20.10.22
Words by:
Photography: Emma Williams

“The term ‘stumpwork’ is used to describe a style of raised embroidery which was popular in England between 1650 and 1700. Before this period, the use of such raised embroidery techniques was mostly confined to ecclesiastical garments.”

This couplet of sentences almost has the ring of a Dry Cleaning lyric: if you try hard enough, you can hear it delivered in Florence Shaw’s unwavering southeast London deadpan, a sinewy Tom Dowse guitar line swerving around it like a thread of light in a plasma lamp. Although Stumpwork is the name of the band’s long-awaited sophomore album, the above paragraph is not a Dry Cleaning lyric at all – it’s from Wikipedia. But such is Shaw’s singular approach to songwriting. She could take virtually any expression of the English language – Wikipedia entries, advertising slogans, miserable little thoughts – and spit it out as art.

It’s the fag-end of another week of touring when I speak to the band over Zoom. Their cameras are switched off, leaving their names – Shaw, Dowse, drummer Nick Buxton and bassist Lewis Maynard – staring back at me in a harsh white Arial font that belies the warmth of the voices behind it.

 

“The use of a lot of ‘found things’ was a way into writing for me,” says Shaw, reflecting on the creative technique that’s guided her lyrics up until this album. Prior to joining the band, she was working primarily as a visual artist, and would often note down snippets of language as material for her work.

In parallel, Dowse, who met Shaw at art school and had been playing in hardcore bands for a few years, had formed Dry Cleaning along with Maynard and Buxton, both previously members of La Shark. When the trio invited her to sing in the band, Shaw was reluctant. It was Buxton who suggested she ease into it by speaking the words first, texting her a playlist of spoken-word and sprechgesang tracks, which included Adventures in Success by Will Powers, Private Life by Grace Jones and Dingwalls by Mark Murphy, to help sketch out a vibe. When Shaw got behind the microphone, it was clear her spoken vocal was too good to be wasted on a teething process.

Two EPs followed. The urgent Sweet Princess EP combined the coiled tension of a turbulent internal monologue (“I need you all to shut up, I’m going through a tough time,” Shaw snaps on opener Goodnight) with wry social observation (paraphrasing Prince Harry quotes over wiry guitar and taut drums on Magic of Meghan). The second project was Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, a name inspired by the location of Maynard’s mum’s house. It took the band into more melodic territory, and dialled up the imagination in the lyrics: “run over by a… squashed by a… crushed by a… crazy raisin,” runs one line on Spoils.

 

These releases positioned Dry Cleaning at the vanguard of a new wave of UK post-punk, inviting comparisons to genre legends like Wire and Magazine. But it was the launch of their 2020 hit Scratchcard Lanyard, followed by 2021 debut album New Long Leg, that truly lit the fuse. Production duties were handled by John Parish – known best for his work with PJ Harvey and Aldous Harding – who, despite the record’s newly sprawling track lengths, guided the band through a hyper-focused recording process.

New Long Leg’s addictive hooks and upright swagger were the perfect platform for Shaw’s zany non sequiturs (“I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours,” she ponders on Strong Feelings), but also showcased the band’s deft musicality as they elevated their craft from thoughtful experimentation to frenetic fine art. Across the record, anger remained a constant energy (“I’m smiling constantly and people constantly step on me,” Shaw states matter-of-factly on Her Hippo). This wasn’t the cathartic fury of IDLES or Sleaford Mods, but it was no less real. Instead of flashes of riotous rage, Shaw’s mosaic of observations articulated the political alienation caused by austerity: the internal monologues and outbursts of an overstressed and disempowered generation, seeking out some kind of solace within everyday life.

“We were looking around the political landscape, kind of travelling through it”

Tom Dowse

Struggle continues to feed into their work, though on Stumpwork, it’s for a different reason. The past year has been marred by personal tragedy for the band; particularly, the passing of Maynard’s mother, Susan, whose house was the band’s first ever rehearsal space. “Bringing in all our families into the band like we have over the past year, it becomes a really nice distraction, not just for yourself, but for them, too,” Maynard reflects. “And to think of how much those people played a part in the band… it encourages you, when stuff goes bad.” With a supportive, “loving environment” in the band, they felt free to explore their raw emotions on Stumpwork – and it was all the more comforting for it. For Maynard, especially, writing the album became a tool with which to handle grief. “Rather than wanting to step away, [the band] kind of makes you want to step deeper into it.”

It makes sense that an album created by this group of people – mates, first and foremost – would feel more concerned with empathy than apathy. Even as Shaw’s sharp-edged lyrics give voice to the sense of isolation felt by so many in the UK today, there’s always some kind of uncannily relatable nugget of normal life hidden up its sleeve. “Nothing works/ Everything’s expensive/ And opaque and privatised/ My shoe organising thing arrived/ Thank god,” zigzags a line on Anna Calls from the Arctic. The woozy, almost jazz-inflected track started life as a minute-long jam called Peanuts on the band’s private SoundCloud, before being spotlighted by John Parish as a song they should focus on nurturing to its full potential.

