By Kristy Diaz
Imagine for a moment that an album important to you was never released. Those songs you ascribed meaning to – that you sang quietly to yourself in moments of solitude and danced to with your friends on sticky rock club floors – had stayed with the artist instead. As a bedroom project that started and ended with them, not you. You wouldn’t know what had been lost, of course, but something would be: a missed connection, an instrument never picked up, a realisation that came too late, or not at all.
That is almost what happened when Em Foster wrote Permanent Rainbow, Nervus’ 2016 debut. At the time, Foster was working through her experiences of addiction and gender dysphoria; an inconceivably difficult pairing. The album wasn’t written with the intention of being heard by a mass audience. It was an outlet, a documentation of a person examining who they are and who they might be, a record primarily for her. But sometimes, the things that you say to yourself when you’re alone are the exact things the world needs to hear.
Her friends and bandmates, knowing the importance of those songs, catalysed the album’s release and the Watford indie-punk band that might not have been was formed with Paul Etienne on keys, bassist Karl Woods and later, drummer Jack Kenny. Now, the band is preparing to release their second album, Everything Dies; but this time its message demands an audience.
Two days before we speak, Foster has been sober for 18 months: “I’ve changed my attitude in terms of making it a choice rather than a necessity,” she says. After the release of Permanent Rainbow she also came out as transgender which, conversely, made her experience of gender dysphoria more difficult. “It only got worse when I came out… when you’re ‘presenting’ and you get misgendered the whole time then you feel a little bit hard done by. But then you also get over that, and you grow, I think.”
Everything Dies embraces that growth and averts the criticism she previously directed inwards; letting responsibility lie with the failings of society, as she moves from a place of vulnerability to one of self-acceptance. “Once you’ve started to deal with your own stuff, you start to forgive yourself a little bit for how you’ve let yourself down or how you’ve maybe fallen short of your expectations and standards,” she says.
Opener ‘Congratulations’ calls out the insidious nature of the gender binary – in particular, the “bizarre” ritual of gender reveal which determines “what you’re expected to be before you’ve even had a chance to be,” Foster describes. In the song’s lyrics, she uses the metaphor of being made to fit into “a box that’s half your size”.
The cost of that restriction is time, the feeling of being held back. “Hope life begins at 29” in ‘Sick Sad World’ acknowledges the lost time spent trying to uphold the expectations of others. “When you’re queer or trans I feel like you’re put on delay because you’re expected to be a certain thing, and you try being that certain thing for a little while,” Foster explains. “And I think most queer and trans people do try being who they’re expected to be for a little while, so when you end up being who you actually are, it feels like you’ve been set back a bit.”
‘Skin’ talks of the discomfort felt in having to have conversations with those close to her when she did come out: “I was much more comfortable talking in metaphor with regards to gender dysphoria,” she says, illustrating how these discussions would often play out. “Well yeah, you’re uncomfortable, so am I… I’d rather you read about it on Google or whatever, but okay.”
As Everything Dies faces these issues in a more direct way than Permanent Rainbow, the musical direction logically followed. It is more of a conventional record in many ways, balancing heavily playful and melodic rock in tracks such as ‘Nobody Loses’ with slower, more introspective songs including ‘Recycled Air’ and ‘Medicine’, the latter a deeply personal insight to navigating the healthcare system as a trans person. Its feel-it-in-your-throat storytelling and cadence are both something to be truly admired, over built-up layers of fuzz, gentle keys and palm-muted guitar plucks.
“Ugh, I’m gonna say one of those fucking annoying things that musicians say,” Foster begins, chuckling. “With Everything Dies, I wanted to write more direct. Not simplistic in terms of musicianship, but in terms of structure it’s a little bit more conventional. Which is maybe a stupid thing to say about a new album because everyone wants new albums to be a more extreme version of everything they liked in the last one. But that isn’t what Everything Dies is.”
For a record that wasn’t made for anyone but Foster – and for a relatively small DIY band – since the release of Permanent Rainbow, Nervus have seen an unanticipated level of success. They played Gainesville’s Fest in October 2017, supported Creeper on their ‘Theatre of Fear’ tour, and signed with Big Scary Monsters for their latest album. There is a very palpable excitement for this band, but it’s one they won’t buy into. “We’ve all been around the block a couple of times, we’ve been in bands enough to know that any kind of hype can just as easily stop if you take a moment to be excited about it,” Foster laughs. “If you get swept up in what other people think you’re doing and how other people think you’re being received then you can just fuck shit up, make stupid decisions and get complacent. I appreciate everything that we get, but I also don’t expect it to last any longer than the split-second that it does.”
