Isabel Monteiro is back with a ‘new’ line up of Drugstore after a nine year hiatus! Drugstore were kind of a cult name to drop back in the 90s, their noirish alt country suites enlivened by Isabel’s sometimes seductive, sometimes sinister always introspective songs. Even big 90s names approved they toured with Jeff Buckley, who liked them so much he took to covering their debut single Alive. They toured with Radiohead, whose singer liked them so much he sang a cello-laden duet ‘Kill the President’ with Isabel, which reached the UK Top 20 – go to is.gd/radioheaddrugstore to hear it.
After three albums on three labels (1995’s Drugstore, 1998’s White Magic for Lovers and 2001’s – Songs for the Jet Set), Drugstore went their separate ways in 2002, and in Isabel’s own words, “things spiralled down” into seven undeniably gloomy years. The singer survived, perhaps in spite of herself, on wine and hope. “Love for life kept me alive,” she says now, until September 2009, when a briefly reunited original band played a gig at Dingwalls in London, “just for fun”. It sold out. This made a lot of people – Isabel included – realise that far from being stuck in any era, Drugstore’s music nimbly hopped over the ages, from 1920s Berlin cabaret through the French chanson tradition, via The Velvet Underground’s woozy melodic charm and Tom Waits’ bar-room badinage, across PJ Harvey’s earnest intellect and The Bad Seeds’ rumbling, angry sadness.
Following the full Drugstore reunion in 09, and inspired by a guitar donated by a fan, Isabel started work on material for the new album Anatomy. In 2010 she played a sold out show at London’s ICA.
Since relationships with the old Drugstore had dwindled to nothing again, Isabel held open autitions for a new line up at The Troubadour she begain writing the starkly “liberating” Anatomy blog (isabelmonteiro1.blogspot.com) that would eventually inspire their new album’s title and lyrical content.
Drugstore – “new cowboys”, Isabel calls them – convening at a remote studio on Platt’s Eyot – an island on the River Thames near Richmond – there they created Anatomy’s 12 stripped-and-whipped tracks together.’Anatomy’ harks back to Drugstore’s earlier work of their first two albums, stripping back the songs to their bare brittle bones, but perhaps Isabel is in more reflective mood here, documenting a time in the wilderness and in the bosom of various failed relationships.
“It’s painfully intimate, shamelessly simple, devastatingly sad,” says a disarmingly candid Isabel. Album opener and new single ‘Sweet Chili Girl’ bristles with a tale of tragedy and darkness, while ‘lights out’ is more explicitly personal, Isabel shivers alone above a midnight lullaby, ‘Aquamarine’ a stomping western, duet sprinkles with excerpts from a couple in breakup mode it’s redolent of some of Nick Cave’s work. While the bittersweet jauntiness of ‘blackholes & brokenhearts’ see;s Isabel in redemptive mood being pulled out off the precipice by a new found lover: ‘as the universe expanding/ all around us you and me/they say the end is coming/But I have to disagree’ Isabel sings prettily, backing by almost quesy ‘do do do’ backings and wonky rhythms and Hammond organs.
We caught up with Isabel for a rifle through Drugstore’s skeleton cupboards, as its GIITTV’s 90s week we ask her about the 90s and her favourite moments of that period. Finally we look forward to the release of the new album ‘Anatomy.’
Hey how are you?
Crazebusy, but happy to be moving along the Drugstore highway.
By the time ‘Anatomy’ is released, It will be nearly ten years since you last released an album are you a little apprehensive?
There’s this Flaming Lips line off ‘Chewing the Apple of Your Eye’: ‘It’s like in the circus, when you get lost in the crowds, you’re happy but nervous…’
Guess that sums it up, excited, but just like a kid., occasionally in need of a mini-hug.
Why the title Anatomy ? Is it a reference to to a new kind of expression that stripped to its core?Who is the ‘Sweet Chilli Girl’ or would that be telling?
That came about the idea that you’re cutting things up into the smallest possible pieces, and looking right into the core, to see the stuff our hearts are really made of. It’s also an analytical inspection of where you’ve been and where you’re heading. It’s also a bloody good title, there. Now, Sweet Chili Girl is the one who ended up in pieces, getting lost while looking for happiness in the dark alleys of the human soul.
01 Sweet Chili Girl – mini preview by Drugstore-Band
Who is the male vocalist on ‘Aquamarine’? Do you like songs that reflect the conversations between a couple?
That was one of the cowboys who recorded the album with us, T.Cordero. I was looking for the voice of any Hombre Desperado, the spirit of a lonesome and vulnerable cowboy at the end of his rope. Funny, cause usually it’s the woman who’s portrayed as the needy one, not in Aquamarine, as he’s the weak one, not ashamed to ask for comfort, and she’s the one saying: ‘get off my lawn’. I sometimes wonder if it’s because she no longer believes in happiness as a real possibility.
Are they all personal songs on the new record or are you often observing others and how they connect with each other or not?
Even though I might have tried to hide away beneath the glamour of a seasick showgirl, like in Aquamarine, or the urban dark alleys of Sweet Chili Girl, there’s no getting away from it: this time it’s personal and all songs came from the cave’s own bedroom perspective.
Are they inspired by your time away from the business so to speak?
There’s an element of that, a certain sense of isolation, even abandonment. I’m sure I’m neither the 1st or last to feel that way. Being in a band is a bit like being part of a mobster gang – you feel protected; the minute you step away from the biz, that network that kept you alive and gave you a sense of who you are, disappears pretty much instantly. It can be tough, and I learnt the hard way that you’re the soul of the party when everything’s going good, but the minute your chips are down and the party is over, you’re left to clean up the party mess alone.
