by Paris Fawcett
Punk bands and tough crowds have gone hand in hand since the 70s. As garage rock led to disillusioned teens lashing out at the constraints of society, the aim was to express yourself and piss people off to provoke change. Whether it became the British working class fighting back against a government that led the nation to mass unemployment, or afropunks extending the movement to show the Black experience, time has proven that the genre is about far more than simply making noise. Punk started by artists breaking rules they didn’t even know existed, but 50 years later in an era of mass division, bands are still remoulding the foundations to form a new era of punk, one that’s using education to escalate impact. One such band is Nervus, a Watford-based four piece that have written a 21st century manifesto for education, community and equality.
“If people say we’re ruining punk, we’ll use that to our advantage,” laughs Em Foster as we get ready to talk about everything Tough Crowd. A lyrical curveball from their first two albums – which were largely introspective and tightly woven around the trans experience – this record pushes everything outwards. Despite punk being formed around provocation, there’s a prevailing idea for some that bands like Nervus are too much and too outspoken for a genre of music built by misfits just like them.
Nervus have always used massive choruses to drive a message home; in Tough Crowd this translates to firing against the systems which continue to disallow an equal world. Foster’s shithousery-meets-political-rallying personality is brought to the forefront as she tears through an album aiming to pull down borders and fight back against those failing to protect us.
The Truth’s Inconvenient
When I call Foster, she’s hanging out at the skatepark. It’s November 2019 and she’s just come off the festival circuit, putting in double time performing with both Nervus and Milk Teeth.
Skating has always been synonymous with the idea of community, and its parks have largely been inclusive for people from all backgrounds. Skaters recognise the common ground that unites them and that’s enough. It’s a fitting backdrop for our conversation, considering Nervus have just released an album dedicated to coming together.
Tough Crowd is a political message – as a result, we spend a long time talking about what Foster wanted to achieve with the album. Mainly, she hopes to secure the idea that we can create an alternative to the way we’re currently living. And how do we do this? “Just by listening to each other and making room for people who don’t share the same experience as you. Listening, understanding and building something new based on sharing,” she says, before noting how failing to do this just makes us easier to control by the people with power.
Foster compares the impact she wants to have to the bands that invoked similar feelings in her: “I think back to records like Toxicity by System of a Down, it starts with ‘Prison Song’ which is so overtly political but you don’t necessarily think of that, you just think it’s a great song. Same with Rage Against the Machine, Dead Prez, Joey Bada$$.” If her intentions were to write songs that use catchiness to embed strong messages, the choruses on ‘The Inconvenient Truth’ and ‘No Nations’ are proof that it’s been achieved.
They Don’t Keep You Safe
I saw Foster play many stages last year and from the mainstage of Reading and Leeds to the Cave at 2000 Trees or the Cookie in Leicester, never grew tired of her getting the crowd to shout some kind of fuck you to the police. “We’re living through another era of a law and order prime minister who is wanting to build more massive prisons and put more cops on the street. Instead of addressing problems in society, he’s fighting crime.” It’s a theme present throughout the record, but with ‘They Don’t’ in particular, the band outline the problem with having police in a fundamentally unequal society – particularly addressing the backwards nature which sees punishing criminal behaviour without looking at the reasons behind why people commit crime. Therein lies the reason why “They don’t keep you safe” has become a defining line from Tough Crowd. “For some reason people think that’s the most radical, out-of-this-world belief,” adds Foster.
Perhaps this explains the amount of backlash the band have received. There has been a lot of criticism directed at the band regarding their views on the police: “I had some very funny messages from people like ‘for a band that’s supposed to be so inclusive I felt very uncomfortable about the way you spoke about the police.’ Alright, you’re obviously feeling something there but at the same time…you’re a police officer, you can go wherever you want. Why should you have to feel comfortable at a punk show?” says Foster.
On the same day that Foster stood on the Reading & Leeds mainstage and fired out against the police to mixed reviews, Enter Shikari and Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes followed suit to be greeted by cheers. “It’s because people are queuing up around the corner to disagree with queer people and women,” Foster says. A few days later, The 1975 headlined and featured a speech they recorded in collaboration with Greta Thunberg, “That was when The 1975 received backlash,” Foster recalls, “It wasn’t the stuff prior to that, nobody had given a shit up to that point, but they did something with her and all of a sudden people started to think it sucks. It becomes quite clear who’s welcome and who’s allowed to have their say.”
Point The Finger At Our Brother And Live In Fear
Ever since sites like MySpace introduced the new norm for marketing bands and interacting with fans online in the mid-00s, social media has become something of a necessity for musicians. One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been seeing how sites like Instagram and Twitter can be used to incite change. It’s a double edged sword, however; for all the positive conversation that these platforms create, they provide ample opportunity for musicians to be hounded online. One consequence of writing such an outspoken album and carrying that ethos over to social media has seen Foster receive excessive online attacks.
