For those who possess both the requisite drunken bravado and burning desire to maul Robbie Williams’ back catalogue, karaoke parties are rarely the start of something beautiful. Mistakes are made, memories are lost, and some traitor inevitably captures the whole tawdry scene on video. When Lewis Maynard, Tom Dowse and Nick Buxton – old friends whose previous bands had crossed paths in London – united to belt out some Deftones bangers, however, it proved to be the unlikely catalyst to start a new band together.
The trio spent the next few months writing and rehearsing the songs that would ultimately become Dry Cleaning, perfecting their sweet-and-sour mix of acerbic post-punk and the kind of bass-heavy melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Postcard Records compilation.
All the band needed now was a singer – presumably none of the trio had sufficiently nailed it on the night in question – and an answer soon presented itself in the form of Flo Shaw, with whom Tom had both studied and worked alongside, first as art school students at Royal College of Arts and then university lecturers.
Flo had never performed on stage in a musical capacity, and while she sounds fairly confident alongside Tom, she admits that becoming comfortable on stage is an ongoing process. “You have to find other things to occupy your mind when performing,” she tells NME over the phone from Tom’s home in South East London. Whatever the process, it seems to be working.
Initially reticent about using her singing voice, Flo started out with spoken word delivery, and it turned out to be a masterstroke: the sardonic execution of lines parsed from various YouTube comments sections for recent track ‘Goodnight’ is a wild ride, its subject matter darting between dead pets and spitting cum onto a Travelodge carpet. Pinwheeling around a two-note bass riff that forms the heartbeat of the track, only occasionally punctuated by crashing guitar chords and Flo’s heavier enunciation on the odd ‘fuck’ or ‘bitch’, the two minutes and thirty-seven seconds crash by in no time. Listening once is simply impossible.
“‘Goodnight’ is a wild ride, its subject matter darting between dead pets and spitting cum onto a Travelodge carpet”
“At the time I was looking around for how one might write lyrics, and what kind of tone or voice I wanted the songs to have – whether I wanted to write as myself or someone else, as a character or whatever,” Flo says of her cut-up style, which acts a a partial nod to Beat Generation pioneer of the form William Burroughs. “I guess because I was thinking about songs and songwriting for the first time in my life, I suddenly became interested in what people had to say about how songs made them feel.”
Then there’s ‘Magic of Meghan’, a decidedly punky affair that builds from palm-muted guitar into another fireball of riffs and mayhem. Written about taking solace from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s engagement on the same day your relationship ends, it’s the kind of thing one imagines a Mail on Sunday columnist has already started penning furious vitriol against (“I’d love that! I’d love to see that!” Flo laughs), but as the singer describes it, the subject arose without too much forethought.
“It was kind of chance in a way,” she says. “I was collecting different words, and sometimes I’d find that many of the words are on a particular theme. I’ll notice that in my writing, and then I’ll think, ‘Oh, I guess they all go together, I guess there’ll be a song about Meghan’.” Is she a fan? “I wouldn’t say I’m a royalist, but I certainly find them fascinating.”
By the time recording had been wrapped up on debut EP ‘Sweet Princess’ in 2018, the band still had yet to play their first live show together, though their sound was starting to coalesce from months of rehearsals. The obvious musical touch-points suggest a fascination with first-wave post-punk: Wire, Magazine, even Joy Division in places.
Tom baulks a little at the attempt to narrow Dry Cleaning down to one genre, detailing the various other influences that went into forming the band’s musical style. “There was quite a big emphasis at the start on ‘60s psych, although that’s become less apparent now,” he says of their formative jam sessions. “Lewis really loves funk and metal, so the sound actually started to move in a direction that I don’t think is that close to post-punk, personally.”
Sure enough, it’s all there on ‘Sweet Princess’. While the first three tracks skitter around with a nervous, frenetic energy, tracks like ‘Traditional Fish’ slow the pace down to create a brooding gothic template for Flo to listlessly reel off news headlines and takeaway menu items over; elsewhere ‘Phone Scam’ glides across guitar parts that are positively surf-punk in places. It’s also, quite frankly, hilarious in places. “Am I on a date right now? Is this a date?” Flo asks at one point on closing track ‘Conversation’, later impersonating a ringing telephone. It’s a theatrical, high-camp moment, the sound of an art school alumnus having fun with their latest project. It’s glorious.
Work begins on the songs that will form their debut album later this month, with Tom suggesting the band have “already got three or four things that are there or thereabouts” in the pipeline. With all four members still working around day jobs – as well as Flo and Tom’s careers as university lecturers, Nick builds furniture and Lewis works with adults with learning difficulties – would the band sacrifice those lives at the altar of rock celebrity, given the chance? Tom seems cautious. “We’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Rock ‘n’ roll fame and fortune is a fickle world, you know?”
And for Flo? “I’m not saying I absolutely love being uncomfortably busy, but…” Her voice drifts off before she begins laughing, an answer that tells NME that’s how it’s going to be for a while. With a UK tour planned for early 2020 and excitement around the band continuing to build, Dry Cleaning are going to be very, very busy. The next karaoke party may have to wait.