Martha (The VH Interview)

Indie punks Martha have come a long way since first playing together in their home village of Pity Me in Durham. A cracking self-titled EP, which is still up on Bandcamp, got them on the radar of the much-missed DIY label Fortuna Pop, where they released their first two albums, 2014’s Courting Strong and 2016’s Blisters in the Pit of My Heart.

Now, they’ve just released their third record, Love Keeps Kicking, something of a breakup record that keeps the pogoing pop punk tunes that fans love about the band, but uses them to explore some more melancholy themes than we’ve seen before. They’ve just kicked off their UK tour with their biggest show to date, headlining the Garage in Highbury and Islington, London, and we caught up with Naomi, Nathan, Daniel and Jimmy from the band just before the show to talk about the new album, dealing with requests for old songs, and how the new record features hidden multi-album meta-concepts.

What have you been up to in the last few weeks?

NAOMI: We’ve just got back from playing some shows in Europe, we started in Belgium, few in Germany, one in Prague, then in Lille and now London. And then tomorrow we go back up and play in Newcastle.

And is this your biggest show to date?

NATHAN: Yeah, we headlined the Scala once, but that was part of a Fortuna Pop last ever show type thing, but in terms of a show where it’s our headline show, this is the one. It’s exciting!

You’ve got the Woahnows supporting…

DANIEL: Yeah, the new Woahnows record is really good

NAOMI: Yeah it is good, we’ve been listening to it a lot on this tour.

NATHAN: The other support is Irn Brunette – which is a solid name, a very Martha-y name!

NAOMI: Yeah they seem great, we’ve not seen them play before but we’ve listened to them online, so we’re excited to see them.

NATHAN: But also, Tim from Woahnows stood in for Daniel…

DANIEL: This is true…

NAOMI: We booked a tour before Daniel realised he had an exam for university.

DANIEL: Yeah, so I had to leave the trip for a couple of days, but I think Tim…

NAOMI: Tim did a great job, and we weighted the set to songs that weren’t as Daniel-heavy.

NATHAN: And we got no complaints!

DANIEL: Yeah good to know the band can carry on easily without you!

So the new album is out on Big Scary Monsters, that’s a new label for you, how are you enjoying working with them?

NAOMI: They’re great. From the off they’ve been so supportive and excited, and enthusiastic, which is what we wanted. It’s been a while since our last record, and the label we were on before no longer exists, so to start a relationship with a new label that is immediately so welcoming and enthusiastic has been really, really nice.

NATHAN: They’re willing to vouch for us, willing to say ‘these guys are good’ in lots of places.

And the album has just been released, how are you feeling now that it’s out there?

NAOMI: it’s been really fun playing shows and playing some of the new songs. We’ve played some of them live before, but not as many, and it’s been very exciting. It’s been kind of strange because the album came out and we immediately went on tour, you know, we’ve been busy playing the whole time since it came out, so it’s felt like a bit of a whirlwind.

NATHAN: It’ll be interesting tonight because we were playing countries where English isn’t the first language, and it’s probably different for other bands but the way we measure whether people are into a song is whether they’re singing along to it. There’s not been that much of that for the new songs, which is perhaps understandable, but tonight is going to be the real measure of whether people like it! You can’t get a better barometer than them singing it back at you.

NAOMI: Or just seeming visibly to be enjoying themselves

DANIEL: Not checking their watches, not yawning…

Right, but outside of people singing it back to you, how have you been enjoying the feedback you’ve been getting so far?

NAOMI: A lot of people have been very kind online, we’ve had private messages from a lot of people as well as more public support and excitement about it, which is really nice. Obviously we’ve anticipated it coming out for a long time, so it’s really nice that it’s been well-received. We’ve got quite a lot of positive reviews which is good, because we were very nervous about a third album – you know, how are people going to take this, is it too similar to the old stuff, is it too different from the old stuff, these kinds of things that come up with third albums. But yeah, we’ve been chuffed.

NATHAN: There’s kind of that thing of the live performance of an album is always going to have its own idiosyncrasies – you sort of feel out a song as you play it, and the more you play it the more you get to know it and it kind of becomes its own thing. I was just listening to the first album recently, and some of the songs that we play all the time sound so different on that recording, but they’re very well suited in the way we have them arranged now for live. We’re finding that process in these new songs as well – taking them out of the studio and into the real world, it’s exciting.

Is there anything from the old records that people come up and request that you don’t play so much – like 1978, Smiling Politely from the first EP or anything?

NAOMI: We do occasionally get a request for something that we’re like ‘bloody hell, haven’t thought about that in a while!’. We do mix up our set lists a lot though, we don’t do the same thing every night, or we have ones that we might bring back. Tonight we’re probably less likely to try out something we haven’t done for a long time, when it’s a big crowd, but generally we try to mix it up and play older stuff, but there are some songs that just fall off it.

NATHAN: I really like playing 1978, Smiling  Politely, but the thing that used to be good about that is that it’s like a big triumphant end, that song, and we have other songs that fulfil that – in the balance of the set you don’t want every song that has a big triumphant end or people will be bored…

NAOMI: Yeah, they’d be like ‘all right, we get it, bloody hell!’

