The strange and fantastic world of Drenge
A dilapidated stone cemetery overlooks a congested metal scrapyard. A winding road through deserted woodland is illuminated by a car left running in the dark. An otherworldly figure enters a room and looks at you with an expression of curiosity. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then what stories do these images tell?
These are the photographs that adorn Drenge’s album covers, each an insight into the worlds contained within and the stories that lay there waiting to be told – should you choose to listen. Their selft-titled 2013 debut stands as a self-portrait of angst-driven garage rock. 2015's Undertow is a meandering venture as driving as it is dramatic. With this year's Strange Creatures, Eoin and Rory Loveless delve into the dark and surreal narrative of the off-kilter culture that surrounds us, an open invite for every listener to explore the same.
“Someone told me that they didn't even like our band, but they liked the artwork so much that they’d bought the album,” Eoin recalls. “He was like 'band's fine, nothing special, but the artwork is incredible,'” he laughs, “and that is just a fantastic compliment.” Music might be the driving passion behind picking up an instrument and learning to play, but there’s so much more to being a band than just playing and writing songs. From album covers to music videos through live performances and more besides, everything a band does can tell its own story and be considered its own form of art. “We made a piece of art that touched this guy,” Eoin enthuses. “It's not all about the music. If the artwork speaks to you, that's even better. That's just an offshoot of what we do.”
Sitting in a London pub two weeks before the release of their third record, the Loveless brothers have many stories like this one to tell. And that’s what Drenge do: tell stories. From DR3-NG3 – a “scientific research robot nearing the end of his functional capabilities” – to CuteKid4950 – a YouTube phenomenon and slime enthusiast – and more beyond, these are the characters that make up Drenge’s world.
“There's two types of people,” Eoin states. “Well, there's three types of people,” he corrects. “There's people that like Drenge, there's people that like Undertow, and then there's people that haven't heard or don't like our band,” he laughs. “You get the feeling that the people who liked Undertow will like Strange Creatures more than the people who like Drenge will. We're going down that river.”
It’s been four years since Drenge last put out an album. Following that release, a year spent on the road led the brothers back home to the countryside, where they set about forging the foundations to build up their new record. Away from the demands of tour life and the spotlight, the result is an album confident in its own identity – even if it’s own purpose is to make you question. “We were a bit worried, when we were recording [Undertow], about the jump between the first album and that album,” Rory recalls. “We were worried about how people might take it and be like 'why have you gone and done this weird, like, gothy thing?'” he laughs. “People just went with it and that was really heartening and really good for us. It made us want to do another stylistically different thing – which is what we've done between the second album and this one.”
Broadening the sonic palette that paints the tapestry that is Drenge, even the group’s stylistic choices have their own stories to tell. “After we finished the second album and we were starting to do the third one, there was this kid who shouted at me from across the street: ‘the first album was better!’” Rory taunts. “I was quite shocked and taken aback,” he laughs. “We'd made this stylistic progression, and we're like a new band now. We'd got so much going on, so much going for us. We're fantastic and opening up new worlds!” he hypes. “This guy completely puts a foot through all of that.”
From the angst-driven energy of their self-titled through the scenic sprawl of Undertow, this is the dynamism the band have inspired. It’s enthusiasm and connection, it’s dedication to the music you love the most, and it’s a sense of humour that draws it all together. “People that like our band are a bit like that,” Eoin agrees. “We dressed up for a Halloween gig, and someone came up to me during it and went 'your costume's shit.'” While his brother tries to defend him, the frontman is quick to admit “I was dressed as a ghost that year. It was a terrible costume” (“it was a good costume – it was a low effort costume,” Rory counters). “I think people that like our band can slang abuse at us quite freely,” Eoin enthuses.
Interactions such as these ones don’t arise as an insult, but the as contrary: it’s a testament to Drenge’s ability to create a very human and familial connection with their audience. Singing of distinctive characters, familiar emotions, and recognisable places, their songs connect with their audience through an innate sense of familiarity. This is something that’s never more apparent than at the band’s live shows. Taking to the road for the first time in a long time with their ‘Grand Reopening’ tour last April, the outfit pulled out all the stops: dressed in a uniform of boilersuits, with sweets and confetti a-plenty to share, they wrote out their own reintroduction and revelled in their ability to make celebration out of something simple.
