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Martha Premiere Video “Precarious (Supermarket Song)”

UK pop punk outfit Martha search for love amid workplace pressures in their latest video

/ September 13, 2016

Photo by Stephen Landles

The video for “Precarious (Supermarket Song),” the latest single from UK pop-punks Martha, shows no trace of the four humans who comprise the band. The scenes include a lot of people, of course – most of them close friends of the band, all running through streets, supermarkets aisles and so on – but none of them actually perform the music on the song that soundtracks the video. The video also includes no scenes of the Martha bandmates’ hometown of Durham, a working class town five hours north of London on the A1, or anywhere near it. It was filmed nearly 4,000 miles away, across the ocean, in another country. It is, according to drummer Nathan Stephens-Griffin, the best video they’ve ever made.

“Precarious” is the second official video project from Baby Pony Food Productions, the newfound production house from Washington, D.C. musicians David Combs and Ben Epstein. The Martha foursome know Combs and Epstein well. In their various bands, the musicians have toured together, released split EPs with one another and starred in each other’s videos. While Combs and Epstein have filmed music videos together before, it is fitting that Martha soundtracks one of their first videos as a proper production house.

Combs and Epstein’s “Precarious” video is very precisely Martha, in every way. An international network of DIY artists allowed the band and the production group to make the video from across an ocean – it is filmed entirely in DC – while avoiding the top-down, corporate music machine everyone involved strives to eschew. The video uses the quest to capture a wind-swept bowler hat – chased by the talented Ariana Stone – as a symbol for our pursuit of love amid the crushing pressures of work and consumerism. “When you gonna get off work?” the band asks throughout the song. It the end, the stumbling chase is exhausting but at least temporarily overcome, as a human bond is made despite it all.

I spoke with the band and Combs about the making of the video, the motivation for the song and others on Martha’s recent LP Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart, and whether living in bad times makes for better art.

RON KNOX: First of all, tell me about the video – the location, the cameos from Max Levine and Radiator Hospital – how did that all come about? And what’s it like filming a video for a punk song in a Trader Joe’s in the middle of Washington, D.C.?

Nathan Stephens-Griffin: We actually didn’t have a lot to do with the video other than asking David and Ben to make it. We’ve made our own videos in the past, and we’ve always really looked up to the David Combs/Ben Epstein (Baby Pony Food productions) filmmaking partnership and so we knew we wanted to ask them to do something for us on this album, and we trusted them to do a good job! Sadly, we couldn’t be there due to transatlantic constraints, but we were so happy with how it turned out. I think it’s definitely the best Martha video yet.

David Combs: It’s funny to me that the scene reads as being at Trader Joe’s! I thought we were more sly about that. Punks tend to be service industry workers, and I, like the characters in the song, am precariously employed in the service industry. My experience is that musicians’ network and figure out which businesses are decent to work at and allow flexible schedules, and that network led us to Little Red Fox, a local business which is where we shot the majority of the grocery store sequence. They were actually really stoked to be supporting our art.

However, since it was such a small space, we DID shoot some footage at Trader Joe’s to create the illusion of a bigger grocery store. In contrast, here’s how that went: We followed Ariana around the store with cameras for upwards of 2 minutes before security kicked us out, and that was all the footage we needed.

As far as how working on the video came about, I think it’s a nice example of the reciprocity of the international DIY punk scene. Folks in Martha have taken our bands on tour when we’ve been in the UK, and I’ve taken one of their bands on tour in the U.S. Nathan even co-directed a video for my old band when I was in the UK once. It’s a creative exchange that I really value.

JC Cairns: It’s funny, I think most of our videos include footage from grocery stores, supermarkets, corner shops and so on. Maybe we’re like accidentally a grocery rock band. Can that be a thing?

To me that reciprocity is integral to DIY culture in general, like David says it’s a creative exchange – it’s not just a small scale reproduction of a mainstream capitalist system. We work with friends to create the art we want to make and to be able to contribute to and share in a culture that crosses oceans is something really special.

“Precarious” is a really sweet, catchy song, basically a love song, but there’s this thread of, like, existential dread woven into the narrative. Like: It’s great to fall in love, but now we have to do it in supermarkets with our managers yelling at us, or while we’re buying anxiety pills! Please tell me this is meant to be hopeful, that we can still connect with each other amid the muck of late capitalism, and not just like: “Woof, sorry, this is reality now, good luck out there.”

Nathan: I think there’s a sliver of hope in there definitely. It’s a song in the power pop tradition of unrequited love as well as being a song in the punk tradition of acknowledging the structural and political systems that oppress us. It’s kind of linked to one of the overarching themes of the record, which is the way that different things (in this sense capitalist relations of production) can be a huge obstacle to us doing the things that make us want to be alive, like falling in love, or playing in a band, and about doing what you can to find the time and energy to still be creative, and make those connections, and still make shit happen, even when you’re completely worn out and fed up.