One such example occurred last year when the artist Koji reached out to musician Frank Turner about the racist associations involved in the name of his side project ‘Möngöl Hörde’, Turner’s initial response? “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Many members of the punk scene were quick to try and converse with Turner about the connotations behind the name – including Foster, who received disproportionate levels of backlash. It must feel lonely to speak out about important issues surrounding race only to be met with inordinate online retaliation, “At the end of the day, it’s not about how I feel about it, it’s about how people of colour feel,” she replies. Similarly, some of the songs on Tough Crowd are about issues that cause little effect to Foster’s own life, but that doesn’t make them less important.
The Frank Turner situation could have been basic and progressive dialogue that would encourage the punk scene to be more inclusive. Instead, it highlighted the role marginalised people are expected to play in society. “I think there’s a permission-seeking culture of marginalised identities in punk rock,” Foster begins, “in terms of people saying ‘Yeah you can be here but don’t rock the boat or say anything that we don’t like. Here’s the status quo, either you’re here on our terms or you’re not welcome.’ And that’s a massive problem. It’s the problem with representation as a means to an end for actually opening up the conversation. People will go ‘Oh look there’s this many women, this many trans people, this many people of colour’, but some of those people will not be engaging. Some engage in private so it doesn’t affect their career. That’s not a place that anyone should have to be in, people should be able to speak their truth without being essentially exiled from a music community that prides itself on being inclusive.”
Discussion needs to turn to how we address issues like racism without getting people’s backs up. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people of colour about anti-racism in punk being more of a selling point than an actual lived-in practice, and I think there’s a real issue in terms of the way that we as white people receive even the word ‘racism’ or ‘racist’,” says Foster. “I don’t think the term ‘racism’ should be an emotive term because it’s very broad and can mean any number of things. All white people benefit from structural racism whether they intend to or not, they have that privilege, they move through the world in a way that people of colour don’t necessarily, and I think that the less fragile people can be about being called out on racism, the better things can be.” Although it doesn’t always lead to reward, something that separates Foster from the swathes of other politically-minded punk artists is her dedication to creating discourse with those who disagree. People will often become defensive against views that challenge their own but the key to creating change is opening up conversation and learning. It’s often hard to express views like this within the parameters of social media but Foster brings up important points: around the context of race, it’s important to acknowledge that the practise of anti-racism is to accept that it is still possible to be racist despite intention, and instead work to rectify your action and move forward.
Music has always been the way to listen to the lived experience of others, but social media allows stories to reach more people than ever before. “People will be like, ‘Social media is the downfall of society’ but I think social media is the downfall of gatekeeping and people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have a voice,” says Foster. Though these websites have been instrumental in sharing stories, orchestrating protests and educating people on a huge breadth of topics, challenging the status quo often reveals the bleaker side of the internet. “There was a point when the transphobia on Twitter became a lot,” adds Foster. “There are times where I thought ‘I’m not gonna use this regularly’, but then the coast is clear. For a lot of people it’s not good for them, but if you let yourself be driven away from a certain space permanently because of reasons like that then they’re winning.”
Burn the Fucker Down
Coming in towards the end of Tough Crowd is ‘Burn’. It’s an acoustic led campfire singalong anthem and it’s been a runaway hit of the album. It’s about creating space, building community and taking the time to listen. If there’s one song that sums up everything that Nervus are trying to say on the album, it’s this.
The message is something that Nervus have been saying for years and Foster repeats it in our conversation: “Empower yourself with knowledge. Open yourself up to these discussions, have these conversations and listen to people outside of your normal sphere of influence. It’s not even necessarily the most radical thing in the world or even something that takes up that much of your time. It’s about being more mindful and grounding everything in recognising those patterns and your understanding of the way the world fuctions and that of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
All the messages on Tough Crowd are interwoven to form the idea that we need to fight the forces that disallow the idea of creating space and listening. It’s a topic that Foster could spend a lifetime writing albums about – and probably will. “People rightly or wrongly believe that making space for other people means less space for them. People believe they have worked so hard for that space, rather than inherited it through privilege based on their social standing. They feel like they shouldn’t have to give it up because they worked for it. But everyone works.” Everyone works, yet we have been conditioned to become territorial. The messages Nervus share are there to break down the systems that only allow certain types of human privilege; every time you have these conversations and listen, you make a change.
We Won’t Stop Singing
Writing this almost nine months since the release of Tough Crowd and the conversation with Foster, the impact that Nervus have had on the DIY punk scene continues to ring loudly. They’re not the kind of band we’ll only look back on in 20 years and finally appreciate, their ideals and attitudes can be found all over the scene, the clothes we wear to gigs, our favourite music and the (proverbial) pages of Track Seven.
Speaking on the phone to Foster at the skatepark, it was impossible to predict the need for a scene of music and community like we do today. As we spiral towards an unsteady future for the things and people we love, the words of Tough Crowd seem to have taken on a new life, and through new lows we’re given more reasons to fight.
Tough Crowd may have been a big lyrical shift for Nervus but it recognised a need for music that slammed back at our patriarchal, capitalist society and the inequality that it breeds. Nervus’ first two albums are bundles of catharsis, but Tough Crowd is a rallying anthem. Not only will Em Foster always be there to fight my corner and yours: every day her music inspires more people to do the same. If you think a band like that is killing punk, you have no idea what the lifestyle ever stood for.