For their second album, Drenge have ditched the gore that underpinned their debut to focus on the horror of the real world. Ben Homewood joins the Loveless brothers in the dark Peak District woods to hear how aggression turned to dread
Eoin Loveless has a mouthful of sticky ginger cake and can’t talk. “Mmmmfff” splutters Drenge’s 22-year-old singer and guitarist, studiously avoiding a puddle in a clearing in Derbyshire’s Peak District. Alongside him is drummer Rory, his 21-year-old brother and band mate. “That cake looks horrible,” he says, smirking, before Eoin swallows and says, “That was extremely dry.” Looking at their boots and practical jackets, you could mistake the Loveless brothers for ramblers stopping to refuel. But they look slightly uncomfortable in the heavy, cold air, fidgeting and edging towards the car that will take us to Sheffield, where the duo have lived since last summer. They moved there from their parents’ home in Castleton, a small village 20 minutes’ drive from where we’re standing, but they’ve long been frustrated by this sweeping expanse of countryside. They’re not interested in its charms – even though the cover of ‘Undertow’, their second album, was shot round the corner – and can’t wait to get away from the bracken, trees and mud.
In the car a few minutes later, their manager is fiddling with the stereo trying to find radio signal. There isn’t one. In the passenger seat, Rory presses eject and a copy of ‘Undertow’ slides out. “I thought you’d have something decent in,” he says, dropping it somewhere near the handbrake. I tell Eoin that before we collected the band for their photoshoot the CD was blasting from the car speakers. “Great, so you’ve got the full effect, you must really understand the record now,” he replies drily, living up to the reputation Drenge gained around the release of their self-titled debut in August 2013 (The Guardian highlighted their “relentless sarcasm”). Truthfully though, ‘Undertow’ does sound different against this rural, middle-of-nowhere backdrop, Eoin’s heavy riffs and Rory’s violent drumbeats echoing the drama of the vast moors and towering trees.
But where ‘Drenge’ was wrought from teenage boredom and frustration at being trapped, according to Rory, “in a jail, a shit place with fuck all to do”, ‘Undertow”s sludgy grunge aggression is fuelled by wider-reaching disaffection. Eoin joked about seeing a dead sheep in the woods earlier, but Drenge’s predilection for gore and lyrics about “lambs choking on death” (from the blues-thrash of early single ‘Backwaters’) has gone.
“Those songs were written five years ago, I’m not 17 anymore,” says Eoin, who compiled the burnt out cars, failed relationships and deaths that populate ‘Undertow’ into one Word document, feeding leftovers from one song into the next. Describing the process leads him to jokingly compare Drenge to his beloved Kanye West, who the band met when they played alongside him on Later… With Jools Holland in September 2013. “I was reading about Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and thinking about how, although the songs deal with separate things, lyrically he gets to something more universal than just him. This felt kinda like that.”
A couple of hours later the Loveless brothers are sitting in Sheffield’s Picture House Social, where Drenge played their first gig as a three-piece in December. Their school friend and former Wet Nuns member Rob Graham was drafted in temporarily on bass late last year. Rob, in a leather jacket, joins us in the freezing back room, where the tinsel still hangs from Christmas despite it being early March. “They asked and there was nothing else I’d rather have done,” he says.
“Even though he’s a cat person and we’re dog people, it works!” Rory interrupts
“I’m actually coming round to dogs…” Rob replies. He lives with Eoin and his girlfriend a few minutes’ walk from Rory’s house, and he’s taking his new role very seriously. “I’m really happy they want me, but it’s their record.”
Eoin’s lyrical focus for ‘Undertow’ was relationships, but the aggression came from elsewhere. “This album isn’t influenced by aggression or fear, it’s just dread,” he explains. Drenge recorded ‘Undertow’ with producer Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, M.I.A.). Every morning for two months last winter, they’d arrive at Orton’s studio in Sheffield’s suburbs, boil the kettle and moan, before taking their malaise out on their instruments.
“We’d have incredibly deep conversations with Ross,” Eoin remembers, before launching into a tirade about unemployment benefit. “Ross experienced growing up and making music in the early ’90s when benefits were a lot easier to get, there was no hassle of going in every couple of days, proving you’d been looking for work for 37 hours a week. That isn’t the right pressure to be putting on people. There are fewer opportunities up here, and the bus fare to the Job Centre is 60 per cent of a day’s allowance.”
Rory picks up his thread. “I don’t look at the news anymore. While we were recording it was like ‘Oh, here’s another thing to rip people off’.” These feelings fuel only the muscular sound of ‘Undertow’, which conveys the brothers’ sense of dread at the world through music rather than explicit lyrics. “It’s easy to bemoan the lack of political songwriting and angry young voices, but I don’t think you can write a song about Cameron and the coalition the way you could about Thatcher,” Eoin explains.
