There’s a music quiz going on downstairs at Hackney’s Oslo: Topman, Trilby’s and the NME Awards, the flyer beckons. And while ‘come and prove you know your Paddingtons from your Pigeon Detectives’ sounds like a trap easily fallen into after a few cocksure pints, upstairs one of the country’s most effervescent young bands are preparing to perform one of their first “proper” headline shows ever.
The gig is the launching pad for the most ethereal debut album of the year: Drug Store Romeos’ ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’, released on June 25th via Fiction [Tame Impala, The Big Moon]. A blend of space-pop and bubblegum vocals built on budget synths and melodic bass licks, it is the product of summer-long sessions listening to Broadcast and Stereolab in the band’s native Hampshire. Given the transcendent atmosphere they conjure tonight via spiralling singles like ‘Secret Plan’ and ‘What’s On Your Mind’, climbing the steps to Drug Store Romeos’ show almost feels like ascending Jacob’s ladder into the realm of the heavens.
When we arrive pre-show, bassist Charlie Henderson is less concerned with the festivities downstairs than he is with his iPhone notes. “I’m writing out the colours for each song,” he tells NME, as vocalist Sarah Downie gazes into the dressing room mirror while drummer Jonny Gilbert slumps into a couch. Later we’ll learn that the pinks, purples and reds he’s listing are instructions for the lighting engineer – at the time of our introduction it comes across as an idiosyncrasy befitting of a trio of small-town daydreamers.
The story of Drug Store Romeos, unlike most, begins in Fleet — and spends a greater deal of time there than tradition would dictate. Originally a community of farmers, it would become a commuter town as the population boomed. With clutches of identically “vapid” housing buildings cropped up around the docile centrepiece of Fleet Pond, the town has hardly proven a conducive place for them to begin a music career.
“The only music scene we had was the Harlington Centre, a sort of library-slash-venue hall,” Sarah explains. It’s a favourite of Nirvana cover bands, ELO tributes and solo shows by ex-members of Whitesnake. The youth nights run by the town’s parents, meanwhile, were the place the kids came to pull. “We used to hang outside the sweet shop,” concludes Sarah of the town’s meagre offerings. “Or if you were cool, the alley by McDonald’s”.
Fledgling indie careers, though, go hand-in-hand with teens stranded in suburbia. Take Slowdive, who formed at a youth group in Reading, or Cocteau Twins, who met at a disco in the sleepy Scottish port town of Grangemouth. A 1989 performance at the Commonwealth School in Boston, Massachusetts by Galaxie 500 (the ‘80s dream-pop outfit who would later become one of Drug Store Romeos’ core influences) would meanwhile exemplify the kind of stifled opportunities the Fleet trio would later find themselves exposed to. When you come from Fleet, says Jonny, “You see the culture of London. But you’re isolated from it.”
Despite their frustration, the “massive state of ecstasy” that Jonny and Charlie experienced upon diving into their first mosh pit in London at aged 14 would stay with the two founding band members thereafter. “The air was thick with sweat, but we didn’t want to leave,” Charlie says. “It felt like my life had changed a bit because it was the best thing I’d ever done.”
As a fledgling punk band, the inspired duo would play at venues like Aldershot West End Centre and the ‘Hellfire Club’ in Redhill (“We played a cover of ‘Filler’ by Minor Threat, and I took my shirt off,” Charlie recalls). “You felt that euphoria, even though you were playing to 15 people,” says Jonny. “It didn’t matter that your Dad was waiting in the car park to take you home because it’s half-nine and he’s tired.”
Sarah joined the band via a Facebook ad, after months of hopelessly perusing sites like “band members dot com” for creative partners. And as a trio, they soon found themselves embarking on marathon listening sessions in Jonny’s bedroom, consuming The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star alongside copious amounts of weed. “There’s something about the non-intense vibe of Fleet that means you can find something more minimal and lo-fi and impactful,” explains Jonny. “If you live in a city you’ve got gigs on your doorstep every day, and maybe it wouldn’t be the same. But in Fleet, that atmosphere can completely absorb you.”
“We started to get into synthesizers,” recalls Sarah of the band’s revised sonic game plan. And so, in a town where live music meant hard rock cover bands, they invested what little money they had from working part-time in supermarkets into the instruments that no-one else wanted. “I was just looking on eBay for something affordable,” says Sarah. “I paid like £30 for the Casio 7000.” With early singles like ‘Jim, Let’s Play’ confirming their mandate, the Casio keyboard became the band’s signature sound — a cheap, heavy and mass-produced device more commonly found on the shelves of an ‘80s Woolworths than in Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang music studios.
Today, these Nokia-durable leviathans are the cornerstone of every one of the band’s hypnagogic pop gems, both on the band’s effervescent debut album — recorded during lockdown at London’s Eastcote Studios with producer George Murphy — and on stage at Oslo. And they’re not just used for nice pads and twinkly bits, either.
Beyond the blanketed chords that hum and whirr on woozy album opener ‘Building Song’, primitive, built-in drum machines turn the infectious ‘Frame of Reference’ into a proto-New Order headrush, while the rudimentary sequencers of ‘Elevator’ bounce off Oslo’s walls. ‘Walking Talking Marathon’ could almost have been plucked from the book of Spacemen 3 — built as it is on a hypnotic, two-chord cycle. On record, these tracks sound mercurial; in person, they’re a wall of bliss.
There’s a Lynchian quality to it all — both via Sarah’s cooing, Julee Cruise-esque vocals and the band’s vivid stage backdrop of billowing pink and blue velvet. And yet, despite the impressive presentation (to a sold-out crowd confounded to a stupor at their tables, no less), Drug Store Romeos maintain that their debut album was crafted with a different experience in mind.
The title makes it plain: this 15-song enchantment rather suits the period of isolation that the world has endured over the past year. It’s that “on-your-own feeling of finding things that can create an energy for you, even if it’s just on a laptop and your headphones,” concludes Jonny. After all, that’s where the whole sound was conceived: “In my bedroom, in Sarah’s bedroom, in Charlie’s bedroom.”
And while the pandemic was a catalyst for the band to expand their horizons, the album remains nostalgic for a time before the band upended to the “big smoke”, where they each now live today. “This album’s an homage to that time,” Sarah says. “We didn’t live in London. We weren’t part of any kind of scene. We were just creating one for ourselves within the confines of our bedrooms, with beads and blue paint and clouds of cotton wool hanging around us.”
Drug Store Romeos debut album ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’ is released June 25