Dry Cleaning Circumnavigate The Sophomore Slump With ‘Stumpwork’

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Talky, British post-punk has been one of the definitive trends of the 2020s thus far. With bands like Squid, Black Country, New Road, and Porridge Radio at the helm of its latest wave, the clear frontrunner of this vanguard is Dry Cleaning. Featuring vocalist Florence Shaw’s post-modern, absurd lyrics about the quotidian experience and her band members’ Sonic Youth-esque arrangements, it’s easy to understand the appeal.

However, after they broke through with 2021’s New Long Leg, it was difficult to predict where they’d take their sound next. The answer: nowhere. Rather than changing up their style drastically, they are simply refining upon the pre-existing, already-great blueprint of what’s there on their second record, Stumpwork.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Dry Cleaning. For instance, the pre-released single “Gary Ashby” is about a family tortoise who’s gone missing. “Don’t Press Me” contains the line, “All I could afford was my gaming mouse / So don’t touch my gaming mouse, you rat.” On “Hot Penny Day:” “I’m not here to provide blank / They can fucking provide blank.”

Shaw delivers these lines in the most gripping deadpan imaginable, infusing her often amusing lyrics with wry disinterest. The band’s instrumentation, courtesy of guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard, and drummer Nick Buxton, serve as the perfect musical landscape for Shaw’s captivating word collages.

Shaw, Dowse, and Maynard took the time to discuss Stumpwork, how the praise surrounding New Long Leg motivated them to make another excellent record just one year later, working with producer John Parish, how Stumpwork forms its own musical identity, and more.

How does this new album differentiate itself from your debut and form its own identity?

Florence Shaw: We’re roaming around and trying out our as-yet unexplored interests. There are wider landscapes of sound on Stumpwork. It’s more romantic at times, maybe more emotional, more vulnerable. It’s also poppier in places.

Tom Dowse: When we finished recording New Long Leg, we were already starting to write again straight away. It’s almost like a continuation because we couldn’t tour. It just gave us loads of time with no real commitments other than some press, promo, and meetings every now and again, but generally, we have most of the week to ourselves. We were really given a lot of freedom. The label really didn’t tell us to do anything in particular, which was encouraging. And I think we were all committed to making another album quite quickly. John Parish, who recorded it, was up for it and he was available.

Lewis Maynard: The process of writing was similar at the start. So we did a lot of jamming and then listened back to those phone demos but then intentionally didn’t complete songs. We took them to the studio to complete them there. With New Long Leg, we played a lot of those songs live, and not too many of them changed in the final product. These new songs changed quite a bit and in ways that we didn’t expect, as well. Some we took in expecting to record them as they were, and then they changed a lot. And then we went in with others leaving loads of space for them to change. We gave ourselves a lot more time, as well. We gave ourselves double the amount of time as we did on the first record.

What were some of those unexpected changes that happened?

Dowse: Well, one of my favorite tracks is “Hot Penny Day.” For a long time, that song was literally just the middle section. We were trying to play it really slow and groovy at first. And then Lewis just started doing this wild bass part, and we wrote it from that. That was two weeks before we went to the studio. We played a bit of it to John [Parish] when we did a process of two rehearsals in Bristol, and John came and the engineer came. They listened to everything, and he’d say, “I like it, but you need to make it into something else.” Some of the songs we adjusted a bit more in the studio, so that was definitely one.

Maynard: “Conservative Hell” was something that we’ve never done, where we tried to make this free-form, jazzy section in the middle, And then it went back into the song. It just didn’t really sound like us, which is weird because there are quite wide margins of what we can sound like. But we really forced it to sound improvised, and it wasn’t. When we got to the studio, we were stuck with the structure of it. John forced Tom and me into a room, and we had to improvise and jam for a few minutes. That became half the song.

Dowse: When we were finished, John was like, “That’s the one.” And we were like, “Lunch!” Because that’s all we were thinking about. I was like, “I really wonder what’s for lunch. I hope it’s nice.” When we get back from lunch, John says, “Can you remember what you were playing?” And so we’re still fresh. Right after lunch, I went with [engineer] Joe [Jones], and he filmed me playing. I knew I’d forget because I wasn’t paying any attention. Sometimes, the best time to do things like that is when you’re not really paying attention. You just let it out.

Did you feel any pressure coming off of the excitement surrounding New Long Leg?

