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Dry Cleaning Are Finding Their Voice

This South London band talks the subtle evolution of their craft and their great sophomore album, ‘Stumpwork’

Pitch Perfect PR/Ringer illustration

At Dry Cleaning’s best, front person Florence Shaw comes across like the eye of a storm—a deceptive calm in the midst of a ferocious attack. As the vocalist in the South London quartet, Shaw deploys a style most accurately described as talk-singing. (The Germans have a word for it: sprechgesang.) In her trademark droll intonation, Shaw’s lyrics can feel like poetry, wry musings, or, in some moments, even dispatches from a benevolent god. All the while her bandmates—guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard, and drummer Nick Buxton—envelop her voice with an infectious brand of post-punk that at times recalls Wire or Joy Division. There’s a discord between Shaw and the music, but it works. There’s a reason Dry Cleaning’s 2021 debut full-length, New Long Leg, made countless year-end lists. (Including ours here at The Ringer.)

Throughout the making of NLL’s follow-up, Stumpwork, the music itself often became a calming presence amid the life storms their band weathered. Chief among those were the death of Maynard’s mother and Dowse’s grandfather, but there were also moments of heartbreak and loneliness to contend with—not to mention the isolation that came with COVID lockdowns. At times, like on the sublime “No Decent Shoes for Rain,” the weight of those stresses are palpable. But Shaw says that, more often than not, the music avoided steering too far into the maudlin.

“A lot of times we would be rehearsing whilst really pretty dreadful things were happening outside of the rehearsal room,” Shaw says via Zoom. “For a time it was really a sort of refuge from very heavy things and very sad things. We wanted to include some sort of deliberately optimistic notes on the record, I suppose, as a reaction to some quite heavy, quite real-life stuff.”

The result is a record that doubles down on what made NLL a breakout, and also includes moments of catharsis—like the wonderful tale about a missing tortoise named “Gary Ashby” and the sledgehammer lead single “Don’t Press Me.” (It’s notable that in both songs, Shaw nearly breaks out into a fully sung melody—a sign of how of her confidence has grown since joining the band as a visual artist with a limited musical background in 2018.) Elsewhere, songs like “Driver’s Story” and “Icebergs” slow the music to a crawl, allowing the trio of musicians behind her to explore deeper grooves and richer melodies than they did on their predecessor. In many ways, Stumpwork is the classic sophomore record: It is an update to a tried-and-true formula that won’t scare off the fans they made before, but will find subtle ways to surprise them.

Ahead of Stumpwork’s release Friday on the legendary 4AD label, Shaw and Buxton spoke with The Ringer about the creation of the new record, the struggles and triumphs of touring both home and abroad, and whether Shaw has ever thought of going full-on songstress mode.

I was watching the video for “No Decent Shoes for Rain” last night. It really stuck out—it has a lot of candid shots, including of you guys on tour. And I’ve been thinking a lot about midsize and smaller acts touring recently, which has been in the conversation a lot recently. How has it been getting back out on the road for Dry Cleaning?

Shaw: We didn’t do a huge amount of touring pre-lockdown. We did a few, but it was always while we were still working jobs and stuff like that. One half of the week we’d be on tour, and the other half we’d be at our normal jobs. This full-time version of touring is something we’ve only ever done post-pandemic.

Buxton: I imagine for a lot of bands there are massive differences.

Shaw: There’s a sense that people are trying to make up for lost time. It seems pretty intense and I think that’s partly why you see a few people having to cancel things—just in terms of their mental health and trying to hold it together, which I think we will all sympathize with a lot.

And that’s why it’s been on my mind. I saw this week that Animal Collective had to cancel a tour and I know Santigold had to before them.

Shaw: For financial reasons, right?

“The economic realities” of touring, the articles said. Is that something that Dry Cleaning is experiencing at the moment?

Buxton: A little. We are managing to make things work. I think obviously the “economic realities,” as they put it, for a band like Animal Collective versus us are very different. I guess we are kind of managing more on what we are used to. But if you look at our European tour dates, for example, there are huge chunks of Europe that we are not going to. And that was generally because we can’t afford to do it at the moment. The fees are not what they used to be. So we’re getting a lot of noise from fans of ours who are upset that we can’t go to these places. We’re not playing in Italy at all. We’re barely playing in France. And then there’s other huge swaths of Europe that we’re not visiting because we’re kind of informed that the economics don’t really work out.

