Back in 2018, a trio of musicians who had played next to each other in different bands from South London, UK—Tom Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Nick Buxton (drums)—set out to create a heavier noise-punk/post-hardcore sound like At The Drive-In or Deftones. After months of honing in their sound, which turned out to be a more melodic post-punk vibe, the trio needed a front person. Tom suggested Florence Shaw, a visual arts student he attended school with, even though she had no prior music performing experience. After some much-needed convincing, Flo arrived with notebooks of cut-up poems, grocery lists, writings on her old drawings, and random thoughts she wrote down after watching tv advertisements, and began piecing them together in a spoken word tone as the guys played. It was very on the spot and unplanned but would become a crucial part of Dry Cleaning’s sound, leading to a few EPs and their acclaimed debut album New Long Leg in 2021.
“I was on the bus to Lewis’ house where we were going to do the rehearsal and I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do,” she says of the memory. “I think I ended up speaking because it just felt very accessible. And it just felt like a good way. I was quite attached to the writing that I had with me at the time. And I thought like, ‘Well, this is a really direct way of kind of showing off this writing.'”
Shaw’s songs feel very stream of consciousness, almost a form of beat poetry, as walls of dark and sometimes cheery sound radiate through the speakers. It could be compared to a band like Wire or a female-fronted The Fall, but with her lyrics of dissociation, escapism, daydreaming, complicated feelings of love, anger, etc., Shaw has essentially become the glue holding Dry Cleaning and their success, something she both cherishes and is still terrified of.
We spoke to Florence Shaw before Dry Cleaning’s Montreal debut show at Theatre Fairmount this Friday, May 13 about her droll lyrical approach, obsession with collecting random tiny objects, her emo phase (which she admits hasn’t left), and why she sometimes scares people live.
PAN M 360: It’s funny when I first heard New Long Leg I thought ‘I won’t be able to see this band for many years because of the pandemic,’ but you’re here in a week.
Florence Shaw: Yeah I know! That all kind of changed quite quickly right? It’s still a very strange feeling and we definitely thought we were going to be stuck in the UK for ages. But it was only a year and a half.
PAN M 360: And I saw a quote somewhere that joked you will probably be touring until 2025 or something?
Florence Shaw: Yeah, I think that is sort of how things are looking. It’s going to be quite intense. We sort of want to make up for the lost time you know? There are so many places we’ve never played. It’s like, this European tour we’ve just finished, It’s the first time we played in almost all of those countries, even though they’re sort of right next door. It’s all weird.
PAN M 360: And you being the frontwoman of the band and people singing along to these, I’d say very personal songs, is it strange to you? Especially still being quite new to it?
Florence Shaw: It’s always an incredible feeling! I didn’t really know if that would happen necessarily. Because there’s not often a melody to the words. So they’re quite hard to learn. Because of that, because there’s no melody to guide, you know, but we always have hundreds of people singing the words every night. And that’s always just a mad feeling. It’s a crazy sort of feeling of connection with people that I didn’t really expect to have (laughs). It sounds kind of cheesy, but it really is. I don’t know how else to describe that you feel very connected to people you’ve never met.
PAN M 360: How do you get into the zone of playing live?
Florence Shaw: That’s a good question. I’m sort of still learning all about that really. I’m often quite quiet before we play. I’m not really one for like hanging out and telling jokes and stuff like right before. I always need about half an hour to myself, to think about what I want to do. And I guess set a bit of an intention for the show, even if it’s something quite small, or kind of think about what you might want to think about whilst you’re on stage or have a think about where you are, and kind of where the people who’ve come to see you might be coming from and stuff like that. I do like to think about those things I find if I don’t do that I find it too hard to be present. It feels like an out-of-body kind of experience. And I do like to feel present when we play.
PAN M 360: And with some of these songs I feel like you might go into a sort of trance playing them live?
Florence Shaw: I do like to do like to connect with the audience if I can. Even if it’s quite a sort of a temporary relationship, I do like to have a bit of a relationship with the crowd. And like, yeah, it’s strange when you don’t. And so I do tend to look at the crowd for most of the show, which sometimes freaks people out.
PAN M 360: Freaks people out? People have said that?
Florence Shaw: Yeah I’ve read that before. I think I’ve been described as staring people down. Which sounds quite intense. But it’s really just like a sort of looking for some sort of connection with people, I guess, rather than trying to freak people out. I think I can be more intense than I realize sometimes. There’s very little sort of barrier because it’s just your speaking voice. It’s a monologue, I guess. And there’s not that sense of like a melody or something to be like a vessel. It’s just, that it’s very bold and I think that is part of what people find quite intense about it. I try to bring some humour to what I do as well. It’s kind of seriousness, but it’s tempered with a bit of childlike glee or a bit of fun. I think of myself as a bit of a clown sometimes. Like one of those clowns, that’s maybe not like, tripping over buckets of water, but it’s a comedy of seriousness.
PAN M 360: Your New Long Leg album is much more nuanced and polished than your previous EPs. Would you say that this is partly due to the work of producer John Parish? Why did you choose to work with him?
Florence Shaw: We approached a few different people just to kind of start conversations about who would produce the album because, again, it was like a completely new experience for us. We’d all recorded before but not at that kind of level. And so we were all a bit sort of, we were sort of fumbling around in the dark a bit wondering who we should work with. And we contacted lots of different people. But his response was immediate. He just replied, like, straight away, saying that he was really keen and that he really loved EPs, and that he had all these notes on the demos that we’ve made, just like straight away. And we always tried to go with kind of gut feelings. And that just felt very positive. That he just was immediately like, ‘Yeah.” He wasn’t thinking about it. He didn’t want to meet and then maybe something would happen but just immediately was like, ‘Yes, I really want to do this.’
