Band To Watch: The Tubs
In one sense, the Tubs are not a new band. All four members of the London-based Welsh rock group were in Joanna Gruesome, the incendiary noise-pop act that has since splintered into a sprawling network of interconnected projects. But anyone expecting a reprise of Joanna Gruesome’s distortion-blanketed indie should look elsewhere — say, to Ex-Vöid, a band that contains three out of four Tubs plus Joanna Gruesome singer Lan McArdle. Three-fourths of the band are also in the chaotically noisy punk band Sniffany & The Nits. But as the Tubs, they’re following a janglier, more jittery path — one that traces across the decades, from Britain to Oceania and back.
Formed by the songwriting team of singer-guitarist Owen “O” Williams and guitarist George “GN” Nicholls, the Tubs sound like a lost ’80s indie-pop band that would have been college radio staples if they’d ever made it out of the UK. The band cites touchstones like Flying Nun Records, Canterbury folk-rock, and a handful of British indie-pop cult favorites. You can probably hear traces of ’80s American icons like R.E.M. and Bob Mould in their propulsive guitar jams, too. Really, when Williams is bellowing eruditely amidst zipping guitar lines and nervy rhythms, you might hear any number of iconic indie bands.
On debut album Dead Meat, out next week via the great Chicago label Trouble In Mind, that omnivorous jangle becomes a canvas for Williams’ reflections on his own neuroses. It’s an album about how mental illness is actually quite miserable and alienating — a sentiment expressed through songs about sniveling, erotomania, and disconcerting outbreaks on the skin. You might not notice all the unpleasant vibes, though, when the songs are this catchy.
In a recent video call, Williams and Nicholls spoke about why hopeful songs are usually bad, how to make decidedly retro sounds feel fresh, and the tangled history of their musical friend circle, which spent some time living together in an abandoned police station after moving to London. Below, read our conversation and watch director Tasha Lizak’s “Wretched Lie” video.
You guys have all these different bands with slightly different lineups and sounds. Is that just a function of getting different configurations of people together to play, or do you have the desire to explore all these different aesthetic ideas, or what?
OWEN “O” WILLIAMS: There’s like 10 of us who are all friends, and we spend like all our time together. And occasionally, if someone is particularly into something, they’ll recruit like three of us from the friendship group to back them up in whatever whim or genre they want to explore. So sometimes it’ll be a power-pop band, and sometimes it’ll be a horrible punk band. It depends on who has the idea.
GEORGE “GN” NICHOLLS: Yeah, it’s about 10 of us, and maybe three people out of that 10 are in each of maybe six bands. So it’s just kind of like a rotating lineup within 10 friends, basically.
Do all the different acts play shows together in London?
WILLIAMS: [Laughs.] Yeah, probably too often! We have to do, like, costume changes.
I’ve been around scenes like that before where different friends are realigning into slightly different lineups. It seems like you at least have enough attention and acclaim that you would be able to get people from outside of the 10-person friend group to come to the shows.
NICHOLLS: It’s a blessing when more than 10 people come to the shows, to be honest. [Laughs.]
WILLIAMS: Some bands have more capacity than others, I guess. So you see slightly different people at each show. No, there’s crossover. But a lot of people don’t seem to know that I’m in this band and Sniffany & The Nits and Ex-Vöid or whatever. They do tend to occupy kind of separate planes.
And I assume these acts all go on tour together as well?
NICHOLLS: We’ve done that before. I think most tours we’ve done have worked in that way.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, my band Ex-Vöid’s going on tour with a band called Garden Centre, and I’m in that band as well. So it’s actually happening, like, all the time.
I figured logistically that would be easier.
NICHOLLS: Well I think it was the case when we went to America that Max [Levy] from Garden Centre, if he came to America we could have done a Joanna Gruesome and Garden Centre tour. So it just meant him booking an extra flight, and everything was able to go ahead as usual.
How did the Tubs come to be?
WILLIAMS: Me and George just started writing sort of folky, a bit like post-punk, kind of Cleaners From Venus-style tunes. And it just sort of snowballed from there.
NICHOLLS: That was when we used to all live in an old police station together. It started off as just me and him writing new songs.
WILLIAMS: What was it called before the Tubs? It was like, the Friendly Band. Or the Crazy Band. It went through a lot of terrible names before we reached the Tubs.
NICHOLLS: I think the Friendly Band’s still better than the Tubs, to be honest.
And it was immediately apparent that this is its own thing, this doesn’t fit into anything else we’ve been doing, this needs to be its own creative realm unto itself?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think it was quite a particular sound that we alighted upon. I was doing more of my British style.