We’re fortunate enough in the U.K. that it’s kind of gone OK. But we still have to hope we are in for a real cost-of-living crisis in the U.K. at the minute with the bills over the winter. We’re touring in March, which is one of the coldest months of the year here. So god knows how the ticket sales are going to go. We keep our fingers crossed, but it is pretty grim.

Then just to touch on something related to this with bands canceling tours: I think maybe it goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the condensed schedules. With Arlo Parks and with Wet Leg, they canceled some shows and put out statements suggesting that it’s because they’re struggling to cope with the schedule mentally. Nothing but empathy for that, really feel for them.

Our schedule’s been really, very well-managed. We’re doing all right. But you know, it gets crazy. I think that a lot of that is bands trying to make up for lost time. They’re also acts that really came to prominence during the pandemic. They want to get out there and play and people want to see them and there’s a huge demand.

How does the songwriting process work in Dry Cleaning? Florence, do your lyrics come first or does the music inspire you?

Shaw: It all comes at the same time. It’s a four-way split on the songwriting. We improvise and feel our way toward a song. We all have pretty much autonomy over our parts, and we just keep playing together until we hit on something that works.

I’ll have all my writing usually just out on the floor—sheets of paper with just lots and lots of little snippets of writing. Because I write all the time rather than at a desk writing. I’ll note things down when I’m traveling, or when I’m doing something completely unrelated to music. I’ll have all of that writing that I’ve collected over weeks and months spread out, and I’ll just try little bits in response to the music , and then often the guys will respond to that in the music that they’re playing.

Buxton: Quite a big trial and error process. It’s assembly of parts, and then disassembly, and all sorts of things.

So even as you’re putting together songs, it’s still very fragmented?

Shaw: It’s always a fragmented process. Sometimes at a very early stage, lyrics will be in a completely different song and I’ll move them over because suddenly it feels more relevant to be saying something somewhere else. Everything’s kind of growing all the time at the same pace, and suddenly you’ll turn around and a song has completely changed identity, and it’s about something completely different from what you started with. Suddenly you think, “Oh actually, I mean this part over here would complement that really nicely. So I’m just going to go yoink and just stick it over in this other song.”

All the little bits of writing kind of find their home. I definitely think it’s fair to say I’m probably writing in terms of albums rather than songs. There’s a lot of themes that are interchangeable across different songs. Some of them have really got their own sort of identity like “Gary Ashby,” but it’s almost like short stories in the sense that it’s a collection but there’s a lot of give-and-take between them.

How literal am I supposed to take a song like “Gary Ashby”? Is this simply a story about a turtle going missing, or are there deeper meanings there?

Buxton: A tortoise.

Sorry, sorry.

Shaw: It’s meant to be enjoyed on every possible level. I enjoy it in a very surface kind of way. I like cute things. I like songs about slightly odd stories—not necessarily love songs, but songs that are about events that happen in your life. Little strange little episodes like losing a pet or whatever.

I really like songs like that, but at the same time I find it impossible not to read a bit deeper into things or to imagine things as metaphors. In a way it’s an interesting question, because whenever people say, “How am I meant to take it?” I don’t know how much I really think about that. I don’t know how much I think about what I want people to take from something.

Buxton: I’ve always felt quite comfortable in this band—which I haven’t done in many others—straying into quite unusual territory. So I think “Gary Ashby” is a really good case in point: On the surface it’s just a jangle-pop song about a tortoise, but there’s a lot going on there. It’s actually quite, quite sweet, but it’s also quite childish and it’s quite almost—I don’t want to say kitsch—but something quite sort of simplistic about it doesn’t happen a lot in our other songs.

When we were rehearsing it, we were talking about if we were going to make a video, it could be the theme song for a children’s TV program. Like Gary Ashby could be the main character in the show. And I think it’s quite nice to indulge in things like that. There’s something more there which is actually the children’s TV analogy kind of stands up, because when you go back and watch a lot of children’s TV it’s obviously all made by adults. You go back and you see it in a different way that you did when you watched it when you were a kid. The themes are more meaningful and powerful when you go back and look at those kinds of things.

