The Pop-Punks Of Anarchy
Drive five hours north-northwest of London, and you'll find yourself in the North East, a sparsely-populated, Labour-leaning, working-class region of England that creeps along the eastern border of Scotland. Drive a few more minutes, and you'll reach an old coal-mining town that someone long ago felt compelled to name Pity Me. With a population around 6,000, it's an unlikely base for one of Britain's best rock bands, which is fitting because Martha is unlike most rock bands.
In passing, the foursome's pop-punk anthems resemble a ramshackle Weezer, full of young love, open chords and ecstatic harmonies. But spend some time with the threads that run through Martha's addictive debut album, Courting Strong, and watch that sweater begin to unravel. The lovelorn underdogs that come to life during its 10 songs combat conformity in every way imaginable: the queer crushes in "1997, Passing In The Hallway" and "Gin and Listerine"; the sentimental anarchist in "Present, Tense"; the tongue-tied intellectual in "1967, I Miss You, I'm Lonely."
These joyous rejections of societal norms are extensions of the band itself. Drummer Nathan Stephens-Griffin, bassist Naomi Griffin, and guitarists Jc Cairns and Daniel Ellis are all self-professed anarchists. Unlike the vast majority of rock bands, there's no "lead singer" or "frontman." None of them touch meat, dairy or alcohol. The band books its own D.I.Y. shows that circumvent professional music venues (for how much longer, we'll see).
Doing it yourself doesn't mean doing it by yourself, however. Courting Strong was produced by Hookworms frontman MJ, and released by U.K. label Fortuna Pop and U.S. label Salinas. You can also listen to Courting Strong in its entirety on Martha's Bandcamp page.
When it comes to D.I.Y., living in a small town, it's kind of ingrained. You're forced to do things yourself, because otherwise they won't happen.
It was on that Bandcamp page that I fell in love with the song "Dust, Juice, Bones and Hair," which NPR Music included in our 50 Favorite Songs Of The Year (So Far). And after finally parsing the profound passages behind the group's Irn Bru high, I decided we needed to learn a little bit more about the members of Martha. Over the new few weeks, we exchanged several emails that touched on D.I.Y. culture, queer romance, the band's roots in Motown music and what it means to grow up.
Otis Hart: Obviously, the name of the band is Martha, but for your social media handles and Bandcamp page, you've chosen "MarthaDIY" as the way people can find you. The label D.I.Y. – do it yourself – appears to be gaining traction as a way for independent rock musicians of a certain stripe to distinguish themselves from "indie," which has come to define a certain ... I shouldn't generalize like this, but I will ... bourgeois sound that's hawked by major and independent labels alike. Can you tell us a little bit about what the term D.I.Y. means to you, and why you chose it as a search-enabling suffix?
￪￪￪ Nathan Stephens-Griffin: @MarthaDIY' has a nice ring to it, and it's a pretty unsearchable term without a suffix so it made sense. It's an interesting one though, because I feel like different people define 'DIY' in different ways. I guess for me personally, DIY is about rejecting a top-down model of culture, where (to use a crude simplification) corporate forces dictate what we watch, listen to, engage with- like the 'bourgeois' sound you refer to. That can be really bland, homogenous and uninteresting, and certain voices are invariably marginalised. DIY is about producing your own culture, without the need for middle-people or corporate indicators of success; it's about engaging directly with people as friends. Within that is an implicit emphasis on inclusivity, safe spaces, and rejecting bad shit in general. DIY is a critique of the corporate culture industry, akin to anti-consumerist critiques of capitalism. But the problem is that without those indicators (like being in glossy magazines full of ads, or radio play or whatever), bands are dismissed as failures. To use wikipedia's terminology; they lack 'notability'. I reject that as a way of structuring things, and I don't think 'notability' should be dictated by how engaged with the monetary, profit seeking side of the music industry you are. We are where we want to be. This is what we want to do, tour, play, make friends, see new places, and do it sustainably without compromising on stuff we care about. There's no end goal of super-stardom or money. We take each thing as it comes and make decisions on what we do case by case. But, it's important that we're in control of things like booking our own shows, recording, releasing, the aesthetic of the band etc; us or people we're close to and trust- who understand where we're coming from. Recently, I've thought more about privilege in DIY, and how having too strict a definition of what it means to be DIY can actually ring-fence it for the privileged people who can afford to lose money all the time and subsidise music as a hobby. That just leads to the same bourgeois blandness as the corporate model- loads of independently wealthy people making music at a loss. For better or worse, I feel like the definition of DIY has gotten stricter as technology has made things easier. We trace our punk lineage back to CRASS (as opposed to the CLASH) but even CRASS were selling thousands of records in their day.
