Ahead of Nervus’s forthcoming third album Tough Crowd, which is out September 26th on Big Scary Monsters, we were able to grab a few moments to catch up with singer and guitarist Em Foster. Today, the band release the second single from Tough Crowd – They Don’t, which follows the excellent Flies released earlier this year. In our chat we talk at length about the song and its stinging message of police brutality, how the song has already proven controversial at their live shows and why Nervus are publishing a companion zine alongside the single. When we spoke the band had just finished filming the video for the song, which you can now watch below:
We also talk about the upcoming album, how Em invented ‘campfire punk rock’, calling out Young Blood on Twitter and how she feels about that platform, Nirvana’s live at Reading ‘92 set, pretending Morrissey is dead, the desperate future ahead for Britain and the climate change-induced end of the world. Oh, and the toughest crowd she’s ever played to as well, because I couldn’t resist asking.
What’s the title ‘Tough Crowd’ about?
It’s called Tough Crowd because we toured with Cultdreams, and the drummer of Cultdreams, Connor, would make jokes, and if people didn’t respond or laugh immediately, he would say ‘tough crowd’. And I feel like that’s kind of what it’s like being in a band. If you’re releasing stuff, whether it’s a joke, or an album, and you’re like I can’t wait to tell this joke, or release this album, and no-one really cares, so you’re like ‘tough crowd’.
The last couple of albums have gone down well though, is that something you’ve experienced before, or are fearing this time?
We just thought it sounded cool. When we’ve named our albums – it’s quite difficult to name records, so we literally name them anything. So, the first one was just something Paul came up with when we were at the pub one time. And then Everything Dies is a Type-O Negative song, and we thought that sounded pretty cool, and Tough Crowd is something Conor from Cultdreams said a lot, and we thought it sounded cool.
Forgive me for this one – total ‘music journo’ question, but what’s the toughest crowd you’ve ever played to?
One of our earlier shows was probably our toughest crowd. We supported this amazing band called Weaves at The Boileroom in Guildford, and it was quite a busy show, but it was very arms folded – the crowd weren’t giving any indication of whether they liked it or not, but they stayed there, and that kind of made it worse. At least if there’s some kind of communication between crowd and band you can work on it, it’s a two-way street that you can build on, even if they hate you. But if you literally aren’t getting anything at all… and the way we used to light ourselves was entirely from the back, but the lights weren’t quite bright enough to light any of the crowd, or us, so it was almost like we were playing completely in the dark. We couldn’t see them, and we couldn’t really hear them, but we knew they were there, because we could just about make out their silhouettes with their arms folded. But shout out The Boileroom, because we enjoyed playing there a lot when we started out.
This album feels much more accessible than the last couple of records, was that a conscious choice?
We basically got together and made a rock album, and put a bunch of things that I or we were angry about lyrically over the top of it. Musically it was really fun to make. We’ve gone harder on the lyrical content than we have before, so the fact that it’s more musically accessible is probably a good thing.
Well politics has always been a big part of your songs, and particularly on this album – like Burn is one of those rousing campfire songs…
I think that on this album I’ve invented something called ‘campfire punk rock’ and you can quote me on that!
That’s exactly where I am in my head when I’m hearing it…
Yeah but make sure you quote me on saying that ‘I invented campfire punk rock’!
I also saw that you called out Young Blood for projecting an ad for their new album onto the houses of parliament – do you think that bands have a duty to respond to the world around them?
I think I do. Music for escapism is fine, but I think that if you’re skirting politics in the way that Young Blood is without saying anything at all, and you’re using the façade of political music to sell records about absolutely nothing – then you’re a dickhead. I think artists have a responsibility to use their platforms to do good, and I don’t think that everyone has to write political music, but if you’re projecting something like ‘there’s hope for the underrated youth’ on the houses of parliament at the point where Tory austerity is killing people in the thousands, it’s self-serving and shitty. If you’re not doing anything else to back that up, or if it doesn’t carry any other kind of message, it just seems vapid, hollow and narcissistic.