You  mentioned that you didn’t want the record to feel too similar to the previous ones, to feel like its own thing, and it feels to me like it’s a more mature record – is that something that you were going for, or an unconscious effect of just being older people now?

JIMMY: I don’t think it’s necessarily linear how we make songs, we’re all in different places regarding how old we are and how mature we are. Honestly I feel like I’ve gotten way less mature in the last three years since the last record!

NAOMI: I think you get more aware of whether you should feel mature  when you get older, because you’re like ‘I should be now’. I think it’s fair to say that it’s more mature, and maybe some of the things that we spend a lot of time thinking about or worrying about are to do with the fact that we’re getting a bit older. But maybe also to do with how things have changed more broadly than the band and that that’s filtered in.

You’ve always been quite political and that’s come through in the music, but there’s much more heartache and heartbreak on this record

NAOMI: It’s definitely more sombre, in content maybe than how the songs sound…

Into This is lovely and has a really sad tinge to it, and Orange Juice too, but The Void is really interesting, because it feels really different for you guys – dark!

NAOMI: Yeah, deliberately so. Nathan do you want to explain what the void is and why it stands out, because it deliberately stands out on the album…

NATHAN: It’s a bit pretentious, but basically there’s a song on the album that’s the second part of a story that started on the demo. There was a song called the Ballad of Lucy Connor part 1, and there’s a song on this album that’s the second part of that. The first song tells the story of a struggling writer who’s working in a bar, who’s finding her identity shift from being a writer who works in a bar to being someone who works in a bar who writes, and that kind of soul-draining, dealing with people every night. That was always part one, and this is part two. She’s become very successful, she’s had a smash hit book, that’s blown up the charts, and there are people in her life who are toxic, who have treated her badly in the past, who are getting back in touch with her, trying to get their claws back into her because of her success. And in that story she has this story she’s written that is so harrowing that anyone who reads it is sent insane.  The story’s called the Void Behind Your Eyes, and she gives it to this guy who’s trying to get back into her life and it sends him mad. The Void is supposed to be that story, or at least has elements of that story. So there’s various layers of meta textual, or intertextual stuff going on – so that’s why it’s different, because it’s a story within a story. But also it is our AFI or our Alkaline Trio song. Those are bands that we love and we’ve always loved that dark punk type sound, so it was a way for us to play a song like that and have some arsey justification to do it!

Is it fun to play live?

NAOMI: Yes it is, I love any song where we’re all singing a lot, and there’s a time and a place for that, you don’t want to do it too much, but The Void is really fun and it just works. And it’s one of those where playing it live was very easy straight away. 

So, to sum up, what you’re saying is that everything Martha has done so far is actually part of a really complicated concept triple album?

NATHAN: Ha, yeah, we’re like Rush!

Having waved goodbye to the band, it’s time for the show itself, and it’s a great night. The brilliantly named Irn Brunette open the show, and encourage anyone who enjoys the set to find their ‘camp band on Bandcamp’. They fit into a great trend of fresh queer punk from London,  but they have a pop sensibility that gives them a sound that’s more B-52s than Limp Wrist. Woahnows are up next, and they tear through the hits on their new album Young and Cool, which is a bit of a indie power pop banger. There’s very little stage banter, but they play every song from the album from start to finish, and even if the band don’t radiate personality, the singer’s hair is so beautiful it hardly seems to matter.

When Martha do come on stage, they’re triumphant. They rip straight into the fastest song on the new album, Wrestlemania VIII, and the sold-out crowd sings along to every word – hopefully settling Nathan’s nerves a bit. It’s a great set that mixes in singles and highlights from the new album like Heart is Healing, Into This and Love Keeps Kicking with classics like 1997, Passing in the Hallway, Precarious (Supermarket Song) and 1967, I Miss You, I’m Lonely. The set ends with The Void, and, as suspected, it’s an absolute banger. They’re only off stage for about 20 seconds before coming back on and closing the show with Ice Cream and Sunscreen, Christine, and the brilliant Bubble in my Bloodstream, still probably the best Martha song.

The crowd clamour for a second encore that’s not coming – I think they’d happily watch Martha all night. It’s a shame not to get some of the new album’s other highlights, like Mini was a Preteen Arsonist (a personal fave), or even more surprisingly Orange Juice, unquestionably one of the album’s highlights, but when the album’s as stacked as that one is, it’s not surprising that they’ve had to strip a few out of the set tonight. Since the set varies from night to night, I’ll be hoping to maybe catch those when they play festival dates at Indietracks in Derbyshire, or If Not Now, When? in Oxford, or maybe at their absolutely enormous November show when they’re set to headline Heaven in London. And who knows, maybe I’ll even keep my fingers crossed for 1978, Smiling Politely.

Martha’s third album Love Keeps Kicking was released on April 5th Big Scary Monsters in the UK and the rest of the world, and Dirtnap Records in the US. They play 2000 Trees, Indietracks, Truck Festival, End of the Road, and If Not Now, When? this summer. For more info visit their site: http://marthapunx.com/

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