There are found lyrics on Stumpwork – like text lifted from an old computer virus on lead single Don’t Press Me – and the usual coalescencence of the odd and ordinary is present (“I thought I saw a young couple clinging to a round baby/ But it was a bundle of trash and food,” Shaw muses on the title track). But the record also marks Shaw’s gradual departure from her objet trouvé writing technique towards a mode of “informed improvising” rooted deeper in her own imagination. Lyrics were ad-libbed in the rehearsal room and recording studio, based on “lots and lots of options on sheets of paper” splayed out in front of her. This allowed Shaw to respond to the world around her more directly.

 

This is partly a practical necessity – found lyrics require huge amounts of time to find and make work – and partly an expression of Shaw’s artistic development. “As soon as I felt like I was adept at sort of a base level, [and had a] toolkit for writing and a bit more confidence, it felt less interesting to use found things,” she says. “I’m always going to do it. I’m naturally a collector, but it’s fair to say that I don’t want to waste time. When things are as troubling as they are, and as dissonant as they are, you want to make sure that you’re saying what you think, in as direct a way as you can.

On Stumpwork, Shaw wears her politics brazenly on her sleeve, even as they twist abruptly in unpredictable directions. It’s hard not to read 12 years of “Conservative hell” and a cost-of-living crisis into lines like, “Looks like strains and setbacks are on the way” or “I don’t want to empty your bank account and give you nightmares/ But we’re in the middle of what they call three ‘financial eclipses’”. Shaw’s lyrics are still imbued with the same fusion of whimsy and occasional agitated snaps (“I’m not here to provide fucking blank, they can fucking provide blank,” she snides on Hot Penny Day), but there’s a more direct and plain-spoken depiction of the state of the world here. Take the lyric “I see male violence everywhere”, which features on the same track. “There were two murders of women in London that were extensively covered on the news, and the specific details of one of those murders were reported on while we were at Rockfield [Studios],” Shaw said in the album’s release notes. “That coverage influenced some of my writing and state of mind.”

 

 

Shaw’s words can’t be separated from the work of the rest of the band. “Robert Alan Krieger, the guitarist in The Doors, used to say that what he tried to do was act as Jim Morrison’s punctuation,” says Dowse. “When Flo’s got a more developed sense of what she’s doing, if there’s something happening I think she’s responded to, I’ll accentuate it, make more of it.” There’s an exasperation in Dowse’s careening whammy-bar contortions on No Decent Shoes for Rain or Icebergs, and the stubborn, grinding pace of the bass and snare on Driver’s Story. This vexation is also present in the silences and gaps. The atmospherics, added by engineer Joe Jones, turn into a strange, abstract tape loop, adding a sense of space on tracks like the twitchy Hot Penny Day.

“We were looking around the political landscape, kind of travelling through it,” says Dowse. “And what I didn’t expect was that a lot of the frustration we felt actually was expressed in a [musical] space.” Buxton calls this the key development on this album; where New Long Leg was recorded against the tick of a metronome, this time, Parish – back on board as producer – encouraged the band to get lost in experimentation, mining the more expansive potential hinted at on Every Day Carry. The closing track of New Long Leg, that song saw Dowse’s guitar disintegrate into call-and-response; a section which feels akin to the distant, keening guitar on Stumpwork highlight Liberty Log. At the same time, there is an attempt, too, to be more concise and direct, like the songs that dominated pre New Long Leg, and which Dowse describes as “short little puzzles” or “pop haikus”.

 

“It’s almost a cold futility… I can only foresee things getting worse. A lot of these songs – like Conservative Hell, for instance – we had the first part of and it felt like a really cool jangly pop song,” Dowse says. “Then it sort of collapses into this icy landscape. I think it’s beautiful, but also very bleak. My usual response to sort of a political situation is to be angry and make punk music. But it’s the opposite that came out in the end.”

This might seem like a strange expression of anger: to create a sound that’s discordant at points, but also slow and more considered. “I sort of [see the songs] as tender,” Dowse says. “I think that’s also because of the space. It’s almost as if you’re taking time to observe. Instead of being mellow, it’s actually that your focus is still on what’s happening.”

Tender may not be the first word that springs to mind when describing Stumpwork, but it makes a strange kind of sense – and accurately reflects what Dry Cleaning are trying to express. When so much pain in the world goes unheard and unseen, it’s an act of tenderness to observe it and turn it into art. Dry Cleaning provide a voice for people who are at their wits’ end but not yet beyond a wry smile at the absurdity of modern life. And as bleak as the landscape painted on Stumpwork occasionally looks, the music always turns a corner, as Shaw looks up from the mic and asks: “Is it still OK to call you my disco pickle?”

Stumpwork is out on 21 October via 4AD