Though things have been feeling somewhat apocalyptic of late, Martha aren’t ready to soundtrack the end of the world quite yet. With their fourth full-length, ‘Please Don’t Take Me Back’, the Durham power-pop quartet are back to do what they do best: turn despair into joyous defiance.
“I think we’ve always been about despair: the first track on our first album is called ‘Cosmic Misery’, so that was a prologue to everything,” laughs guitarist and vocalist Jonathan Cairns (aka. JC).
Take a quick glance at the track list for ‘Please Don’t Take Me Back’, with song titles such as ‘Every Day The Hope Gets Harder’ and ‘Total Cancellation of the Future’, and you may be inclined to think that Martha have chosen to lean further into the abyss, but drummer and vocalist Nathan Stephens-Griffin insists they remain buoyant.
“I hope there is some hope in there. There’s a song called ‘I Didn’t Come Here To Surrender’, there’s ‘Beat, Perpetual’ – these are songs about keeping going. It felt more and more surreal and weird to make music when there’s a pandemic killing millions of people and trying to tour and release an album when there’s a Cost of Living crisis; there are so many weird contradictions. But the point is that we should do it: we need music, and we need art and friendship and all the things that this band has brought us.”
While they have always focussed heavily on nostalgia, “singing songs about the past through rose-tinted spectacles”, as Nathan puts it, and using old photographs as record covers, after over ten years of being a band and given the current circumstances, it was important that Martha looked to the future with ‘Please Don’t Take Me Back’. Indeed, the infectious title-track sees the protagonist long for glory days before begging their ex-significant other not to take them back, realising, “I was really fucking sad; the old days were bad.”
“It’s an album about the future. About what the future is and how we need to make our own because they’ve cancelled ours,” states Nathan. “There is a future! The defiance of it is to be in the present now after all the shit that has happened and things seeming so bleak. Saying let’s not go back; it wasn’t good enough before, so let’s make it better.”
It was inevitable that the album would feature the theme of loss: both personal grief and what we have lost as a society, but in true Martha fashion, the band have chosen to take that sadness and spin it into gold. While the band all struggled, JC in particular really felt the difficulty in things coming to a grinding halt with the loss of his livelihood.
“My whole life before the pandemic was touring, I’ve worked in live music for years now alongside being in a band, and when that suddenly disappeared, I really didn’t know what to do with myself,” he explains. “The track ‘Beat, Perpetual’, came right at the start of lockdown. It’s a trucking song – God, I was going stir crazy in the house, and that’s what I tried to bring across. It’s a whole new world out there, there’s all these new roadblocks, but the future, which is the recurring theme in this, isn’t looking as bleak as it once was. There are some boxes to tick and hoops to jump through, but we’re going to keep the rock’n’roll show on the road.”
Though politics have always played a big part in Martha’s music, with all band members sharing a passion for political activism, the issues have always been framed quite subtly through a personal lens in their songwriting. The new record, however, is perhaps the first time that the band have made an overtly political statement.
“Yes, I suppose if you call a song ‘FLAGBURNER’…” ponders Nathan. “We knew what we were doing in that respect. This record generally, particularly ‘Every Day The Hope Gets Harder’ and ‘FLAGBURNER’ as a pair, are the first Martha songs that are just straightforward, overtly political with a capital P. ‘FLAGBURNER’ is more of a story about two people who have known each other for a long time and have been through a lot together but have found their love for one another in politics and resistance to the shit that we’re living through.
“We are political people and are always doing political things, but the songs have tended to be more personal with the politics in the background. There are a couple on here that are a lot more to the front.”
Having been a band for over a decade, you can track the evolution of Martha’s sound through their releases. Of course, that sense of fun, of tongue-in-cheek mischief is ever-present, but ‘Please Don’t Take Me Back’ feels like a much more grown-up version of Martha.
“Whether it was faux-naivety or actual naivety, our earlier stuff had that freshness; it was a little ramshackle,” says Nathan. “We were never the band turning up to a gig with the snare drum in a Bag for Life, but we were from a world of music that was very DIY and very organic. Now I think we’re quite a ruthlessly well-oiled machine in terms of writing power-pop music – in a good way.
“I think this is our best record yet. We’re lucky that we’re four songwriters, four singers and creative people (the band is rounded up by Daniel Ellis on guitar and vocals and Naomi Griffin on bass and vocals) who all bring demos to the table and rather than there being a big argument there is a complete lack of ego. We have to actually convince each other that what we’re doing is good. We’ve become very good at writing within the idiom where we exist, and we’re happy to be in that place. If in twenty or thirty years people remember Martha as a power-pop band, I’ll be extremely happy about that.”
Martha have always felt like an ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ type of band: never quite hitting the mainstream but attracting an army of die-hard fans. Given their ability to write absolutely life-affirming bangers (“What’s the point if it doesn’t bang?!” laughs JC), it’s hard to believe they’re not pop-punk mega stars. With what we’ve all been through in the last few years, Martha feel more vital now than ever.
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Martha’s album ‘Please Don’t Take Me Back’ is out 28th October.