Jul 1, 2016
Martha Is Britain’s Best-Kept Pop Punk Secret
Heartache is pop music’s default emotion, the primary feeling described, dissected, and romanticized in thousands of songs each and every year. Every so often, an artist comes along and achieves the near-impossible, finding a new melody or turn of phrase to express anew that old, tiring feeling of heartache and once again make it visceral. For Martha, the four-piece pop-punk band from Northeastern England, it was a simple phrase in a sad-sack ode to summertime disappointment called “Ice Cream & Sunscreen.” Watching their crush’s sunburn peeling and ice cream cone melting, the song’s narrator interrupts the chorus to announce a feeling that must be communicated at once: Blisters in the pit of my heart, the band sings in unison, blisters in the pit of my heart.
That perfectly succinct pop phrase, which the band liked enough to use as the title to their second full-length album, Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart (out today) suggests an open rawness and deep sensitivity, qualities that could be just as well used to describe Martha’s music. Comprised of Jc Cairns, Daniel Ellis, and siblings Nathan Stephens-Griffin and Naomi Griffin, Martha have been playing music together for the past five or so years. “Four sober vegans playing punk pop and ripping off Motown classics.” That’s how Cairns describes the band’s earliest days, when they formed at a monthly dance party held in a small bar above a fish and chips shop in Durham, England. They still live in Durham, or more specifically, in a town called “Pity Me,” but really, on the lead-up to their second record, Martha need anything but.
The band, which trades off lead vocals and shares songwriting duties, are progressive, bookish twenty-somethings who gracefully weave larger ideas about gender identity, mental health, and the trappings of late capitalism into small-scoped narratives of personal disappointment and awkward heartbreak. On their thrilling 2014 debut, they laid bare their mission statement of sorts in a song called “Gin & Listerine”: “Still figuring out what it means to be adolescents, indefinitely: fresh but not clean / Here but not new / Queer but not gay / Young but not cool.”
While that debut, Courting Strong, introduced the band’s penchant for writing pop hooks set to heady subject matter, their new record doubles down on their strengths and establishes Martha as one of the most exciting and fresh young bands working today. Their latest album has the uncanny ability to make anything and everything into a gleeful sing-along, whether the subject matter involves cutesy supermarket flirtation, obscure 20th century anarchists, the numbing effects of depression and anxiety, or the endless virtues of Paul Westerberg.
Part of their increased sense of melody was the result of the band’s evolving listening habits, which over the past couple years included more and more power-pop from acts like Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Big Star and Nick Lowe. “We wanted to make it bigger and poppier, but also make the heavy bits heavier and sad bits sadder,” says Nathan. “’867-5309′ by Tommy Tutone was a song we listened to loads in the van. We thought, if we ever get close to writing a song as good as this, it’ll be a miracle.”
One of the other foremost influences on the record was the Replacements, a band the group cites as a primary influence. In high school, Nathan became so smitten with the Minneapolis foursome that he had a custom shirt printed that said “Westerberg High.” Blisters closes with a direct nod to the group in a song titled “St. Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive).” At first, the song comes across merely as a lovely ode to the 80’s group, with lyrical nods to Replacements classics like “Bastards of Young” and “Kiss Me on the Bus.” But talking with Jc Cains, who wrote the song, it becomes clear there are much deeper layers of homage taking place.
“It’s a song about queerness in a Catholic comprehensive school,” he says. “‘Androgynous’ was maybe the real driving force behind this song. I wanted to tell a similar story, but against the backdrop of the everyday in a County Durham comprehensive school.”
One of the most wonderful moments of Blisters, and yet another instance that shows the way in which Martha’s music can operate on so many different levels, comes during the lead single “Goldman’s Detective Agency.” In the song’s second chorus, the band begins chanting the words “It’s so unjust!” several times, set to an irresistible catchy melody.
