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“Is Skem all roundabouts or no roundabouts? It’s one or the other,” queries STORES’ Sam Warren in a manner that seems both tongue-in-cheek and genuinely curious. A brief diversion from music talk towards Brutalist architecture has brought us to this crossroads. And, while fans of bleak new town conurbations or local residents may be offended by this reductive assessment of Skelmersdale’s charms, it is from lived experiences in similarly out-of-the-way towns that Stores derive their particular brand of alt-guitar meanderings.
During beers and a Zoom natter with Warren and co-conspirator Hannah Brown, it’s clear how much these formative experiences play a part in their coming together as songwriters. Both grew up with folk music obsessions in small villages before gravitating towards the big city noise of Liverpool.
“There was nothing going on, really,” says Warren, describing life in the Wirral village of Irby, where he spent his early adolescence. “So, I got really obsessed with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and I think I deleted all the music I had apart from Dylan and Neil Young. That’s how I learned guitar,” he explains, “just playing those songs in my bedroom.”
Brown’s development as an artist seems to mirror that of Warren’s. Recalling her years growing up in Morpeth, Northumberland, she immediately sensed a change in pace upon her arrival in Merseyside. “I went from a very acoustic mindset. All there was to do at home was play an acoustic guitar and sit in your room. But then you get to Liverpool,” Brown continues, “and there’s actually people playing music all around you.”
Upon reaching the bright lights of the ’Pool, Brown broke away from her bedroom folk roots and started playing with Merseyside polymath Beija Flo, an Eggy Records mainstay and mutual friend of Warren. It was soon after that when he caught an earful of Brown’s playing at the Phase One venue.
“She blew me head off,” Warren enthuses, “and so I was like: [affects smarmy London A&R jerk voice] ‘Er, do you wanna write songs together? Because I feel we could write songs together’.”
Following what was initially discussed as a one-off collaboration and split EP, the pair realised they wanted to work together on a more permanent basis. This new creative partnership provided a much-needed outlet for Warren and Brown during what they now look back on to be trying times.
“We didn’t really have anything to do at that time,” explains Brown. “I was just finishing uni which felt really weird. I didn’t know what to do afterwards.”
Warren recalls feeling equally despondent during this period: “I used to live in this proper horrible flat. I was working in an accountant’s, nine-to-five, and I really didn’t like it. I was also practicing every night as I was in four or five bands. I had a bit of a breakdown.”
Thus, writing and creating together regularly as Stores became “very necessary” and reinvigorated the passion they had for music and, more importantly, songcraft. “I was playing a lot of music from the punky side of things,” says Warren, referring to his time with local garage kids Jo Mary. “I think I’d lost that obsession I had with the song and the lyric. Han reintroduced me to that concept and enjoying the song rather than the shite that goes on around it,” he continues, acknowledging the sizeable influence Brown has had as a songwriting foil.
“I was also definitely at a crossroads musically,” adds Brown, “and I think Stores is probably quite a natural merging of our two [styles].”
It’s interesting to hear this merging on the group’s debut single bones, a juxtaposition of Coxon-esque guitar shuffle and Stores’ rough and ready dual vocals. “Honey you’re imploding / I don’t even mind / … / That you want to pick my bones again” they sing in nonchalant tandem, part reminiscent of Moldy Peaches or Circle Pit. Lyrically, Brown and Warren seem to be sifting through the embers of past relationships.
“We were both going through a thing, and I don’t think we’ve ever consciously sat down and said, ‘We’re going to write about this’,” Warren admits. “[With] that song we realised in retrospect and thinking about what was going on at the time. The forthcoming Blue Sunday EP almost pans out like a relationship going wrong.”
“A break-up album,” adds Brown with a self-effacing chuckle. “It’s only in hindsight we saw the raw emotion that we were going through at that time.” As well as a lyrical catharsis that typifies the pair’s approach to composition, another trope of Stores’ songwriting surfaces briefly on bones.
“Me and Han both like mythology,” Warren says. Brown elaborates: “There’s lots of animal references [in our songs],” she says, citing nature and animals as traditional themes which hark back to their interest in folk music. On bones, it is the “owls in the garden” that find their way into the wider narrative.
“When we were writing there was this owl that lived outside the window, and we included it in the song. That fucking owl followed us everywhere!” exclaims Warren. “Everywhere we went there was an owl or something about an owl. I was at my mum’s and there was one outside the window and I swear it was the same owl!”
Brown continues: “I remember going home around the time that we were writing bones and I was staying in my sister’s old bed. On the bed sheet there were owls. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is a sign!’” “No-one ever believed us, but I used to do the [whistles] tooting and it used to speak back,” Warren assures me. “You probably think I was just being mad!” he laughs.
Post-lockdown and having, hopefully, escaped the grasp of said hooting voyeur, Stores are now looking forward to finally playing live again. “We haven’t had a gig since the 28th of February 2020, so I’m really excited!” says Warren of their then-upcoming show at Birkenhead’s Future Yard.
“I’m buzzing,” Brown agrees. “[I] can’t wait to play and I think this is why I’m excited to get this music out. We have so many new tunes and different songs and there will be stuff we are playing at this gig that we’ve never played live before. It’s kind of a fresh set-up.”
“I’m also really looking forward to getting this EP out towards the end of the year,” adds Warren, “because we’ve been sitting on it for ages. We started recording it two years ago!” Given the amount of enforced downtime everyone has encountered in the last 18 months, it’s unsurprising that Stores are also planning a return to recording soon.
“We’re going into Eve Studios in Stockport with Finn Howells,” Warren tells me. Howells recorded the EP and was, according to the band, a big part of the sound. Warren continues: “I don’t think we could have done it without him. He put up with a year’s worth of back and forth, as did mastering engineer Jason Mitchell [Aldous Harding, Alex G],” he adds. “Another one who was really good and dead accommodating.”
With upcoming shows to prepare for, an EP to release and more recording to be done, I decide to let Stores get on with it. We exchange slightly merry smiles and fumble for the end call icon. Draining the dregs from my bottle, I am, once again, conscious of the noises reverberating around the neighbourhood: a train rattles past, a distant ice-cream van belts out a metallic Match of the Day theme, the neighbour’s chicken clucks… an owl hoots.
Blue Sunday is out via Eggy Records on 13th October.