YourFacebook,Twitterandhandles are "marthaDIY." The label D.I.Y. – do it yourself – appears to be gaining traction as a way for independent rock musicians of a certain stripe to distinguish themselves from "indie," which has come to define a certain ... I shouldn't generalize like this, but I will ... bourgeois sound that's released by major and independent labels alike. Can you tell us a little bit about what the term D.I.Y. means to you, and why you chose it as a search-enabling suffix?
Hart: I think there's something a tad ironic about a band of your nature – you seem self-sufficient, well-spoken, and politically active – hailing from a village called Pity Me. Can you tell us a little bit about your corner of the world, and how a suburban town thatliterallyfeels sorry for itself gave rise to such a strong-minded group?
Daniel Ellis: Well, like many villages in County Durham, Pity Me is actually an old pit village, so there's a really strong political history in terms of union activism and socialism. Our parents and their parents have been involved in political activism, particularly the miner's strike of 84'. My grandad was actually a miner who lost his job to Thatcher, so the political side of us is not such a big surprise, although that was a long time ago. But the legacy of that stuff lives on, and is still felt by communities in the North East. People talk about a North/South divide in the UK, and the North East has been quite a neglected, predominantly working class place, and often quite left wing compared to other places in the country. And when it comes to DIY, living in a small town, it's kind of ingrained. You're forced to do things yourself, because otherwise they won't happen. We've been putting on and playing shows together since we were kids, and we were doing things ourselves long before we'd ever actually heard of DIY in a punk context.
Cairns: There are a couple of origin stories for the name 'Pity Me', it's a bit historically contested. One involves some holy visions and the corpse of a thousand year old saint and the other involves a French swamp. But neither of those are that interesting.
Hart: What was the music scene in Durham, or the North East in general, while you were growing up?
Stephens-Griffin: As a kid, I'd go to working mens clubs* with my family and see club bands play old rhythm and blues stuff. Usually a 40 minute set, then a break, then another 40 minute set. My dad was in one of those bands. That was my introduction to live music. This strong scene of predominantly cover bands who would play a circuit of working mens clubs around the region. That was a big part of north east culture for a long time. Then when I was a bit older, I remember going to hardcore shows in Durham in the early 2000s, put on by kids a little older than me. They had established US bands like Bane and Count Me Out come through, as well as loads of touring UK bands and locals. They didn't happen every week, but when they did there would be like a hundred kids there going absolutely wild at the shows. It was a strong DIY scene, and that obviously influenced me, especially in terms of putting on shows. There was a venue called 'the Rowing Club', that was down by the river in Durham and we'd go and see bands and just be amazed by the explosion of energy and enthusiasm. But I wasn't really 'in' that scene, and I was too into Rancid and various rubbish American ska punk bands at that time to really be accepted fully. I also think I was too wimpy, and scared to mosh- and that scene could be very macho and negi in places. It tended to burn brightly then burn out (usually when venues stopped letting them host shows). Not too long after that we were starting our own bands and doing our own shows. Renting out community centres and function rooms and cobbling together PA systems and busted up amps. Begging my older brother for a lift with all our gear. It was fun, and we were learning as we went. Nowadays there's a pretty established DIY scene in Durham that we're all involved in, and lots of bands stop by here on tour. It's cool. We even have an art space that we can host all ages shows at (called Empty Shop). Music wise, the north east has produced a lot of really good bands, many who've gotten really popular. Sunderland alone has produced Kenickie, the Futureheads, Leatherface, Field Music and the Toy Dolls (who famously often recorded in a house in Pity Me!) There's tonnes of bands from Newcastle too like Maximo Park and Venom! Believe it or not, our very own Durham produced the influential british hardcore band Voorhees, the punk rock band Penetration, and of course, Prefab Sprout!
