Drugstore Drugstore…back in rude health

Interview: Drugstore

Published on September 7th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams

Ten years on from her previous studio album as Drugstore, Sao Paulo songstress Isabel Monteiro is back with the beautiful, heartrending Anatomy, an emotional chronicle – perhaps even exorcism – of the struggles she faced for much of that intervening period.

As much as she now self-deprecatingly refers to them as her “wilderness years”, 2002 to 2009 saw Monteiro broke, abandoned and very almost homeless after a “cat and mouse” chase with an unscrupulous Housing Officer, all of which you can read about in more detail here on her blog.

An acclaimed yet anomalous part of the UK indie scene during the mid-to-late nineties, Drugstore toured with Jeff Buckley, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Tindersticks and Radiohead, the latter of whom they became inextricably linked with on account of “El President”, a stunning duet between Monteiro and Thom Yorke which became a UK top 20 hit in 1998.

2001 album Songs for the Jet Set, Drugstore’s third, was well received but it was sadly to be followed by personal strife rather than the professional success that it merited.With Anatomy, however, Monteiro has made the best out of a bad situation.

Ostensibly a downcast collection of atmospheric alt-country ballads, it nevertheless uplifts with its fragile beauty, tender delivery and moments of thoughtful good humour, all adding up to one of the albums of the years so far in Rocksucker’s eyes and ears.

We caught up with Monteiro on the morning of a video shoot to inundate her with questions thrown up by both her fascinating career and her startlingly honest blog

So, what’s this video shoot for?

It’s a funny story because we ended up doing a very small, DIY video sampler for a song from the album called “Standing Still” (see above) – I think NME was running a story and they asked for a mini video. Then one of our fans saw it and said, “This is cool but it’s just too lo-fi, too low resolution, and I want to donate some cash for you guys to make a better video.” So we accepted his offer and we’re making a proper video! It’s kind of hard to imagine, someone you don’t even know deciding to do something like that. It’s a beautiful thing, actually.

“Standing Still” is my favourite song from the album at the moment, so well done that man!

He actually had two requests: he wants a video for “Standing Still” and he also wants a video for “Clouds”, so we’re going to be making two new music videos.

I was reading on your blog about why you’ve been somewhat off the radar over the last few years. Were you still writing songs during this time or were you too busy trying to stave off homelessness and whatnot?

You’re talking about the wilderness years? (Laughs) I think for the first two years I had cash and it was fine, I just spent a couple of years burning my money and having fun. Then for the following three or four years when life kind of spiralled down and things got complicated, I just didn’t have enough time or space in my head to write, you know? I was just so consumed by problems, hoping that one day things would get back to normal. So no, I wasn’t writing much then.

Were the songs from Anatomy all written close together?

Most of them were written close together. The first song I wrote was actually written during the troublesome times, a song called “Anatomy” which didn’t even end up on the album. You know when you’re just overtaken by distractions and problems…I just thought, “I’m going to give up on this idea of writing songs – it just isn’t working.” I wrote most of the album once my life got back together.

Would you say that the prospect of writing and recording new music kept you going at any point during those wilderness years?

I think writing “Anatomy” was a turning point. I was lost in a cloud of smoke and it gave me a light at the end, so I could think, “Yeah, that’s where I’m heading – I don’t care what’s going to be in my way or how I’m going to get there, I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get there…” – the seed was planted to make another album.

Did you find it therapeutic to document the making of the album on your blog, reaching out to your fans after all that time?

It’s a very comforting thought to know that there are people out there who give a damn about what you’re doing, so I think it was. Inevitably there were stressful times, and beautiful times, but it is nice to know that someone cares about what you’re doing.

Where did you record Anatomy? You mention an island on your blog but I couldn’t find mention of which island.

When you get right to the end of London going west, when London kind of starts to become the countryside, there are a few small islets right in the middle of the River Thames – it was one of those islands. It’s a very unusual, unknown place called Platts Eyot and on the island there are half-a-dozen small businesses and a couple of very small recording studios.

I read that you wanted a kind of “grey beach desolation” feel to the album. Did that inform your decision to record on the island?

I think because the album reflects a lot of my own isolation, I just thought it would have been criminal to cross Central London every day, fighting the crowds of commuters just to get to a recording studio. I just didn’t want to do that because I wanted to capture some of the sense of disconnection from the rest of the universe, you know, so I was definitely looking for a place that was slightly off the beaten track.

