We’ve all spent far too much time stuck in our rooms over recent months – but for Drug Store Romeos, that’s a whole universe of possibilities.
Words: Jamie MacMillan. Photos: Neelam Khan Vela.
“By the time I’d finished with it, the room looked like a murder scene!” Wait, what? Has something sent Sarah Downie, vocalist and keyboardist in the Official Nicest Band in Indie, on a blood-soaked rampage? And why does the vague explanation of their missing bassist who has apparently “disappeared underground” now sound faintly more ominous? It’s not supposed to be like this. They were supposed to be one of the pure ones! Saddle up. Welcome to the mysterious world of Drug Store Romeos, then.
It’s during a strangely frenetic period between important shows (remember those?) that we catch up with precisely 66.6% of the Fleet trio. Sarah and drummer Jonny Gilbert are present and just as smiley as you would imagine, while bassist Charlie Henderson is missing in action but still presumably smiling somewhere. After a great response to their virtual SXSW Online set, there is just a week or so to go before they begin gently easing back into live action with a sold-out show in Hackney. The excitement is building – and that’s before you start to consider the impending release of their superb debut ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’, a record that builds magnificently on all that potential that a string of early singles promised and turns individual snapshots in a wide, vibrant collage of vibes and strange landscapes. We ask them how they’re feeling, and in particular, what colour they’re feeling (we’re not just being weird, they have spoken in the past about how they see emotions in colour, so hush). For Sarah, it’s brown (“Brown’s not a bad colour! I’ve got brown chocolate and brown coffee. Brown’s just kind of brown and great!”), while for Jonny it’s purple. Charlie’s still not here, so he says nothing. The pair admit to feeling equally nervous and excited today for what the reaction will be. “We’re really happy,” smiles Jonny. “The most uncertain thing is when you step in the studio, because you’ve got a certain amount of time to try and fulfil this three and a half year goal and make an album. But we’ve done what we hoped to do.”
Sarah agrees, full of anticipation about being finally able to unveil what the band have always set out to achieve. “This is the first full body of work that we’ve actually released,” she explains. “You can start to understand the world we’re trying to explore sonically. I think when that’s fragmented up in singles, it maybe doesn’t make as much sense of this little universe that our sound bobs around in.”
It’s a nice universe. As Sarah sings on ‘Frame Of Reference’, there is a subtle sense when listening to it that everything has changed ever so slightly. The colours that dance all through the ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’ are so vivid and vibrant, the language so otherworldly in its mix of ethereal and robotic, that you can’t help but get the whiff of some psychedelic ‘assistance’. With a recent tweet celebrating a monk handing them three tabs of acid in preparation for album number two, Dork obviously dives straight into that subject. “Ha, he’s been a friend of ours for a while,” says Jonny, naming no names. “It was such a nice moment. We’re not a big psychedelic exploration band, and that’s not what the album’s about. But there have definitely been times where we’ve enjoyed it, and so it’s linked to our music.” As he describes how one acid trip led to changing how the band perceived their music (and life), Sarah sighs. “We need another one; it’s been a while. We had one trip which changed my life completely… Sorry, that sounds so WANKY!” They collapse in laughter, unspoken plans for a lovely time in the future clearly being drawn up for the band. Charlie still hasn’t turned up, but that’s ok.
Despite all that, though, you don’t *need* to be on a trip to get the most out of the record. It’s quite simply gorgeous, all fluttering heart rates and lush synths that seem to obey their own rules as far as music goes. Tempos and moods change suddenly like warm rain on a gentle rollercoaster ride, as Sarah delivers lyrics that at times feel like a newborn computer exploring its world. There aren’t any set rules here, something Jonny puts down to the band relying on personal instinct rather than any formal training in music. The natural world collides with science, songs about intertwining kites that scare birds rubbing up against tracks that feel like ‘Kraftwerk – the college years’. There is a sense of isolation and escapism running through every song, so you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a very modern pandemic record. Far from it, though. The band, and Sarah in particular, were dealing with these feelings way before any lockdown.
“I think our big walls of sound create this big cloud which basically sends you up and away into this other place,” she explains. “And I think wanting to escape was what we wanted to do a lot of the time. There were some good times, and there were some not so good times either… When people go to their mind palace whenever they want to escape, that’s the music for us. It was a way of creating colour and putting it into these slightly dull lives we were leading.”
Having met and formed the band in Fleet, that retreat to (and escape from) their bedrooms to write music was the genesis of Drug Store Romeos, hence the album title. “We wrote a lot of the songs after we left Fleet, but that time was very important because we were SO isolated,” she begins to explain before Zoom cuts out, and we are left with a glitching image of her face like something from a horror movie.