Drenge were loathe to be drawn on politics when Labour MP Tom Watson brought them to national attention by referencing them when resigning as General Election Co-Ordinator in 2013, but things are different now. Eoin continues: “Cameron represents a completely different, super-privileged set of ideals, Thatcher was the opposite. She was more openly evil than a smug nice guy. It’s easier to be angry at someone who’s betrayed their past than someone who’s never known what it’s like to be on the dole.”
Drenge believe local involvement is more important than railing against the government in song. “I hate bleakness, but it’s difficult to see how everything’s gonna get better. I don’t want to side with a party or moan, the best thing we can do is help other artists in Sheffield,” Eoin says. Alongside fierce commitment to local promoters, venues and bands, Drenge have been supporting the campaign to stop the destruction of Sheffield’s cultural quarter. “I wrote a blog, but moaning online doesn’t help,” he continues, “All that does is piss the council off, there’s nothing we can do except keep the area alive by using it.”
Council proposals would see the buildings replaced by student accommodation, something that particularly pisses off Eoin, whose advice to teenagers “would be not to go to university”. He dropped out of studying film at York after a year to focus on Drenge while Rory didn’t go at all. “This isn’t what the album’s about, but our mates have gone to university, come out and there’s absolutely nothing there,” Eoin shrugs. Rory was left pot-washing in Castleton while his brother was away, but he wasn’t tempted to follow him. “Up here they want lads in the back washing up, only girls could wait tables. But I knew if I went to uni I’d have ended up like our mates now, living with parents and not working.”
Drenge nearly stopped altogether when Eoin went to York. They had even planned their last show. “At what would’ve been our penultimate gig we got really pissed and met somebody who wanted to manage us, so we carried on,” Eoin explains. They had to: Drenge was their ticket out of Castleton, where irate neighbours curtailed early practices.
“We formed Drenge to get out, not to be famous, just to get gigs so we’d have somewhere to go every couple of weeks,” Rory says, “I’d dread to think where I’d be without the band.”
They both feel lucky to have finally escaped. As well as making them “closer than other normal siblings” and honing what Eoin calls their “talent for ignoring each other”, touring has put the hour’s bus ride between Castleton and their houses in Sheffield into perspective, but Rory still remembers the hopelessness. “I feel a lot more positive about that aspect of my life now we’re out, but I never thought we would be,” he says. Eoin says the huge hill beween the two places is the “best metaphor” for the geographical and psychological distance. The connecting bus route is badly managed, so the buses they waited hours for and relied on would overheat and break down, widening the gap even further.
Driving over the moor earlier, we passed the mossy pavements of Bamford, where the Loveless family lived before moving to Castleton. Between the post office and the village bakery, Eoin pointed out their primary school and a tuck shop. His fond memories of “buying white candy sticks and pretending they were fags” after school jar with the hopeless picture painted so far. Being from a rural area has shaped their personalities – Eoin says those tight bus schedules mean they’re “always early, which no one ever expects a band to be” and they repeatedly refer to being “the most polite and most boring band in Britain.”
Drenge don’t really identify with being from anywhere. Rory is reluctant even to call Sheffield home. “I feel weird when we play here and people say ‘hometown show’. I don’t know if it is, we don’t really have one to be honest, there’s no pride.” Eoin looks surprised and counters, “Hey, come on.” But Rory’s warming to his point: “No, I’m fucking glad people round here love us, but I don’t consider us a Castleton or a Sheffield band, location’s not important in that sense, I mean, it is in other aspects but I wouldn’t say it defines us.” Then, sounding angry, he backtracks: “I’m probably talking bollocks, it definitely defines the records but we don’t go onstage and say ‘Hi, we’re from Castleton’. I wouldn’t suggest anyone visit Castleton, in fact I’d say the complete fucking opposite.”
Yet these identity issues extend beyond Castleton. As Eoin points out, they’d only lived there for four months when the band started. Previously they’d lived in Bamford and nearby Hope, and before that in Hitchin, a Hertfordshire market town. Their mother, an NHS adviser for pregnant teenagers and father, a Sheffield council worker, squatted in London before ditching the city for the countryside. That put their sons in a different position to most of their schoolmates, whose families had lived in these tight-knit rural communities for generations.
That feeling of dislocation has always defined Drenge. They use the vast landscape they grew up in – and all the frustration, rage and, now, freedom they’ve squeezed from it – to create drama. On ‘Drenge’ they were full of frustration, desperate to unshackle themselves from the environment that inspired it. ‘Undertow’ is far freer. The lyrical landmarks are still local – ‘The Woods’ has Eoin singing “burn my body on the banks of the Derwent” (a Derbyshire river) – but the countryside ennui and gore have been replaced by the more universal frustrations they’re encountering as they leave Castleton and their childhoods behind.
They attack them with abandon. The Ford Mustang on the album’s sleeve appears abandoned with the doors open, it’s tempting to imagine that Eoin and Rory ditched it after joyriding far into the rural blackness, just because they could. “Yeah, it’s like I said about Kanye earlier,” Eoin says as we leave the bar, “That’s kinda the idea, but rooted in the real world. Maybe we should’ve called it ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Rural Reality’.”