By Jade Curson
(Illustration by Jack Fallows)
These days, Daniel Ellis and Nathan Stephens-Griffin are more likely to be recognised as one half of queer-punk rising stars Martha, but the pair have also been collaborating for more than a decade in Onsind. Playing in two DIY bands alongside other full-time work and school obligations is an ongoing masterclass in time management, so I’m not too surprised when my intended trip to Durham for a tour and a chat is negotiated down to an hour on Facetime, squeezed in before the two head off for band practice with Martha. In fact, when my call connects, one member is missing; Ellis is out of the room, otherwise engaged. This is to be expected, perhaps, given the number of projects in which both are involved. Is he working on something for one of his bands? Has he been struck by a last-minute burst of inspiration ahead of the practice he’ll be heading to right after this interview? Or is he engrossed in some just-remembered homework for the occupational therapy qualification he’s also currently working towards?
“He’s taking the bins out.”
Well, not all parts of a DIY punk lifestyle can be cool. A few minutes later Ellis joins us – his binbag replaced and his chores complete – and we get down to talking about Onsind, accountability and the lyrical shelf life of bashing Tories, ahead of the release of their new album We Wilt, We Bloom.
Having grown up on the same street in the town of Pity Me, Durham, the pair have known each other practically their whole lives. “But I’m a couple of years older than Daniel,” Stephens-Griffin says, “and when you’re at school that’s a big age gap.” It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, when their paths crossed in the local punk scene, that their friendship was solidified. As their respective bands started to break up as people moved away or went to university, they decided to start writing together. “We wanted to stay creative and do something a bit different that neither of us had done before,” explains Ellis. Stephens-Griffin elaborates: “It was at that point where normal people are going away to uni, starting their life, finding a marriage, and all that other stuff that people do. And we didn’t. We kind of informally married each other, and we’re still happily married.”
And they married young – Ellis was just 18 when the pair started making music as Onsind. In their drive to do something different, they started writing acoustic punk songs. This, of course, was 2007: Frank Turner had only just released his first solo album and independent venues across the country were yet to be plagued by mediocre copycat singer-songwriters. “At that point it wasn’t overdone,” says Stephens-Griffin, “the whole acoustic punk troubadour thing. Around that time I saw Frank Turner play on a bill of four hardcore bands in Hartlepool, doing his toilet circuit after Million Dead. It felt fresh and exciting to be doing acoustic punk stuff then.” There were also logistical benefits to being a fully acoustic band. “We made that decision because it was just easier for us to lug stuff around,” says Ellis. “Practically it was much easier,” agrees Stephens-Griffin, “because there was just two of us and guitars. We toured Germany on trains. That was quite liberating, not having to bring a whole backline.”
When Onsind began, they were both at university and as such had relative freedom to put time into their writing, or an impromptu tour of Germany. But as they soon learned, there can also be drawbacks to starting a band so young: “Ultimately in this era, if you make art when you’re 20 it’s still going to be around when you’re 31,” says Stephens-Griffin. Anyone who can remember the songs or prose they wrote in their teenage years can surely understand the peril of these being readily available for scrutiny on the internet. But the problem for Ellis and Stephens-Griffin was a bit more complex than simply having some embarrassing poetry aired.
From the very beginning, Onsind have written political songs. The way in which this manifests in their lyrics has changed over their decade together, but at the start they had a decidedly feminist bent. Their early work was littered with lyrics such as “you think Feminism died when women got the vote…if that’s equality I’ll throw myself off Canary Wharf and smash a few glass ceilings as I fall” from their first demo; their 2008 release entitled Dworkin’s Bastards; even their name was originally an acronym for ‘One Night Stand In North Dakota’, a reference to the restrictive laws on abortion in that state.
It’s hard to imagine how this would go down if Onsind were just starting out today. Issues around sexism and gender are, rightfully, being discussed openly more than they were even ten years ago. But there is – also rightfully – a bit more criticism levelled at cisgender men who perhaps inadvertently hijack the conversation, or defend their right to centre their own opinions on feminism. It’s not the easiest conversation to have, and I find myself hesitant to broach the question of why two young men felt the need to start a feminist band. But it’s something they’ve both already been thinking about for a long time.
“What I would say is that we were young, and we were overzealous,” begins Stephens-Griffin. “We were in a scene where we were encountering sexism and things that we would now describe as toxic masculinity, in an unchallenged, uncritiqued way. And our response then was to say ‘you’re talking about punk as this liberating thing, but this scene isn’t liberating, it’s dominated by certain sorts of people’. And when you are 20, it seems like the best way to do that is to write these songs about feminism.
“But with the benefit of hindsight, it isn’t really our place to be writing about that stuff, because we are two cisgender dudes. And there are plenty of talented, brilliant women who are writing these songs. And the fact that in our small town and in our small scene these ideas weren’t being articulated, meant that we perhaps didn’t think they were being articulated anywhere. But we were young and we weren’t checking our own privilege in that conversation perhaps as much as we should have. And we don’t want to be framed as a feminist band, even though we are feminists. It just feels wrong and like we’re taking up space that isn’t ours to take up.
