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.
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.
Your Facebook, Twitter and Bandcamp handles 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?
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 D.I.Y. in different ways. I guess for me personally, D.I.Y. 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. That can be really bland, homogenous and uninteresting, and certain voices are invariably marginalized. D.I.Y. 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 s*** in general. D.I.Y. 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 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.
Recently, I've thought more about privilege in D.I.Y., and how having too strict a definition of what it means to be D.I.Y. can actually ring-fence it for the privileged people who can afford to lose money all the time and subsidize 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 D.I.Y. 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 was selling thousands of records in their day.
CRASS was a British anarchist punk act that (you could argue) was known more for its militant left-wing imagery than its actual music. Your new album, Courting Strong, features profound, political lyrics, but your hooks and melodies are unadulterated fun. I listen to Courting Strong whenever I want to feel happy, not necessarily anarcho. How did you arrive at this mix of politics and pop?
Jc Cairns: It's funny actually, it can sometimes feel like our political side is either overlooked entirely or we aren't political enough. I mean, I wouldn't say we were singing about how f***** up the government is or like, impending nuclear destruction — there's a place for that, but what we sing about is our own experiences I suppose. We articulate our politics through love songs and stories about the day to day. Really, not everything about engaging with politics needs to be based in unhappiness and discontent — there are a whole bunch of feelings tied up in it.
In terms of our own songs, we try to encompass some of those feelings. I mean, we sing about crushes and relationships ... crushes and relationships that maybe aren't so well received by outsiders. If you look at songs like "1997, Passing in the Hallway" and "Gin and Listerine," they're queer love songs that I feel navigate some of the discomfort, but also some of the joy, that comes with fancying someone you've been told you shouldn't because you're a boy and they're a boy or you're a girl and they're a girl, or whatever. I think most of us have been there and I think singing about that stuff is political. And there's no shame in writing a pop song, right?
Stephens-Griffin: Yeah, I like the balance we strike. It's always there, but sort of just in the corner of the frame. I'd say that's true of most songs regardless of the intent of the author – "the personal is political," after all. The Housemartins are a really big influence on us, and I feel like they had a similar thing going, where they were publicly involved with stuff like Red Wedge and were quite stridently socialist under Thatcher, but their big hits seemed quite apolitical on the surface. "Happy Hour" seems like a chirpy song about drinking in the pub, but if you look more closely, I think it's about alienation and it's actually quite satirical.
I could see people overlooking the political nature of your songs the first time through Courting Strong, but once they recognize that Naomi is singing about a girl named Maureen, or Nathan singing about Vincenzio, your point of view becomes clearer. "Gin and Listerine," "Passing In The Hall" and "Sleeping Beauty" — young adult songs dealing with gender and sexuality issues — aren't the kind of tunes you encounter every day. Can you share any of the stories that led to writing those songs?
Naomi Griffin: "Sleeping Beauty" was written from the perspective of two young siblings who are not fitting in to their parents' gendered desires for their personalities. I wrote the song with a back and forth between me and Nathan in mind (as we are siblings). We are two years apart and always shared toys and friends when we were kids. When I was little, I had a toy Batmobile that I totally loved and was pretty much inseparable from for about a year but when I was talking to my mam about it a few years ago, I referred to it as Nathan's toy. She was pretty baffled that even though it was one of my favourite toys and I have vivid memories of playing with it, my memory had re-written it as his toy. I was taken a-back, too, and started to think really critically about the point at which I started to police my own interests and desires based on my gender, as well as how others have, too.
The song is meant to reflect childhood innocence in a way, but also how children can have things a lot more sussed than adults before they get taught to think about themselves and others in arbitrarily restrictive and oppressive ways. While the subject is quite sad and frustrating (being deliberately misunderstood by the people around so that you subscribe to an inaccurate image of yourself that they want to see), I wanted the song to be a little hopeful, too. The kids are happy with themselves and with each other, and at least for the time being they are going to carry on as they are and ignore what their parents think.
Stephens-Griffin: I think "Sleeping Beauty" is a really important song on the album, in terms of tying it together thematically and showing a vignette of the social/structural pressures that can really mess people up from an early age. It was cool when Naomi played it for us, 'cause at that point we hadn't talked about trying to do an album that all tied together. "Gin and Listerine" is a song in a similar vein. The story is pretty familiar: it's about these teenage kids, getting drunk, their self-destructive behaviour, general teenage angsty recklessness and first (queer) romances. The intensity of the feelings can be totally overwhelming, and I guess this song is about the aftermath of first break-ups and helping friends pick themselves back up, and move forward positively. Both those songs end on hopeful notes, too, which is important.
Do the four of you have a "creation story"? Can you tell us about the beginning of the band?
Stephens-Griffin: 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, and all sorts of stuff. 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 tons 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.
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 U.S. 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, 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.
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.
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?
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 1984. 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 U.K., 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 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. 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 D.I.Y. in a punk context.
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. (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.) My dad was in one of those bands. That was my introduction to live music. This strong scene of predominantly cover bands that 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 U.S. bands like Bane and Count Me Out come through, as well as loads of touring U.K. 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 D.I.Y. scene, and that obviously influenced me, especially in terms of putting on 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 P.A. 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 D.I.Y. 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 tons 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!
Can you describe the moment when Courting Strong transformed from a bunch of songs into a capital-A Album?
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.