Hype List 2021: Drug Store Romeos: “We’re a bit of a nightmare, to be honest”

FFO The Orielles et al, Drug Store Romeos are the sound of a relaxed Sunday afternoon; a band to wrap yourself up and get lost in the loveliness of.

FFO The Orielles et al, Drug Store Romeos are the sound of a relaxed Sunday afternoon; a band to wrap yourself up and get lost in the loveliness of.

Words: Jamie MacMillan. Photo: Melanie Hyams.

To say that Drug Store Romeos see the world differently to most of us is a bit of an understatement. This is a band that feel, and describe, sensations and songs in colours instead of words after all. Even after five years of touring and rehearsing that has perfected their ethereal psychedelically hazy dream pop, and despite some high profile support slots, they are still a secret to many due to the veeeerrrrryyyy limited amount of songs available online. But with a debut album on the horizon, 2021 looks like the year that finally changes all that. So get your colour charts ready, for the trio are about to let us all into their world.

“It’s so nice being near the sea,” vocalist Sarah Downey smiles under the kind of warm blue Brighton skies that can easily make you forget about all the ‘stuff’ that’s happening in the world. “It’s always a bit more of a dystopian world in London and I kind of feel like I’m nearer the end of the world if I’m there.” Tucked away by the coast amongst houses that she describes as “each being a different shade of ice cream”, it is a world away from the city full of grey suits and even greyer streets that Sarah lives in presently. Describing her summer as a drifting period of watching peoples lives from the top of a hill, the last few months has left her feeling, like most of us, that time is still mending after a period of feeling seriously wonky. But as we reach the end of The Year That Shall Never Be Talked About Again, Drug Store Romeos are about to shift through the gears, starting with the dreamy and ethereal ‘Jim, Let’s Play’ – released just after our chat.

Five years in, it’s wild to think that this is only their fourth single. “We’re all getting a bit restless now,” Sarah admits. “[Debut single] ‘Now You’re Moving’ doesn’t even feel like our song any more. The recorded version is so different to how we play it and how our tastes have changed. And to be honest, we were never 100% happy with it when it came out anyway!” In truth, listening to that first release now, it seems strangely grounded in a way that follow-ups ‘Frame Of Reference’ and ‘Quotations For Locations’ never did. “Totally,” agrees Sarah. “We’ve completely changed, and our sound is just so different to how it used to be. Not saying it is any better or worse, it’s just change. That’s what music should do, and what artists should allow themselves to do. Because otherwise, it’s creative castration, isn’t it? Nature is continuously changing, and so are we.” That evolution in sound has been gentle, but unmistakeable, each new release heightening the excitement and confirming that they are on to something very special indeed. And now, ‘Jim, Let’s Play’, a track that takes inspiration from The Space Lady and seems to exist in about seven different eras and genres of music simultaneously. It highlights the constant restless evolution of the band, while also containing the most perfect one-line summation of the band when Sarah sings of “living in a technicolour dream”. Because if you need to know one thing about Drug Store Romeos, it is that colours are everything to this band.

“Nature is continuously changing, and so are we”

Sarah Downey

After forming in Hampshire when Charlie (guitar) and Jonny (drums) put up a Facebook advert looking for a new band member, the threesome soon found a common language when describing and discussing music. “We always get a lot of ideas from what we see in our mind’s eye, whether that’s colours or a feeling,” explains Sarah. “Like, we might have a keyboard or vocal line to start with that really feels like ‘a colour’, and then all the other pieces that come after will try to enhance or deepen that colour and feeling. Some people are more influenced by a story or politics, but for us, it is just like a very intense form of escapism, removing yourself completely from the world. I think you need that sometimes, otherwise, you go a bit mad!”

On paper, it sounds a bit abstract, but as Sarah describes it as an almost childlike association between colour and emotion, it begins to make much more sense. Not that it always goes smoothly in the studio. “Um, sadly we sometimes don’t all see the same colours in the same songs, and that can cause really grinding arguments,” she laughs as she plays out some of the weirdest arguments you’ve ever heard. “That is green! That is so green! How can that be green? It’s so purple!”

Alongside the fact that many of the lyrics come from Sarah’s tendency to cut out words from magazines and use them for flashes of inspiration, it is almost a subliminal, unconscious way of writing that lets things jump out naturally. “You become almost like a medium,” she says. “Sometimes reading them back, I’m like ‘wow, that really fit how I felt’, or sometimes I’m just like ‘wow, that’s complete bollocks’. But then a few months later, I’ll be listening to it again and can understand why my brain went there.”

Having taken five years to get to this point, today there’s a refreshing unwillingness to be downbeat about the temporary blip that we’re all living through. Time away from gigs is being channelled into finessing and finishing the debut record, (the lyrics are, very specifically, “89% done”), and Sarah seems ready for the final push. “It’s gonna be really intense because we’re doing it in lockdown,” she admits, “so its gonna be studio-home-studio-home-studio-home for the whole time. And I don’t actually have my own bedroom, I share it with my friend, so it’s going to be full-on. But I’m excited! It’s going to be journey, a solid one and an emotional one I’m sure.”

Preparations for the studio are being made as we speak, even down to a print of 1920s transcendentalist Agnes Pelton being bought to get Sarah ‘in the mood’. “She went to the desert and drew these astral-like spiritual energies in the skies, I’m gonna stick that up in front of me. When I’m singing, I really want to be able to put myself in the world, which I feel most represents the songs.”

Describing the style of the record as “a world made from places within that world”, she pictures it as a process of drawing from different strands that are connected by a central thread yet distinct from each other. “There are some songs that I’m really excited for people to hear,” she says, “Because it feels like they don’t quite belong anywhere, but then they also do but only in a new way.” Got it? “There’s one song that’s like kites in an extremely open sky! It’s like Verna Lint’s ‘Underwater Boy’, but rather than being in the water element, it’s in the sky.”

The mind boggles and leads inevitably to the obvious question. What colour is the album? “There’s definitely a range,” she laughs. “It’s a journey of colour for sure, with blues and purples very much in the foundations. Then we do a jump to some more cheerful yellows, maybe oranges, with little snippets of bursting emeralds of green.” She pauses for a second and then grins. “We’re a bit of a nightmare, to be honest.” There you have it then people, Drug Store Romeos, Hype List 2021 and a bit of a nightmare. Next year could be brighter than ever.

Taken from the December 2020 / January 2021 issue of Dork.

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