“I think people are surprised when they come to see us live.” says Peter Liddle, heavily tattooed frontman of London’s Dry the River. “They expect us to be really calm and quiet but in some ways we’re the opposite.”
You can see why people get confused: this five-piece band has all the hallmarks of the latest folk sensation: elemental name, beards, acoustic guitars, even a violinist. But what sets Dry the River apart is a background in hardcore and post-punk bands, hence the tattoos, lyrics that read like a Steinbeck novel and a sonic palette that sweeps from gentle to giant like an incoming storm.
“Emo has become a term of derision, but originally it meant emotive hardcore - all these DC bands like Indian Summer, Rites of Spring, Antioch Arrow who wanted to move away from political music to express personal things in an intense and energetic way. They screamed and cried in their sets and more often than not sounded like an amplified food blender,” says Liddle. “But the underlying idea is cool: although it’s important to play with passion, I believe that there should be an emotional underpinning to all music and all performance.”
Dry the River’s origins lie with Liddle. Born in Norway to British parents, his early life was a shifting one thanks to his father’s work as an engineer in the oil industry. Ever-changing homes and schools gave Liddle a peculiar set of reference points: “I think I have a fixation with community and belonging, because that wasn’t something I had as a child.” And though his parents are only “quietly religious,” Liddle became fascinated by the iconography and language of the Roman Catholic Church at one of his many primary schools, where his voice was honed in the school choir. Though he’s not overtly religious, religious symbolism creeps into Dry the River’s lyrics, not least in Bible Belt and Shaker Hymns. “I think if you play with King James’ vocabulary it accesses a solemnity; something deep within people,” says the Leonard Cohen inspired singer. “It sets a tone that says this is some serious [ketchup].”
By the time Liddle returned to Newbury as a teenager, he and the various members of Dry the River – guitarist Matthew Taylor and violinist Will Harvey, plus Scott Miller (bass) and Jon Warren (drums) – were crossing paths in various bands on the DIY scene centred around Southampton, Reading and Newbury’s Waterside Youth Centre. “It was this cool, grimy little venue,” says the singer. “You could rehearse there, and they always put on local bands alongside touring artists, which really helped cultivate the scene. It meant you could sell out a decent venue with your 16 year old punk band.”
University took Liddle first to Bristol, where he studied anthropology, and then to London’s Kings College, where he enrolled in medical school.
“I don’t know if I wanted to save lives in a hands-on way,” he muses. “I saw myself more as a lab doctor than a people doctor. You know, spending a lot of time in a white coat looking down a microscope. I think in some ways I also wanted to look illness and mortality in the eye, to see how things like human dissection would affect me.”
Throughout his first degree, music had been a major distraction: “I was off touring with bands while I was writing my anthropology dissertation,” he says. “I would do stupid things like take three weeks off uni and not tell the lecturers.” At medical school, with ten years of band experience behind him, he resolved to put music on the back burner and focus on his studies. But in spite of his best efforts, the acoustic guitar in the corner was calling. Liddle started writing folky material in his hall of residence room and, on summer break, called on those old friends from the Reading scene – by now all living in London – to record them. “Initially the emphasis was on it being something distinct from our old bands - really gentle and lo-fi,” says Liddle. “Every time Jon tried to rock out I’d say, No, no, keep it stripped back.”
Following that session, Liddle embarked on a summer 2009 solo tour under the Dry the River name. On returning, he assembled the full band for a debut show at London’s Lexington, and found it was well attended by label A&R. Soon after, Liddle stopped telling the band to hold back. “When we started to do live shows, we found it felt wrong to restrain ourselves. Playing in a heavier way brought the songs a fresh intensity - it was more fun for us and for the crowd.”
In the ensuing months, the band’s snowballing success was to medicine’s detriment. On signing to Transgressive publishing, the band were able to quit their jobs and studies. “We went on tour straight after and went absolutely wild for six months,” says Taylor. “We just partied the whole [ketchup] time.” They clocked up some miles too, playing across Europe, the UK and even the Outer Hebrides.
When not on tour, the five were living together in a house in Stratford, East London, in what can be described as near-medieval living conditions. “Pete sleeps on a mattress on the dining room floor,” says Taylor. “You have to climb over his head to get to the toilet in the night.” For at least one band member, it’s an improvement on what came before: “When Jonny was in hardcore bands he couch surfed for three years,” says Taylor. “It’s pretty normal behaviour on that scene.” The close living conditions and hard touring have fostered an impossibly tight bond between the band. “We know each other well enough to tell when people are actually pissed off,” says Taylor. “I guess in that respect it’s like living with four brothers - we rip it out of each other relentlessly, but we know when to leave each other alone.”
In March 2011, the band traveled to Bridgeport, Connecticut to record their debut album with producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol), a man whose professional ethos was a perfect match. “We were looking for someone who could strike a balance between lo-fi and hi-fi,” says Liddle. “We wanted to record the bulk of it to tape, to use analogue stuff in favour of computer wizardry where possible, but without it sounding like an old folk record. I think we tried to preserve the fragility and honesty of the more stripped down tracks, but still get the intensity of the live show across too - to marry those two aspects of our music without it sounding incongruous.” In downtime, they played shows in New York, growing a grassroots following there with each passing week.
Back in Britain, the band’s progress remained rapid – videos of off-the-cuff acoustic performances became internet smashes, EPs sold out and festival bookings began to come in. In March 2011, they stormed South By South West, despite performing without a drummer for five of the six gigs due to visa troubles. “We decided we’d still use our amps and still be loud - we just played as if Jonny was there. For a couple of shows we put some drums on stage and kind of hit them when we could.”
In September 2011, the band sold out London’s Scala a clear seven months before their debut album was due – a further, a bigger, London show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom was quickly announced for May 2012 and sold out 3 months in advance. Additionally, a slot on this year’s BBC Sound of 2012 list rewarded their stealthy ascent while their forthcoming prestigious slots at this year’s SxSW festival show how far they’ve come in the last 12 months.
When their album finally arrives in March of 2012 the band hope their particular musical heritage and circuitous journey will shine through. “I’d be pleased if people felt that it’s not just another indie folk record,” says Liddle. “I think we’ve agonised over every note of it. It has some hooks and big melodies but it’s contemplative and considered too.”
Dry the River have laid the groundwork for a stellar year in 2012. Don’t call them the next great folk band. Just call them the next great band, full stop.