Drenge: “There’s a lot of spookiness out there at the moment”
Try, if you can, to briefly rise above the interminable, all-encompassing fug of Brexit-era Britain and cast your mind back to retrospectively simpler times in 2013. David Cameron may have opened said year by promising an EU referendum if the Tories gained power (nobody paid much notice at the time), but by and large an impending sense of doom wasn’t quite part of the daily agenda.
For brothers Eoin and Rory Loveless of grungy Castleton duo Drenge, it was the year things took a fairly substantial turn. The band had up until then generated a modest amount of buzz amongst gig-goers in and around the north, regularly bussing it into Sheffield on the 272 to play the usual alt-rock haunts, picking up a couple of big festival slots on the way, and steadily making themselves known to a small audience nationwide via their unforgiving brand of snarling, angst-ridden punk.
Then it all went a bit silly. Following a Glastonbury gig on the William’s Green Stage, a nod from Labour MP Tom Watson in his widely publicised resignation letter to Ed Miliband – “if you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge” – coincided with a much-lauded debut EP release and led to an abrupt shunt into the limelight. A few months later they’d notched up a support slot on the Arctic Monkeys ‘AM’ tour and rubbed shoulders with Kanye West and Sting on Later With Jools Holland. But even amidst all of this carry-on the boys still found time to sneak in a live session for Exposed at the Mongtomery Theatre, which is something well worth seeking out on YouTube to A: remind yourselves of the delightfully raw, scuzzy urgency of those early tracks; and B: just to marvel at what young whippersnappers they were when being touted as one of the UK’s most essential rock bands.
Fast-forward five years – plus a second album, Undertow, which saw their numbers beefed up with the addition of former Wet Nun Rob Graham on bass – and we’re sat in The Lescar on Sharrow Vale Road, all grown up, and with the band’s third album, the nocturnal-sounding Strange Creatures, scheduled for release in just a few weeks’ time. They’ve marked it as their most considered record to date, “featuring real choruses and everything,” according to Eoin, and over a round of coffees reflect with Exposed on lessons learned, the importance of branching out and why we all need to start dancing a bit more.
Believe it or not, the last time we sat down for an interview it was late-September 2013, a couple of days before you supported Arctic Monkeys at the Roundhouse.
Rory: Oh, really?
It was the time where everything started to go a bit crazy for you. Now, five and a half years later and with a third album ready to go, how do you reflect on that early period?
Eoin: I just think about two very excitable lads experiencing some mental shit. In terms of pure sensations, that month was probably the high-point of my life, with just loads of very intense moments and experiences shoved into one. We had the record out, supported the Monkeys, played Jools Holland… it was just really intense.
What lessons do you feel you’ve learned in the last five and a half years? These could be personal or industry-related.
Eoin: I’ve learned a lot more about leaving food to brown a bit, because that’s where the flavour comes in. I feel like it’s more of a life lesson, actually, to just let stuff happen and it will get better. Not everything needs repeatedly meddling with. When I first started cooking, I used to chop up the onion, take a spoon and move it all around the pan constantly, but now I’ve realised you’ve just got to let it sear on the bottom and turn it over onto the other side. And then you’ll have much better risotto or, er, casserole.
Rory: I think learning to trust yourself is one. You learn to go with yourself rather than second-guessing everything and getting in the way of making some good stuff. Worrying about what might be interesting to other people isn’t the way to go about creating anything effectively.
Eoin: Also, going back five years ago, Rory was 20, I was 21. We were just kids on tour really, who would still stay at their parents’ house rather than pay rent anywhere, and I’ve heard people talking about how our new stuff shows us maturing, but surely that’s only natural? I mean, everyone becomes a different person after five years. If you’re not a different person after five years you’ve either got it sorted, or you haven’t got it sorted at all.
Have Drenge got it sorted now?
Eoin: We haven’t currently, no. But that’s fine! Look at this 10-year challenge thing and how different everything and everyone was. It feels like you’re looking back into the mid-80s. There are people dressed up in weird clothes, there was more identity on show, it was the start of the financial crisis, people weren’t as obsessed with social media… it was like living in another world. [Turns to Rory] Right?
Rory: Er, yeah. I zoned out a bit towards the end, but it sounded on-brand.
In terms of backing yourself and encouraging creativity, how important was the three-year hiatus from touring in terms of recharging the batteries and bringing fresh ideas into this album?
Rory: We had to get what we had right. To use Eoin’s analogy, we had the food in the pan but it hadn’t browned enough at that point and we had a standard to hit. We want to make things that hold up, so that’s why it took so long – and I actually wish that it hadn’t taken that much time, but I’m genuinely proud of what we’ve made now.
You’ve described it as a “nocturnal record”, and there is a very warped, shadowy feeling to the album as a whole. In the early days, you spoke about how the more macabre aspects of living in Castleton influenced the darker side of your writing: a crumbling castle on the horizon, the sense of isolation, even the roadkill you’d encounter on the country roads. Where do you look to for those influences now?
Eoin: There’s the reading of books, watching films, studying other people’s lyrics, but it’s also about realising you have your own lyrical identity and trying to push that a bit more, poking around with different themes and ideas. For example, on the record there’s a tune called ‘Prom Night’ and it’s basically trying to take the mick out of English attempts at American culture. Like, school proms? These weird homages to our friends over the pond just don’t make much sense to me. I started writing a Carrie-style horror story on that theme and it just went from there.
The lyrics seem to be on a deeper, more descriptive level than some of your previous output, especially with tracks like ‘Bonfire of the City Boys’ and ‘Prom Night’, where Eoin provides something of a spoken word narrative to the music. Did you enjoy being able to flex the writing muscles a bit?