For weeks, I found myself constantly singing those three words to myself wherever I went, until I eventually decided to read the lyrics to see what the song was actually describing as “unjust.” The previous line in the song, I soon discovered, is: “And the cops are so corrupt / All protected by the politicians / In these wicked cults.” A catchy hook, sure, but with something important to say.
During an interview on the eve of the album’s release, three quarters of Martha (guitarist Daniel Ellis, having prior plans to see the brand new Harry Potter play in London, was unable to participate) were just as charming and thoughtful in conversation as they are in their music. Asked what they think of constantly being labeled as a mixture of “DIY, anarchist vegans” in just about every story on the group, Nathan explains that they’re mostly proud to be described thusly.
“We believe in autonomy and self-determination and cooperation and resistance and equality and the values of anarchism,” he said. “Saying you’re an anarchist, in my experience, often means you spend all day reading really long old books translated from Russian. To me, it’s about a vision of a perfect world. And mine is one where there are no gods, no managers and no one exploits anyone else for profit or power. Being vegan is one way I stay true to anarchist ideals every day. I don’t think god created animals, and I certainly don’t think we have a right to treat them like commodities, so I try my best to avoid participating in industries that exploit and kill them.”
As for their relationship to DIY (the band’s Twitter handle is @MarthaDIY), the band’s new record will be released on the Pacific Northwest indie punk label Dirtnap Records, but they shrug off those who think their brand of DIY is inauthentic because they release their music through labels. “DIY doesn’t mean bands should automatically play for free,” Stephens-Griffin said. “Artists deserve to be paid, and should be supported. If you assume that everyone can pay their own way without help, then you make DIY a playground for rich, middle class– and usually white–hobbyists alone.”
Apart from having a label and a publicist to promote their new record, there’s little work in the band that the four members don’t handle on their own. “It might be easier for us to get a booking agent or manager,” Stephens-Griffin admitted. “And it would certainly help from an industry perspective, but frankly, we couldn’t give a shit.”
So many records that get billed as depictions of young twenty-something malaise tend to focus on messy romance, sloppy indulgence, and regretful mistake-making so intensely that they often gloss over, or else mythologize, the daily circumstances that young adults share most closely: student loans, the dull shock of nine-to-five repetitiveness, economic uncertainty, or, as the band puts it, “precarious employment.” But if there’s one recurring tension on Blisters, it’s this very negotiation between work and fulfillment. As it turns out, the most radical thing about Martha’s latest album has nothing to do with the band’s identity politics but rather, their insistence upon turning their honest, deeply unsexy daily struggle with the financial realities of emerging adulthood into entertaining, relatable, high-stakes pop music.
For the members of Martha, all of whom have maintained various day jobs as substitute teachers, tour bus drivers, college professors, and historical reenactors over the past few years, the ongoing difficulty in balancing artistic passion with adult responsibility became the very premise of the album. “I think the theme on the record of us struggling to manage our different lives is something we’ve all been feeling, and me especially,” Griffin explained. “That feeling of trying to balance a lot of things to be able to maintain a strong relationship with punk and feeling like a lost punk kid in a grown-up’s body.”
That tension manifests literally, on songs like “Precarious (Supermarket Song),” when the narrator bemoans the state of “neoliberal precarious employment” and on “Do Whatever,” where the protagonist remains unable to rid herself of the anxiety she suffers at work. But it also runs more generally through the spirit of the entire record, whether its during the weary optimism of the chorus to “Chekhov’s Hangnail” or on “Do Nothing,” when the main character’s bout of depression forces them to call in sick from work.
“There’s the classic thing of having time but no money, or money but no time,” noted Stephens-Griffin, who is currently teaching Sociology at a University in a position that affords him little job security. “That’s kind of what the record is about in a way. It’s about trying to stay punk, keeping up your energy, and staying creative whilst also paying rent and whatnot.”
Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart is out today via Dirtnap Records. Stick it to the man by buying it here.
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