“Or if you want a short answer, the best way that we can be feminists right now is to shut the fuck up about feminism and let women speak.”
It’s a refreshingly self-aware answer. When Stephens-Griffin responds, he speaks slowly but with increasing assurance as he continues. Evidence that his words have been carefully considered, but perhaps also betraying a wariness, a reluctance to misspeak and have his meaning misconstrued. “We still get shit for things that we’ve written, that we apologised for six years ago,” he explains.
He’s referring to ‘That Takes Ovaries’, from their third LP Dissatisfactions. The band faced some criticism over lyrics that left some fans disappointed by the use of gender essentialism to highlight sexism in the punk community. “Initially that song was written in direct response to hardcore macho bands that we were playing with,” says Ellis, “and we didn’t really think of the wider context of what we were saying. And we were called out, and that was the right thing. It is just about learning and reflecting upon your actions and what you’ve said and done, and learning from that as well. Which I think we did. We’ll accept it with open arms.”
“I think we should all be a lot more open about being called out, and create that openness,” finishes Stephens-Griffin. “And not feel like it’s your whole being that’s being attacked, but to say ‘Ok, what’s being said here, how can I engage with it in a reasonable way, and think critically about this stuff?’ Which is hard because it hurts. When we read stuff online now, saying ‘Onsind are…’ whatever, it hurts our feelings. But I would always rather try, and then be called out and engage. It is a learning process, people do change and the conversation changes.” In addition to being open to that discussion, the band took further steps to be accountable for their art. They haven’t played the offending song since 2011; on their bandcamp page, the lyrics are prefaced by a long disclaimer explaining why the song has caused controversy and offering a further apology. Today, it is practically impossible to stumble across ‘That Takes Ovaries’ without also finding a full explanation as to its history, and an open invitation to “continue to call us on our shit”.
While they may now avoid the dicey waters of feminist discourse in their music, Onsind still write primarily about politics and social issues. Where a lot of bands who touch on politics are reluctant to be classified as an ‘issues band’, the duo don’t seem to let such reservations hold them back. Their last album, Anaesthesiology, was a collection of songs loosely connected by a narrative about a young woman and her changing relationship with her family and society. But the stories within these songs were almost all told through an anti-Tory lens, which challenged the disingenuous promotion of ‘compassionate Conservatism’, and the organisations that propped up the government and their harmful policies. In addition to being their most musically refined record to date, it was also a cutting piece of social commentary. From highlighting the collusion of the government and media in ‘Kim Kelly Is My Cognitive Behavioural Therapist’ (“Politicians, press and coppers tied together in a knot“) to the chilling outrage against G4S and violent deportations in ‘BA77’, Anaesthesiology captured with startling accuracy the bleak public feeling at a time where the full impact and scale of enforced austerity measures were starting to emerge.
That was in 2013. The political landscape 4 years later has, impossibly, caused most of us to look back to that time longingly as some kind of comparative golden age. When Onsind announced a new album earlier this year, some people understandably assumed it would be as heavily political as Anaesthesiology. But the band are quick to dismiss the oft-repeated idea that political tension is a good conduit for punk music. “With this album…David Cameron got in, Brexit happened, and people kept saying ‘I bet this is great for Onsind songwriting’,” remembers Stephens-Griffin, “and I was like, are you fucking kidding? This is just dreadful, everything’s dreadful and there’s nothing you can say about it. The thing that’s been important to Onsind is that beneath the bleakness there’s always been some shred of light or hope. And that just hasn’t been there.”
Despite clocking in at just 29 minutes, new record We Wilt, We Bloom still manages to cover some new ground – perhaps the most significant being that Onsind is no longer a strictly acoustic band. The album is bookended by pairs of songs that, musically, would sound perfectly at home belonging to…well, a certain other Durham-based queer-punk band… “Yeah, and I would agree,” says Ellis, “’Magnolia’ sounds like an early Martha demo to me. And with ‘Sectioned’, initially that song we wrote for Martha but realised it was too heavy and sort of passed it on to Onsind. And that’s a good thing because it kind of solidified what Onsind was for us.” Stephens-Griffin steps in to summarise the distinction: “Onsind does the sad political songs, and Martha does the hopeful happy love songs. At the end of the day, our bands are similar sounding, who cares? That’s inevitable. They’re both fundamentally pop. And there’s only like… 8 notes.”
As well as opting to plug in their instruments for the new record, they’ve even written something approaching a hardcore song in ‘Claimant’. Stephens-Griffin describes We Wilt, We Bloom as a ‘palate-cleanser’. “Not that we were just chucking any old shit out,” Ellis adds hastily, “but it was just quite refreshing.” Nor have they abandoned their original sound entirely – tracks like ‘Grieving Kind’ and ‘Heat Up The Blade’ showcase the perfect ear the pair have for creating understated anthems with gut-wrenching harmonies.
