In 1978, Daniel Miller was both inspired by and fed up with punk. Enamored with the attitude, he thought it was bullshit that anyone had to learn three whole chords to make it on the scene; he reckoned he could do it with a single note. So he bought a cheap synth, grabbed his copy of J.G. Ballard's Crash (a novel that "investigated the erotic possibilities of a car crash,") and recorded Warm Leatherette.
Florence Shaw writes a song like a bowerbird builds a nest, with an obsessive fixation for colourful garbage. On Dry Cleaning's debut full-length, New Long Leg, Shaw weaves new language from journal pages and YouTube comments, advertisements, headlines, haircuts and spoiled food, turning ordinary detritus into something fantastical and useful. Bolstered by lush production from John Parish, Tom Dowse's riffs take on a new depth and Lewis Maynard and Nick Buxton's kinetic rhythms are accented with shakers, drum machines and handclaps.
So it turns out that the current nexus of postmodern rock and roll is a carpet warehouse in Catford. The inconspicuous shag palace, located on Rushey Green Road and called Dourofs, was the venue of choice when it came time to record the video for Dry Cleaning's just released Unsmart Lady single. The second clip to drop from New Long Leg, their much anticipated debut on the legendary 4AD label, it features the diminutive Eltham quartet locked in the store one damp night, addressing misogynistic etiquette and lopsided beauty standards on the shop floor, amidst the endless rolls of beige discounted underlay.
In the video for "Scratchcard Lanyard," Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw is a floating head in the world's smallest dive bar. Her face takes up the whole stage, a perch from which she eyes the tiny puppet DJ and the tiny puppet bartender with mild disgust and confusion. She delivers a dry monologue in a wan, extremely British tone, subtly arching her eyebrows for emphasis.
This time last year, Dry Cleaning were riding the crest of a wave. Having just completed a sold-out UK tour they were on course to smash the festival circuit and almost certainly become one of the biggest acts to break out of the UK's underground music scene in a very long time. Then came the pandemic, and with it lockdown leading to the postponement of live music until further notice.
With Dry Cleaning , the cut-and-paste nature of the discussion surrounding their EP's (2019's Sweet Princess and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks) was particularly surprising. Their spoken word-ish vocals? Must have been influenced by The Fall or Sleaford Mods . Spiky, angular guitar riffs that sound vaguely like the first flush of post-punk? Must have been influenced by Gang Of Four , The Cure , Wire or Magazine .
If its original incarnation saw post-punk used as a vehicle to open up audio possibilities, its 21st century replica feels more about closing down and refining. Once a barometer for free-thinking, the past decade has increasingly found the post-punk label being used alongside stodgy, blokey, half-heartedly political indie rock. Dry Cleaning, though, stand apart.
Photo by Pooneh Ghana Florence Shaw's poetics and deadpan delivery set Dry Cleaning's 2019 EPs "Sweet Princess'" and "Boundary Road Snacks And Drinks" apart from the throng of post punk influenced bands jostling for attention. Backed by guitarist Tom Dowse, Lewis Maynard on bass and drummer Nick Buxton, Shaw's kitchen sink dada monologues maybe an acquired taste for some but the foursome create a compelling and evocative soundscape in which the banal and the fantastic jostle for attention, feeding off each other to build an edifice greater than the sum of parts which are by no means negligible. Life Without Buildings' Sue Tompkins, another visual artist turned lyricist and front-person, is a useful reference point for Shaw's method and approach in the way they construct their tone poems, play with language and interact with music.