Some people might want to know what ‘went wrong’ with Drugstore the first time around?
That’s a funny question, and the subject of many a discussion in the Drugstore ranks. My take is that we did as good as we could, given that we never set out to conquer the charts, or any other place, for that matter. We were, and still are, I think, an ‘album band’ – and never had the focus that some bands have to record ‘singles for radio’ and all that stuff. I think ultimately that’s what makes the difference between selling 20 or 220 thousand records. It never bothered us – as we got to do all the cool stuff that bands that were selling a lot more records than ourselves were doing, but thankfully under less pressure, and I suspect, we probably had more fun.
Drugstore were always known for it’s shape shifting sound, why do you think that was do you get bored with a similar style or is that just how the songs emerged? What’s your favourite Drugstore album?Apart from the new one of course?
Hummmm…. I have a feeling that our shifting sound had a lot to do with miss Monteiro’s shifting preferences in the drugstore love-nest: affair with guitarist on 2nd album meant guitars ended-up louder than usual; Affair with cellist on the 3rd album resulted in a lot of ‘cello solos’ turning up all over the place. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just the natural result from having spent more time with whoever you’re hanging out with, and that ends up being reflected in the records.
This time though, I made sure there were no bedroom shenanigans during the Anatomy sessions, as I really wanted the record to reflect my own sense of disconnection and loneliness. As for fave record, it would probably be a compilation featuring 3 or 4 songs from each of our albums.
A lot of critics tried to pigeonhole you in the alt/country bracket where does the fascination for the slightly darker side of the wild west come from? Plus did you feel any musical kinship with the likes of Mazzy Star, Broadcast, P J Harvey acts that were taking those sounds in differing directions?
I guess we’re lonely urban cowboys, both as people and as a band, riding outside the mainstream and without a town of our own. The songs themselves, if you chuck away the feedback-cool and strip it down, you’ll find they’re almost country-like, with
some story-telling drawn over some basic chords. We probably had something in common with bands like Sparklehorse, or Mazzy Star- drawing from the same sources but each giving its own twist and take on it.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got your new line up of Drugstore together, was it all sparked with the full Drugstore reunion show in 09? I read that you held open auditions? How does the creative process work in the new Drugstore line up?
That reunion gig in 09 turned out to be quite a pivotal moment. I had just written 2 or 3 new songs, could just see the possibility of a new record in my head, but it was obvious that it was not gonna be possible to do it with the original line-up: half had moved abroad, the other were wrapped up in marriages and new ventures. So, yeah, I had open auditions, met dozens and dozens of painfully unsuitable crazyos, but eventually, got some really decent guys in.
I kinda wrote the whole album at home, at the cave, and the new guys added some really beautiful touches and really help bring all the songs to life.
It will be interesting to see how we gonna develop as a band. I think it takes a few tours together, a few shared experiences, a few dirty hangovers. It’s way more than just musicians, as Radiohead wisely pointed out: ‘anyone can play guitar’, all along what I was looking for was genuinely great people, in every possible way.
We’re doing a 90s week here at GIITTV, how do you feel looking back on that period now? What was your favourite moment either playing or recording a specific record?
Christ – the late 90s, what an incredible time to be in a band. Labels were throwing money away like there was no tomorrow, and we found ourselves in the middle of all that great crazy-spending bonanza. There were wonderful festivals and some amazing
trips. We toured the US twice – it was hard work, like all bands will tell you, but I have some great memories and have to say: we had a lot, I mean, a lot of fun. Real hard to pick a gig/moment or anything. It was all good, all of it.
Jeff Buckley covered your first single ‘Alive’ and you recorded a duet with Thom Yorke, anymore plans to collaborate with anyone?And what kind of freshness do you think having two heads /voices on a record brings to it?
I often joke that I wish I’d been more selective about my lovers as we’d been as a band. No point in just getting any old tom or jerry to collaborate with, we just wanted to do stuff with people who were that much more talented than ourselves. Dream duet will now never happen, as would have killed to sing a note or two with either Johnny Cash or Glen Campbell.
From experience, those collaborations come about from meeting people, hanging out and liking each other’s company. It’s never just about ‘the voice’, is it? It’s about cool/good people, really.
How do you feel about 90s bands reforming now? Since you’re reforming but with a new take on Drugstore….?
I almost feel tempted to say we’re not ‘reforming’ – as we never really did split up, I just spent 7 years trapped in the real world, and just about managed to scramble myself out of a dark ditch. I don’t think there’s this rock’n’roll bible any band needs to follow, that states when and what a band can or should do. This is our story, and to me, it’s just another chapter.
I note your St Giles gig is sold out already is it kind of satisfying that you can have that kind of reception on your return?
Look, I bloody hate when artists say they don’t give a fuck whether other people care about their stuff and what have you. What a load of bull. Of course we care, it’s one of the reasons why you’re driven to cross the private into the public line. You want someone else to get what you’re doing and make a connection. And I cannot help but notice that there’s quite a few Drugstore lovers out there. We’re totally delighted.
Anything you would like to add?
Beware of the drunken Drugstore cowgirl.
Durgstore’s new album ‘Anatomy’ is released on the 5th of Septmeber. Preceded by a Limited edition single on July 18th : ‘Sweet Chili Girl/ Clouds.’ Their album launch party takes place at St Giles on the fields in London on the 18th of August..
Following it up with a Christmas party at the Scala on the 8th of December: