“I use this pen, for words I dare not speak. I use these strings, for words I still can’t say,” sings ‘A Retraction’ on Nervus’ debut album. Figuring out depression, addiction and life as a transgender woman, ‘Permanent Rainbow’ started out as a record of isolation. An exercise in self-exploration. The songs weren’t written for anyone but Em Foster, and it wasn’t meant to be heard until her best friends wanted to get involved. Giving them an excuse to hang out, how could she say no?
Paul Etienne, Karl Woods, Jack Kenny and Em set about taking those quiet reflections and dialling them up. It’s then that Nervus became Nervus. Finding strength in shared experience, the band took those sad, lonely songs and made them sing. A little joy here, a glimmer of hope there, the idea that maybe things would get better played out in real time as they realised they weren’t alone. As the album spread and the live shows brought things into reality, more people came to the same realisation.
“That writing process was me addressing a bunch of stuff that I hadn’t previously addressed. I offered myself the room to explore my identity, but I didn’t necessarily pay all that much attention to the self-acceptance or the self-love parts. Since we released it, the reception has been great. I wasn’t expecting there to be an audience. I didn’t expect anyone to give a fuck really. Releasing that album was for me, and it was my shy way of coming out to people that I knew but not well enough to tell them, or didn’t feel like I could do it, face to face.”
Inspiring a reaction through its stain glass honesty and fractured power, ‘Permanent Rainbow’ sparked, connected and inspired as people found themselves within it and the band rolled with whatever came their way.
‘Everything Dies’ is more direct, more urgent. “I think the record is great,” beams Em. “Listening back it’s like, ‘Bloody hell; there are loads of songs on this album. I don’t mean there are loads of tracks; all the songs are good songs.” Using every bit of free time they had last August, in-between work, touring and playing in other bands, Nervus recorded their second album while the ideas were still shiny. “The idea of going into this studio-slash-my-bedroom fresh and having a small of time to record means you retain a lot of the energy of newness.”
From the curtain rise of ‘Congratulations’, telling tales of how rigidly gender is enforced from the cradle to the grave, ‘Everything Dies’ encourages you to be the real you, even if that you will be hated by some. But who needs those people anyway? “A lot of this album is me trying to accept myself again.”
“If I spoke in full about the things that each song is about, we’d be here for hours,” warns Em. When it came to writing the bio for the record, she tried to summarise it as being “about life. But that’s so shit. Everyone writes about life, that’s literally all you have experience of. Life is your only experience. That’s base level stuff, come on.”
“Things often get boiled down to gender identity, but ’Everything Dies’ covers everything from the stress we put on our environment as a species and a critique of capitalism, to how I’m constantly using metaphor to explain my feelings, which has the duality of being a good thing – because people can interpret it their own way – and then a bad thing – ‘cos people close to me listen to it and say, ’Did you mean this?’ ‘No, I did not’. ‘Medicine’, for example, is about how difficult it is, in terms of the bureaucracy and the way the NHS works, to be able to get what you know you need because you have to tick these boxes. It’s a song about overperforming or playing the role and ticking the boxes in order to be able to bypass gatekeepers or get it right. The record is super broad in terms of what it’s about and what inspired it. It really isn’t just a case of ‘All these songs are about being trans’.”
“If you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s common ground,” sings ‘Skin’. “I spend so much time trying to be accepted, I expect it will never even happen,” reasons ‘The Way Back’. ‘Everything Dies’ bristles with that feeling of discomfort, of alienation, of not belonging. “I mainly write lyrics to work out how I feel,” explains Em. “Leaving space for people to interpret that in their own way is important because it’s important for me to be able to interpret what I’m writing. Bands like Alkaline Trio, who don’t have very direct of diaristic lyrics, their songs have changed for me as I’ve gotten older. The songs have the ability to morph into what you want them to be.” And that’s what Nervus want ‘Everything Dies’ to be. “To be able to have that room for the songs to morph and change shape with the listener is super important and what art is about. Not that I’m calling our album high art ‘cos it’s not,” she grins. “It’s a punk record.”
“This record is a lot more straight to the point. Personally, I’m still as guarded, and it makes me feel quite anxious being so open and direct, but when I was writing those songs for that first record, I was still figuring it out. I mean, I’m still figuring it out now because you’re always still figuring stuff out. The concept of ‘Everything Dies’ is really just getting stuff out in the open and saying tangible things about how I feel, how I see stuff and how I see queer people get treated generally, and dealing with that in the context of recovery, addiction and how that all plays into it. I figured, I can’t hide behind metaphor forever. It’s not diaristic; this is how I feel.”
And how Em feels is angry.
“We started on it before ‘Permanent Rainbow’ even came out. The way that things have changed in terms of coverage of Trans people in the media, and this doesn’t apply to the rock press necessarily, but it’s horrible. The shit that I constantly read just sitting on the front pages in shops when I go in to buy a carton of soy milk, it’s just horrible. When I came out, my friends and family, generally speaking, they were all very understanding and accepting. Obviously, no one gets it fully straight away, but it was generally a pretty good experience. I feel very lucky and grateful for that, so I didn’t really have any angst in regards to my own actual personal relationships, but it became more apparent that generally speaking the way that trans people are treated in the media and by society as a whole is awful.