“When we started doing gigs – right at the start, and for a while after – we would sort of turn up, play the gig, and then just do one, basically,” Rory states. “There wouldn't be much ceremony about it. It'd be like, it’s music and it's nothing more.” But the more they played, and the more they saw, the more Drenge wanted to become. “We were into so much more than music. We were into giving people an experience,” the drummer expresses. “It's important to have a sense of humour about things.”
It might not be the driving force behind the band experimenting and expanding their live performance, but a sense of humour is something that heavily influences this side of the group’s creativity. Talking about their live shows, the enthusiasm the brothers share is crystal clear. Eoin becomes increasingly emphatic as he talks, while Rory even spells out his actions so that enthusiasm will remain expressed in written form. “You reach a bit of a crossroads I think, with live performance,” the frontman contemplates. “If you're serious and you come and do what we used to do, which is just turn up and play, like…” he mimes strumming an angry guitar sound, “and then just get in a van and leave... That's fine, but you can only do that for so long.”
“You reach this level where you just become a character, you develop this rock star syndrome where you just become this weird, vapid caricature,” he continues. “Or you go the other way, and you go 'no, there are people that are paying to come and see us, and they want something that we've got that we can deliver to them. But we can deliver it in a way that's going to make everything a thousand times better for the people in the crowd and the people on stage.'” So that’s exactly what Drenge try to do, finding newer and newer ways to bring their music to life. Just take a look at their Drenge Philharmonic tour, offering a ‘digital rewiring’ of their new record before it’s even a couple of weeks old.
"You can be a more interesting entertainer if you wear some pyjamas," - Eoin Loveless
The duo’s exploration into their live expression is, like many aspects of their creativity, a story of its own. The pair recall playing a festival in Australia where they met Kirin J Callinan, a musician who they saw throughout the festival dressed as a cyclist, a matador, and a Mayan god. “Me and Rory were just there in cut-off denim shorts and t-shirts, just about to go on stage,” Eoin recalls. “We'd been on tour in Australia two weeks so we're completely sunburnt. We were looking at him, and he was dressed as this safari guide.” The situation might sound surreal, but the advice he gave them is something they still carry with them to this day. “'80% of your show is visual, 20% of the show is music,'” the frontman repeats. He pauses for a moment to let that sink in, before shrugging with a grin. “Watching two pasty sunburnt Brits play indie rock was never going to be as interesting as watching this guy sing about wetting his pants dressed as some safari dude.”
It could be something as simple as cutting a ribbon on stage to commemorate their return to the live circuit. It might be crafting a home-made robot costume to promote the release of an EP. It can even be creating a “digitally rewired” performance to celebrate an album. Every presentation Drenge undertake is a chapter in its own story. “All bands wear jeans and t-shirts, and that's fine. That is the uniform of pretty much every band. There's nothing wrong with that,” Eoin expresses. “But as we've gotten older we've gone 'actually, it's fun and you can be a lot freer.' You can be a more interesting entertainer if you wear some pyjamas.”
Citing the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense as one of their main inspirations for their live show, the duo are firm in their belief that something doesn’t have to be extravagant for it to be spectacular. “We've got to do it in our certain way,” Eoin continues. “We can't do the Drake tour with all the lightbulbs along the ceiling because that's quite expensive, and most venues these days don't have the infrastructure to support that.” “I missed that one,” Rory interjects. “It's almost like I don't know what you're on about,” he taunts. Shaking his head, Eoin continues. “I can't do that because it's too expensive. But what I can do is buy four boilersuits, and buy some sweeties and confetti, and get a ribbon and some scissors, and read a little speech at the beginning of the gig.”
“It transports you into a different world, I think,” Rory affirms. And at the heart of it, that’s what it’s about. Live music has always been its own form of escape. A few hours in a venue listening to music you enjoy, watching an act you appreciate, surrounded by people sharing that same enthusiasm… Even just by being somewhere away from home, from work, or from day to day normality, sometimes concerts really can feel like stepping into a different world. “It's quite easy to lull people into something fictional and have a bit of fun with it,” Eoin grins. “I feel like when you give something a story or a purpose it comes together a lot quicker.”