The first three tracks on the album alone contain lyrical references to someone ending it all, someone medicating the pain away and rubbing salt in wounds. Are these all personal songs or do you ventriloquise anyone else within them?

They’re personal. It’s funny because when I read back some of the stuff now I think, “Fuck man, that’s a bit heavy!” There were some dark moments for sure. Drugstore’s music has always been personal but I think it’s even more so on this record.

As I said earlier, my favourite track at the moment is “Standing Still”. Are you singing that to anyone in particular? I’m thinking of lines such as “If you weren’t as busy getting high”…

You know, I don’t think you’re aware of who you’re writing to when you write the lyrics – it kind of happens quite spontaneously. I guess it does reflect a little bit of a statement, that I feel isolated from the world, which carries on spinning and spinning, and I’m going to stand my ground regardless, you know? I actually think it’s a positive song.

I find “Black Holes and Broken Hearts” strangely uplifting…

A man with scientific interest, I like it!

Your assertion that in the end the universe will “stop and start again” is an intriguing one. Might we be having this conversation again in thousands of years’ time?

Yes, I’m probably going to need a slightly bigger mug of coffee. (Laughs)

Your songs are generally quite simple in terms of structure and chord progressions – is this a conscious decision, perhaps to allow more space for melody and atmosphere over the top of it?

We’ve always liked the simplicity of the structure with the complexity of the feelings within that structure. So that’s part of it but another secret reason is that I only know so many guitar chords! I’m not an amazing musician – I have a limited knowledge of music but I kind of like writing within my own limited boundaries. Every now and again, our keyboard player Peter adds a complex, interesting, cool chord that I wouldn’t know how to play. But overall we like to keep it simple because there’s a certain unpretentiousness, you know?

I think it works particularly well on “La Brume”, with the strange ‘whooshing’ sounds and what sounds like a Hawaiian guitar…

That’s like a fake pedal steel guitar. He just put the guitar on his lap and we tried some weird effects on it and tried all sorts of things, like getting some lipstick or a pen [to use as a tone bar] to get a happy kind of sound. “La Brume” is so terminally sad so we wanted to contrast that with this happy Hawaiian slide in the background.

There’s nice use across the album of what sounds like a musical saw…(Rocksucker tries mimic the sound of it)

Can you do that again?

Gladly. (Rocksucker makes another high-pitched warbling sound, like a crap ghost.)

You know, I think with every band there’s something that happens in the recording studio – you end up coming up with really cool noises and sounds and you don’t even remember how you got it! That’s part of the fun of it, sitting in the middle of the session saying, “We need this ‘whooshy’ sound here – how do we get it?” Then you pick up whatever is around you – it might be a guitar shake, it might be a cup of coffee, or whatever – so there are lots of extra little sounds and noises which I don’t even know how we got! There’s also a lot of material online for weird sounds.

You said there’s a recording of a bird on “Sinner’s Descent” – is this your own recording or one you found?

It was recorded at the island itself. I think that same bird appears on a lot of tracks! (Laughs) Because we were on an island, there were lots of seagulls so we recorded some of them as well. You’ve got to have a seagull on your record, right?

Oh, absolutely. Did you get the final say on the track list or was it more democratic?

It was totally undemocratic, I have to confess. That’s one of the beauties of working with a very independent label – they never got that involved, they let us do whatever we wanted, and because it was so personal I kind of knew how I wanted to piece up the journey together. So yeah, I just did it myself.

Premature question perhaps, but have you had any thoughts about your next album?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. There’s a bunch of songs that didn’t end up on the album and stuff I’ve been writing. I think there are two things we would like to do: a totally acoustic album and a slightly more full-on band album. We’ve got new guys in the band and, although we haven’t been together for that long, I think we need to spend a good year on the road together to develop our own direction.

Did you ever hear back from the unnamed clarinettist who recorded a part on “Sweet Chilli Girl”?

No but I’m waiting to hear back from his lawyer, actually! It’s incredible, I never got a chance to find out who he was, so if he does get in touch with us then we’ll definitely take him out for beers and pizza because he did a beautiful job.

What’s the name of the crabmeat business on the island that used to be a recording studio?

I don’t know but it’s where the Spice Girls recorded their first album! There’s got to be some information online somewhere.

(Rocksucker says: we had a look but to no avail. Can any of our readers furnish us with more details?)

