Dry Cleaning Are Exactly What They Want to Be

The band discuss the soapy pubic hair of their album cover, and why their music is like cilantro

Photo: Guy Bolongaro

BY Kaelen BellPublished Oct 20, 2022

"It's almost like coriander," Florence Shaw says carefully, attempting to describe her band's multiplicitous sophomore record, Stumpwork. "If you're one type of person, you'll read it one way — it depends on who you are."

Before she can go on, bassist Lewis Maynard points in Shaw's direction and politely interjects with a correction: "cilantro," he says, translating for their Canadian interviewer as Shaw laughs. 

"Someone used the word mournful [to describe the album]," she continues, once the herb of the moment's been properly identified. She doesn't seem to agree entirely with that assessment — nor does she seem wholly convinced of my reading of the record as a document of optimism — but she's democratic about both interpretations: "I definitely think you're both right."

As a group, Dry Cleaning — vocalist and lyricist Shaw, bassist Maynard, guitarist Tom Dowse and drummer Nick Buxton — are gregarious and warm. From their spot at the offices of hallowed label 4AD, the four-piece seem, above all, happy to be in one another's company (and that of two small office dogs, including Buckley, who sits perched between Shaw and Maynard for much of the interview).

Stumpwork, their second full-length in as many years following their acclaimed debut New Long Leg, invites — necessitates, really — the dissolve between optimism and mournfulness that Shaw is getting at. Take "Gary Ashby," the tale of a missing tortoise inspired by a tear-off tab poster in Shaw's mother's neighbourhood. The track is a spritely burst of jangle-pop; bouncy rhythm, sunny guitar and playful allusions to the titular tortoise's tinfoil ball set a scene more likely to soundtrack a great adventure than a tragic loss. But the song's heart is sick with worry: "Are you stuck on your back / Without me? / Dogs running free." 

"It's a total mystery," Shaw says when I ask whether Gary and his stumpy legs ever returned home. "He could still be out there, he could be hit by a car ... That's what I think probably happened." 

"We should put posters up," Maynard says. 

"Gary Ashby" is a new look for the band, a more swift-footed expansion of the itchy, snake-shed post-punk that made up New Long Leg. Its loose, confident shimmer is indicative of a larger ecdysis — Stumpwork swings and grooves with a newfound ease, as though the band has settled more fully into themselves this time around, less invested in capturing perfection. 

"I think for me personally, that was the defining feature that was different," Dowse says. "There wasn't no anxiety, but there was a lot less anxiety."

He continues, "What happened after [New Long Leg] came out, particularly when we started playing live again, was that you realize you can change the songs, you can do them in a different way. We get filmed a lot. We do live performances where they film the show, or we do a TV performance, and you get a version then as well. I sort of really took that to heart. When you go back to the studio to record, you think of it that way — this is just this version of this song at this time."

Maynard adds, "And the confidence to pick up new instruments. There's a lot more play on this record, and we went into the studio with a lot more songs incomplete. That was a change from the first record, where we went in with them kind of, in our eyes, complete."

Not only a beacon of the band's newly-nurtured confidence, "Gary Ashby" is also the song that most explicitly references — gulp — lockdown, in all its mind-numbing glory. 

"In 'Gary Ashby,' it's like 'In the lockdown / You escaped.' And at one point, very late on, I was like, 'Oh, I'm actually using the word lockdown," Shaw says. "Like, is that gonna mean we'll have loads of interviews about lockdown?"

But the lyric remained, and as Shaw tells it, the fleeting fear of being pigeonholed by such a specific reference only reconfirmed her commitment to writing the words she wants to write. 

"I was like, well, I'm not going to change it for that reason. Like, that's so lame, to be reverse engineering it. That is when he escaped!" she says, laughing. "And it works in the gap! Otherwise I'm sitting there like, what's a two syllable word?"

She continues, "I really try not to censor myself loads with the contextual sort of stuff. You just end up getting so stressed if you do that. If there's anything I actively try to do, it's to not concern myself with outside stuff, and just try to write things that I like as much as I possibly can."

Gary's story of adventure (and possible tragedy) remained true-to-life, but the poor tortoise isn't the only missing thing in Stumpwork's winding world. Gone to the ether, though less likely to have fallen victim to car tires, are the album's blueprints — seen tacked to the studio wall in the video for "No Decent Shoes for Rain"—  a collection of physical papers that held Stumpwork's shape before it'd been recorded. 

"Once we'd pretty much written the songs, we got all that information onto these sheets of paper, just to try to get sort of a handle on what the album was, you know?" Shaw explains. "Because it's quite a crazy beast until you record. It's quite hard to keep a handle on it, so we did these sheets. But then we lost them." 

"It's quite a tragedy actually. They were like the formula for the album," Buxton jumps in to say. "The code, the DNA of the album, was on these sheets of paper."

"Putting them in a folder was the biggest mistake," Shaw says, laughing. "Because then suddenly this folder became very easy to lose."

It seems fitting that an attempt to over-organize Stumpwork's kinetic DNA would end in calamity. The album's power lies in its profuse anti-narratives, its ability to be read backwards and sideways, to be taken apart piece by piece and line by line. Attempting to align Shaw's dispatches into any single statement — or slipping them into any single folder — feels ultimately futile. 

Shaw's fractured (and sometimes hilariously, intimately crude) storytelling is echoed by the record's spacious, sticky sound, crafted in collaboration with legendary producer John Parish. Each instrument on Stumpwork — and therefore each band member, at home in their own particular texture and energy — is given room to breathe and mutate of their own accord. 

As Dowse tells it, Dry Cleaning is less a single-cell organism than a tight cluster of individuals, playfully shadowboxing with one another from their respective corners. 

"All four elements of the band is literally what each person wants to do," Dowse says. "The way I play the guitar is the way I really want to play the guitar. There's a lot of space for each person to express themselves with their instrument. It's not like you have to turn something down because it's clashing with somebody else. It's lots of space."

It's a spectacular sort of rapport, one that allows each person their own individual voice rather than relish in the kind of all-consuming unity that's sometimes associated with great bands. Still, there's a shared sensibility — as is clear from their easy chemistry, both on and off record — among the bandmates, a common central goal despite their particular tastes.

"There's definitely an energy with the four of us," Maynard says. "If three of us [are excited about a song] and one isn't, it doesn't really work."

There's still room for workshopping among the foursome, Maynard explains, opportunities to win any wavering bandmates over on ideas that might not've hit the first go-round. But when that fails to convince? "It's gone," he says.  

That shared aesthetic sense is partially what led them to Stumpwork's beautiful, pastel-hued and pube-laced cover image. Courtesy of multidisciplinary duo Rottingdean Bazaar — who created the band's "Scratchcard Lanyard" video — the artwork was met with good-natured outcry and a slew of nauseated emojis for its vision of icky intimacy. 

"I don't know about you guys, but when I saw the cover, I thought it was beautiful," Dowse says, addressing his bandmates, who all nod in unison.

"The formal elements — the composition, the way it balanced the colour, everything — are beautiful," he continues. "And it looked quite vulnerable and quite human, the detritus of the human body, human hair. It kind of made it more personal."

The band all say they were surprised by the public's disgust — perhaps we're all just a bit too scared of our own bodies — but they were tickled by the semi-serious uproar. "It was only when people started reacting that I thought it was provocative," Dowse continues. "I like the reaction, but that wasn't the intention."

It's the kind of beautiful grossness that's always animated the band's music, a distinct lack of fear in the face of life's more complicated textures — the itchy, the slippery, the damp and the hairy. 

"We actually encouraged them to make it more pubic," Dowse says. "Because it makes it more intimate."

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