Interview by Gareth Ware
When you think about it, the North East has come out with a fair few brilliant bands. Bryan Ferry. Field Music. Kenickie. Maximo Park. The Futureheads. That’s just off the top of your head. Recently, the Martha/ONSIND collective have been making a valiant effort to add their name to this rather special roster, and this year it’s the latter guise’s turn to wow the crowds. Sitting somewhere between Billy Bragg and Milky Wimpshake’s Pete Dale, they hit the site armed with savagely perceptive, wilfully intelligent and politically charged numbers. Ahead of their church stage set we tracked down Nathan during their US tour for a chat.
Last year you played under your Martha alter-ego. Did you have any preconceptions about the festival and did it live up to expectations?
Our only preconceptions were good ones. We’d heard a lot about it, and the fact that it was in a railway museum and that people played on trains and stuff, and we thought that sounded class. If anything it was even better than we expected. Everyone was super welcoming and friendly to us as first timers (and people who are a bit out of the loop), and there was nice vegan food options and generally really lovely vibes all weekend.
Having already played once do you think your relationship with the festival has changed in any way ahead of your return, and if so how?
Having played before and having seen the main stage and how it works, we both know playing as Onsind is gonna be a different experience altogether and were both quite excited and nervous about it. People who go generally seem to be open minded and willing to give you a chance, so hopefully people will come and watch us play! But even if they don’t, it’ll still be a great experience!
Martha and ONSIND songs seem quite different in terms of topics – the former seems to be about nostalgia and interpersonal relationships, the latter more political. Is that an accurate depiction and what else would you class as the main differences between them?
That seems like a fair assessment. I guess I don’t see the two as being that different lyrically, but it’s true that the very straightforwardly political stuff tends to be Onsind. We generally think that everything has the potential to be political in the right context, and so there’s lots of stuff in Martha about feeling like an outsider and how people’s expectations of you can conflict with your own desires when growing up, that are quite political at their core (songs from the new album like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Gin and Listerine’). Or even the class politics of living in a small north east town, under successive welfare state abusing governments. From a songwriting perspective, Onsind has been going for a lot longer and we’ve had more of a chance to make mistakes and learn and explore weird niches that Martha hasn’t. For example, a couple of years ago Onsind released a record all about movie characters (Mildred, Margie, Annie, Clarice). That was really fun to do, and generated some of what I feel are the best songs we’ve written. I couldn’t see Martha doing something like that, at least until we have a couple more albums under our belt!
Have you ever found yourselves working on both projects at the same time and if so is I difficult to compartmentalise ideas?
It isn’t a major source of stress. Everyone in Martha has other musical projects, it just so happens that Daniel and I are both in both bands! If something isn’t working for one band, we tend to know at the very early stages and switch it up. We also tend to write in blocks, like, late last year we all had a Martha writing block, and that’s what most of the album came out of. I’m getting ready to write some new Onsind stuff, so that makes it easier; knowing the project you’ll be writing for before hand. I guess it’s like if I was an author, and I was writing two different novels at the same time. If bits seem like they’d work in the other one, they can be moved, but generally, it’s clear where we are at all times.
Many people will know ONSIND as mainly an acoustic project but at least year’s Oddbox Weekender you came out in full band guise. Which will it be at Indietracks this year and what type of performance are the songs written in mind for?
The full band shows were really fun, but definitely a rarity. Indietracks is gonna be the classic Onsind show. Our drummer lives in London, and is in a couple of pretty active bands himself, so we’ve only ever done 5 shows as a full band (in 7+ years). We write everything acoustic, and in that sense they are written with a small acoustic show in mind. That’s why it’s gonna be scary to get up on the big stage and play. But we just played Plan-it-X fest in the USA to a few hundred people and it went okay, so that makes us feel better! We both have been in heavier/punker/louder bands in the past, and when we started Onsind, we knew we wanted to tour, and have flexibility to play shows wherever/whenever. The beauty of it, is that we could play on the train if we were asked, and it would be our actual set up. Full band stuff is great and loud and punk, but at our core we’ll always be Nathan and Daniel playing acoustic guitars and singing in someone’s kitchen.
Let’s talk about some of your covers that have sprung up on the interweb over the past few years. It must be quite nice to strike a balance between the pretty serious nature of your lyrics by dicking about under bedsheets singing Proclaimers songs. Is it something that’s quite important to you?
The first thing to say about those is that they spawned out of an unholy alliance we’ve formed with our dear friend and Washington, DC based queer punk icon David ‘Spoonboy’ Combs’. We toured the West Coast of the USA with him in 2012, and listened to a lot of satellite radio during the looooooonnng drives, and it was just as ‘call me maybe’ was blowing up, so we heard it about 15 times a day (and loved it). We all love pop music anyway, and we decided to do some covers in funny locations on that trip. It’s cool to play and arrange stuff from outside of your specific genre and also do stuff with an unashamedly pop mentality. I think as we’ve gone on as a band, we’ve realised that it’s difficult to negotiate being ‘political’ as a band. There are so many expectations and stereotypes about what it means to be political, and lots of them don’t fit with us. We’re not buskers. We don’t write songs to change people’s minds. We write about stuff we care about, and that tends to be political stuff (but is almost always through a personal filter of some kind). Even the preceding sentences have us seeming like overly earnest people, which I think people who know us in person know is off the mark. We love pop music and having fun, and so we have the situation where our set is full of songs about austerity and mental health crisis, and then our merch is pictures of us as sesame street characters. But, that’s the path we’ve taken, and people generally get it. So, the short answer to your question is, ‘yes!’.
I imagine things have been quite busy over in that there Pity Me Durham with the release of the Martha record, but what does the future hold for ONSIND and what are you most excited about?
Onsind is gonna do a new 7″ at some point, and we’re gonna try and do some weekend tours in the autumn. We’re playing two shows with our friend Erica Freas in early July, which we’re very excited about. Indietracks is up there in terms of our excitement too. Who knows what people will make of us?
Who are you most looking forward to seeing at Indietracks this year when you’re not playing. Who do you think people should absolutely not miss?
So many ace bands! No Ditching, Spook School, Allo Darlin, Just Joans, Joanna Gruesome, Okinawa Picture Show, Elopes, the Flatmates, Withered Hand! Loads I’m forgetting probably- those are just off the top of my head! Basically everyone is awesome! If there’s two bands not to miss, for me, it’s No Ditching and Spook School (but I’m biased as hell)!
Lastly, for the uninitiated can you give a snappy soundtrack outlining what people can expect from an ONSIND live set and why they should come and see you?
Songs about depression, anxiety and the brutal impact of a neoliberal kyriarchy in our daily lives. And occasionally a Nikki Minaj cover.