*I say 'working mens' clubs because that what they were called- there isn't really another word for them, and it describes quite a unique phenomenon and part of the history. That term illustrates that for such a leftwing, union supporting region, there was often sadly a complete failure to engage with feminism and other struggles.
Hart: Do the four of you have a "creation story"? Can you tell us about the beginning of the band?
Stephens-Griffin: There isn't a really good distinct one, it kind of happened organically. We've all known each other for a really long time, so there wasn't like an 'us all meeting' story. But I guess one factor was that for a while there was a really cool monthly dance party running in Durham, that would play loads of Motown as well as like garage punk stuff, and all sorts of stuff. It was run by some friends of ours who were mainly Archeology PhD students at the university, oddly enough. It took place in a little bar above a chip shop (the Fish Tank- which is mentioned in the song 'Move to Durham and Never Leave') that we've all played and promoted shows at and been to tonnes over the years. But the four of us would all be at that night, dancing and having fun, and the vibes were always pretty positive. I remember it as a really nice time in Durham. Anyways, I guess from that we started talking about doing a poppy band, with a Motown influence, and we were also all listening to Beautiful South, some US indie stuff like Ted Leo and Superchunk as well as Dirtnap records stuff like the Marked Men, Exploding Hearts and such. I don't think we really sound like those bands, but those were (and still are) our influences from a songwriting perspective. The lineup was initially a couple more people. Before we started properly we envisaged keyboard and horns, and really going for a big band thing. But after practicing a bit, the songs were sounding pretty punky and the keyboard/horns idea was left by the wayside (perhaps to return to at some point, who knows?). We basically realized that no matter how poppy we try to play, it'll always sound punk, because for better or worse, our instinct is always to put the gain up, and play louder, and I guess that's a product of the garage punk influence. It was also cool that it was just us four, as we're really close friends, and it made sense to keep it smaller- this was all before we even had a name really- but yeah, at one point further down the line we realized we were all vegan and all straight edge. We thought it would be funny to describe ourselves as a 'vegan straight edge' band- because those are terms usually reserved for heavier bands, but it was just as true of us. It's a tongue-in-cheek label but it's true. To start with we'd practice in Naomi and I's parent's basement, and I remember my dad being a bit more interested than usual, and saying it sounded good, which was nice, because in the past they've always been very tolerant and understanding of the music, but perhaps not fans per se. It was cool to be doing a band that our parents were into.
Hart: You mentioned earlier that "Sleeping Beauty" helped establish an arc to Courting Strong, that something clicked around that time. Can you describe the moment when this transformed from a bunch of songs into a capital-A album?
Stephens-Griffin: Unlike projects I've been involved with in the past, this was a pretty planned, collaborative process. Like, we knew we were gonna be going on tour in the USA with our friends Delay so we wanted to have an album out, and we thought about the timeframe and everything like that and said, "right we need to have it all written by october, recorded by january, released by may" and we specifically planned it like that. That was kind of strange cause when I first started writing songs, it was always been more of a fluid process, where creativity strikes when it strikes, writing songs here and there, and once you have enough stuff you do an album or an EP. This was planned writing time and contrary to my assumptions, it worked really well, it actually let us all really get into the project, and practice, work on lyrics and music and think about how it all fits together. It seems counter intuitive to plan creativity, but I guess people who do creative stuff for a living or bigger projects have to do that, or nothing would get done. Anyway, we got the songs we already had from before together (like Bones and I Miss You), and then looked at the bits and bobs we were currently working on, and identified that there was clearly this thread running through it all- small towns, growing up, heartache, being weird. At first we were worried, like we can't have loads of songs about similar stuff, but then it was like, no wait, this is cool, it's what an album is meant to be, like one interconnected piece, and so we went with it. From there, it just came together, through lots of practicing together, then going away and working on our own little bits. It was very fun to do, and we're really happy with the results!