Shaw: I always imagined in my mind Gary Ashby escapes, partly due to some kind of family chaos—which is exactly the kind of thing that you’re sort of half-aware of when you’re a kid. You don’t really get what is going on when things go a bit wrong at home. There’s always parts of it you don’t totally understand, but at the same time children are very intuitive, aren’t they? So even if they’re not told directly, they know something’s up.

Florence, I understand that you shifted your approach slightly on the new album. In the past, you’ve employed more of what can be described as “found lyrics,” but from what I’ve seen described, this was more observation.

When you’re promoting an album, you need to write these things called bios where you talk about the life of the album: “How did it begin?” and “How did you make it?” and “What was going on?” You have to reflect quite a bit, which is not always easy because it’s often just after you’ve made it.

But one of the things I realized quite quickly is that I had done far less of that collecting of words and using them wholesale just as they appear in life. I’d done a lot more of taking tiny fragments, using one word that I saw somewhere. It was far more about just strictly observational stuff going for walks. I wrote a lot on a lot of this record on walks, which is all about just looking through people’s windows and observing the way people interact or objects that you find on the street.

Is that a statement more on the past few years requiring more isolation and potentially more self-exploration, or is it a sign of your growing confidence as a songwriter?

Shaw: It felt very natural. I haven’t really ever taken a break from writing. It’s just like a thing that’s happening all the time. And even as a band, we didn’t really take a break from writing, we just sort of carry on. And so it has to be natural because, really, those kinds of changes only really happen if you stop and take stock and start again. But I think you are right, it’s definitely a confidence thing. You sort of have a bit more confidence in your own voice and also it becomes easier to take inspiration and turn it into something else—as opposed to almost being a recycler. It’s like you actually make something out of all that.

Florence, on some of the new songs like “Gary Ashby” and “Don’t Press Me,” you’re doing a little more singing—or at least inching in that direction. Is that something that you have interest in exploring a little more?

Shaw: I do enjoy it. I sing a lot in the shower and stuff like that; or in a very amateur way whilst I’m doing the washing, or whatever. I do find it fun. I think it is quite different to write. I guess it’s me wanting to join in wholesale with the musicality of things. I think I do enjoy making up little melodies and stuff. I find that really fun.

Buxton: And you’re good at it as well.

Shaw: Oh, thanks. And it’s also another ingredient to have at your disposal when you’re trying to assemble something in the way that we do and think. I think, yeah, I do enjoy it.

I was recently having a conversation with Geordie Greep from black midi, and he said essentially that American audiences tend to be a little more receptive to different kinds of music. And I thought that was very curious, because I don’t think of Americans as being more accepting.

Shaw: Oh, you are though. Although saying European audiences is probably just too sweeping because they change from country to country so much. French audiences, for example, I’ve always found to be very vocal, and they can be melodramatic at times. I keep thinking of that first show that we did on the European tour where there were people at the front who were not literally fainting, but sort of throwing themselves onto the point of the stage and rolling around and it was quite dramatic. That’s always really fun. But then other places will be very subdued, but it’s hard to figure out what that actually means.

Last thing I wanted to get into: I caught you guys at Pitchfork Music Festival. I was struck, especially in the festival environment, of how Florence can feel like the calm in a storm. Is that intentional? What’s your mindset when you’re remaining very calm in the middle of this really raucous music around you, and these really lively crowds in front of you?

Shaw: It feels like a quite powerful thing. It’s the idea of a person who’s sort of immovable or not affected by their surroundings. But I find it quite seductive—and I don’t necessarily mean me, I just mean anyone who’s like that; who’s quite, sort of, composed. That’s always something that I’ve aspired to either be like, or it’s a quality that I find attractive in people who aren’t easily swayed by the things around them. Even the ideas around them, or literally the activity around them.

I suppose I manifest that just because it’s the kind of person I’d like to be, maybe because I don’t think I am. When I perform, I’m thinking about who I want to be rather than who I actually am, maybe. Or some sort of blurring of the two—some kind of idealized version of yourself or something like that.

Buxton: That’s what you go to gigs to see a lot of the time, isn’t it? I think it’s quite nice. You’ve just indulged in that yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.