As she crashes back in with her description of a murder scene (hey, you’re all caught up now!), Sarah does at least get to explain herself properly. “I painted my room with red paint, and stuck push-pins in and had thread running between different decades and eras. Anything that inspired me to write, basically. We were literally painting this world which we wanted to live in, and my room became this no-man’s land where it didn’t exist”.
“I was obsessed with buying magazines on eBay that taught you how to create lemon alarm clocks and radio phonographs and stuff”Sarah Downie
It doesn’t feel like a record that a London (or any other big city) band could have created, standing apart from any scene and existing within its own sense of space. As Sarah puts it, they were never in a scene so just made one of their own. The early days of the band led to many late-nights-meets-early-morning journeys home from London gigs, with their familiar tales to anyone from the commuter belt of catching the ‘drunk train’ home where wandering spirits would try and force them to play their instruments on demand. “If you’re carrying a drum, people are gonna hit it,” grimaces Jonny painfully. “You get drunk people that are just like ‘oh play us a song, we love you! Play your drums, get your keyboard out!’” laughs Sarah. “NO! People used to take our instruments off of us and start playing them.”
The perils of being a band without a tour bus was made ten times worse by the fact that many of the synths and keyboards that the band use are so rare that they would be almost impossible to replace. That love of technology, jostling alongside their love of the natural world, is what makes Drug Store Romeos so unique. It’s like psychedelic folk being chopped up and put through an electronic filter, super-rare synths making a perfect partnership with Sarah’s obsession with cutting up vintage magazines for lyrical inspiration. “I was obsessed with buying magazines on eBay, job lots of them,” she explains. “I was most infatuated with gossip magazines and these sixties magazines that taught you how to create lemon alarm clocks and radio phonographs and stuff. They had all these great words that you could mix with gossip columns. Like oscillators, transistors or GIVE ME SOME MORE WORDS JONNY.”
The drummer, snapping suddenly to attention like a naughty schoolboy caught on his phone, can only offer one suggestion which feels more like a question than an answer. “It doesn’t matter,” says Sarah simply, now back in the zone. “Capacitor, variable, component… It’s just strange, these aren’t things you normally put together. But you can create a disconnect emotionally, putting these trivial phrases with analytical and emotionally dead words. Putting wires and heavy metal with something soft and fluffy creates this strange feeling, one I guess we were always seduced by.”
The process of cutting up random words and using them for inspiration might have been around for decades, but it’s one that Sarah swears by, and it’s something that lends a weirdly specific meaning to what are fairly oblique lyrics at times. “It’s relevant to what’s going on in my mind; it just picks them from association in terms I would never have done. And then in a few months time, I listen back, and I’m like ‘oh yeah, that’s exactly what I was feeling’. But other people could read that and have their own personal experience. Because when something is more abstract, it can reach deeper into you. Not all of the album is written like that, but it’s an interesting part of the process that’s influenced us visually as well as lyrically.”
The shimmering album closer ‘Adult Glamour’ shows another side to the band, one that steers closer to shoegaze than their normal lush electronic slant. Though it feels like it could be signposting one possible future, it’s actually a relic from the past. “Yeah, that song feels like family to us now. It was going to be our first release,” says Sarah. “We wrote it four years ago. It was written at a time where I was feeling so disconnected from technology. I had it in my head that phones were these evil pieces of machinery, and the whole song was me mourning this time which I’d never actually lived in. A lot of kids then would look back into a past that they’d never even experienced with these rose-tinted glasses.”
Getting rid of her phone for a year, she even went without a computer for six months – reading and ‘going a little mad’ is how she describes it now. “It’s about searching for something that is no longer there and then coming to terms with the fact that that time doesn’t exist and won’t exist again. And you know, you gotta start living in the present world; otherwise, you’re gonna miss your life completely!”
There is some irony that by now, her phone battery has nearly died, so we are all talking to blank Zoom screens in order to try and preserve it. (See? Technology isn’t good!) How is she feeling now with the end of lockdown approaching, especially as much of the album has dealt with isolation? “I’m having to set boundaries,” she says honestly. “Which I find quite hard. I’ve got to make sure that I give myself enough time because a lot of the time, I keep forgetting who I really am. I am a person who needs that isolation to really be myself, and if I don’t [get it] then I feel completely not like myself. I think everyone’s a little nervous, though. They’re walking out of a cave after a year of solitude and suddenly being in society and asking, ‘who the hell are these monkey people?’”
We nod and say our goodbyes, worrying quietly to ourselves about whether we’ve missed a sudden invasion of monkey people in Hampshire. We never did find out what happened to Charlie, but it doesn’t matter. We’re off to find ourselves an acid-toting monk; we want in to their world.
Taken from the July 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Drug Store Romeos’ debut album ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’ is out 9th July.