Cairns: I feel like a lot of the overall "feel" of the record came about in the studio too - because we hadn't been touring with these songs, they really came into their own once we set out to record them. Touring with songs and playing them live is an extension of the writing process that we'd become so reliant on, but due to the time frame we'd set ourselves couldn't really do that. Instead, we kind of locked ourselves in the studio for a week (the longest period of time any of us had ever spent in a recording studio in one go) and let the songs come together that way. MJ (proprietor of Suburban Home Studios and Organ wizard in Hookworms) was keen to let us develop the songs organically too, rather than pushing it in a specific direction. He was so great and it was a really nice recording environment. I guess under the working conditions and the time allowed, we were bound to come up with something that at least felt like an overall piece.
One thing that popped into my mind while listening to Courting Strong is the current debate around "relatability" and how TV and marketing is consciously greenlighting ideas that allow the audience to see or hear themselves in the media they're consuming. Martha is in someways the opposite of this — you are who you are and you don't seem interested in catering to anything in particular — and yet the stories on this record are very much "relatable." How important is it that music, and art to greater extent, "says something to me about my life," to paraphrase Morrissey?
Griffin: Hmmm, that's a toughy! Relatability wasn't something we talked about when writing the album but I guess having worked on the album together throughout the process may have made sure that the songs were at least relatable for each of us within the band, as we talked about song ideas right from their formation. As a lot of the content of the album is very specific to our experiences in growing up in Durham at the time we did, I'm sure there's aspects of the songs which don't necessarily speak to everyone; but when you're talking about relationships, feeling weird about yourself and others, and feeling awkward, anxious and frustrated then most people can probably relate in some way (right?).
To be honest, part of it is that I don't actually feel any older than I did as a teen. I might know more about stuff and have a better political analysis. I might have a car now, and have rent and bills to worry about. But I'm still just the same.
Stephens-Griffin: yeah, I think another part of it is that if you just write what you know, and you're honest, and you take a bit of pride in it and work on it, then it will stand up and at least some people will like it and relate to it. I dunno, weren't trying to make something that would have mass appeal and be really popular (which is good because we're not!) but we were trying to make something that we all liked. But moving away from music (maybe slightly tangentially), I don't think everything has to be relatable, not for me at least. One of my favourite things to do is play a tabletop RPG called 'Call of Cthulhu' which is like Dungeons and Dragons, but based in the HP Lovecraft mythos. In that I'm often roleplaying as a detective, or a cat burglar or someone who I'm really not like in real life, living in 1920s Massachusetts. It's not my life, it's nothing like my life, and I wouldn't want it to be (too many cultists and eldritch monsters!) but it's fun to go there- same with reading and films and TV and stuff. I guess what I mean is escapism can be important, and I get enough of myself just from being me. Sometimes I'm sick of me. Sometimes I'm sick of Morrissey, and I just wanna listen to Oasis and shout along to Champagne Supernova. That's actually what 'cosmic misery' is about. Escaping into fiction and other worlds cause your own world is too much, and the line between reality and fiction getting blurry.
Ellis: There are specific north east things that we've grown up with, and some of them are very British, or very Durham. Like these colloquial things and ideas, and we know them really well but other people don't cause they haven't grown up in it. Like 'courting strong', being an idea about seeing someone, and it being really serious, but not being engaged or married but more than just 'in a relationship'. It's a concept that exists here, that other places might not have a specific word for. So that's something other people can relate to, but this gives them a word to describe it.
