“Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it.”
So stated the poet Ovid many centuries ago. Clearly I could not speculate as to Ovid’s opinion on Drab Majesty’s latest album, Modern Mirror, which takes his version of the Narcissus myth as its subject. But we all know the moral behind the story, about the destructive perils of self-admiration and self-obsession. Drab Majesty, the LA-based two-piece known for its glitzy-gloomy “tragic wave” sound and its sparkly-80s-science-fictional-glam-androgyny, are no stranger to the Classics. Deb DeMure, the excellently-named de-facto frontperson has spoken about a background in fine art and the duo’s stage-image and videos are laden with an aesthetic drawn from the lushly-polished marble of Greco-Roman statues. But, with three albums, an EP and several singles under their togas, this is clearly no vanity project.
Tonight is the first night of Drab’s European tour, beginning with this sold out show in Camden’s Dingwalls. In almost two decades of London gig-going, why the hell have I only been here once before? If you don’t know, Dingwalls – tucked away beside Camden Lock – is a great little 500-capacity space with no frills but a great sound and stage.
First up is Dais Records label mates SRSQ (“pronounced sierce-queue”), the solo project of Kennedy Ashlyn, known from the Oakland band Them Are Us Too, who tragically lost bandmate Cash Askews in the fire in the Ghost Ship venue in November of 2016, alongside many friends shared with Drab. Ashlyn fittingly describes her music as “griefwave, grating pop for the unfit”, or a “soundtrack for unreality”, descriptions that could all just as easily apply to Drab, too.
SRSQ is captivating from the very first moment, combining a striking and unsettling vocal delivery that commands great power with a warm electronic pulse, developing into a brooding, ominous atmosphere. There is nothing quite like the anger, bitterness and harsh noise nihilism of Lingua Ignota here, but a darkness none the less. Othertimes we’re in up-beat, synth-pop territory reminiscent of Zola Jesus, with a smooth segue between timbres that I can’t really chart. Ashlyn commands a powerful voice with a broad range and capacity for emotion – recalling some greats like Kate Bush, Bjork, and Joan Baez at points – which acts as the glue keeping quite a varied palette of house and trip-hoppy beats and introspective synth coherent.
I don’t think Ashlyn is the kind of musician who can ever turn up to be “just the support” – everything of her is in the performance, only requiring herself and a little fog onstage, singing with her entire body and commanding the whole space with an array of naturally formed gestures. About three songs in I’m struck by a memorable use of vocal effects reminiscent of Imogen Heap, as well as an octave-lowering effect that adds an eerie androgyny to her vocals that nicely prefigures Drab’s genderless stage presence.
With her set drawing to a close, Ashlyn stops to enthuse about playing with Drab, ensuring us that she’ll watching alongside the audience, before launching into the set’s darkest moment yet: deep synth-bass swells and booms; screaming “I’m never coming back”; wild bushy hair flung around painfully like it’s being pulled out; sweeping expansive sunrise gesture. Fade to low scratching and the bass gradually ebbing. . .
. . .as many of tonight’s crowd are now, in the direction of the SRSQ merch. And what a fine-looking crowd, with a visual aesthetic best described as glitter-goth or sparkle-sad: perfect for capturing the wonderful oxymorons and anachronisms of Drab Majesty. Modern Mirror’s cover might locate Deb Demure in an oddly mundane location – a newsagent, sorry corner shop, no less – but the band have certainly not toned down their image, that’s just the sound-check. (My professionalism inhibits me from breaking the spell by describing them sans make-up, but, based on said soundcheck, I am sad to announce that Drab Majesty are probably not from some kind of extra-terrestrial race whose culture is based exclusively on a mixture of Earth’s Classical Civilizations and 1980s’ arcade games.)
But – when they emerge, resplendent in trademark white wigs, huge 3D-film style shades, white tailored suits, cravats, and blanched-complexions – you can’t help but wonder. Drizzled in Cure worship, yet energized with a glitzy production and clean, bright sound, Drab sound fab tonight, especially when playing tracks from Modern Mirror. Entering to album opener ‘A Dialogue’, Drab raise glassed libations of wine to the audience before the guitars kick in. And what a guitarist is Demure, using strict picking patterns that they explain derived from folk music and players like Johhny Marr, but with a graceful fluidity and lusciousness that is all their own. The intro to Drab’s new single ‘Oxytocin, arriving about three or four songs in, illustrates this style nicely, and proves to be a crowd highlight, setting off more dreamy, lost-in-space dancing. If our enthusiasm is affecting them, Deb and Mona do not break from their dour dryness and alien aloofness just yet, pulling off their well-developed vocal harmonies and thumping choruses with nonchalance. Deb is wonderful to watch though, working through a repertoire of gestures – speaking on the phone, going loco, stop!, cheers – like the prototype of a Venus de Milo android.
Drab’s set understandably largely focuses on the new album, but mixes in a few from 2017’s Demonstration (‘Cold Souls’, ‘Dot in the Sky’) and one from their debut Careless (‘Everything is Sentimental’). It’s impossible to talk about their music without referencing darkwave, electro-pop, post-punk, etc, from the 80s – especially Eldritch and co. when the drum machine kicks in. But they manage to pull in a wide range of influences, including psych music, krautrock, folk songs, garage punk, post-rock, balancing a sense of atmosphere with a strong songwriting sensibility. I find myself watching ‘39 by Design’, supposedly the last song, wishing I knew their repertoire more closely; they’re the kind of band you’ll get infinitely more out of if you know the words. As it is, I’m daydreaming here that this song the soundtrack to a climactic scene from an 80s’ film set in a club: you don’t recognize your lover amidst a sea of silk shirts; the crowd’s too dense and too high; the bad guy in the leather jacket bursts through; it’s gonna be a tragic ending. . . but hey, it’s Mona D’s birthday announces Deb. . . and I’m back in the room, their façade drops momentarily and they’re both human after all. “We love you very much,” Deb tells us, and everyone goes nuts. Pretty good for the first night of the tour. People are calling for ‘Not Just a Name’ but apparently there’s not really time for a proper encore, so they stay onstage and finish on ‘Out of Sequence’ instead, but that’s clearly not a problem.
I don’t know if I’ve accurately conveyed how much fun Drab Majesty are live: leaving this show I feel energized, like emerging from a different plane of existence through which all sorts of melancholy magic flows.