So you think it’s important to hold yourselves in a way that has substance and value, particularly when you have those kind of resources and platform – and particularly when you have young people looking up to you who might be looking for a bit of guidance on politics…
But you know – I’m 30, and I might be completely wrong about this. Young Blood’s fans might think this is incredibly powerful, everything that’s going on is wrong, and that’s why he’s projecting it onto the houses of parliament, and we are young, and we will fix it. Even though that sounds like a potentially hollow message to me, I’m not youth, so I could be completely wrong. But to me it seemed like there are plenty of things he could have projected onto the houses of parliament, and none of those things were an advert for his new album.
On the album, it feels like all the songs are designed to reflect the world around us – I know you’ve said before that Flies is about feeling let down
Yeah Flies is about feeling let down by people you look up to. It’s partially tongue-in-cheek, in the way that when people you look up to let you down, if they let you down bad enough, you’ll sort of be like ‘well fuck them’, which is reactionary, and not a particularly progressive way of thinking about things. But people naturally think like that, and I think it was partly us exploring that side of things. You take people like Morrissey – they played an important part in many bands that I love, and I really rate earlier Smiths stuff, but now I like to pretend that he is dead, because he’s a fascist. And I met Jonny Marr the other day and he is lovely, so shout out Jonny Marr. It’s about people you look up to slowly morphing into people who you didn’t think they were, and whether or not that was a projection, dealing with your own projection of who you thought they would be, and your expectations, and them actually being shitty. But that’s the least political song on the record, apart from I Can’t Dance.
I Can’t Dance is great, though, and Fake is a really great song too – it really sounds like a Nirvana song…
Thanks yeah, that was kind of what we went for – I recorded all of the guitars live, like the whole part live, in terms of playing it in the studio room with the pedals, and just going through in one take. Nirvana was definitely a thing, trying to harness the energy of their live at Reading 92 set, because I was listening to that a lot and I was like ‘this sounds incredible’
What’s it about?
Fake was a weird one, because it was one of those stream of consciousness songs, and I think it was mainly really about how I don’t want to have to pretend to be anything I’m not for the sake of being in a band or writing music. I’m passionate about politics, I don’t want to have to reign that in for the sake of selling a few more albums. I’m a trans woman, I don’t want to have to hide that in order to exist generally. There’s so much mask-wearing that you do in order to just live life and please people, and I don’t want to do it anymore – I’m tired.
Let’s talk about They Don’t.
They Don’t is about police. The police as an institution don’t keep you safe, especially if you’re trans, or have mental health issues, or aren’t white, or are poor, or are homeless, you know? I wrote it after an experience I had with police on tour, and I have bad experiences with police on tour all the time. I’ve been thinking of a way to adequately sum up my feelings about the police, so we’re going to try and release a zine alongside the song to give people some information. Police often have slogans like ‘keeping communities safe’, where in 2017-2018, 4 in 23 of deaths in police custody were detained under the mental health act, some of whom died as a result of police force, or police restraint. There have been 1713 deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. And the proportion of BAME deaths in custody where restraint or use of force is a feature is over two times that of other deaths.
With the zine, we want to sort of compound what the song is about, and the song really comes from a place of ‘I go about on tour, and I get hassled from the police for various things, but I’m spared some treatment from the police because of how articulate I am, and how I speak, or the colour of my skin’ – literally those things will prevent me from falling victim to police brutality or restraint. So I wanted to explore those things more through a zine, as it’s difficult to do the topic justice, because it’s really complex, and I feel like the zine will go little a bit deeper, and explain how I feel about police, and how I think a lot of people feel about police. It’s already been quite a divisive song, in terms of playing it live – we’ve had a few people walk out. It is what it is, some people don’t like to think that – some people don’t like to acknowledge the privileges they have, because it’s uncomfortable.
I feel like the police generally speaking tend to protect private property and money. I don’t doubt that there are some people who go into the police force with the idea of keeping communities safe and helping people out, but unfortunately statistics don’t lie. You can manipulate statistics any which way, but statistics don’t lie, and there are massive problems with police institutional racism in the UK, in the US, all over really. Essentially the police do the work of the government, they’re the meeting point for the government and society, and they enact their wishes. When the government decides that they want to increase stop and search powers, that inevitably has a knock-on effect on people being stopped and searched, and black people are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched – well, that was a statistic in 2017-2018. There are some real institutional issues with the police, and They Don’t lightly touches on that, but doesn’t really do it justice – that’s why it’s coming with the zine!
So, what do you want people to take away from the album?