Eoin: Yeah. It’s a bit like what Rory was saying about trusting yourself, but it was a bit weird giving something like that a go vocally and discovering how visceral it can sound. It’s not just about being a singer; it’s more about discovering how you can create a mood through how you use your voice.
You’ve mentioned it’s your most experimental record to date and features a broad mixture of styles and instrumentation. Was it quite a natural exploration? Or were there any back to the drawing board, ‘this isn’t us’ kind of moments?
Rory: We spent a lot of time on the record and with that came up with all sorts of stuff; we ended up making a lot of demos for a lot of different tunes. It was a long period of condensing it all then redoing songs to get them to work with each other.
Eoin: When we first recorded ‘Never See The Signs’, it didn’t quite work when we listened to it with other songs. So then we wrote this very poppy bass part to go over the track, which definitely wasn’t really our sort of thing, but I’d still say our fingerprints are all over the track and that allowed us to just tweak things to give it a bit more swagger. Ross [Orton, producer] made this salad dressing once and told me to taste it, so I stuck my finger in the pestle and mortar, tasted it, and it was just like – BAM. Then Ross said, “That’s what we need to do with the music, we need to make it really pop.”
Rory: I think it’s the small, incremental changes that make these songs branch out into various styles. When we first started writing this album in Eoin’s bedroom, it was all coming from the usual places, but the sound is probably more varied on this record. And I guess that’s mainly because we wanted to cover a lot of ground, to not have the same sort of style all over the place but also work to keep things threaded together.
Speaking of which, what unifying themes would you say appear in Strange Creatures?
Rory: A word we kept repeating while we were making it was “spooky”. We wanted it to be like a luridly coloured B-movie horror film, a bit like the old Suspiria by Dario Argento – something that is weird, keeps you on edge throughout. I feel like the keystone for that is the title track, ‘Strange Creatures’.
Eoin: We try not to commit to one idea or theme; the stuff we create is really up for interpretation. There’s a track on the album called ‘Avalanches’, and you could view it as being about a whole range of things: mental health, Brexit, a deteriorating relationship, global warming – it’s just emotional devastation, the complete fear you feel when you see an avalanche. Similar, too, with ‘Bonfire Of The City Boys’, it makes you amped and musically addresses core human sensations in a way we feel a lot of current music doesn’t.
Rory: A lot of the songs we wanted to reflect what’s going on in the world – not anything specifically, but there is a lot of spookiness out there at the moment.
You can really sense a general feeling of unease running through it.
Rory: Exactly that. And desperation as well.
Eoin: Isn’t it strange, though? Nobody is thinking about what’s going to happen in five or ten years’ time, or even one year’s time, people are focused on the day-to-day rather than any long-terms plans. Our current generation are so apathetic to the idea of long-term security because they just don’t believe in it.
Ross: That’s why ‘spooky’ is a good word. It’s a scary thing but there’s also a bit of humour rolled into it, because if it was all going to be dank and dark we would’ve just made a noise album or something.
The tongue-in-cheek element has always been a big part of Drenge, hasn’t it?
Eoin: And spooky is a bit tongue-in-cheek, isn’t it? It’s not on the same level as terrifying or petrifying, but it’s a little bit weird while still being a bit chilling.
Rory: This album’s not Nosferatu, it’s more like the bad ghost in Casper.
I suppose the issue with writing about specific issues, considering the rate we lurch from one political crisis to another these days, is that any writing signposted to one particular event can become outdated quite quickly?
Eoin: Absolutely. So why commit to anything in that way? Unless you’re making instantaneous art, unless you’re making a song about how you feel about something and sticking it online the very same day. Otherwise, you want to create something that could last beyond that.
We try not to commit to one idea or theme; the stuff we create is really up for interpretation.
I’ve heard how the single ‘This Dance’ was inspired by some sort of en-masse wedding dance. Is that true?
Eoin: Partly, yeah. I’m not a very good dancer, Rory’s a bit better.
What’s the issue?
Eoin: I guess it’s just the length of my limbs, there’s absolutely no swagger in the hips. Watching me dance is a bit like watching a stop-motion animation. But anyway, we were at this wedding, dancing, and I really just enjoyed having the support of all my friends around me because dancing isn’t something we do enough of. I think everyone should have five minutes at work every day where they have a bit of a dance. It can take your mind to a place where you have no real idea what’s going on in the world. It’s almost a bit transcendental.
Rory: You’re in a state of complete reverie.
And of course, it’s not the first thing people would associate a Drenge track with.
Eoin: It’s not. We don’t really have the funk or the groove, but we are trying. Dancing is really important, and we need to talk about it.
Rory: Follow Theresa May’s example.
Eoin: If we all danced more often we’d be a lot happier, people would be open to having more ideas thrown at them and it’d just be a nicer society overall. All of that just by shaking a tailfeather every now and then.
There is something beautiful about the moment you alluded to, the point where everyone’s on the dancefloor together and even the ones who don’t usually dance are up. It is special.
Eoin: Smiles all around! I just look around and think, ‘I probably won’t feel this good again for a while’.
Rory: [To Eoin] You really think that when you’re dancing?! Wow.
Back to business. You’re playing a number of Rough Trade stores in February, and then there’s the full UK tour starting in March. How do you think Strange Creatures will translate to the live stage?
Rory: It’s been a bit of a challenge because we didn’t really think about how we were going to recreate it on stage while we were doing it. And the tour starts in about a month.
Eoin: I’m glad we didn’t get that 50-piece orchestra, or the children’s choir. Just expect a lot of backing track and costume changes. But it should all be fine, hopefully…
Strange Creatures is out on 22 February via Infectious Records.