At this year’s In The City new music festival, the only band I saw twice was the same band that most people saw twice – the band which seemed to garner praise at the same exponential rate at which they gained audience members. D/R/U/G/S are a rarity: a band making dance music that legitimately has a foot both in the past – Orbital-esque house – and an exciting future of clever, involving dance music.
Cal, 22, writes the songs and performs them live with George, 19, who he’s known for years. Both Cal and George were in bands before – Cal was in a ‘sort of punky band’ – but neither really captured anyone’s imagination. Once they formed D/R/U/G/S, their intentions suddenly clarified and they never looked back.
I arranged to meet Cal in a backstreet bar in Manchester, his home town. The rain swirled darkly outside and I waited in the bright warmth for him to arrive. He was late. I wondered if, not unreasonably, he’d taken one look at the weather and decided against a voluntary drenching.
A friend stuck his head into the room. “There’s a young man with a keyboard stand looking confused next door,” he said. I found Cal, recognising him from the stage – the same infrequently blinking eyes, the hood’s deep shadow cast over his face, the sharp stubble, the quick movements.
We order drinks and sit down. Cal is wet, but friendly and eager to talk. Views and ideas tumble out quickly, overlapping, inquisitive, brash and confident. It makes sense. D/R/U/G/S have only been together for about eight months, but have taken giant strides. How?
“It was definitely a bit word of mouth thing but that harks back to our whole beginnings – it’s always been a word of mouth thing with us because we’ve not had a push off anyone. It was the only way we were ever going to do it. It’s to do with the type of music it is – it’s not designed, not pre-planned. It’s not necessarily a commercial sound in the traditional respect.”
But it connects with people very directly – look at the reaction at In The City: each gig had a bigger and more enthusiastic crowd than the last.
“There was no master-plan. Look at our name – it’s not the most commercial name! We didn’t really think about it at all. It’s all just a product of making beats and getting them out there.”>
It has taken you by surprise, then?
“Definitely. We’ve both been in bands before that have been a lot more geared towards ‘being a band’ – doing it ‘properly’, going to record. Very straight-forward. I was in a punky sort of band for a year. We did gigs, but it wasn’t anything real, you know? But this was totally the opposite, because I wanted to make something different, that wasn’t just the same old thing we’d done before. It has become a band when we didn’t expect it.
Has D/R/U/G/S’ organically-formed beginnings been artistically satisfying?
“It’s they way it ‘should’ work; but being cynical, you don’t think it will. But it has. I can’t deny we’re happy with it.”
That organic feel extends to the music itself, I say. It sounds semi-improvised, similar to how Orbital operate.
“We get the Orbital comparison a lot. To be honest though, I’ve never heard any of their music.”
I’m staggered. Really, I ask him. Honestly? He laughs. “Honestly.”
This astonished me – not because D/R/U/G/S sound particularly like Orbital in their songs, but because the way in which they perform the songs is so clearly similar: rooted in live manipulation of cunningly cultivated samples, albeit from two tiny samplers the size of shoe boxes, as opposed to Orbital’s comparatively Jean-Michel Jarre-esque set-up.
“It makes more sense now – that comparison. A lot of bands – 90% of electronic bands – use laptops, and it all sounds pristine and compressed. That’s exactly what we didn’t want. We use samplers. We’re big hip-hop fans, so every song is on the samplers, but broken into tiny pieces, so we can put them all back together on stage. We have total control.”
And then it’s a matter of judgement when performing them?
“Well, we have a basic idea – but it’s all semi-improvised. Every show is different. We do a different set pretty much every gig. Limitations are the best way to inspire any sort of creativity. We take from where we can and turn it into what we want.”
Cal samples himself playing guitar, keyboards, even the saxophone, all in the quest of finding brand new sounds to play with. The immediate comparison is with Beastie Boys‘ Paul’s Boutique, where a besieged band found a new direction by creating their own samples.
“It’s kind of like remixing yourself. It’s not how you’re supposed to work – but then we use our samplers live, and they’re not supposed to be used like that.”
But that’s how you’ve got your unique sound.
“Definitely. And again, that’s from the [self-imposed] limitations.”>
What about the audiences’ reaction?
“Very early on we learnt what did and didn’t work live. We never played to empty rooms, we always played to good crowds in London, so it was do-or-die. You have to adapt on stage, we were so unprepared in the first few gigs, and we were working it out as we went along.”
Your other audience is online, where bloggers have lapped up whatever you’ve released, especially in America. How does it feel to have immediate acceptance in a country that many spend a long time failing in?
“America was quicker to pick up on us than here in the UK. [Pitchfork spin-off site] Altered Zones were on us straight away, the first day they started – and that was in June, three months in [to D/R/U/G/S’ existence]. I think we fit in there more over there than we do over here. A lot of the great bands that we play with – like Salem, White Ring, Blondes, Teen Girl fantasy are foreign – whereas there’s not so much of that here, really.”
Do you think that’s partly because of the way you create music? You’re in the third or fourth generation of dance music makers but are consciously not drawing inspiration from the current generation. And like you, the dance pioneers were heavily influenced by hip-hop, so maybe you have a similar accessibility and feel?
“Spot on. Over here, the bass music scene eats up a lot of people who maybe would be making other electronic music, but we purposely didn’t want to go for that massive bass sound.”
And when you eventually record your music, will you record it from live gigs, or go to the studio?
“We could go into the studio and get it really polished up – but I don’t want to do that. That’s not our sound at all. It’s more rough and ready. I want to go in the studio with another artist, rather than the standard route of using a producer. We’re very DIY – get it and do it. So far, we’ve done everything our way, and we’ll keep doing it like that.”
He sips sharply at his pint. For a band that formed 8 months ago, D/R/U/G/S have been shoved a long way down the path to success very quickly. They haven’t deliberately cultivated their fans, or relentlessly pushed for success, and Cal is as bewildered by their rise as he is focused on their next move.
He moves quickly, unhesitating, and at times his thoughts arrive faster than he can convey them. At the heart of it all is the mindset of an artist – an artist who believes in the importance of self-expression, albeit with one eye on having a good time on the dancefloor.
The clock clicks to seven o’clock. With startling efficiency, we are dumped out of the bar to allow a knitting group to convene, and simultaneously cast sullen eyes at the gloomy skies outside. We compare lingering damp patches that have somehow resisted an hour in the warmth, and prepare to step back into Manchester’s soft horizontal drizzle.
Before we part, Cal mentions that when Huw Stephens suggested the Orbital comparison to him, he was offended, because he mistook Orbital for ‘that Lager Lager Lager band‘. Having found out the truth, he’s now happier with the comparison, but still hasn’t heard their music.
Naivety, tightly self-imposed restrictions, a blinkered inward focus – it sounds like the recipe for disaster. It isn’t. Cal’s demeanour is not cocky, but bold – the confidence of someone who hasn’t put a foot wrong yet, and doesn’t intend to either.