Monday, September 12, 2016

10 Questions for Martha

"Courting Strong was about punks growing up. Blisters is about grown-ups who stayed punk."

Martha are four people from Durham. Together, they make noisy indie pop that is emotive, socially conscious, and a whole lot of fun, all at the same time. The band's debut album, Courting Strong, was one of my favourite albums of 2014; their new record, Blisters in the Pit of My Heart, came out earlier this year, and it is every bit as good as its predecessor.

A fantastic listen from start to finish, Blisters is made up of eleven  songs that cover everything from relationships to menial employment to influential anarchist Emma Goldman. I've been listening to it a lot, and so I was thrilled when two of Martha's members, Nathan Stephens-Griffin and JC Cairns, very kindly fielded a few of my questions about their new album for this blog...

Photo from (Nathan Stephens-Griffin far left; JC Cairns far right).

The Album Wall: Let's start with the new album's title. The phrase 'blisters in the pit of my heart' appears in the lyrics of Ice Cream and Sunscreen, but why did you decide to name the whole record after that line?

Nathan Stephens-Griffin: We were originally going to name the album 'Christine' after our friend Christine from Milky Wimpshake; we had the song about her, and it seemed to sum up where we are as people and the kind of central thesis of the album, with the visceral, messy, terrifying side of life juxtaposed with love and romance and companionship.

But as we're already called Martha, having another name as the album title seemed actively daft, and in discussing other options we thought: is there a lyric we can use? We'd done that with the first album, with the line about how "we were zipping our sleeping bags together, we were whispering 'Pity Me Forever', we were courting strong". And that line from Ice Cream and Sunscreen in particular jumped out because it's the same thing again, the visceral coupled with the romantic. So we went with it.

TAW: The lyric sheet that comes with the Blisters in the Pit of My Heart CD is a bit Manic Street Preachers in that certain songs are accompanied with quotes from people like Terry Pratchett, Emma Goldman, The Replacements. What were you hoping to add by including these? Were the quotes chosen to fit the songs, or were the songs themselves inspired by those quotes?

NSG: I've got to be honest and say I've never really listened to the Manics beyond their hits, sorry. So I can't say we were trying to replicate them. But it's something Daniel and I have always done with our other band Onsind, is to have a quote. I think it can open up the song to new, different interpretations, or it can just be a nice cool thing. We didn't do it for every song, but we did it for a couple. Daniel is really good at finding fitting quotes, and so we shoved them in.

TAW: Is the title of Chekhov's Hangnail a deliberate reference to the narrative principle of Chekhov's gun (which states that every element of a story should be there for a reason - e.g. don't tell us in Chapter 1 that there's a gun hanging on the wall if it's not going to be fired later on)?

NSG: In short, yes. The song is about the self-destructive tendencies that come with anxiety and depression, and those clichés about suffering or bleeding for your art. Like, I bite my fingernails to the point that I can't play guitar or drums sometimes, to the point that I bleed, and that's a fucked up physiological result of being horribly anxious.

So I guess the gun hanging on the wall in Act 1 is the hangnail, and the smoking gun is all the ways I hurt myself, one example being my butchered cuticles staining the page, and I guess another being locking myself away and retreating in on myself like in the song Do Nothing. I don't want to be too prescriptive about what it all means, but that was the logic of it.

TAW: I was a bit sad to see that Blisters doesn't continue the Martha tradition of prefacing song titles with years à la 1997, Passing in the Hallway and 1967, I Miss You, I'm Lonely from Courting Strong. (It's fun to imagine you guys Quantum Leap-ing into a variety of sad and frustrated people from different decades.) Why did you start doing this in the first place, and why - assuming that 11:45, Legless in Brandon doesn't count - did you choose not to do it this time around?

NSG: Do you want to know the real reason why we did it? I can tell you if you like, but isn't it better to have the mystery? I guess we didn't do it this time (other than with Brandon) because we didn't want something that seemed fresh and interesting in the first place to become predictable and stale. We might go back to it. We might go back to looking backwards predominantly, but I think a lot of this album was about the present, and that's why a year didn't really fit with any of the songs. A time does though.

TAW: Blisters contains several references to dull/menial jobs in shops and offices - I'm particularly thinking of Precarious (Supermarket Song) and Do Whatever. Do you guys have much experience of working jobs like these? Have you ever struggled to fit band stuff around people's work schedules?

