Sam Warren and Hannah Brown had only just come up with the name Stores by the time they were on a plane to perform in Russia. In 2019, they and two other bands affiliated with the vital Merseyside music collective Eggy Records, which Warren co-founded, were flown out as part of a cultural exchange organised by UNESCO, through which they were to be held up as an example of modern British music at its best. Eventually they landed in Ulyanovsk on the banks of the Volga, best known as the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, to an expectant crowd. “I think a few of the locals thought we were famous,” Warren remembers. “We were having press conferences and all sorts, before our first ever gig!”
The punchy, tightly-wound duets they’d been demoing acoustically together at Warren’s flat in Liverpool went down well, before they embarked on a wild, bacchanalian voyage through the Russian expanse, almost certainly with a government agent on their tail. One night, after narrowly avoiding a bar fight, “the biggest man I’ve ever seen in a pair of flip flops said ‘D’you wanna come to my iron forge?’” recalls Warren. “He smelted us a leaf that was a bottle opener and Hannah tried to light a ciggy off his flame thrower.” On the way to their second show, in the rural town of Cherdakly, they stopped in a house covered in quotes by Russian literary giant Alexander Pushkin, owned by an eccentric traditional beekeeper who plied them with homemade honey mead.
The second gig was even weirder than the first, performed on the back of a truck at the equivalent of a village fete, the musicians plagued by electric shocks from dodgy wiring. “The vibe seemed a bit more hostile, I think everyone started to feel uneasy,” says Brown. Later, they found out that the enormous poster behind them was propaganda for Vladimir Putin. First gigs are never easy, let alone in circumstances so surreal, yet Stores embraced the sheer strangeness of it all. “Maybe because we were in such a random place so far away from Liverpool, and didn’t know anyone there, it was a relief, took the pressure off a little bit,” Brown adds.
Both were already fixtures of the Liverpool underground scene when they found themselves on the same bill in late 2017. At the time, both Brown and Warren were coming to the end of their current projects, Hannah And The Wick Effect and Jo Mary respectively. “My band wasn’t going anywhere, I didn’t know what direction I was heading,” says Brown. “Sam was at a similar sort of crossroads.” At the show, they noticed a similarity in their styles and hit it off as friends. Both, it turned out, shared a love of traditional Irish and English folk music, “proper good, old school songwriting,” as Brown puts it. Similarly, both were drawn to modern artists embracing that folk tradition and threading it through indie rock – Big Thief, Aldous Harding and Angel Olsen, for instance.
Jamming and writing together regularly in Warren’s flat, before long they’d packed in their old bands entirely to focus on what it was quickly becoming apparent was a formidable creative partnership; their respective abilities for finely-crafted songwriting quickly beginning to dovetail. “We first had the idea of just doing a small EP together, then that spiralled into Stores,” says Warren. The band went through experimental phases – for a short time operating as a seven-piece – but eventually settled back to Warren and Brown as co-lead singer songwriters.
The songs started to emerge in dreamlike fashion, little snippets of old melodies and chord progressions emerging after months and years spent swimming around in their respective subconsciouses, lyrics just mumbled at first, gradually gestating into something intriguingly cryptic. ‘Baby it’s alright, the owls are in the garden,’ they sing on ‘Bones’. “When I wasn’t feeling mentally very well, there was an owl that used to live outside of the window,” explains Warren. “We used to talk all the time. It made me feel much better…”
Dig deeper, however, and you can find grit at Stores’ core, a real-life anchor beneath all that surrealistic haze. “The lyrics form themselves in a weird way, and you could probably sit and overanalyse it and come up with a million and one different meanings,” says Brown, “but it’s also what we felt in the present moment.” When they were writing the EP, “we were both in relationships we didn’t want to be in,” says Warren. ‘Blue Sunday’, for example, the first song the two ever wrote together, reflects the churn between denial and acceptance that a partnership is reaching its end: ‘back and forth like a lonely wanderer with a legless horse’, as they sing.
“Everything that’s happened in our lives before we met has influenced how Stores was going to pan out,” Brown continues. “Even in terms of our backgrounds, we’re both from small coastal towns.” She originally hails from Morpeth in Northumberland, and her bandmate from Birkenhead on the other side of the Mersey to Liverpool. “Instrumentally there’s that feeling of small-town seaside,” says Warren. “You’ve got that folky backdrop, and then that’s coupled with the angsty city grungy vibe of two people trying to find their feet… there’s a lot of angst there” Take ‘Blue Sunday’ again, where a breezy acoustic verse peppered with swirling boardwalk organ leaps dramatically into a spikey, tenacious chorus.
It’s this push and pull between extremes, the tension Stores extract from the spaces between the dreamlike and the gritty, the real and surreal, the sea and the city, that makes their music so intensely effective. Take ‘Mud Season’ for example, a gorgeous, poppy instrumental, Brown and Warren’s vocals delicately interwoven, but the words themselves simmering with the bitterness of a by-now imploding relationship – ‘Don’t talk to me anymore, I don’t even know you’ – or EP closer ‘The Pulp’, which spins with all the contradictory emotions, the regret, clarity, sadness and happiness of finally moving on and starting afresh.
Those emotions are universal, and to an extent timeless, yet for the band themselves it’s been almost two years since they recorded them. They were just finishing up the mixing when the pandemic hit. Once it became clear that lockdown was going to go on longer than anticipated, they turned the downtime to their advantage, augmenting and embellishing the songs, studying the art of DIY releases – they are decidedly independent, releasing through Warren’s label, employing their respective partners for album art and photography – and finding enthusiastic backing from influential figures like Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey who sung their praises on BBC 6Music.
“It’s not been a rushed project, we were definitely able to sit back, think about what the best plan was,” says Brown. “We’ve got so much faith in the songs and the potential they have, but then it’s just a bit of a waiting game. We’ve got so many songs in the pipeline and there’s so much that we want to do that there’s this impatience now to get this out so we can move on to more.”
“Lockdown was an advantage, but we’ve had these songs for two years now,” Warren concurs. “We’re excited to get back in the studio. We’re now finding what the band really is, knowing exactly what we want.” With a debut EP as strong as theirs only just arriving, a year’s worth of new material in the pipeline, Stores’ future looks bright indeed.