NICHOLLS: And I wanted to play more Felt-style, intricate guitar music. Owen’s very good at guitar, and it’s nice for both of us to sit down and play difficult and folky music together.
It feels like we’ve gone through years and years of ’90s-inspired songs, but there’s so much ’80s in the sound that you’ve landed on here. There’s obviously the British folk stuff that predates the ’80s, but you mention Felt and the Cleaners From Venus. I hear a lot of American ’80s jangle in there too. Despite the fact that we have a lot of throwing back to different eras, it seems like you can still find something fresh in music that has maybe already gone through a few different revivals.
NICHOLLS: That kind of guitar music tends to either go down a really heavy indie-pop route and it’s really jangly and really quite saccharine, or it goes the other way and it’s like ’90s and grungy. I think we’ve just ended up trying to make it sound a bit more like the Jam or something.
WILLIAMS: A lot of what we do, I suppose, is let all the influences come through, so it’s kind of postmodern, like mass references. I guess most good guitar bands are sort of doing that at the moment where all the borders collapse a bit and you’re laying in stuff from the ’90s, the ’80s, the ’60s, the ’70s. That’s the only way to make anything that sounds modern, I suppose. Even though it’s still sort of derivative, it’s also postmodern.
You’ve promoted a recurring theme of mental illness at its most unglamorous. Do you aim to have a topical consistency to go along with the aesthetic consistency, or is it more like that’s just where your head was at when you were writing?
WILLIAMS: I didn’t really want to write anything that was kind of like super confessional. I wanted to keep it within the aesthetic where it was like pop lyrics. But for some reason I found as I was trying to write these lyrics as pop songs that a lot of it was coming back to me being a mental guy [laughs] and obsessing over my insane, like, hypochondria and shit like that. And I’m kind of influenced by my bandmate in my other band Sniffany & The Nits. She writes well about how embarrassing and pathetic it is to be mentally ill sometimes. I kind of took that idea.
NICHOLLS: She’s definitely way more gross about it than you, I think.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, she’s much better at being embarrassing than me.
Even if the songs are about embarrassing things, they’re gracefully executed songs.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I wanted it to be subtle. For instance, I have a lyric in the title track which references this rash I have on my groin. I kept running out of this steroid cream. And I was like, OK, I can put that in, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. I’m not going to signpost that too much. If you knew me, you’d know I was talking about the rash on my groin.
NICHOLLS: You also made us inspect it, first of all, to ensure that you weren’t going to die. [Laughs.]
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t infected.
NICHOLLS: It was a bit red.
Yeah, it’s not like you’re writing a song called “Rash On My Groin.”
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s not a novelty tune.
NICHOLLS: I think also, with most songs, if you just went up to someone and said, “This song is about this,” and completely earnestly said, I mean I personally think that would be a bit embarrassing in itself. If there’s an element of it being a bit cryptic and a bit hidden and not too confessional, it makes music a bit more palatable to me.
In your bio there’s a quote from Owen that expresses skepticism about the language around mental illness online or in society: “Having a compulsive disorder which makes me go bonkers isn’t my ‘superpower’ or whatever, it actually just makes me this irritating guy who smells.”
WILLIAMS: ‘Cause I kept hearing people being like, “Anxiety’s my superpower!” And I was like, no, it just makes me quite annoying and boring and smell bad or whatever. I find all of that kind of talk quite irritating. I can’t remember why I mentioned it. [Laughs.] I think I was on one that day.
The approach that you’ve taken toward the subject is richer in terms of creative potential versus this sort of like cheerleading.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I don’t want to write anything affirmative or hopeful or anything. It’s just bad writing to do that.
I don’t know if I would take it that far! Why do you think something affirmative or hopeful would automatically be bad writing?
WILLIAMS: Just in a song, like a song about beating mental illness just seems to me like a terrible idea for a lyric.
NICHOLLS: It comes off like fundraiser sort of vibes.
WILLIAMS: I’m sure there’s probably songs that I have landed on that have some kind of hopeful element. Maybe I’m being a bit extreme. But no, I stand by what I said.
Do you imagine the Tubs continuing in that vein in terms of subject matter, or is this band something that has the potential to expand into different realms, explore different subjects?
WILLIAMS: To be honest, it’s probably got the most scope for reinvention. Out of all the bands we do, it has the most diverse array of influences. Part of the issue is trying to know which strand to follow. Sometimes I think, “Oh, the next album should be a traditional folk album.” Or it should be a post-punk album, or something. And I think the lyrics would go along with that.