The increased level of visibility they have received also brings an additional layer of pressure for Foster. Prior to the release of Everything Dies, she had felt apprehensive about the band getting bigger, as that profile would open her up to receiving further abuse online. It’s a justified concern given the pervasive, damaging attitudes towards transgender people seen across mainstream media. And it isn’t a problem which lies solely with the right-wing press; it exists even in what most would consider ‘progressive’ spaces, with the targeted exclusion of trans women by a small faction of the Labour Party a recent example.
Similarly, punk is a space which should be forward-thinking and inclusive, a refuge for anyone who doesn’t feel as though they fit into society’s idea of what a person should be. And yet, Foster had to temper her ambitions and those of her band as a result of being both a woman, and transgender. However, in the face of that, she is resolute in her optimism: “The positives outweigh the negatives, I think. I see the way that the kids at shows talk about the way they get bullied, and how important it is for them to see someone trans on stage and being a give-a-fuck, tongue-in-cheek jerk.”
“Although representation isn’t everything, and especially not when there’s really no infrastructure to support people, it is important because it’s really difficult to even begin to know yourself when you aren’t represented in media… so in terms of having a high profile as a trans woman bringing a load of shit with it, I’ve also made a whole bunch of friends through the trans community, and meeting other trans people at shows is the best.”
It’s clear from speaking with Foster that she feels a great sense of responsibility in what she is saying. She chooses her words carefully, aware that speaking on these issues candidly has the potential to impact others: “For me, there are little implications to those things [online abuse] being said because I’m quite privileged in that I’m in a job with an employer who respects who I am, my living situation is fairly comfortable, I’m not estranged from my family, I’m white and middle class… so they don’t have an effect on me personally, to an extent.”
“However, I think that the conversation around the Gender Reform Act of late and the amount of backlash and transphobia that we’ve seen in the media, I think that all of those things definitely add up and they affect a lot of trans people in very, very real ways. So while I’m able to shrug it off and that might be empowering for some people to see, the effect of those words on me is minimal compared to some people who do feel the brunt of these things.”
It would be remiss, even when discussing complex and sensitive issues, not to talk about Foster’s sense of humour: sharp-edged, radical and deliberate. The band’s Twitter account is something of majesty – stomach-clenchingly funny, whether deflecting ignorant comments or making puns about vaping. It should not, however, be mistaken for the type of humour that seeks to smooth over the issues at hand, to ‘consider both sides of the argument’, or to make bigots more comfortable.
But Foster’s online persona doesn’t always reflect who is on the other side of the screen. “In real life – and I’m going to let a lot of people down here – I’m not like that at all.” There’s a gap between who she is on stage and online, and who she wants to become. “For a lot of people, especially queer and trans people, online you can kind of be who you want without it necessarily causing you too much anxiety or problems in the real world, so as much as I hope it is inspiring, if anything I’m trying to inspire myself to be more like that in person, because I can be like that on stage and I can be like that on Twitter, but when I’m wandering around town I feel like a very scared, vulnerable, sad person.”
Whilst Foster might not say it herself, it’s becoming increasingly apparent – even more so with this release – just how important Nervus are to punk and DIY and the movement to make both more inclusive. She namechecks Fresh, Personal Best, Kamikaze Girls and Sugar Rush! amongst “like a billion” other LGBT+ bands as part of that scene. “We get to play shows together, and that’s the best, but when you cross over to the fucking Slam Dunk lineup or whatever bollocks is happening in a more mainstream punk world, I think it’s exactly the same as it’s always been,” she says, more irreverent than angry. “So you can either nod and smile and be part of it or you can… not.”
The money, it seems, is on ‘not’. Instead, Nervus have established themselves as a unifying force, a central part of a scene building its own future by creating a representative and equitable environment for anyone looking to redefine their own, or society’s, expectations of what they should be.
Everything Dies is released 9th March through Big Scary Monsters