Naomi Griffin: As someone who is constantly precariously employed this is a really important song for me on the album. As much as I would love some stability occasionally, there are ways to exist in this pretty crappy system we have going. I guess you could read it as a bit of a downer but I see it as more realistic and hopeful, that there’s a reason we keep trying to do the things we need to to keep going. I need pills to help me feeling ok and that’s ok, it’s just how it is. I also find and make connections with people through the ways I struggle, though that’s probably not a very positive message, it’s the truth. I also (and us as a band) make music, and forming and maintaining relationships and friendships is a priority in our lives regardless of how difficult that can be at times. So I’d like to say the focus is on the positive but acknowledging the constraints and difficulties. Maybe?

It’s kind of linked to one of the overarching themes of the record, which is the way that different things (in this sense capitalist relations of production) can be a huge obstacle to us doing the things that make us want to be alive, like falling in love, or playing in a band, and about doing what you can to find the time and energy to still be creative, and make those connections, and still make shit happen, even when you’re completely worn out and fed up.

There seems to be the same thread of existential crisis throughout much of the new record – there’s a great line in “Chekhov’s Hangnail” about it. Was this just emotional/philosophical place the band was in when writing the album, or something else? Like, just your world view maybe?

Nathan: When we were writing it, I felt like “Chekhov’s Hangnail” was a song about anxiety and depression. In particular the way that those things act in tandem in this circular, cyclical way in my life sometimes, and the sort of self-destructiveness that comes with being an excessively anxious person, literally ripping your nails and hair to pieces and giving yourself horrendous stomach pains, muscle cramps, and then falling into a depressive spell afterwards from all the exerted energy. And living with these things can feel like this unwinnable war, but then that is kind of exactly the reason why you should keep trying to do stuff and be creative.

So it’s linking back to that theme of trying to still make stuff even when you’re struggling with your mental health. But then when I took a step back from the lyrics I kind of saw that there’s this whole other level to it, like a political level, and with the way things have been going politically lately, the line “when it rains, it really fucking pours” really rings true, with Brexit and the wave of hateful racist rhetoric that preceded it and the explosion in hate crimes that followed it in the UK. It feels like the world is closing in and everything is horrible, but we need to try and keep going regardless.

Naomi: We definitely had a lot of conversations about this stuff in the lead up to the album. The sorts of songs we were writing about came out of the sorts of things we were thinking and feeling. Martha has always made an effort to sing about our own lived experiences, what we know best essentially, even if told through fictional characters and plots. I guess it probably comes through in the album that when we were writing the album we were all closer to 30 than 20 and really feeling new pressure that were maybe not there, or less apparent, when we were younger punks.

I assume all of us would take the alternative in a fucking heartbeat, but do you think really disheartening and dangerous moments like these – Brexit, Trump/Clinton, refugee crisis, drone bombs, etc – make for better art? I think back to all of the really important art made during and at least tangentially because of Reagan/Thatcher, and then to all of the incredible art and music that’s been made recently, particularly in the US in the wake of a lot of really heinous police killings and other things that have taken place over the past three years or so. As you said, there’s this blend of despair and anger and hope in the new record. We can only make the art according to the times in which we live, right? But do you feel as if these internal and external pressures make for better songs and albums?

Nathan: I think it’s hard to say, because you’re right, historically it does seem like good art comes out of bad times. But then again, having the time, resources and energy to create art and music is a privilege in and of itself that isn’t afforded to everyone, so it can be a slippery slope to say that good art comes from bad circumstances. If society was more equal, if everyone had stability and had their basic needs covered, maybe some of the best art ever would emerge. Who knows?

Our aim should be a society with arts funding, education and everyone on a level playing field, and we need to be careful not to romanticize the Thatcher era (etc) as a great time for art, especially because things are probably worse now than they were then, and it historicizes something that is still present.

Looking at it from a different point of view, there is a probably lot of good art that isn’t born out of anger or resistance – I guess things like the Simpsons, or Seinfeld or some happy music, or something maybe? I don’t know. But conflict, in whatever form, be it personal or structural, always seems to be fodder for creativity.

For me personally, being in a position of precarity in my job/life, or being skint, or going through a rough patch regarding mental health has actually often been a huge barrier to creativity. Daniel and I play in another band called Onsind which is much more explicitly and directly political in the traditional ‘punk band’ sense, and with all the horrible shit that’s been happening, people keep saying to us, “I bet the new Onsind album is writing itself” but it hasn’t been inspirational, it’s just been numbing and exhausting. So I don’t know really. I think the important thing is that certain kinds of art can provide catharsis and a point at which resistance can occur culturally.

Our aim should be a society with arts funding, education and everyone on a level playing field, and we need to be careful not to romanticize the Thatcher era (etc) as a great time for art, especially because things are probably worse now than they were then, and it historicizes something that is still present.