Stephens-Griffin: We got the songs we already had from before together (like "Dust, Juice, Bones and Hair" and "1967, I Miss You, I'm Lonely"), and then looked at the bits and bobs we were currently working on, and identified that there was clearly this thread running through it all — small towns, growing up, heartache, being weird. At first we were worried, like we can't have loads of songs about similar stuff, but then it was like, no wait, this is cool, it's what an album is meant to be, like one interconnected piece, and so we went with it.
Cairns: I feel like a lot of the overall "feel" of the record came about in the studio, too. Because we hadn't been touring with these songs, they really came into their own once we set out to record them. Touring with songs and playing them live is an extension of the writing process that we'd become so reliant on, but due to the timeframe, couldn't really do that. Instead, we kind of locked ourselves in the studio for a week (the longest period of time any of us had ever spent in a recording studio in one go) and let the songs come together that way. MJ (proprietor of Suburban Home Studios and organ wizard in Hookworms) was keen to let us develop the songs organically, too, rather than pushing it in a specific direction. He was so great and it was a really nice recording environment.
I have one more question for you, and it's something you touch on directly in "Gin and Listerine": "Still figuring out what it means to be / Adolescents, indefinitely." Is this a case of simply "writing what you know" or are you wrestling with something deeper?
Stephens-Griffin: You're right, that there's something in that — it wasn't totally deliberate but it's certainly there. Like, the album is partly about "growing up" and what that means, and, the songs you mention all provide more fodder for that discussion. The line in "Gin and Listerine" which is "I know it hurts right now, but these moments help us grow." That's advice for a friend going through a break up. This painful experience is just part of growing as a person. And the same for "1997..." and "Sleeping Beauty" — they're songs about formative experiences. And the cumulative process of "growing up" – which, I think, is something that never stops.
And I guess the other part of it is about how the simplest responses to these situations can be the most truthful. So like in "1967...," part of what we were trying to do with the lyrics of that song was convey something about the exasperation of loneliness and romance. How, when you're quite an anxious, neurotic, nerdy person who spends a lot of time ruminating on just about everything, there's a temptation to think, re-think, over-think stuff until the cows come home in search of a way to properly, precisely and accurately articulate your feelings. But time and time again, the words that seem to convey things best of all, are the ones that you started with. The simplest, bluntest, "naïveté" sounding words of all, like "I Miss You, I'm Lonely." Those are Daniel's lines actually, we wrote it together, and he liked the idea of having something really basic and simple and honest as the lyrical hook, then writing this hyper-literate song around it.
To be honest, part of it is that I don't actually feel any older than I did as a teen. I might know more about stuff and have a better political analysis. I might have a car now, and have rent and bills to worry about. But I'm still just the same. I still spend most of my time playing music and doing stuff that other people "grow out of." To paraphrase Billy Bragg a lot of my contemporaries are "already pushing prams" — they have careers, mortgages, proper "grown-up" lives, but none of it really appeals to me very much. I'm still asking myself all the time, when will I be officially classed as a "grown up"? Will it be when I stop spending all my time and money on music and concentrate on a proper career? Will it be when I'm pushing a pram? It just seems like an endless cycle. Life is experience and I don't feel like I'm gonna be on my death bed saying "I wish I hadn't toured that summer, I wish I'd knuckled down and worked on my CV."
I still have all these aspirations and dreams that I had when I was 15. I want to be a movie director, I want to write novels, I want to write screenplays, I want to make comics, I want to write songs, I want to tour the world in a punk band, I want to visit new places and make new friends. I want to burn brightly and create stuff. That's what I want out of life, and I can try and rationalise it and analyse it and curtail it in the way that over thinking stuff can do, but that base desire to create is really quite simple. And no matter how immature that makes me, I hope that desire never goes away.
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