In Conversation With Drenge – Live at Leeds 2019

Jim Phelps chats to Eoin from Drenge after their Live at Leeds performance, as another Festival band, Marsicans, start to shake the room below.

Jim   How’s it going?

Eoin It’s good, yeah.  It’s weird because we spoke to you before our last one in Leeds and now after this one.  They are two totally different experiences; the most different shows we feel like we’ve ever done; it feels like different bands.  It was electronic before and then back to normal.

The rest of the Philharmonic tour was great; really good. It was an opportunity to do something which isn’t what we’re known for, it isn’t what we do.  It was really cool, so at the end of it, it felt like it had been worth doing. It was nice to try something different. We’re not masters of it or nailed it and it’s not within our skill set, but it’s nice to have something which is another string to our bow.

Jim: Would you do it again?  

Eoin: I don’t know. I would like to release those versions of the songs so people could check them out.  There might be someone who’s never heard of Drenge or doesn’t like Drenge as it stands, but they might like the electronic stuff! (Laughs.)  I know there are people out there who thought “that sucked!” but I’m not about pleasing absolutely everyone. One of the great things is discovering that we can piss people off with our art and upset people and weird people out and make them feel confronted in a way we haven’t been able to do before. It splits opinion, so it is more interesting.

Jim  We spoke last time about your early gigs and how you thought of them as a challenge to the room and to the audience. Is this similar? Are you challenging people again now that you are better known?

Eoin  Yeah. Even tonight; how we built the set.  We always have good shows in Leeds but want to play new material, so we front loaded the set with calmer material, really bringing the tempo down, then 5 or 6 songs in just go for it with max volume and max energy. Just at the breaking point I was thinking that there are people here thinking ‘This isn’t why I like this band. I think we’ll go. There’s another band on in 10 minutes so we’ll go and see them’.  It’s trying to think what an audience member is thinking at any one time.

Jim   I thought the first five songs were an odd start to the set, then Bonfire of The City Boys started and with that loads of people started coming in. Is that the turning point you’re referring to?

Eoin  It’s a useful tool to have in our set.  Our set has become just a bunch of equipment we use to shape audience reaction. We know when we’re boring. We know when we’re slow like when people are checking their phones and stuff. On stage we’re playing our best and we’re into it, but we know about audience reaction. Bonfire of The City Boys was written with audience reaction in mind. It wasn’t ‘This is cool’, but ‘What can we write that will kick off whenever we play it’.

Jim  Is there a The Fall influence there?  

Eoin  I don’t know. I can’t really remember. It was recorded and done well before Mark E Smith died and it wasn’t like listening to The Fall and deciding “We’ll do this”.  Ross, our producer, talked a lot about recording with The Fall and there were loads of different stories. Ross is the best guy ever, we love working with him. He has so much experience.  If you work with people like The Fall, you are going to know stuff that other people will never know. You are privy to private, incredible, valuable information. You will learn stuff about music mythology, characters and what goes on behind the scenes and myth-making. Mark E Smith is not a human being, he’s a god. People love that guy so much. When he died you didn’t have anyone going “Aw, f… that guy, what a twat.” Everyone was like ‘What a great person and what a legend’.

Jim A real one of a kind. Tonight you played a Russian film with the gig – was it only shown tonight?

Eoin  We had the screen behind us, and they asked ‘do you wanna play anything?’ and we were like “yeah, Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera’ . The film was made for music in a way.  A bunch of early silent films are known for their artistic visual imagery but without music over them. They are screaming for music to be played over the top of them. The Red Balloon we had at one gig was a silent French film, where a red balloon becomes a boy’s best friend.  Paris was bombed during the war and right at the end the scene is masses of balloons flying over Paris. It’s amazing. We don’t always have the opportunity to play alongside visual stuff. We don’t have the money or the luxury, but it was a case of ‘You have a screen behind you.  Do you want to put a film on?’   I joked about putting the Lion King on, but that would have been like being at a punk gig and babysitting someone’s kids! My Disney film is Lion King.  I love that film.

Jim  You started with Prom Night.  Talk me through the lyrics.

Eoin   I’m a film guy. I love films and I watched Carrie and…There’s a place near where I live where I went to two different school proms when I was 16 and 18 and still at an awkward age – not old enough to drink or be confident. Being a teenager is a nightmare, fullstop.  It was weird.  It was like ‘Why are we doing this and why is it so American?’  Surely we can do something that is ours and original rather than American. (Jim – Even the word ‘Prom Night’  sounds unBritish.) Prom Night and Halloween are not British things and the song ends with “It was like Halloween” and it’s about how their (U.S.) culture has pervaded our life.  

Jim  In one of your videos a man receives some Drenge sludge.  It’s very on-point regarding American culture – unboxing videos and the like. How did that come about?

