Modern life gets reinterpreted by Dry Cleaning’s wry post-punk.
In the 21st century, sensory overload has become a way of life. 24-hour news pings, social media notifications, and targeted advertisements all contribute to the onslaught of information we receive daily, stimuli we barely have time to process before something new crosses our screens. Since forming in 2017, London-based post-punk band Dry Cleaning has helped us make sense of modern life by cutting, re-arranging, and reading new meaning into found phrases and words from our digital collective consciousness.
Lead singer Florence Shaw sifts through to-do lists, store signs, and comment sections to create wry, spoken-word meditations on the world around her. These sonic collages traverse topics like the Royals (“Magic of Meghan”), technology (“Goodnight”), and social anxiety (“Conversation”). Dry Cleaning’s fresh take on post-punk is as indebted to bassist Lewis Maynard, drummer Nick Buxton, and guitarist Tom Dowse’s minimal but muscular instrumentation as it is Shaw’s sprechgesang style of singing—which marks the first time she has ever performed as a musician.
While modern life may be fast, Dry Cleaning has proven that they can keep pace. After releasing two EPs in the span of two months last year—Sweet Princess and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks—Dry Cleaning is already at work on their debut album. AdHoc caught up with guitarist Tom Dowse and singer Florence Shaw over the phone while they were recording demos at a London studio to talk about music as world-making, comment section fights, and how they find meaning in our chaotic times.
Sweet Princess and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks are out now via Ok! Records. Catch them with Control Top at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus on March 6th—or, alternatively, on March 7th, when they’re headlining at Union Pool.
AdHoc: You’ve said in previous interviews that a good portion of your lyrics come from notes that you write while out and about. Where do you tend to find the most inspiration?
Florence Shaw: Funnily enough, on public transport. I don’t know if that’s because it’s good for people-watching, or just because we’re all still working quite intense jobs alongside doing the band. But when I’m on the bus or the train, I have a bit of time to sit quietly and sort of observe and think about things.
In an interview with NME, you mentioned that when you first started writing, you were trying to decide whether or not you wanted to write as yourself or as another character. Have you decided where you land on that now?
Florence: For the album, I’m finding a lot of the songs are written as other characters—purely because it’s inspiring. It kind of helps to come up with ideas if you imagine yourself as someone else—someone who’s a different age, or a different gender, or has a different job to you, or lives somewhere different. I don’t have kids and I’m not married, but sometimes I imagine myself as a married woman, or a woman with small children, and I write from that perspective—just for my own entertainment, and also to broaden the voice of the band, in a way. That’s been quite fun. Basically, I’m going to talk and change. Sometimes I’ll be myself. Sometimes I’ll be other people.
Now that you are touring more often, do you think that being on the road is easier for finding inspiration?
Tom Dowse: I can’t say lyrically, but definitely musically. Everyone’s got quite different tastes. So driving around with the band, I hear a lot of music I wouldn’t listen to otherwise. Someone will chuck on a playlist. Sometimes by the end of a tour, there is just so much music I want to listen to, and I’m actually full of energy to start writing again. I remember a tour in the Summer where Lewis was playing Black Sabbath all the time. I was never really excited by them, but by the end of the tour, I was like, “I love Black Sabbath now!”
Your songs often feature snippets of words and conversations. Where does this desire to collect the minutiae of life come from?
Florence: I was talking to someone about this the other day, actually, and I think I’ve sort of worked it out. I think it’s an effort to make something that’s a reflection of how I see the world. Everyone is walking around in their own bodies—everyone’s kind of experiencing their own little version of the world in a solitary way. And you can’t really share it with anyone. What you’re seeing through your own two eyes is quite personal and can be quite isolating in a way.
By collecting lots of little things, I think what I’m trying to do is to make an external version of what I am experiencing walking around to share with other people—just as a comfort, and also to feel a bit less alone. But then, I think that’s probably why lots of people make stuff.
On the song “Dog Proposal” the narrator states that hard work has very little to do with success. How do you define your success as a band?
Florence: One thing I’d say about the song is that’s one of those songs where that voice is a character. I’m fairly undecided about what success means, really. But I do feel skeptical about the value system around the idea of hard work and what hard work is, and the fact that you’re not of value if you don’t work very hard all the time. I think there’s a lot to be said for laziness; I don’t think it’s necessarily an inherently bad thing.
Tom: I definitely feel this is something that comes up a lot when I’m teaching students. They think that you need to make money to be successful, and I don’t know about that. It’s nice to make money from your work, so that’s definitely an element of success, but there are many great things about being in a band. You learn a lot about each other and a huge amount about yourself. I think success would be to learn a lot about yourself and each other—to stay together, stay making music and to still be enjoying it, as well as each other.
The press release for “Good Night” mentions that some of the lyrics were pulled from comments under YouTube videos. Have you read the comments underneath your own videos?
Florence: I have read them all, I think. It was such a novelty to all of us—to have a thing on YouTube that people were commenting on—and I just found it really surreal. I was like, I can’t believe there are people I don’t know watching this and having opinions on it. I was hoping for some really strange comments, and some of them are pretty strange. I don’t really read them now, but to begin with, I was really on it.
Tom: I try and avoid things like that. It causes me too much mental stress, but I did read one [someone left on a song for my side project] Mr. Blunt Trauma. Someone said, “This guy is awful at the guitar”—but I actually quite like that, to be honest. Someone else commented, “Dude, I think it’s meant to be like that.” And then the other guy commented and said, “Nah, it just sucks.”
Florence: Someone wrote on a Dry Cleaning one, “Sounds too much like Sonic Youth,” and then someone commented underneath, “You can never sound too much like Sonic Youth.” I thought it was funny. They were just having this weird little argument amongst themselves about whether it was okay or not okay.
I know that part of the origin story for the band involves karaoke. Do either of you have any go-to songs?
Florence: Mine is “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” by Soft Cell. That’s my one and only.
Tom: I’ve got a few, because I can sort of impersonate a few singers. I’m really good at “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. Some people actually knocked on the door and came in and said, “Is Bruce Springsteen actually in here?”
Loud and Quiet described your songs as encapsulating “all the devils of rubbish modern Britain.” Do you think these songs will translate well for an American audience?
Florence: I think about this all the time. I’m like, “What are Americans gonna think of this?” I imagine myself as an American listening to Dry Cleaning, and I’m just thinking, “What the hell is this?” Like, “What is this woman on about?”
I sought advice from my Portuguese boyfriend. I was like, “Is it really alienating to put loads of weird like brand names that people might not know or references people might not know?” And he was like, “No, because it just encourages people who are interested to kind of like look it up and find out what all the things are, really bury themselves in it.”
Tom: When I’m listening to music, or reading a book, or watching a film, I don’t like having my intelligence insulted. If you flip it around, I remember watching The Wire for ages, and for the first half of the season—because they specifically used the language that those people would use—I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The emotional qualities and the interactions of the characters come through anyway, and over time, you sort of learn that language.
Florence: I think it also makes it more of a little world, doesn’t it? It’s something that you can invest in if you want to. I’m really intrigued to see how it goes down. Can’t wait.