In Conversation With: Drenge

Ahead of their intimate Headrow House gig, we chat with the Loveless brothers, Eoin and Rory, from Sheffield based DIY rockers, Drenge.

So, Drenge…is it “Drenj” or “Dren-ga”?

Eoin: It’s “Drenj” in the UK and “Dren-ga” when we go over to Denmark. It’s a Danish word.

Rory: It’s whatever you want really.

I bet you’re sick of answering that question.

Rory: No…haven’t heard that in a long time.

I’ve read that your name is supposed to be the sound of a guitar?

Rory: Yeah I guess it kind of is. We just wanted a weird sounding name. This band wasn’t meant to be long-lasting.

Eoin: This band was not supposed to sign a record deal.

Rory: We would have chosen a more sensible name but we wanted one that wasn’t like… [looks at the wall]…”The Bricks”. We just went for a real weird, horrible sounding name.

At least you didn’t go with “The Drenge”.

Eoin: I don’t think we would’ve got signed if we were called The Drenge [laughs]. That’s a real stinker of a name.

I think if you spoke to loads of bands they would say exactly the same thing regarding their name.

Rory: I don’t think anyone who’s in a band is proud of their band name.

Eoin: One of the most hilarious band names ever is Arctic Monkeys. You cannot believe that the biggest band in Britain is called that. It is a terrible band name…but they carry it, they carry it.

Rory: They do.

How did the idea for the Drenge Philharmonic tour come about? You’re playing different versions of your songs right?

Rory: It’s er, it’s a bit poorly timed…[both laugh]. When the album came out we wanted to do a load of shows in record shops ‘cause they have the best atmosphere. We like playing in strange places. A lot of people do acoustic shows, which we can’t really do very well. So we decide to make lower quality versions of our tunes [laughs]…Different quality versions of our tunes and then play them to people who haven’t even heard the actual versions of the tunes!

What are some of the weird places you’ve played?

Rory: We played in a cave once. Right next to our parents’ house in Castleton. It was for a brand event which a friend was helping to organise. They do put gigs on there every so often. We played there and that was great. A really weird sound to it.

Eoin: We played on a boat.

Rory: We played on a boat? Yeah? Have we?! [laughs]

Eoin: In Bristol!

Rory: Oh yeah! That was a good venue that. Where else have we played?! We’re trying to build up our weird places.

Since you started how has your live show evolved?

Rory: It’s gone from quite an awkward display of musical apathy and two angry young men, to four men in a more light-hearted…We played a couple of festivals where we hired an 8ft high inflatable octopus and a school of ten light-up jellyfish, and that’s the sort of thing we would never have done when we started out. It’s a bit hard to trace the steps in between! It’s a bit wilder…we’re open to suggestions!

Eoin: When we started out we were really angry, hated everything. Our first gigs were a challenge to the people in the room: whether they could stay in the room or not. People would leave because it was just terrible…out of tune, out of time, discordant, horrible, too loud, everything.

Was that a deliberate choice?

Eoin: Yeah, it was just a pure, pure representation of how we were feeling through our music. Feeling very frustrated by what was happening in the world, work opportunities…a lot of frustration got vented out. And now I think we’ve got a bit older, mellowed out a bit more, we can see what we’re doing is more about entertainment and engaging with people rather than trying to live this furious life until we burn out. We like music and we like playing gigs and we wanted to do something a bit more positive and a bit more fun than some moaning kids.

Can you remember the point when it changed? When it became enjoyable? Was it a quick change or did it happen slowly?

Rory: It was probably something that wore off the more we played outside of Sheffield and took it a bit more seriously.

Eoin: We played about 120 gigs in 2013: a gig every three days. We were playing so often and so much. You just get really good, all of a sudden. Stuff starts getting ironed out and you notice the quality of the performance, ‘cause you’re doing it so regularly. When we started in Sheffield I’m not sure we even played a gig that you’d pay to get into for about a year. Most of the things we played were free entry and we weren’t getting paid. Something changes when someone pays some money to come and see your band play and you have to think about it differently because you have a service you have to provide. I remember the first gig we did outside any big town was in Cambridge and we were like “Oh man, it’s 8 quid to come see us. Who’s gonna come see us?!” We were terrified, we didn’t know how many tickets we’d sold and then 60 people turned up. We couldn’t believe that there was that much of a following in Cambridge.

You started off as just two people, and now you’ve got bass, sax, synths on the new record. How is this all gonna work live? You got it all figured out?

Eoin: You tell us!

Rory: We’re…figuring it out. I don’t know if we’ll have saxophone every night, sadly.

Eoin: The saxophone on the record is played by our dad. I’m not sure he’s up for a tour! [all laugh]

Is he a rocknroller?

