Changing moods at the heart of Dry Cleaning’s groove

Florence Shaw never planned to become a singer – originally her sights were set on becoming an artist. However, as the vocalist for English garage-jazz rockers Dry Cleaning, the art school grad discovered new ways to express her creativity.

Alt-rock band Dry Cleaning (from left) Tom Dowse, Florence Shaw, Lewis Maynard and Nick Buxton.Credit:Guy Bolongaro

The band – and Shaw in particular – are known for their unconventional vocal style, which is more of a low-octave, sing-song spoken word where the lyrics deliver obscure trains of thought, punctuated with often hilarious one liners like “don’t touch my gaming mouse, you rat!” These epic stories, though catchy, can be difficult to remember in the heat of performance.

“I used to read from a music stand when we started playing shows, but the reality is you play so many shows that they just stick in your brain,” says Shaw. “Sometimes it’s hard. I have to concentrate. It’s not your typical pop song, you can’t just go back to the chorus.”

Dry Cleaning believes in band democracy, so all four members take part in interviews. This approach reflects the way they work: cohesively, energised by one another’s ideas.

If Shaw forgets a line here or there, she’ll be in good company. “Recently, one of us has forgotten bass lines,” admits Lewis Maynard, bassist and presumed culprit. “We improvised. We told ourselves after the show that we wrote it originally, so we can change it if we want to.”

The signature Dry Cleaning sound – a jazzy dreamscape of fuzzy guitars and twangy bass which is prone to change mood mid-song and turn into an entirely different landscape – feels improvised. The music bristles with the possibility anyone might unleash a solo or up the tempo without notice.

English alt-rock band Dry Cleaning. Credit:Ben Rayner

“That’s something we’re actually trying to achieve,” says drummer Nick Buxton. “We’re four identities under one banner … everyone’s trying to eke out something on their own terms, which keeps it interesting for [listeners].”

Their debut album New Long Leg drew the interest of music media and listeners upon its release last year. Produced by John Parish, PJ Harvey’s long-time collaborator, it was recorded in an intense two weeks at Rockfield Studio in Wales.

For their second album, Stumpwork, they returned to the same producer and studio, but with more time to write and record, they took a more adventurous attitude toward improvising with instrumentals and freestyling lyrics.

Stumpwork showcases Shaw’s knack for weaving narratives that veer between poignant and preposterous, full of imaginary characters, tabloid tales and news headlines. It works, in a large part, due to the driving layers of bass, drums and wheeling, twisted guitar, surging and squalling in a call-and-response to Shaw’s strange fairytales.

Buxton says “there is an element that always comes in, which is John [Parish]. At any point he could say ‘this needs to change, or this needs to change drastically’ … On the first album, that approach had come as a sledgehammer, but we were ready for him this time, so we took it in our stride.”

Guitarist Tom Dowse adds that “we all felt there was more to be done there, at the end of the first one. His way is a bit shocking at first, and it took a while to get the hang of it. We’d only just started to build a good, productive relationship.”

After recording New Long Leg, they returned to London in 2020 and started work on Stumpwork, first taking up in their label’s basement before moving on to an empty pub belonging to a friend.

The album title, a term for an antiquated form of embroidery, was not – as dedicated listeners may have suspected – a reference to Shaw’s family tortoise Gary Ashby and his “stumpy legs”. This is the beauty and the paradox of Dry Cleaning, whether it’s runaway family pets chasing tinfoil balls, obscure tapestry practices, or scientists mining the Arctic with their sledge dogs; somehow all this madness sounds perfectly sensible in their parallel, Parish-ian universe.

Stumpwork is out now. Dry Cleaning will be performing at The Brightside in Brisbane on December 9, Corner Hotel in Melbourne on December 13, and Manning Bar in Sydney on December 14.

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