Eoin  We wanted to do a textural horror film…about slime. When I was a kid we had noisy putty.  It made your hands stink and it was gross but weirdly hypnotic. The video was going on Youtube so why not joke about it?   I don’t really understand music videos, yet you spend loads of money on a visual fart which doesn’t really land with anyone.  Our audience, they want to see us live, they want to buy our records, they don’t want to sit on Youtube and watch videos. They have better stuff to do.  So we had the idea to take the piss out of Youtube. Even growing up as a kid with NME TV – I would watch that for hours. I probably have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every indie-rock band video from 2008 to 2010 and probably know them all.  I’ve seen them all, loads of times! There’s no equivalent platform where people can just join in; we just don’t get it.

Jim  Fans want to come out and see gigs… I was at a music conference yesterday and it was a big social media thing.  What’s your take on converting ‘likes’ into tickets?

Eoin  I don’t know.  All we hear that we are [air quotes] “the most underrated live band in the country, so tell your friends, mum, dad”.  Buy them a ticket and make them come to the next show.

Jim  There are no more ‘likes’ on Instagram now, so only you can see how many – not anyone else.

Eoin  I don’t get social media.  It’s the weirdest part of being in a band.  Social media conversations depress me. I just wanna make music, I wanna play shows and I wanna connect with human beings. I couldn’t care less about social media.

Jim Is it good for you to have that direct relationship with the fans through social media?

Eoin  Our fans don’t even want social media. Go to the gig, feel elated, feel like you’ve experienced something and turn to your mate and say “that was great!”…or “that was shit.”  The connection on social media is the most overblown thing.  It doesn’t matter. The industry thinks the fans want it, but the fans just want good music. They don’t care about music videos or selfies with Drake; they just want to hear some sick tunes.  Stormzy’s new tune is incredible! It is such a great tune! It doesn’t need a video! Just put it out there!

Jim  Doing a single without a video and no social media coverage is almost a statement. It’s a very strange thing.

Eoin  Yes. The “rollout” – your team, your crew, your label, your press. [face palm]

Jim  It’s almost as if there’s an expectation that the music can’t stand up for itself.  The conference yesterday was mainly for unsigned artists and a lot of people were talking about support they had along the way, such as from BBC Introducing or the PRS Foundation.

Eoin  Someone from BBC Introducing apologised that he’d never covered our band and it was too late for him to break us through his system. He was pretty gutted about it. I think he felt he should have been on it a bit more.  I love what they do for bands in Sheffield but they just never picked us up. The guy that runs our label got us some funding from the Lib Dems and Conservatives that provides funding for artists to tour overseas. We used the money for visas to go to the States.  To go to SXSW.  It was fine, but SXSW didn’t change anything for us. Nothing really happened and I’m not pissed off about that. It’s really important to invest into a sector of the economy that is massive for the British industry.  It’s absolutely ridiculous how UK music is so successful as an export, and it pisses me off when it is just brushed aside. When small venues aren’t given support. We are not at all successful in Europe: we play to 50-100 people a night in Europe. All those venues are kitted out with the best desk. Every XLR cables worked. All their microphones were working. The people that work there are sound. That’s investment, and we don’t have any of that in this country.

Jim   It’s such a shame because there’s so much coming out of this country.  I went to a talk by Amy Lamé, who is Night Tzar of London and is on Radio 6.  Her company has saved lots of venues in London over the last few years. She said it’s hard to change the conversation from one about the costs to one about the benefits that music brings.  Is there anything the artists can do?

Eoin  Why would you go out and spend ten quid – the cost of a cinema ticket – to watch a band that’s maybe been on BBC6 Music five or six times? They might be good, they might be worth going to see, but no-one wants to take that risk. They’d much rather go to the movies…and then tweet about it afterwards. It’s a cultural thing. We don’t appreciate grass roots music. We love it when it’s selling out stadiums, but we couldn’t give a f… if it’s playing in the back of a pub down the road.

Jim   There’s an interesting thing you touched on there about risk. There’s a low appetite for risk: if you don’t know the band, or someone hasn’t said “Come see this band”, it’s a difficult sell.

Eoin  Yeah! [laughs] Why would ya?!

Jim  Thanks very much – one more thing.  Where did you get the ‘Drenge’ typeface from? My Editor asked me.

Eoin   I can’t remember.  Our uncle is a sci-fi  guy who has written lots of sci fi books. I think it’s a link to a magazine – feels like around the same time as Black Sabbath were coming up with their logo – similar to that.  It was like ‘How big can we make these words?’ Maybe 2000AD magazine or something like that. Thankfully, our lawyers will be pleased we can’t remember what it is.

Jim  Thanks very much.


All photographs by Mark Wheelwright.


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