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Real Issues, Perfect Pop: Martha Return With 'Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart'

Tuesday, 05 July 2016 Written by Huw Baines

Among other things, Paul Heaton collects badges. They range from the wry to the political, from fast food mascot Mr. Wimpy and the mid-'80s kids’ TV show Wide Awake Club to buttons from the miners’ strike and Wapping dispute. Jumbled together, they represent the timeless and the anachronistic; a melding of grassroots protest and pop culture curios. “It’s a load of crap, really," he deadpanned in an interview with the Big Issue last year. "But it’s a little record of who I was and when."

Similarly, Heaton’s bread and butter when writing for the Housemartins and Beautiful South was to blend his appetite for social justice with an acerbic wit and melodies that took his words from the page and made them instantly accessible. Thirty years since Hull beat London 4-0, and with the UK dangling over a post-Brexit sinkhole, Martha are about to release an album that repeats the feat.

Hailing from Pity Me, a village a couple of miles north of Durham, the quartet - guitarists J. Cairns and Daniel Ellis, bassist Naomi Griffin and drummer Nathan Stephens Griffin - are a pop band reared on the DIY punk and hardcore scenes of the northeast. ‘Blisters in the Pit of My Heart’ is their second LP and, as Heaton’s work does, it uses observations of the everyday and mundane to frame political commentary, romantic entanglements and personal asides. Every song is a giddy headrush of hooks.

“When we started out, we were like: ‘Let’s start a pop band.’ We grew up on punk and hardcore and we do it the best we can,” Cairns said. “The Beautiful South were a truly radical pop band. They would sing about relationships and stuff, but dig into the more murky side. They were singing about real issues like the exploitation of the working class and domestic abuse. Their politics were right there. Real issues with the best fuckin’ hooks and the most perfect pop. They were a real driving force behind why we started doing this.”

Martha’s debut, ‘Courting Strong’, assembled the loose threads of their first EPs into a relentlessly catchy whole, fusing lived-in melodies with their anarchist beliefs, the unpicking of gender stereotypes and repurposed Rush breakdowns. It was home to the wild emotional swings of youth as the four clambered up the rungs of adulthood. ‘Blisters…’ finds them a few years older, still punk and determined to stay true to their beliefs while the real world nips at their heels. Throughout the record we find people grinding through their day-to-day, plucking bright spots from a work crush or soaking in quiz shows as temporary respite, much as the band wring purpose from spending their weekends and leave days playing music.

“There's an underlying politics to who we are as a band and as people,” Stephens Griffin said. “Whether we like it or not, that's going to trickle through into the music, so we try and acknowledge that the personal is political a lot of the time, and write about mundane stuff with an awareness of the structural, societal and cultural factors that provide the framework in which we exist. If we're writing stories, it's about trying to populate those stories with real people, and not the default figures you expect to see. Hopefully, we've done an OK job of making an interesting pop album.”

As its predecessor was, ‘Blisters…’ was recorded with MJ of Hookworms. It’s a grittier proposition than ‘Courting Strong’, but one that steadfastly refuses to let a moment pass without a hook flying from the speakers. Martha have four vocalists, meaning many of their home truths are delivered along with irrepressible harmonies, while their literate reading of pop has on this album extended to taking notes from Alex Chilton, recent tour mates Radiator Hospital, Thin Lizzy, Heart and the Replacements, whom they liberally reference on the album’s final song, St. Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive).

“Their ability to work with each other is pretty amazing,” Trust Fund’s Ellis Jones, who sings on Chekhov’s Hangnail, said. “They’re pretty punk in their ethic and the scene they grew up in. Much more punk than me, who grew up in a twee indie-pop scene. They’ve got the ability to emphasise through volume and dynamics, but the songwriters they love are not from punk. It’s Paul Heaton, Big Star, Carly Simon, what I would call technical songwriters, who know how to do it. They’ve got a technical understanding of music but also an understanding of what will work live. I’m sure it’s not so thought through as I’m putting it, but they just know what they’re doing. They’ve put out two albums without a bad song on, which is pretty unbelievable.”

St. Paul’s is one of a number of songs to cast a glance over its shoulder to ‘Courting Strong’ and, in many ways, ‘Blisters…’ is an album with the past on its mind as well as the future. At times it uses hindsight to evaluate the significance (or lack of) in long buried events, but it also revisits themes and narrative devices close to the band’s heart.

As ‘Courting Strong’ single Sleeping Beauty did, by rejecting the idea of gender-specific interests for children, St. Paul’s examines the institutionalised pressure placed on young people to conform, this time at a Catholic comprehensive. The band dedicate the song to “the kids who had the guts to be queer at school and for those who didn’t figure themselves out until they got out of school”. On Goldman’s Detective Agency, meanwhile, Emma Goldman, a prominent figure in early 20th century American anarchism, is invoked as her contemporary and sometime sparring partner Voltairine de Cleyre was on Present, Tense. For Martha, these references are not idle.

