In Conversation With: Drug Store Romeos
None of Drug Store Romeos have read ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Despite meeting whilst at college and quickly adopting the moniker from the famous play, none of them have ever read the sixth form staple.
“I think we’re all too nervous to actually read it now,” suggests Jonny. “It’s not meant to be in any way attached to the play or the movie.”
“The name actually came from a friend’s suggestion when Sarah was at a house party in London. It was big news at the time,” adds Charlie. “We’d only been to London a few times on day trips, but Sarah actually went to a London party. Back then when we were like fifteen, London was the crazy place! The big smoke! Big LDN!”
And out of this big city fantasy, the name was born.
The band got together during their A Levels, in a blizzard of coursework and house parties and anxiety about the future. “I met these guys when they posted on our college Facebook bulletin board. It was an internet romance.” tells Sarah. “They posted that they wanted a bassist… I didn’t play bass, but I wanted to be in a band, so I said I did. I bought a really cheap one and turned up, and kind of winged it. There was a microphone in there though, so I had a go on that! We found out we were like a five minute walk away from each other, which was really strange because we’d never met before and we were all in this little town, in Fleet.”
It was a felicitous kind of meeting that foregrounded a lot of the serendipity and chance that has become so important to them as a band, as Jonny says, “Our college is in a different county, so it’s actually total luck that we happened to live five minutes from each other.
After Sarah initially came round to Jonny’s, there were a few months where we used to go round to Sarah’s house and spend hours in her bedroom after college, just improvising, making nice food and getting to know each other.”
That was in the Winter months, when we were very confined to the bedroom, but as it came to the Summer months we used to spend a lot of time outside with an acoustic guitar and books and stuff, just improvising and recording on our phones, having a really nice time and not taking it too seriously.”
“We were just playing! It was fun.” Sarah smiles. Perhaps this is why they didn’t have too much time for the English curriculum. “We don’t want people to take the name too literally.” Charlie says,“We just want people to look at the letters, at the structure of the letters and paste that onto our imagery and our sound.”
This visual implication proves to be very important for the band. It becomes clear that Drug Store Romeos subsist in a world all of their own, breathing life into it with the music they make, while simultaneously inhabiting the world in order to make that music.
“I think personally when I write I’m trying to create a world from the visuals that are in my head.” Sarah expands. “It comes from an introspective place, but not an analytical place. I want to play with my unconscious, I want to bring that into the thread of writing. A lot of our songs do centre from this visual place that we all love, which is this sort of blue and purple dreaminess which we all try and put ourselves into. We all try and enhance the world that it is.”
These cool, wistful hues do appear to manifest in the band’s contemplative, hazy sound. Sarah explains the process of the ‘cut up method’, a technique the band often utilise as a springboard for their song writing, and which generated the name of their latest single, ‘Jim, Let’s Play’. “I was buying a mixture of sixties electronic magazines with terminology like ‘transitioner’ and ‘communicator’, and all these girl magazines from the nineties. It was actually more because I was getting really into collage, but then I wanted to try experimenting with writing. I would cut out all these words and space them all on a sheet, and try and mix up these different aesthetic worlds. They came together to create something quite satisfying. Personally, when I’m writing, I want to be as unthinking as possible. I feel my subconscious putting together these phrases and things that seem random, and potentially sometimes are. But when you put yourself in that kind of meditative state and you’re not really thinking, your unconscious brain still kind of connects things that mean something to you. I’ll listen back to it and think it doesn’t really mean anything, but then a few months later I’ll come back to it and suddenly see that what is described there in an abstract way is exactly how I was feeling at that time.”
This unconsciously emotive method is important to the group’s creative process. They all seem to share quietly melancholic tendencies – not the angst ridden throes of your teenage years, but something a little more matured, and less dramatic. “From the ages of about eighteen to about twenty I was quite sad a lot of the time.” Admits Charlie.
“I’d find myself in quite weird situations, because I was still making myself do things. I’d find myself at a really great festival and there’d be lights everywhere – but I’d still feel quite sad inside, and quite introspective, and really overthinking.”
“I think that writing to translate emotion is sometimes because you’re not someone in life who translates emotion massively, or finds it easy to transfer what you’re actually feeling to people, and so something like music is a really great place to do that.” Jonny adds. “It’s private – you’re doing it with yourself, on your own, and you can choose to allow people to observe this.”
“When you’re just lying on your bed and play music to make you feel better and soothe you, but music that matches the mood versus trying to change it.” As Charlie summarises, this is not the tormented cries of Marlon Brando, bellowing ‘STELLA!’ up at the night sky; Drug Store Romeos bring light to the downbeat feelings we all struggle with sometimes, and gild them with a silky, meditative edge.
In some ways, the band followed a similar trajectory as many others in the south of England, finding their footing at The Windmill in Brixton, a venue renowned as a hub of creative types, perpetually spotlighting the next big thing. But living outside of London, near Farnborough, they would have to commute in and out each night, casting them on the periphery of the scene. “We were never really part of that world – just because we didn’t live there.” tells Sarah. “Everyone who continuously plays the Windmill lives within the area. Luckily enough, Tim [Perry, the Windmill’s booker] really liked us, and wanted us, and wanted us to keep playing there. I always felt when playing there this kind of authenticity and rawness, and it felt really good, the response was always great. Holly Whittaker, who was on the door one time, who is a photographer of quite a lot of the bands within that world, messaged Milo Ross saying he should check us out.” Accordingly, Ross did so and quickly assumed the role of the band’s manager. “That’s probably a lot of how we’ve been able to do so much. I don’t know what would have happened if that didn’t happen. It was a beautiful place to be playing.”
Despite their fringe status, being outsiders of a kind, the band gained a lot from The Windmill, and remember their visits fondly. They speak about playing there as if it was another lifetime, despite being not that long ago – which in a strange way, it was. Breaking through at the tail end of 2019, they barely got to enjoy their newfound success before being hit by a global pandemic. Their formative years as a new band in college, completing the pilgrimage to London, seem a long way behind them. Charlie grins. “The way it’s laid, out, you only really have to have thirty people in there for it to feel kind of bustling, so we’d trek up – spend hours getting there, and spend a lot of money and be really tired from carrying all our amps…”
“Last train home! The rush!” Sarah beams.
“Yeah! But it would feel worth it, because even if there were only thirty people there, the sound would be really good, and everyone there would be a music lover, who were quite involved in the arts scene. After we’d finish they’d encourage us and say they thought we were really good. The journey home, even carrying all of our stuff, was always this really lovely, euphoric moment where we were just relishing everyone’s praise. I think if we hadn’t had that venue, and a couple of other venues around London – had we just been playing these vacant Camden pubs or something – we probably wouldn’t even be here.”
The community aspect of live shows, connecting with likeminded strangers in the brightly coloured haze of a venue, remains important to Drug Store Romeos, and it’s a shame that they haven’t been able to enjoy their success in the past year in the way that they should have. But nonetheless, the band are plotting how to get back on the road as soon as they can, ready to expand their blue and purple world and invite you in.