Fiction and stories have always held great importance for Drenge, long before the band even came into being. In fact, an affinity for storytelling was the spark that first inspired Eoin to attempt to write lyrics. “When I was nine or ten I had a music lesson in class, and we had a Viking themed song book that was all about the blues,” the frontman recalls. “This must be the first time ever that I wanted to write lyrics for the opening verse of a song.” Tapping a beat on the table, he begins to sing the opening verse in question, the very first he wrote: “'woke up this morning, a goat was eating my bed, oh no.'” His grin gives way to laughter, clear-felt enthusiasm shining through. “I thought that was a really great line!” he proclaims. “It's such a visual image: a goat eating your bed - 'cause you're a Viking and you've got a goat living in your little hut,” he explains, laughing again. “That's the first verse that I ever wrote in song,” he describes, fondly. “I will die and that still be my legacy - 'a goat was eating my bed.'”
"Even just by being somewhere away from home, from work, or from day to day normality, sometimes concerts really can feel like stepping into a different world."
There’s every sense that’s something the frontman would be happy with. The years since have seen that legacy grow, and seen their songwriting improve, but the foundations remain the same: a picture painted vibrantly through a few lines of music, and an image brought to life through just a few words. Such strong visuals and such vivid stories can be heard living and breathing throughout all of Strange Creatures.
“We had an idea to do a music video for "Autonomy" - which didn't end up being made - of a robot who wanted to get into stand-up comedy,” Rory describes. “He finds a joke book on his travels and goes 'hey, this is for me.' The lyrics to that song are the jokes in his stand up night.” This vividly surreal visual is perhaps at its most tangible when it’s at its most obscured – offering out the title of Philip K. Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ as a punchline-less joke. “Without any answer it's just such a great joke - you're already laughing 'cause it's such a daft concept,” Eoin enthuses, before pausing. “But then, if you think about it...”
A pause for thought, something that feels slightly off kilter… This is the lifeblood of Strange Creatures, a record born out of characters and stories with a strangely familiar feeling of eeriness trying to set itself at ease. This is the uncanny valley: the unsettling feelings invoked by the encountering of something not quite human. “Everything in there is written from a robot trying to be a human,” Eoin comments of “Undertow”. “He's asking people, 'Uncanny Valley, what is it like?' as if it's an actual place that you can go on holiday.” It’s a recurring motif and energy that runs deeply through the record. “I had this image in my head for some alternative artwork of a postcard from Uncanny Valley,” Eoin describes. “[The phrase] really sums up a lot of what is going on in the world at the moment, with peoples' relationships with technology and stuff like that.”
Reacting to the world around them while exploring it for themselves is what enabled Drenge to make Strange Creatures so wonderfully surreal. Immersing themselves in new and strange facets of culture while experimenting with new creative techniques, the word the band have built up around the record is purpose designed to make you question its very nature. A near 9-minute unboxing video of The Ultimate Slime Kit from YouTube phenomenon CuteKid4950 somehow sits as a perfect metaphor for what Drenge have created. “I guess we wanted to have a bit of a joke about our album being this thing that people didn't understand but it was very tactile and satisfying, lots of bright colours, people playing with it online...” Rory laughs.
When CuteKid4950 appears in the video for “Never See The Signs”, and what starts out as an unboxing sees him spiralling into an increasingly erratic and primitive state, it begs the question of where the reality ends and the fiction begins. “Everything in rooted in something,” Eoin states. “We are from the countryside, as much as we don't like that, and we are living in a very modern world. We've been exposed to a very modern world through what we do and through our current interests and our generation and access to the internet. We are really trying to work out what the fuck is going on and what we are living through right now. We don't have any answers for that, so we just make art that reflects our personal opinions about it.”
Any reflection on the world as we see it is tinted by our own experiences, beliefs, and drives. This is what Strange Creatures embodies. Is it an entrance or an escape? Is it fiction or rooted in fact? With their third record Drenge are taking listeners however far down the rabbit hole they want to go. “It's kind of easy to make art that reflects what's going on currently,” Eoin comments. “Most of our stuff is reactionary to stuff that's happening around us. The reason that we started a band, the reason that we made the first record, the reason that we made the second record... It's all a reaction to stuff that happens around us. Nothing is completely by design. Everything that we do seems to be as a reaction to something.”