That 1969 Ford Mustang on the cover of Drenge’s Undertow -- with its brake lights ominously lighting the deserted forest road from which it appears to have suddenly swerved -- is “either the starting point or ending point” for every song on the U.K. band’s bold and evolutionary sophomore album. “The car, the woods, the idea of feeling stuck,” says singer-guitarist Eoin Loveless, “are themes that keep cropping up in these songs. It’s a record about getting out of somewhere.”
In the case of Eoin and his brother, Drenge drummer Rory Loveless, they’ve spent the past few years getting out of the very place where Undertow’s cover was shot: The small but verdant town of Castleton, in the north of England, where they started the band as schoolboys in 2010. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2013, drew praise for the twosome’s bloody knuckles approach to a gloomy, riff-driven sound, and their equally gloomy attitude. The Associated Press called it “a perfect album,” Rolling Stone named them an “Artist You Need To Know,” and, in the U.K., they were named Best New Band at the NME Awards and earned a four-star review from The Guardian. Standout singles such as “Bloodsports” and “Backwaters” announced Drenge as a band capable of translating their teenage cynicism into forcefully immediate tunes, the former earning a place on Zane Lowe’s “Hottest Track” year-end list. Meanwhile, at U.K. festivals including Glastonbury and Reading, during appearances on Later… with Jools Holland and The Late Show with David Letterman, and on tours at home and in the U.S., the band has grown into the kind of live act that incites full-on freak-outs from audiences.
Proud as they are of their debut full-length and the places it’s already taken them, the Loveless brothers had pieced that collection together a few songs at a time, during breaks from school when they could get studio time. As a result, Eoin says, it never really felt to them like a proper album. As admirers of album-length musical statements such as Neil Young’s Harvest or The Cure’s Disintegration, the Loveless brothers wanted to craft something that would really hold together as a singular piece of work. This time, Rory says, “it was important to have a definite theme before any work on the record really began. We thought massively about tracklisting before the group of songs was even written, as far as what kind of flow we wanted the album to have from the start to the finish.”
Though Drenge started as a duo, they threw out that formula for Undertow, adding bassist Rob Graham, who is also now a touring member. “We were really conscious to treat the songs as though we’re not too worried about the live aspect,” says Eoin. “We didn’t want to just have it be just a drums and guitar record, so we added bass and synth. We were more interested in making a record that reflected the kinds of songs we were writing, which we strove to approach more ambitiously this time.”
The bulk of the work happened last fall, when the Loveless brothers spent two months in the studio recording and refining the album. “I think we took a bit longer than we thought we would making this album,” says Eoin. “But that was because we felt like we were getting to a point with it where we could truly craft what we were doing and we thought it was best to invest time into and see what we’d get out of that.”
They returned to the same studio in Sheffield where they’d recorded most of the tracks for their debut LP and re-teamed with that album’s producer, Ross Orton, whose credits include Arctic Monkeys’ AM and M.I.A.’s Arular, among others. “On the first album, we let Ross take the lead because we’d never been in a studio before and didn’t understand the technicalities of how it worked,” says Eoin. “This time, we were more confident because we knew what we wanted from the songs, production-wise, so we could focus what we were asking from Ross. He also spent a lot of time on the record and really sweated for it. It was one of the most creatively rewarding things that we have done and probably will ever do.” Though songs such as “We Can Do What We Want” and “Running Wild” retain what The Quietus described as Drenge’s “bone-shaking punkblues,” Undertow is considerably more sonically nuanced, with the kind of atmospheric textures that bring out a new kind of gloominess in their music.
Of course, their attention to detail extends to Undertow’s lyrics, as well. They recorded an album’s worth of instrumental tracks before Eoin wrote any of the words. “We tracked everything else first,” he says. “I was writing all these different songs’ lyrics at once, so they would blur into one another and give the album a stronger thematic thread. It felt quite important to write like that for an album.”
Among tracks on Undertow of which they’re proudest, they note that the sneering “Never Awake” felt like a moment when the album really began to coalesce. “From that track, the sounds we had going for that song and the lyrics, it all started to patch together what we’d been doing and were trying to do,” Eoin says. “That song really informed the rest of the record for us. It was a bit of a breakthrough.” The lyrics, he says, were inspired by the idea of arguing with oneself, and personifying the parts of yourself that you disagree with.” He also says that, like so much of Undertow, the song relates to a sense memory from his and Rory’s not-too-distant past: When they would pile into a car with friends to ride the eighteen miles east toward Sheffield, where they could see bands play. “You’d play a cassette on the car stereo, and those times listening to music, traveling with no parents around, moving through the moors and forest, and patches of water -- it’s a very unique way of listening to music,” he explains. “I feel that a lot of the songs on the album aren’t about anything in particular and are just meant to be cinematic in that way.”