I think that what I want people to take away from the album is 1) your voice is worth something, but 2) so are other peoples’, and please listen to people when they have something to say. Because unfortunately what you end up with when people don’t listen is you end up saying more polarising things, and more extreme things in order for people to pay attention to you. I’ve found myself doing it, and I think people find themselves doing it, and I think Twitter is an example of that in practice.
Twitter is a hellscape.
I think Twitter is a good place to actually start conversations, but the only way that you can start a conversation is by having a very polarised, or polarising opinion in saying that, because otherwise it just fades into the background. The way that algorithmically everything works on social media and especially twitter is that people don’t see things if someone’s a bit like ‘well I think we should do this’ it’s more like ‘you’re a cunt’ and that’ll be what gets people’s attention. And then you’ll come off twitter and have conversations in real life, and I think that that’s a good place to bring up things that you couldn’t necessarily bring up. I feel like, I can’t be bothered with it anymore, because I feel like my energy is better spent on other things, but I definitely do think that some of the stuff I’ve been a gobby shit about on Twitter has been good for people to have been able to see and then have actual meaningful conversations outside of that medium. But generally speaking it is a fucking food fight – it’s like walking into the biggest food fight of all time opening that app, people just hurling hot dogs at each other.
I wanted to ask about how the music industry can better protect LGBT people, but does it run deeper than that?
The industry can better protect people by putting people above profit and paying people a living wage. But some of the things that cause you issue as an LGBT person aren’t necessarily directly related – or rather they are, but it’s not like direct harassment for being LGBT, it’ll be mental health issues, or instability of income, a lot of LGBT people experience homelessness. A third of employers in the UK would not hire someone if they are transgender – according to a recent report. There was a poll done by YouGov that showed that people don’t want to hire trans people, because they’re trans people – probably why I play music to be honest, because I can’t get a job doing anything else. It’s a joke, but it’s partly true… I think the industry can’t necessarily do anything to directly protect us other than provide better working conditions, and that I think is something that is true across the board, and better living conditions – I don’t think that people should have to pay so much of their income that they’ve earned to a landlord who every now and again comes round and fixes your boiler – or fail to fix your boiler. When you ask if there’s anything the music industry can do to better protect trans people, it’s a difficult question, because it feels like anything you can do is sort of like attacking the symptom rather than the cause, and a short term solution to a long term problem of inequality in society.
Not exactly a cheery note to leave it on! Let’s lighten it up with a question you won’t be able to answer – what’s your favourite song on the album?
I think it’s got to be Where’d You Go. No chorus, massive riff. It’s also very spiteful, which I enjoy – it’s basically about how all those people who are most privileged in society, when they eventually come to face the reality of what they’ve done to the planet they likely won’t have struggled ever, and will probably end up struggling a lot more than people who struggle most of the time. When it eventually comes to the point where people are drowning in their own houses because climate change has gotten to a point where people can’t exist anymore – and that does happen, but not in the white western world. We have physical distance away from things that are happening. This song is basically about how when climate change finally comes to the doorsteps of the people who have essentially caused it – not that I want this to happen, because ideally we can reverse this before it is like this, but it’s sort of a hypothetical. The money you have amassed by destroying the world will not buy you out of the destruction that it will cause.
And in the narrative of the song, do they look back and care?
In the narrative of the song, essentially it’s someone saying it’s difficult, but you’ll work your way out, because life is of course a meritocracy. I don’t want to give you too much help, because you might end up relying on it – and relying on help is not good according to Tories, and the rich, and the privileged. It’s kind of like we spent all this time learning how to build a boat, and you spent it all burning oil, so now we’re off, but we haven’t got space, sorry mate, see you later.
I love it, dripping with spite!
The new Nervus single They Don’t is out now, and the band’s third album Tough Crowd is out September 27th, both on Big Scary Monsters.
Nervus are out on tour for the new album, catch them at one of the dates below:
27th September – The LP Café, Watford
28th September – BSM’s Big Day Out @ Moth Club, London
29th September – Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham
30th September – Banquet Records, Kingston
1st October – The Wheatsheaf, Oxford
2nd October – Bloc, Glasgow
3rd October – Head of Steam, Newcastle
4th October – Conroy’s Basement, Dundee
5th October – The Parish, Huddersfield
20th November – Supporting PUP at Electric Ballroom, London