NSG: Between the four of us we've done a lot of different things, often dull/menial. Right now, we skirt between professional and unemployed quite rapidly. We struggle really badly with fitting band stuff in and it's kind of a humongous bummer. Hopefully things will ease up a little next year, but the past couple of years have been very frustrating in terms of not being able to do as much as we'd have liked due to other commitments. I'm currently in a fixed-term contract and it ends in December, so I'll go from being financially viable but busy to skint but free.

TAW: In Goldman's Detective Agency, you re-imagine anarchist Emma Goldman as a sort of hard-boiled private eye investigating corrupt politicians and police officers. Is the "crime scene that looks like an abbatoir" your metaphor for the current state of affairs in this country? And if so, do you feel like any real-life person or organisation is capable of taking that particular case right now?

NSG: Haha, good question. I think the gruesome crime scene in the song is just that, a gruesome crime scene. Again, I don't want to say you can't interpret it another way, but I love detective fiction and we wanted to do a song that was like an alternate history. When you have a critical perspective on criminal justice and policing, it's a bit weird to be rooting for the cops all the time.

One of the principles of anarchism is replacing authoritarian systems of rule with egalitarian, non-hierarchical systems, and I think an anarchist might be well placed to 'solve crime' in terms of the crime itself and the broader political context that allows crime to occur. Paradoxically, though, I don't think we should be looking to one person to solve stuff for us; we should have faith in ourselves and each other.

TAW: The last track on this album is sort of an homage to The Replacements, but the lyrics use the language of religion ("we are not worthy to receive you", "blessed mother""holy Mary", et cetera). Did any members of Martha have a particularly religious upbringing? Would you say that both music fans and religious zealots are getting basically the same kicks, just from different sources?

JC Cairns: I went to a Catholic primary school and comprehensive school. It felt pretty suffocating; like, religious language and ideas are what you're encouraged to use to express yourself, and everything you do is for God or Baby Jesus or whatever. At the same time, though, I'm drawn to the drama of it all (like "we are not worthy to receive you" - that shit is so over the top). But then when you get told every day of your life that you're basically a piece of shit in the eyes of this Baby Jesus, that's hard too.

I don't think fandom and religion are the same. I guess they can get caught up in the icky sticky of worship and whatever - and being religious doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a zealot - but, y'know, whatever gets you through the day. Just don't be a dick, right? I'm looking at the rockists and fanatics here.

TAW: What would you say is the overarching theme or concept that ties Blisters in the Pit of My Heart together? How does this album differ thematically from Courting Strong?

NSG: Courting Strong was about punks growing up. Blisters is about grown-ups who stayed punk. This album is about trying to find the time, energy, money, and strength to keep making art and doing cool shit and travelling and participating in the weird and magical world of punk and DIY.

TAW: One of the tracks on Blisters is called The Awkward Ones, which seems like a good name for the official Martha fan club. Is that how you'll be referring to your followers from now on? (I'm mainly asking because of this tweet.)

NSG: I think that hashtag was saying we're the awkward ones, rather than people who like us! But maybe us being awkward appeals to people. I don't want to insult anyone! All I know is, I'm awkward and anxious as fuck and I kind of hate it, but it feels good to just admit it and not have to try and pretend to be normal. I'd love it if someone would start an old fashioned pen and paper write-in fan club, though. We could do, like, enamel badges with 'The Awkward Ones' written on them. Like Blue Peter badges for softy-punx.

TAW: Lastly, what's the best Milky Wimpshake album? I've got Popshaped and My Funny Social Crime (they were both going cheap in Fopp's second-hand section), but are there are other CDs of theirs that I ought to hear?

JCC: Bus Route to Your Heart is class. It's nearly 20 years old. Isn't that wild? The Wimpshakes were slaying the sort of thing we've been trying to do since before I was born! (I'm joking. I'm actually pretty old). Songs like Noam Chomsky Versus The Ramones - cute songs that are political but also fun as. I dunno how Pete would feel about me calling them cute, like, but they totally are. Dialling Tone off Lovers Not Fighters is one of my favourite songs ever, too. So yeah, Bus Route or Lovers Not Fighters...but then their most recent LP, the one they did with Sophie Evans, is amazing too. Damn. So much great stuff.

One of the tracks from Milky Wimpshake's latest album Encore, Un Effort.

Huge thanks to Nathan and JC for their time and for their very insightful answers - Blisters in the Pit of My Heart is available now from Martha's Bandcamp page as well as from your local record store, probably.

Further Reading:

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