You’re very honest on your blog. Do you ever worry about saying something that will get you in trouble? Come to think of it, have you said something on it that got you in trouble?

I don’t think too much about it but that’s the only way to write. I don’t see the purpose of doing it any other way. I’m not a great fictional writer so a lot of it is just sharing some of the stories that have happened to us. I have had a couple of things that backfired a little bit, people getting a bit upset by what I wrote, but I don’t know…it’s nothing, really.

Did you really get rid of a drummer because he read The Sun?

There were slightly worse reasons for sacking drummers in this band! (Laughs) It is absolutely true but it wasn’t just to do with the newspaper, it was what was behind that – we’re going to have so many differences between us that inevitably those differences are going to come to the surface. So yeah, that’s true, and why not? It’s such an intense thing, being in a band – you spend so much time together so finding people you’re going to like as people is very important as well.

You have Rocksucker’s 100% backing on that one. So, do you retain any contact with your tequila buddy from Berlin?

(Laughs) That’s the end of this interview! No, but I have a feeling he’s going to turn up at our next Berlin show. Hopefully with a wife and little kid as well! I tried to sleep with a stranger and I failed miserably. How depressing is that?

At least it made for a good story. I noticed the addendum at the end of that post about Miki from Lush – did you witness that first hand?

We did. Hundreds of people did! (Laughs) That’s beyond rock and roll, man.

The song you’re probably best remembered for is “El President”, a duet with Thom Yorke. Are you still in touch with him?

No, no. I used to have his telephone number at one point but it’s been so long and our lives have diverged.

How did that collaboration come about in the first place?

We did some tours together and got to know them pretty well, became good road buddies, and we were at the studio recording “El President” and I wanted someone with a very pure, neutral voice of goodness. He fitted the brief perfectly.

You must feel pretty cool getting to tell people that Jeff Buckley covered one of your songs. Did you get to know him well when you went on tour with him?

I got to know him really well, actually. We became very close friends. It’s something I find hard to talk about.

I read another interview with you in which you referred to a lyric from “Chewin’ the Apple of Your Eye” by The Flaming Lips, whose “She Don’t Use Jelly” you also covered. Are you a fan of the band or just of the album which both of those songs come from, namely Transmissions from the Satellite Heart?

I’m a massive Flaming Lips fan. I worship the ground Wayne Coyne walks on. We’ve done some gigs and stuff together as well. He’s a great character, so unbelievably smart and talented. I adore that band.

Are you into their more recent stuff too? I think Embryonic is quite possibly their best album yet.

Yeah, I do. They always surprise you, you know. They’re one of those bands that’s always going to be there and, when you least expect it, they do something amazing. I agree about Embryonic – it’s up there.

They’re been collaborating with a lot of different artists this year. Perhaps you should give them a call.

Yeah, they’re doing interesting things, like gigs at cemeteries. I can see Drugstore and The Flaming Lips doing a cemetery tour!

Are there any plans to release your first few albums on iTunes or Spotify?

That’s the dark side of the music business, you know. You don’t own those recordings. It’s all tied up with contracts you had many years ago and it can be very hard to track down. But yeah, it’s something that I’d like to see happening.

I spent a month in your hometown of Sao Paulo a few years ago. Do you know the Meninos do Morumbi music school?

I’m kind of aware of that. It’s a social project, right? They pick up kids who are down and out and teach them to play an instrument, and it completely transforms their life. It’s a beautiful project.

Which football team do you support?

I’m slightly offended by this question. A woman of my calibre could only support one team: Sao Paulo Football Club. All the others pale in comparison!

We interviewed Ana from CSS the other week. She’s a Palmeiras fan.

Ooh. She’s just gone down in my estimation.

This could be the closest we’ve had to a ‘war of words’ on these pages. 

I’ll fight!

Are there any up-and-coming artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?

Dry the River supported us last year – they’re amazing. I like Sam Duckworth‘s new album – he used to go under the name Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. Tom Waits has got a new album out – that’s something to look forward to. An amazing band called Girls have got a new album out. There’s always good music around.

Finally, if I asked you right now to name your top three albums of all time, just off the top of your head, which ones would you go for?

It’s got to be The Velvet Underground & Nico, Johnny Cash – At San Quentin and…(after much deliberation)…maybe Calexico – Black Light, but not sure!

Isabel, thank you.

Anatomy, the new album by Drugstore, is out now on Rocket Girl Records. For more information, please visit drugstoremusic.co.uk

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.