“There was a report from Stonewall [an organisation that campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain] that came out today. 50% of trans people hide their identity at work. I used to be one of those people, and obviously, that intersects massively with race. I’m white, I don’t see the sharp end of that violence or the sharp end of that discrimination, but I’m angry. There’s a lot of anger in the lyrics. There’s still that vulnerability and shyness that was on the first record, but it’s a lot more… not self-assured because I wouldn’t say I was self-assured in any way – but it’s a lot more direct in dealing with what it was that made me feel shy or made me feel nervous. This record is just generally a little more feisty. A little more fuck off, basically.”
The anger is more constructive than destructive. “That’s the best way to be angry. The best way to use your anger is constructively. Screaming’s great, but we’re not that band. In terms of processing those feelings, yes saying fuck this and fuck that is helpful originally but realistically, you’re not going to take much away from that. If anything, lyrically it’s me trying to turn those feelings of fuck this and fuck that into something constructive to be able to function as a normal human in society without wanting to completely retreat and never speak to anyone ever again because of the way it’s so relentless. It was almost an exercise in restraint; how angry can I be on this record without it sounding angry.”
‘Everything Dies’ is resilient, full of pride and refuses to let fear overcome. “My favourite thing is being able to listen to stuff that makes me feel not afraid. I constantly feel afraid, so I wanted to write something that would make me feel less afraid. If that has the byproduct of making other people less afraid, that’s what we’re aiming for.” ‘Everything Dies’ has two reasons to exist. One, to make people, including the band, feel less afraid. Two, for fun. “I feel like a lot of the stuff we talk about and sing about is super serious, but our sense of humour hasn’t been dislodged at any point. That’s important too, to not let people grind you down until you become a humourless lump. It’s important to take bullshit with a pinch of salt, to not be afraid and to try not to be sad really. I hate that word, sad. I’m sorry I used it.”
“People go out and see live music ‘cos they want to have fun. When we’re playing ‘Bones, I’m thinking ‘my god, this is so sad. There’s almost no redemption. There’s no uptick.’ I do like that about it,” but a whole set of that would be crushing. ‘Everything Dies treads such a fine line between what the problem is and what I can do about it. Instead of saying fuck everything, there are these moments of hope. I remember we spoke about them being on ‘Permanent Rainbow’ and realistically, I didn’t feel like there were any moments of hope on that record but there are on ‘Everything Dies’ because I needed to believe them. I put them in there. I didn’t necessarily feel them, but I needed to believe them at the point I was writing the songs ‘cos it all felt, and still does feel, a bit much.”
It wasn’t hard to put hope into a hopeless place because “it was necessary. I’m trying not to be a queer punk cliché, but you’ve got albums like ‘It Might Get Better’ by Jesus and His Judgemental Father, ‘Try To Be Hopeful’ by The Spook School and I think that uncertainty is prevalent. Trying to retain that hope is an important thing especially when you feel like there might be none. It was important. It wasn’t difficult to do ‘cos I know I needed to do it because it’s a way of shaping your album as a writer. If you can deal with your feelings and put in how you’d like to feel alongside those, you could potentially achieve that. I’d hate to be the person that went onstage and offered people absolutely no hope. That would be irresponsible. I couldn’t do it. It would be a lie.”
‘Everything Dies’ still finds a home for unspoken truths and scarlet bloodlettings but this time out, the band know their voice will be heard. They’re still only speaking for themselves, but they know people will see their own experiences reflected in that. ‘Everything Dies’ “is for anyone who needs it. I tried to write something I could listen to when I feel insecure or shitty or shaken, or a bit cast out. It’s for anyone who needs the reassurance and validation that you need as a human, whoever you are, but it’s especially for trans, gender non-conforming people and queer people who have their very existence debated constantly in public, almost forever. It’s especially for those people, but it’s very much for anyone in terms of self-validation and healing. It’s for anyone who feels angry at how they’ve been treated.”
‘Everything Dies’ sees Nervus continue to swell. They’re constantly finding a new audience, and that growth isn’t slowing down anytime soon, which comes with its own set of worries. “I’ve been playing in bands for a long time, and there’s a lot of shit people in music. My only apprehension about that is the anxiety of standing up to those people and saying no when you need to. Also, in terms of getting beyond that DIY punk bubble, it comes with increased responsibility in terms of who your fanbase are and making sure you’re not saying anything irresponsible. It’s just being responsible to the audience as it grows and making sure you’re not selling yourself short on what you believe in the process.”
Not that Nervus are aiming for anything in particular. “I try not to have any expectations really, just because then it’s more fun. We don’t expect anything but its fun to see how people react to stuff. The thing that drove the first record was owning our own music on vinyl, and that’s the same for this record. The rest of the band are my best mates, and I love making music with them. That’s it; there’s no ambition. To be honest, it doesn’t make any difference to us what happens with it. We could sell one copy; we could sell a thousand. Either way, ‘cool’. We’re just trying to have fun, and I’m just trying to get out all of my whatever it is I need to get out.”
Nervus’s album ‘Everything Dies’ is out now. Taken from the March issue of Upset – order your copy below.