“We’re staring into a horrible, fascist abyss at the minute,” Cairns said. “We really need to look at how people dealt with shit in the past. Emma Goldman is such a good example of the people we should be looking to. Maybe not some of her more vanguardist actions, I’m not going to condone everything that she did, but she was so good at engaging with marginalised communities and speaking to people in ways that weren’t alienating. We really need something like that now. Someone who really speaks the language of people who are being oppressed. If someone can listen to our song and think ‘fuck, who is this Emma Goldman?’ and become the next Emma Goldman, or is at least a little bit inspired by that, I hope we will have served our purpose as a band.”

‘Blisters…’ is also a very romantic record, with its longing glances and flings informed by the band’s life experience and commemorated with tins of Irn-Bru and stick and poke tattoos. Martha don’t identify with the glitzy romcom set but, on the song of the same name, they see plenty to root for in Coronation Street’s Curly and Raquel, as well as their soap neighbours Roy and Hayley. On the same track, a crush is solidified by an act of rebellion, namely the spray-painting of ACAB on the wall of a village hall, much as one was when Griffin sang on ‘Courting Strong’ of falling for the defiant Maureen, who laughed off bollockings for smoking and provided a distraction from looming GCSEs during 1997, Passing in the Hallway.

“Curly and Raquel is about trying to understand love and relationships with limited means,” Stephens Griffin said. “Growing up, the stories we paid most attention to weren't Hollywood romcoms they were stories about normal looking weirdos from a made up part of Manchester. And that informed our own first romances. That song is about a formative moment where a potentially foolish, and doomed, act of rebellion, ends up being the catalyst for a love story, and also for a person’s journey into punk and activism. The classic falling love with the bad boy trope, but in this story, it's falling in love with the punk kid with the studs and mohawk who is railing against authority and the system. Love makes you do reckless things like bad tattoos, and so does punk and the two have always gone hand in hand for me.”

Cairns added: “There’s nothing better for bringing two people together than being given a shitty tattoo in a van somewhere down the country. You're really sharing stuff. To a big extent we develop our own conceptions of reality and romance through the stuff we see on TV. Curly and Raquel are a really good example for us, anyway. Curly’s this big nerd and they had this crazy, tumultuous romance. Roy and Hayley, again, represent that romance isn’t heteronormative. There’s lots of different romances and how we learn to love and relate to other people is so important to navigating life anyway.”

The album’s two streams cross on Precarious (The Supermarket Song), where a budding romance is thwarted by work schedules that won’t play ball. Like many of the best moments on ‘Blisters…’, hope and the real world butt heads as the melody rattles along, with outside influences casting a long shadow across something that we like to believe is universal and open to all. “I’m a person, you’re a person,” runs the refrain. “Nothing else is really certain.”

“Supermarket Song started out from this idea where this potential 'romance for the ages' kept getting stalled because the two people involved couldn't get their work calendars to match up,” Stephens Griffin said. “And about how tragic that is, and how capitalism literally kills love. We've very clearly moved into an age of forced precarity, zero hours, fixed-term instability. We can't plan for the future, we can't put money away, we go where the work is. It's the way that capitalism has managed to undermine a century of workers’ rights struggle via the back door.

“I know many people whose relationships have come under great strain because of needing to move to find work or pursue a career, or just to put food on the table. The song is about two people who fall in love cursing their employers, and who hate the fact that their days are spent in this terrible place when all they want to do is run away together. There are lots of parallels with our own lives there, certainly.”

Martha are a band who believe in the power of a pop song. So often dismissed as throwaway, in their hands three minutes and a bag of hooks can become an open-ended discussion to be revisited time and again. Theirs is a world where the shoots of romance will always appear in the cracks. As Cairns puts it on Do Nothing: “I was cursing my old car and you were looking at the stars. You said: ‘Everything is infinite, but nothing is eternal.’ Naive romantic shite, I thought, until I wrote it in my journal.”

‘Blisters in the Pit of My Heart’ is out on July 8. 

Martha Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri July 08 2016 - LEEDS Wharf Chambers
Thu July 14 2016 - DURHAM Arlington House
Sun July 17 2016 - GLASGOW Audio
Fri July 22 2016 - LONDON Tufnell Park Dome
Sat July 23 2016 - BRISTOL Exchange
Wed July 27 2016 - DURHAM Empty Shop
Fri August 05 2016 - DERBY Hairy Dog
Sat August 06 2016 - BRIGHTON West Hill Hall
Wed August 10 2016 - HARROGATE Major Toms
Thu August 11 2016 - KINGSTON Hippodrome
Sat August 13 2016 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Cluny 2

Click here to compare & buy Martha Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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