Both: Nah, he’s a jazzer!

Eoin: A jazzer, bit of classical music. A big ice-cream fan too.

Rory: If we promised him ice-cream every night he probably would play.

You could tour in an ice-cream van.

Rory: That would work out so well actually. But yeah, we haven’t quite figured out how we’ll [play the songs live] yet. The tour starts in about a month…

Eoin: We’ve got some ideas…

Rory: We’ve got time to work on it.

We’ll see you back in Leeds in a month in a Mr Whippy van! [all laugh] How do you go about writing a new record? What’s your writing process?

Eoin: It changes with every record.

Rory: There isn’t a formula.

Eoin: Find a new way to make it more difficult for ourselves.

Rory: We just got down lots of ideas very quickly and incubated them in Eoin’s bedroom by adding little bits and coming up with these half-finished demos. Then we’d take that into the studio with our mate Ross who absolutely hates things that aren’t fully finished. So then we’d have a bit of a shouting match with him [laughs] and finish the song off in the studio. It’s not the most simple, easy-going process but it doesn’t take too long…once an idea starts to form it really does start falling into place fairly easily.

Eoin: I think we’re both a bit terrified by having a professional approach to our art and our music. You see these documentaries about these great songwriters in the Brill Building. They’d go to this office in New York and sit there with a piano and tape recorder, write songs all day and clock off at 5pm. They wrote some of the greatest songs of the 20th century in that building, but to us it’s just…it’s not what we’re about.

Rory: You have to really work at it now. You have to keep really working on your stuff. I don’t think you get anything through a divine interventional moment…the good songs come out of working on them regularly.

Iteration and hard work.

Rory: Yeah.

Do other bands influence you through osmosis? Like if you’re listening to certain bands you write a certain way.

Rory: I’d say so.

Eoin: I think more of it’s like you listen to something and think ‘how did they do that?’ And then we’ll read up on it or try and find interviews with the producer or artist, or listening to beats and figuring out exactly why stuff sounds a certain way. We inspect everything and then say let’s have a go at making our own version of that. It’s not like we’re trying to rip people off – we’re just interested in how other artists work…

Rory: It’s about staying curious, isn’t it?

I’d read you described the new record as a “horror movie on wax”. What did you mean by that?

Eoin: [laughs] I think we got a bit carried away when we said that.

Rory: I like it!

Eoin: I’ve had that quoted back to me quite a few times now.

It’s a cool phrase though innit?

EoinIt’s a cool phrase.

Rory: It sounds great.

Eoin: Bits of the record do have a horror movie vibe to them, specifically Prom Night and No Flesh Road. But it’s more like a psychological horror movie. I think those are the only two tracks with a horror movie vibe to them [laughs].

Rory: We wanted a kind of spooky sound.

Eoin: A horror movie isn’t 90 minutes of screaming and blood and knives. In Don’t Look Now, there’s this strange atmosphere that pervades the whole film, and then right at the end…it would be great to have an album like Don’t Look Now where it’s all a bit off and then right at the end it’s just like eeeeuuurrrgghh! [waves hands around]

Rory: An onslaught of terror.

A nice bit of death metal at the end.

Eoin: Yeah! [all laugh]

The cover of the album has a freaky horror vibe. What was the idea behind it?

Rory: Well we came up with the name of the album and we looked into all sorts of stuff. We set ourselves a high bar with the last record’s artwork ‘cause we had a lot of people telling us they really liked it. One guy even said he bought the album not for the music but just for the artwork. I’ve never heard of that.

Eoin: There’s a fan of ours who has the first two albums tattooed on her arm in an amalgamation of cars and trees and gravestones. When your artwork is tattooed on someone…

Rory: You have to worry about what the next one is!

Eoin: There’s an element of responsibility.

So Is the cover a challenge to this person? Will they get a bird-faced person tattooed on them as well?

Rory: If it happens, we have to make sure it’s good. We don’t want to ruin their tattoos. We saw this poster in our auntie and uncles’ house which had this Venetian carnival vibe, and it had this fairly scary but really intriguing and powerful image of this person dressed up as a clown. That’s the sort of thing we tried to recreate. We hired a load of costumes and threw a little party in Sheffield Town Hall, where they got these wonderful old oak-panelled rooms. There’s something a bit scary about it: really long red velvet curtains and a huge mirror on the end of one wall…definitely a bit Eyes Wide Shut. We ended up taking the cover photo right at the end of this day of taking loads of shots.

Eoin: It was a bit of a fluke. All the other artwork for the album is quite formal and tastefully staged. It came together in about five minutes and had that energy and strangeness that a lot of the other photos didn’t quite have.

Rory: We thought it reflected the feeling we wanted to put across with the album.

