The FADER's longstanding GEN F series profiles emerging artists to know now.
“When I put an album on, it'll change the weather, and it’ll change the person I am, and it’ll change the walls that surround me.” In intense, breathy strokes, Sarah Downey — the big-eyed, narcotically-voiced singer and multi-instrumentalist who makes up one third of Drug Store Romeos — is trying to explain, with visually broad but emotionally precise detail, the overwhelming escapism that music, and specifically music that isn’t particularly modern or analog, offers her. “I escape a lot deeper when it’s not even about the narrative of the current day, when it’s a narrative of a past time,” she continues. “It’s something that, when I’m then writing that kind of music, then I can escape even further. I think it’s the fact that because I never lived within that time, it then becomes mine, because I know what I imagined when I think about all these things going on. I don’t pretend to really understand completely what it felt like, and I think that really makes it my own.”
If that sounds a little heady, don’t worry — a few hours spent listening to Drug Store Romeos will probably help you untangle things. The London-based, Fleet-born trio, comprising Downey alongside multi-instrumentalists Charlie Henderson and Jonny Gilbert, make bright-eyed, expansive dream pop that, more often than not, feels like an exercise in recreating the lush textures and wide open spaces of the human imagination. It’s absorbing, head-in-the-clouds music made with familiar textures — analog synthesisers and guitars, mostly — that leads somewhere wonderfully, disorientingly unfamiliar. This is pop-rocks-on-the-tongue-core, pressing-on-the-lids-of-your-eyes-core, inventing-alternate-histories-core.
Downey, 22, and Henderson and Gilbert, both 21, were all born and raised in Fleet, an hour or so outside of London, but they moved to the capital towards the beginning of 2020. When we Zoom to discuss their debut album, The world within our bedrooms, in early March, they’re in the midst of London’s third lockdown. The trio meet up for work — the various photoshoots and what-have-you that come along with an album rollout — but when we chat, they’re calling in from their sharehouses: Henderson and Gilbert from their homes in the Harringay warehouse district, and Downey from Hackney. Although The world within our bedrooms points to the fabulous, strange possibilities to be found in the safety of one’s bedroom, these scenes coming through to my screen appear to be charmingly mundane: Henderson’s housemates are loudly watching Star Wars in another room — “It’s a beautiful day! It’s like, the first sunny day in ages!” Downey exclaims upon receiving this information — while intermittent conversation drifts in and out of Gilbert’s frame. Downey manages to call in without incident, until her 4G runs out, and she has to attempt to buy more over the phone, at which point the gentle tones of an automated cell phone provider begin to ring through the speakers.
Fleet, and the Drug Store Romeos’ life there, is, by the band’s account, unremarkable. A quick sketch: it’s all “greeny-blue tiles in the shopping centre, browny-oranges,” says Gilbert of the town’s palette; “It’s very comfortable,” adds Downey, “There’s not a lot of crime, it’s just really sleepy, and there’s about seven old-peoples homes in the entire small town.” Henderson is the most critical of Fleet, but also has the most praise to give it: he speaks with fondness of the town’s green spaces, particularly one park called Tweseldown, and for Fleet pond. “It’s just okay, and because it’s okay, a lot of people just accept this mediocrity,” Henderson says. “That was something that really terrified me when I was 18 or 19 — the potential for maybe getting trapped there. People spend their whole lives in Fleet.”
Henderson and Gilbert met when they were 14, through mutual friends. Upon learning that they liked the same kinds of music, the pair, along with the mutual friends, formed a punk band influenced by 80s hardcore punk like Black Flag and Minor Threat. “Part of us thought it was gonna work out, as well,” recalls Gilbert. “In a way, we were like, ‘There’s a chance something might come of this!’ and then you grow up and you see the general landscape of music, and you’re like, it would have been very unlikely for 15-year-old 80s hardcore punk musicians to have achieved much success.”
Still, that early band gave Henderson an inkling that having a band wasn’t some “crazy, ridiculous, unattainable” thing. He and Gilbert went to college — the British equivalent of American high school years — and began attending shows that were decidedly more contemporary than the dad-core punk shows they were used to going to. At those shows, crammed into rooms with hundreds or thousands of other teens and twenty-somethings, Henderson and Gilbert suddenly felt their relationship to music shift. “It was an entirely different experience, and made us want to make music that was relevant to people our age, or that had a scene based around it, and that was played by like, 20-year-olds,” says Henderson.
Looking to round out he and Gilbert’s duo, Henderson posted on the sixth form Facebook page, asking for a bassist; Downey, despite not playing bass, spent all her money to buy one, and decided to fake her way through it. “Before this band I was pretty obsessed with making music with people — I would meet up with strangers on the internet, I was so desperate,” Downey recalls.
The trio’s friendship grew fast, and soon enough they were doing everything together — spending their days together, partying together on weekends, and sharing each others’ clothes. “It was kind of like hedonism and self discovery but all in the best ways,” says Gilbert. “We were kind of enjoying life, but it was also the starting of something fragile and amazing that’s gone on to become what it is. At that time it was just like, three people just trying to enjoy themselves and find life, figure it out.”
The world within our bedrooms lives on the back of that freewheeling, figure-it-out vibe. The entire 15-track record has an inviting, dusky atmosphere; it’s redolent of Broadcast and Devotion-era Beach House, although maybe a little more ‘cid-y, a little more pill-y. Many of the songs on the album are the result of a staunch commitment to experimentalism, to art as a practise rather than something you fall into. Sometimes, they stem from self-challenges, as when Henderson tried to make a song with as many chord changes as possible, leading to the gorgeous, elegiac “What’s On Your Mind”; other times, they’ll take direct influence from an artist the band is obsessed with the time, as is the case with Spaceman 3 and the band’s heart-racing breakout “Frame of Reference”.
Henderson eventually dropped out of college to study music production, while Downey dropped out to educate herself in a style more appropriate to what she cared about. Instead of school, she painted herself a historical timeline and began researching whatever took her fancy. Somewhere during her rigorous self-education, she discovered the Dadaist cut up method, which would eventually become one of her key tools for songwriting.
“It really excited me that I wasn’t thinking as much as I normally would be — I was using more of my unconscious mind to connect these words together that have associations for me,” Downey says of cut-up, which involves taking strings of words, cutting them up word-by-word, and then turning them into another sentence. “Sometimes, you know, you’re like ‘Hey, I know what that means” and other times you don’t, but then months down the line you hear the song again and you’re like ‘Wow, that’s exactly how I was feeling, in words that I would never have used and put together in that way.’”
Other songs take their cues from the natural world: “Adult Glamour”, the oldest song on the album, was written after a band LSD trip near Fleet pond that left the band completely reoriented, as far as their relationships with music go. “I completely transcended my body, and suddenly connected in ways I didn't even know were possible to feelings of my ancestry in a very maternal sense,” Downey recalls. “After that trip, I started to really have a profound respect for the subtleties and the details and the personalities of sound.”
“It really made me appreciate so much of the beauty in the world — for a good six months after, it lifted my spirits,” Henderson adds. “It made me a much more passionate artist.” The closing song on the album, “Adult Glamour” is vast in its scope, cresting and sighing like the flocks of birds that nest in the middle of Fleet pond. Like many of the songs on The world within our bedrooms, it feels uniquely attuned to the minutiae of the day-to-day world, and, despite its smallness, it feels transportative: a song that could change your mood, change the weather, or change who you are — even if just for a moment.