PAN M 360: Wow. So no pussyfooting around with him at all?
Florence Shaw: Yes exactly. We were fans of his work, particularly with Aldous Harding’s albums she’s done with him. I don’t know, with his music, I feel like you can always hear the room. It’s kind of at the forefront and it doesn’t sound glossy. It sounds intimate. He’s also very patient. We’d do several takes of a vocal phrase to get the right delivery. He had the patience for every syllable.
PAN M 360: There’s one lyric in the song “Strong Feelings” that I just love. It’s the opening “Just an emo dead stuff collector, things come to the brain.” It perfectly summarizes a part of my life. That whole emo phase I’m sure everyone went through. Did you ever go through that emo, dressing in all-black goth phase?
Florence Shaw: 100 % (laughs). I used to hang out in attics and listen to The Cure and I very much went through all of that really intensely actually. When I was a teen at least. I mean I’m still a bit emo, to be frank. I think it didn’t totally leave me. What I was thinking about at the time is almost like little collections of things that are like dead pieces of wood or bone fragments or things that you kind of sometimes end up collecting, especially when you’re a teenager. It’s like a little something that you sort of … a little habit that people sometimes pick up —holding onto stuff from the natural world or something like that. Yeah, I’ve kind of thinking about that.
PAN M 360: Do you still have little bone fragments or collections around your house?
Florence Shaw: What I’m much more into recently, as I collect, I collect loads of things—I have lots and lots of like collections of little things—and often it’s just like miniature stuff. I have lots of collections of like little plastic animals or little glass animals, things like that, like anything miniature anything on a really tiny scale, kind of almost no matter what it is; if it’s a little table, or like a little like a model of a mouse or something just really small, or even just like seeds or things like that are really tiny, really tiny things.
PAN M 360: Do you arrange them in such a way creating little scenes or are they kind of just scattered about?
Florence Shaw: I do like to like set them out, you know, quite carefully. I can be a real homebody, you know. Yeah, man (laughs) I like really like organizing stuff. And moving little things around and creating little dioramas and stuff around the house with like, little objects. That is a real passion of mine. Objects have a bit of a dialogue between them, don’t they? And that’s what I enjoy. Like, like creating little pairings of things, a little group of things that then means something new because they’re together. I sound totally nuts right now, don’t I?
PAN M 360: No I think you’re just being yourself.
Florence Shaw: Absolutely.
PAN M 360: You’ve often been compared to The Fall for your use of spoken-word in your songs, but are there any other artists who you think have been as influential for Dry Cleaning? What about John Cooper Clarke? Baxter Dury? Sleaford Mods? “The Gift” by the Velvet Underground?
Florence Shaw: It’s funny I used to think ‘Oh no I haven’t listened to much spoken word music,’ but actually growing up I remember this Death In Vegas tune called “Hands Around My Throat,” which is basically just a woman speaking over what I thought was this really menacing music. And I was obsessed with it when I was like 12. And then there’s like Grace Jones and my mom would listen to The Last Poets quite a lot when I was a kid. She had all of their LPs and that definitely seeped into my consciousness, that speaking was an option for making music. I guess it was just very clear to me that the spoken word can be used as a musical instrument.
PAN M 360: Were your parents very musical when you were growing up too?
Florence Shaw: My dad used to play in a band and he sang. He’s also played drums in other bands sometimes. He’s a really good guitarist and plays harmonica. He had lots of instruments in the house. So he would sometimes like enlist me and my brother to do like backing vocals on like, recording and things like that. Just very fun stuff. Not like putting us to work. But like, yeah, he would teach us little keyboard parts and things like that. So yeah, it’s something I spent time doing when I was a kid, but it always felt like it was just sort of for fun. I never thought of it as a career. Drawing and art was always the thing that I wanted to do as my job.
PAN M 360: Do you think that background in visual arts gives you a more abstract way of looking at the world, maybe in terms of your lyrics?
Florence Shaw: I certainly think art school, no matter what your experience of art school is, it certainly teaches you to be observant, or at least kind of exercise your sort of skills of observation. Whether it’s through just something really direct like drawing, listening, being a better listener, or just photography. Maybe just kind of recording things around you and taking notice of things around you, in the world as they happen. I think it certainly exercised my ability to do that, kind of just as a daily practice. I love to people watch, it’s like a big thing for me … I’d quite happily just walk around the part of town I’d ever been to, or something like that all day, just taking photos or writing things down. And that’s what I find most inspiring, really. And I think definitely, visual arts is something if you’re sort of interested in that kind of thing, it really brings it out of you, even more, I think.
PAN M 360: Dry Cleaning … not the ideal name to make it easy to find info on you guys on the internet, why did you choose this band name?
Florence Shaw: Yeah it’s totally ungoogleable or whatever (laughs). The guys came up with it before I joined when they were just jamming, but I remember the name was something that made me think it would be a good idea to join because I always really liked it. And I think we got to the bottom of it being possibly Tom, who came up with it. You know how these things are, these origin stories. It’s one of those completely impossible to remember how it happened or to trace it back. But we think it was Tom. And I think basically, they were just wanting to go for something that was kind of ubiquitous. In the UK, at least, possibly, maybe all over the world, or in some parts of the world there are so many dry cleaners, they’re absolutely everywhere. The sign always just says dry cleaning, and never really called anything else. So it’s kind of written everywhere. And you see it all the time. And it’s kind of really mundane.
PAN M 360: Yes they are everywhere here too. Here in Montreal, it’s just “nettoyeur.”
Florence Shaw: Yes that must be the equivalent (laughs).