Drug Store Romeos: "When I am travelling deep into myself, I need to feel like I am completely alone."
Drug Store Romeos have enjoyed a growing influence over the world outside their bedrooms since the appearance of their debut single ‘Now You’re Moving’ on Fiction Records in 2019. The release of their debut album The world within our bedrooms in June has brought them critical acclaim and a rapidly expanding online following. Recorded at London’s Eastcote studios, the album successfully conjures an intimate universe of technicolour lyrics, bewitching melodies, and hazy synths floating over driving rhythms that move seamlessly through shifts in tempo.
Originally hailing from the sleepy suburbia of Fleet, Hampshire and comprised of Sarah Downey (vocals), Jonny Gilbert (drums) and Charlie Henderson (guitar), they speak to me from their new warehouse abodes in London ahead of a series of inshore signings and tour dates.
Appearing on Zoom, the three-piece are disarmingly relaxed and modest: “yeah, we did a DJ set last night in this factory district in Walthamstow” Charlie explains, “there weren’t really many people but there was a passionate support group of maybe 6 people?” - “it really should have been double figures” Jonny chips in, laughing.
Drug Store Romeos have in fact performed at a host of major venues across London and the UK, with their upcoming tour expanding the list even more. Asked about their in-store performances across the UK this coming week, the trio move into a discussion of their gig set-up: “it will be nice to play the songs in a more vulnerable, stripped down way” Sarah says, “sometimes in a bigger venue, we lose frequencies of depth - it will feel good to play somewhere where we can say ‘this is how we are meant to sound’”.
Having written most of the songs in small spaces, they want to preserve the intimacy of their sound in a live setting: “When you make a song you are almost subconsciously making the song for the size of the room you are in, to fill the room I guess” Charlie adds, “ - with tracks like ‘Quotations’ it perfectly filled the little room we had in Fleet - but in a bigger venue it is sometimes harder to get across - when you turn up the synth past a certain volume it loses something”.
Their creative process itself was tied to the seclusion and solitude of the countryside, as Sarah explains: “in Fleet, I would be locked up in my room for hours and hours every night, being able to delve into so many different worlds in my imagination. When I am travelling deep into myself I need to feel like I am completely alone”.
Aside from such recognisable musical influences as Mild High Club, Portishead, Stereolab, Cocteau Twins, and Broadcast, the band have drawn inspiration from sources as eclectic as Italian film scores, Dadaist poets, Tennessee Williams plays and 1930’s transcendentalist artist Agnes Pelton, whose 1934 piece ‘Orbits’ is hangs in Sarah’s vocal booth. I notice that a similar piece hangs in the background on the wall of Sarah’s room: “oh yeah, it’s the same artist” she explains, “the painting looks like how I want my songs to sound. We are quite visual people and for some reason we all see things in colour, which can be useful as a tool for writing, like when you have written a line and it is in some shade of blue or orange”. Jonny adds: “it feels helpful to have an extra language for talking about music”.
Describing a Japanese painting in the Tate of a young woman floating in an “ethereal swamp”, he explains: “this is the painting I brought to my studio to remind me of calm and serenity…lots of our songs have that kind of mood”. The list of influences seems endless, as each of the trio plucks names out of the air: “we love Alex Germaine as well” Charlie jumps in, “he is an animation artist but you could take one frame from his work and it could be a painting”.
Awareness of visual surroundings goes back to childhood for Sarah, who describes her room from the age of eight onwards: “I would just move the furniture around, bringing different paintings and filling out my bedroom…I wanted to surround myself with things that reflect my character, so that when you’re writing and you look around you everything is supporting you and cheering you on like - ‘yeaaahhhhh you are really good!!!’”.
Outside of visual art, their influences are equally eclectic. Sarah mentions spending time in Winchester during the lockdown: “I was right next to this big cathedral, I felt this weird choral energy flooding out of it and into this study I was in, and I started writing lots of electronic choral music”. Similarly devotional themes emerge as Charlie delves into his musical influences, which cover terrain way beyond dream-pop and shoegaze frame of reference: “two of my favourite albums, discovered recently, are about devotion”. Charlie moves his laptop to reveal a small, makeshift ‘shrine’ to Alice Coltrane, her album in pride of place. “I also found this tape in a record store the other day with nothing on it but a love heart and some flowers, I asked what it was and they gave it to me for free…it turned out to be music made in a religious temple in North London, a collection of songs of devotion, which are incredibly beautiful, they just hit you”. Asked in what way, he picks out details that could describe some of his songs: “there are female vocals and this piano that sounds like iridescent shells, with all of these seventh chords, shifting from major to minor in a way that is really satisfying”.
The songs of Drug Store Romeos seem to reflect the eclecticism of their influences, with shifts in tempo, key and mood often happening in the space of a single short song. We discuss their debut single ‘Now You’re Moving’ by way of example - “yeah the two sections are different” Charlie agrees, “but they were written at the same time, just with different influences…the delayed vocals bit was inspired by two people doing this sleepy romantic dancing at 5am after an all-night party…the other section was inspired by a whole different mood but it made sense to put them together”.
Talking of collages and song sections brings us onto Sarah’s lyrics, which often stand out as unusual: “Yeah I pick things up from all sorts of places, sometimes something will happen to turn me on…I watched this amazing mockumentary over lockdown, like three hours of the most dry but also colourful material about this fictional ‘Violent Unknown Event’ which affects people around the world”. In between eating strawberries (‘breakfast’), Sarah impersonates the voiceover: “it would be like [clears throat] this person is pending investigation for embezzlement of funds belonging to the world society for the protection of birds - that will be one person - and it will go onto the next one, and on like that for three hours. And a word will just pop out to me for some reason and I will write it down, until I eventually have this sheet of words that resonates with me, to use as a tool for writing… it’s not random because patterns of association help me weave something, unconsciously creating what has been going on in my life, but in an abstract way…I think that way you are not spoon feeding your listener”.
In recent years, Drug Store Romeos have seen the fruition of their hard work and talent as they have watched positive reviews and concerts proliferate. Nevertheless, they can’t help but drop ironic references to their suburban roots, mentioning Fleet with a mixture of affection and exasperation. Despite this, the charm of their music and performances seems to come from something playful, born of their old friendships and Fleet bedroom creations - “yeah the Casio keyboards we use, some of them are a bit kitchy” admits Sarah “but I think play is very important in any art. You need to become vulnerable to start becoming playful; it is more exciting creatively when people start to express that essence of themselves”.
Sarah’s distinctively nymph-like vocals too seem to play a part in this, as we reminisce about a performance of theirs at a small festival in 2018: “oh yeah we had this sort of group euphoria or madness before that performance” Sarah remembers, laughing, “I was in the rehearsal room singing like nnnneeeeeee nnneeeeeee in this high pitched tone and we were like ‘this is our ticket, oh my god this is our golden ticket’. And I was reading out all the different sounds on this rolland mono synth names like ‘space man’ — ‘funny cat’ — ‘sprog man’ — ‘space reed’ — woowooooooooooo - but afterwards I was like that was so bad, and we toned it down”. Sarah’s playful vocal demonstrations end in her performing a surreal and convincing “Snow White” impression: “yeah, if everything goes tits up with the gigs maybe I can just create Disneyland”.
Despite the chaotic experience of the past year, the trio cite the strangeness of recent events as influential: “it is weird to talk about the benefits because it is such a selfish thing to say” Sarah confesses “but sometimes it feels like when people do nothing for a time, it can be good for your self perception rather than getting lost in the constant “on”, it seems like everyone has to be “on” all the time…”