NICHOLLS: I don’t think the lyrics are particularly obscure in some parts. “I can’t believe I’m in love with you again” — there are millions of songs that sound like that. But I think there’s a threshold of earnestness in at least this sonic realm that our music occupies that clashes with what the music you’re trying to make is. Being affirmative and hopeful obviously has its place, but it would just sound weird in the context of the songs that we’ve got on this record. I don’t write much of the lyrics, I do more of the music bit, but I don’t think it’s particularly strange, lyrically. I think you try and avoid being too earnest, and I think that’s good.
I’d like to hear more about the band’s origins and your community there. You mentioned there was a time when you were all living in an old police station. When was that?
NICHOLLS: That was when I first moved to London. And then Max and the rest of that lot moved to London the year before. But we all grew up together in Cardiff.
WILLIAMS: We formed the band Joanna Gruesome when we were teenagers.
NICHOLLS: I think I was 15.
WILLIAMS: You were 15. I was like 17 maybe? And then I guess we kind of gathered a lot of people around that band.
NICHOLLS: The Tubs now is Joanna Gruesome when we were 15. There you go.
WILLIAMS: It was like us four plus Alanna was Joanna Gruesome. So yeah, we are that band as well. I forget about that. But yeah, we just had this tight-knit group of people who were in probably 10 notable bands. I don’t even know how many bands there are. It’s like SUEP, and then it’s like Porridge Radio, [and so on].
Were you all still living together when lockdown happened, or had you dispersed by then?
NICHOLLS: We lived down the road.
WILLIAMS: I started living with Sniffany & The Nits in this abandoned mental hospital, like an asylum I guess. And that was horrible. And we just lived in the creepiest place in the world. And George, I don’t know where you were.
NICHOLLS: I lived in the same place the whole time. I worked in a school not too far away from where [Owen’s] place was, and it meant I would drive past on my way back. Because I was teaching, I had to go into work, so I didn’t have to stay in the house. So I’d come back, and I’d kind of see everyone, sit outside my car and like chat to everyone from the door. And everyone’s like, “Yeah, there’s loads of writing on the walls, and it’s really weird.”
WILLIAMS: It’d say stuff like “Dr. Jenkins is a pedo” and stuff like that. It was the creepiest place. I can’t believe we lived there. It was the most horrible period to live through. I don’t know if they have it in the US, these things called guardianship schemes where basically you’re like legal squatters for old buildings. They were renting it out to us to be squatters, basically.
NICHOLLS: When squatting became illegal — because it was never illegal. Because in the UK it means something completely different, am I right? If you took over an old care home or an old police station or something, and it was unoccupied, you were completely allowed to stay there. And then the law changed, and then companies buy all these places up, and then just rent them to you. So it’s just like paying money to live somewhere that you really shouldn’t be paying any money to live in.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, we were suckers.
NICHOLLS: But then all of this stuff about the writing on the walls — I was not allowed to go inside ’cause of the lockdown, so it was like, I can’t believe your room says “Dr. Watkins is a pedo” or whatever. And then when was finally allowed to go inside, I was looking around this place being like, “Oh my god, it’s absolutely horrible.” It was horrible!
WILLIAMS: I guess we recorded the [Names] EP while I was living there. I remember walking around in the night, really scared, listening to the Tubs mixes.
NICHOLLS: Maybe that made your strange lyrics earnest.
WILLIAMS: That’s right. I wrote a lot of the lyrics when I lived in a mental asylum. That probably connects to the mental health content. [Laughs.]
Is there a certain part of London you’re all congregated in?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, the southeast. ‘Cause people used to live in the east. It used to be where all the bands were. And that became gentrified, and now it’s sort of a quite bougie, hipster-ish area. So a lot of like poor artists and musicians tend to live in the southeast now.
NICHOLLS: I think even this is becoming kind of unaffordable. I think it all is. Everything is.
You’ve got this Tubs album coming out this month. What else is coming up? More Tubs music? Are your other bands releasing stuff this year? What’s 2023 hold?
WILLIAMS: Loads of shit. The Tubs album’s coming out. I guess we’re doing a tour of record stores? And then in terms of other bands, there’s a million things happening.
NICHOLLS: My other band SUEP are doing a tour in a couple weeks. There’s stuff happening with all of our different bands.
WILLIAMS: Georgie from Porridge Radio’s in [SUEP]. And then there’s Ex-Vöid, we’ve got some new tunes. So yeah, our crazy circus will carry on.
Dead Meat is out 1/27 on Trouble In Mind.