must be hard to not put that into your music.”
For now, it seems the band are still getting their heads around newfound fame in their thirties. “It’s a funny question because you’re not really in the public eye in the sense of how celebrity works nowadays, but you are,” Buxton ponders. “But it’s very minor.
“On a personal level, with the release of New Long Leg I really struggled quite a bit. I found the interviews really daunting and intense, I was very inexperienced, and we were doing a lot of press photo shoots and video-based stuff. Because it was the lockdown there was a high demand for filmed stuff, so you’d be doing all these film shoots and you’d have to try and feel like you looked nice whilst wearing a different outfit for the sixth video that day.
“It was quite anxiety-inducing all of that, suddenly feeling that you’re in the spotlight a little bit, a bit of a rabbit in the headlights. Ultimately I’m the drummer, so whatever I’m feeling the rest of the guys are probably feeling times ten, especially Florence being a frontperson and a woman in the music industry. So it was pretty crazy.
“But I feel unbelievably thankful that I am in my thirties. I’m more comfortable with myself than I was in my twenties for sure, I feel way better equipped to deal with it. It’s a lot easier now than it would’ve been then, and I feel more in control of it, which I think is really important.
“Also the support network that we have around us, from our management to people at the label, they couldn’t really make it any easier for you. I think that’s a really important aspect of all of this. If you’re entering into the music industry you want to work with people that you like and respect and feel that they’ve got your back. All of the horror stories that you hear about have been very far from our experience in terms of the support we’ve had and the people around us, who have been brilliant.”
Dry Cleaning play at Leeds University Stylus on Saturday February 18. https://drycleaningband.com