Shaw: Not at first. Not in the months after New Long Leg came out. We did a lot of writing for Stumpwork around that time. But then I was quite taken aback by the end-of-year lists it ended up on. I didn’t expect it. When many of those lists were published in December 2021, we were embedded at Rockfield Studios recording Stumpwork, and I did have to take a moment to control some nerves then. I was used to writing with a sense that the audience was quite niche, you see. And that was harder to imagine after that.

Dowse: We were confident from the first one because it went quite well. And we felt there was more to do. Then we were already writing the next one to address what we’d thought of the first one, things like shorter songs and poppier songs. When New Long Leg became popular, we were just about to record. It was more inspiring to go into the studio, knowing we’d done well, but we’d already written it by then.

What do you appreciate about working with John Parish?

Dowse: He’s going to get the best out of you, and he does it in different ways. For different people, he knows he can be a bit provocative. Or, sometimes, he’ll be a bit encouraging.

Maynard: He reads the room. We’ll be doing a take, and he’ll be like, “Oh, if we just have a cup of tea…” and he just knows everyone’s needs.

Dowse: But, likewise, when you’re doing a take, and you think it’s quite good, he might say, “I think we should do one more. I think the next one would be good.” He’s paying that much attention that he’s hearing every take and thinking, “I think there’s something there. The first half of that last one was better than the second half of this one,” and pastes them together, basically. So he just knows exactly what’s going on all the time.

Florence, what is your lyrical process usually like?

Shaw: I’m just trying to express myself. There is no formula, but, roughly speaking, I write lines or words or passages down when they come to me. When we get together as a band to rehearse, I’ll try some of that writing out over what Tom, Lewis, and Nick are playing. We’re all improvising together. If a line feels good, I’ll investigate and think something like, “What does this line mean to me?” Then when I have the answer I’ll look over all the writing I have with me, searching for other lines or passages of writing that also feel right, or correspond to the same emotional qualities as the first line, or reference the same subject literally or laterally. Even lines that link in some visual way.

If I can’t find anything, then I’ll make something up at the time, or try something that feels wrong (sometimes that can yield good results, too). Most of this construction work goes on during our rehearsals whilst Tom, Nick, and Lewis are playing. I’ll be sitting with all my papers out, scanning for the right bit of writing, and then when I find it, I try it out. It’s trial and error, and listening back to demo recordings later that we make on our phones is when I make decisions about what to keep in the song and what wasn’t quite right. I keep doing that until the song is finished.

What were some of your musical or non-musical influences for Stumpwork?

Shaw: I love the book Baby, I Don’t Care by the poet Chelsey Minnis, ceramics and drawings by the artist Erica Eyres, the band Audiobooks and particularly Evangeline Ling’s writing and performance. I listen to Jme if I feel uninspired. His writing is clever and funny. I was drawn to short-hand language or things written in a rush without care, like instant messages of all kinds (texts, WhatsApps, DMs). I tried at one point to write in haiku form, and at another time wrote captions for photographs, as at the time I was drawn to words that describe an image.

How does Stumpwork evolve Dry Cleaning and expand on what your band is?

Dowse: That’s basically it; we just expanded on what we are. A lot of the stuff on that record is stuff we wanted to do at the beginning of the band. I’m into ambient music, Nick is into house music, and Lewis is into funk. There are only so many hours in a day to touch on these subjects. So it’s just having more time to be able to do them.

Maynard: We realized after the first record that we’ve set a nice foundation for lots of different directions. There’s lots of little nods to certain genres, and we could start to expand on that and take it further. It just opens more doors and directions we can go. And Flo’s vocals anchor the band so nicely, it gives the instruments more scope to move, as well. We can go quite deep into a different genre and have a voice to anchor it nicely.

What do you want people to take away from listening to this record?

Dowse: That they can relate to it in their own way, really. Fill in the blanks yourself. I hope we’re not holding up the band as something that doesn’t leave any room for your imagination to interpret.

Maynard: I think we communicate honestly with the projects and how we make music, and I think that’s what people have always liked about the band. The reason behind it is that we came together as friends. It’s like a social project. There’s still that kind of honesty, and we create music to impress each other and entertain each other, and I think that comes across.

Shaw: We set out to write an optimistic record. There’s a lot of humor in what we do. That’s a big part of what Dry Cleaning is. I hope Stumpwork might encourage someone to make their own music or write about their own specific interests. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy.

Stumpwork is out 10/21 via 4AD. Pre-order it here.