And notably, there is not one song levelled at the Tories:
“The last Onsind album that we did, honestly I felt like we tied a bow in a lot of things we’d been wrestling with for a long time, politically and personally,” explains Stephens-Griffin. “We tied a bow in bashing Tories. We talked about ‘the establishment’ and we railed against it. We didn’t want to come back and go ‘…and here’s another song about the Tories!’ It wasn’t interesting to us to do that. It’s not that I don’t still think we should be speaking truth to power and holding the establishment to account, but at the end of the day we are a band, not a political organisation.”
Just a band, perhaps, but don’t let them fool you into thinking they’ve shied away from tackling social issues. Throughout the record, the pair are still challenging the attitudes that have shaped UK politics in the last four years. ‘Immature’ highlights the growing intersection of age and class perpetuated by an older generation who believe the young people that don’t prosper are simply too lazy; in ‘Heat Up The Blade’, Stephens-Griffins toasts “to those who bought the lie that the work was stolen by the migrants, who didn’t even think to bat an eye when their automated checkout tills were non-compliant”; ‘Loyalty Festers’ perfectly highlights the banality of evil in the story of one young man’s conversion to Fascism. They may not have set out to write another album bashing Tories, but We Wilt, We Bloom still has the same anger – it’s just being channelled in a different direction. Rather than criticising the government, the press, and organisations that support them, that anger has been turned outwards to the everyday people who have allowed those harmful actions to continue unchecked: your neighbour, your UKIP-voting uncle, and all the others that have perpetuated a worsening situation by continually voting against their own self-interests – in general elections and referendums – and uncritically consuming media that perpetuates harmful ideologies. That’s quite a lot to tackle for a band that weren’t setting out to make another political record…
“I had not thought of that at all actually,” Ellis says. “I guess you’re continuously just influenced by your surroundings aren’t you. We didn’t go out to write a song about Brexit but then it just happened, general feelings of the whole nation are creeping into the songwriting.” Stephens-Griffin adds: “We didn’t say ‘we’re going to write a song about Brexit’, that has never been how we function as a band. I guess if there was a song about Brexit, it is ‘Loyalty Festers’ because that’s the one that gets into the nitty gritty of Nationalism, but that was not written to comment on that. It was a sad story that we wanted to tell.
“It was important because that song is based on someone I knew. It’s essentially a true story of someone who had a really horrible life and a really abusive dad, and grew up to be an EDL supporter. And there’s a tendency to sort of, once someone goes past that moral event horizon of signing up to fascism, to just say ‘fuck them’ or whatever. I understand and agree with that, I am fully supportive of punching Nazis or whatever else – our grandparents did a lot worse to Nazis than punch them – but I think that it was important to try and write a song about the fascist stuff that’s going on now, that placed it in some kind of a context. Working class people are not innately racist, they’re exploited in many ways by fascists.”
And in that sense, ‘Loyalty Festers’ is the perfect representation of what makes Onsind such a compelling band: their ability to create a truthful combination of discourse and narrative, producing nuanced stories that highlight the grey areas of issues that are often polarising.
Ten years is a long time for any band to stick it out (“I tweeted the other day that we’ve lasted way longer than Marr and Morrissey. That’s no sign of quality but it is a sign of something”), and operating as a DIY band can only add to the pressure. Since the release of Anaesthesiology, though, it’s been pretty quiet in Camp Onsind as the pair focused their energies on writing and touring as part of Martha. With 2 LPs and a not inconsiderable touring schedule with their new band taking precedence, it did seem as though their original project was being phased out in favour of the new. Was there ever a time where they considered officially putting Onsind to rest?
“For me personally, there’s been times with Onsind, where getting up and singing about your worst mental health problems, and prefacing that by saying ‘you should look after your mental health’…there have been times where I’m not actually doing what we’re telling people to do, because I’m going on tour when I’m depressed and singing songs that are actively bumming me out,” explains Stephens-Griffin. “But it’s not like the two bands can’t coexist. Writing this Onsind album felt fresh and new because we had that time away.”
Ellis adds: “ We have put a lot more effort into Martha over recent years. But Onsind is always there.”
And while their original collaboration may have become more of a side project, it’s clear that they’re still learning and growing, and putting all of that influence into their songwriting. When that results in an album as engaging, as challenging and as fun as We Wilt, We Bloom, it makes that long stretch between albums more than worth the wait. And if they get their way, the pair will be putting out Onsind records for years to come – after all, you don’t just give up on a ten-year marriage. “I think it reached a point maybe three years ago where we were like ‘yeah, Onsind is never breaking up.’” says Ellis. “We’ll just keep plodding on. Although I like the idea of Onsind reforming, or getting to the point where we’re playing with none of the original members.
“Yeah,” laughs Stephens-Griffin, ‘and then we’ll start a new band.”