A lot of those old Blue Note recordings were done the same way. Just someone snapping away and afterwards a photo just jumps out.

Eoin: Highway 61 Revisited as well. I think they spent a whole day doing photos for the album cover and then I think they were a bit tired and Bob Dylan just sat down, slumped a bit and the photographer just went ‘bang!’…photos came back, that’s the album cover!

Rory: They are great, those moments, but they’re pretty frustrating…[Eoin laughs] ‘cause of the amount of work you put into something and then the least amount of effort is the one thing that works.

So you came up with the album title, and there’s the title track Strange Creatures. Did you come up with the track first and then think ‘this is the title of the album’?

Rory: Yeah, that was pretty much the first song we started and finished and that was the keystone for the rest of the music on the album. The title just worked.

Eoin: On the last album we didn’t have a title and the label were chasing us: “iTunes need to stick it all into their system; we need an album title!” I was freaking out going “What are we gonna call it?” and we just thought ‘Undertow’ We didn’t do any research, didn’t know there was a Tool album out called Undertow. It seems like such a terrible thing to say but we just blurted it out.

Rory: I think you can spend too much time agonising over these things. You just need to get it out.

Do you get a lot of confused Tool fans?

Rory: Absolutely not. I think there’s a mass boycott of our band by Tool fans.

Eoin: Weirdly our album came out 24 years to the day that [Tool’s] Undertow came out. It’s very, very odd. The 17th of April…very odd.

You didn’t plan it at all?

Both: No! [all laugh]

The song Teenage Love has some cool time signature, syncopation stuff going on in it. When you’re writing is that a conscious thing. Do you think ‘We need a song with some weird time signatures in’?

Eoin: Some songs are driven by an experiment: why don’t we try something like this? If it works, great, if it doesn’t, you just go “oh well!” It’s an experiment and we can just ditch it or come back to it another time. I’m always reading about songs and songwriting techniques and awkward time signatures are always a great thing to try ‘cause I’m not great at musical theory, but if you find something that’s a bit off but it still works, it’s an entertaining thing to listen to.

Rory: It’s a good framework to set yourself. You can get some good stuff by limiting yourself to certain things that you’re not used to.

Is there anyone you really rate in terms of songwriting or producing?

Eoin: It’s more about listening to as much music as we can and not limiting ourselves. Listening to bands like Rolo Tomassi, listening to Miles Davis, listening to a bunch of Talking Heads stuff, listening to lots of underrated ‘80s Bob Dylan where he’s trying to be cool and no-one’s interested in him any more!

Rory: Keeping a large balance of influences. We were listening to Joey Beltram’s Energy Flash, loads of old ‘90s house and techno things.

Eoin: I wasn’t into house music and then my mate texted me one evening and he’s like ‘check out Radio 2 right now’. I had to walk into town, and I stuck it on my phone and walked into town listening to all these house tunes…and for whatever reason I was really in the mood to listen to house even though I didn’t listen to it or know anything about it before. When I Look Into Your Eyes on the album is not a house track, but it’s inspired by listening to house music.

Do you think there’s an expansion in your sonic palette from absorbing these genres?

Rory: Definitely yeah.

Eoin: Absolutely. [When we started] it’s not like we were like “This is what we are: we are a garage rock band and that’s what we’re gonna do”, but…

Rory: We were trying to bring different things into it though. There’s that one song Dogmeat where I ripped the drums off a dancehall record, but in terms of production we were definitely set in our ways. Then we started bringing in these different sounds we wanted to push the sound of our band a little bit.

Any good Spinal Tap moments?

Eoin: Aw man this is so weird. I watched Spinal Tap the other night.

Rory: Spinal Tap might just as well be a documentary. It’s not a comedy movie.

Eoin: Things like that happen all the time.

Rory: Getting lost backstage. That’s a common occurrence. I remember that happening at Manchester Academy when we played there.

Eoin: I was watching it the other night, hadn’t seen it in a long time and so for me a lot of it was quite fresh. I was like, this is really weird….That meeting we had last week, they’re just having that meeting right then with their manager and they’re just being complete potatoes. It’s every day with us, if not every day. It’s pretty full on.

Rory: It’s a bit raw [laughs].

Eoin: We’re like working with this little backing track machine and we can’t get our heads around it. It’s proving to me that we’re just some proper potato-headed simpletons that can’t get their heads around simple technology.

Rory: When I was in a school jazz band we did a little tour into Europe and played Disneyland Paris. We were actually on supporting a puppet show…..


Drenge will join Sundara Karma, Tom Grennan, Metronomy, Kate Tempest, Sam Fender and many, many others in May at the UK’s best emerging music Festival – Live at Leeds.

Tickets and more info on the lineup here:

Photography (excluding album art) by Mark Wheelwright

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