Interview with Nathan Stephens-Griffin of Martha | By John Silva
Martha are a good example of the magic that can happen when four individuals with equal status in a band collaborate to make something wonderful. They are decidedly non-hierarchical, and it suits them well, as their music has a warm, communal sound—the kind of sound that welcomes people in to the scene rather than gatekeeping. With catchy songs and DIY ethics that back up their political views, there is little not to love about the U.K.-based quartet.
Martha’s new album, Love Keeps Kicking, dropped April 5 on Dirtnap Records. Drummer and vocalist Nathan Stephens-Griffin takes a moment to share about the new release, existing in the DIY scene, band dynamics, professional wrestling, and much more.
What are some similarities and differences between being a DIY band in the U.K. versus the U.S.?
I think the big difference for me is the sustainability of touring a lot. The U.S. is so much bigger geographically, and in terms of the population, there is scope to tour for a lot longer without playing the same town or to the same person twice. That isn’t really the case in the U.K. specifically. A two-week tour in the U.K. would be really quite long, and you have to sort of be mindful about how often you tour, because you don’t want to overdo it—especially working with DIY promoters who are doing it out of love and probably need some variety. I think when we started out, we would play all the time everywhere we could, but now, we try to space out how often we play shows in the U.K. Part of that is keeping it special, but also especially with having full-time jobs too. Obviously, we have mainland Europe on our doorstep, and that means we can tour more without playing the same places, but with Brexit imminent, it is hard to say whether that option will still be open in the same way in the future.
What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in the DIY scene in the years you’ve been a part of it?
Honestly, things have changed so much since we started this band. DIY is something that has always necessarily been open to change and developing, and I think a lot of the old ‘red lines’ feel quite arbitrary in an industry based on digital revenue streams.
I read and think a lot about what DIY meant when the term first started being used in a punk context, and it was about literally being in charge of your own destiny and having autonomy in an anarchist sense but also about rejecting commodification of music and building an oppositional culture from the ground up, a critique of capitalism as a means of organizing an economy and a cultural landscape.
Implicit within that has always been the idea that bands explicitly reject corporate incursions into their world—by rejecting corporate venues, bookers, labels, festivals, etc. Nowadays, practically every band, DIY or otherwise, is in some way existentially tied to corporate interests—Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, etc.—us very much included. In engaging with those things alone, we’ve made lots of decisions that run against DIY, but without engaging with those corporate interests, I think bands would really struggle.
The thing I really think a lot about is Facebook, Twitter, etc. These websites are run by profit-driven, fascist-enabling, antidemocratic oligarchs who position themselves as “progressives” allowing you to “connect” with others. They harvest our information and sell it to advertisers for a huge profit. It’s like, every day, by tweeting [and] posting, we are filling out a sophisticated algorithmic advertiser survey so they can sell us shit more effectively. When we input our thoughts, feelings, interests, and our precious photographs, music, [and] art, we are generating the content and wealth that sustains them for free.
We sometimes get called out for being “fake DIY” these days, and I understand that and sympathize. I think the term has been completely appropriated by profit-seeking forces, and we’ve played a small part in letting that happen by calling ourselves DIY yet engaging with these corporate interests—sorry!—but ultimately, I see our role now as taking opportunities to articulate anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal ideas from the modest platform we’ve achieved. DIY was always a means to the end of critiquing capitalism, not an end in and of itself.
You have a song on Love Keeps Kicking called “Wrestlemania VIII,” making references to the legendary Roddy Piper. What do you think of the way the punk community has embraced professional wrestling over the past few years?
[Guitarist and vocalist] Daniel [Ellis] and I love wrestling, but I think proper hardcore wrestling fans would probably call us “marks.” The song is about falling in love—in a platonic or romantic way—and there is a character in the song who is going through a bit of a manic period and claims that Rowdy Roddy Piper and Maya Angelou have visited them in a dream. I think there’s a degree to which wrestling and punk are both mediums [and] art forms that have the reputation for being “childish” or “unsophisticated” but can tell some of the most compelling stories, so I think they go hand-in-hand. They are both often rejected by snobs as being “low culture,” but they speak to people in deep and profound ways, often just visually or sonically.
I also think there’s a degree to which adults can revisit cherished moments from their past through punk and through wrestling. It’s called “Wrestlemania VIII” because of the brilliant [intercontinental] title match between Bret Hart and Piper at that pay-per-view, which was a kind of passing-of-the-torch redemption narrative told almost entirely in the ring.
In Martha, you share vocal duties as opposed to just having one designated lead singer. That’s something that really shines on this new album. Was that an artistic decision you deliberately made from the start of the band or was it something that you found naturally?
It was always the aim to have a kind of collaborative process in songwriting where anyone can write or sing a song. We had all been in bands before, and that had helped us to have a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted the band to be collaborative in who is writing and who is singing. On the first EP, [2012’s Martha], we didn’t all sing lead, but we knew that was the ultimate aim, and by the first record, [2014’s Courting Strong], we had figured it out.
Maybe it’s because of the aforementioned shared vocals, but there is something very communal-sounding about your music. Is that communal or familial sound influenced by your anarchist politics?
Yes, definitely there was an anarchist element to having a non-hierarchical band structure and writing process. As weird as it sounds, we were also influenced by classic bands like Fleetwood Mac or The Beatles who seem to share lead responsibilities fairly seamlessly in their records. We were also influenced by anarcho bands like CRASS and Chumbawamba who had that kind of a-hierarchical process where different people would front songs but it wasn’t ever about one person being “the lead.” We like the idea that our albums will sound coherent and flow well, but it’s actually four different people contributing songs. It’s something that takes work, and ultimately, all of the songs are, to one degree or another, collaborative efforts.
A lot of your songs are really upbeat and happy-sounding, while the lyrics are often more somber. This may be best exemplified on Love Keeps Kicking by the title track, which is one of the catchiest songs on the album but has lines like “Sometimes I feel so empty / I just wanna leave it all.” When writing songs, do you have fun with that juxtaposition of joyful music and sad lyrics?
I think, certainly, we always want there to be some hope in there somewhere in the songs, but the newest album is probably the most somber we’ve done. I think that reflects a world that feels increasingly bleak and hopeless. There was a British pop punk band called Captain Everything from Watford who did that sort of thing really well in the early 2000s. They had a lyric, “I know it’s not a cool thing to do / Write a sad song with a happy tune,” and I like to think we’re carrying on that tradition.
The lyric you refer to in the question is from a song about someone going off the rails after experiencing the breakup of a long-term relationship, and I think lots of people have been there and can hopefully relate. It takes a degree of strength to open yourself up to falling in love again after going through something very difficult. There’s an inevitability that love will keep kicking the shit out of you all through your life, but there’s some hope in that.