“What does it take to maintain a music career in 2023?” I inquired, to which someone jokingly replied, “Benefit fraud.” I was gathered in a flat that overlooked the Surrey Quays docks in south-east London with a small group of individuals representing Gob Nation – a collective term for a community of bands primarily based in this area. Despite consisting of rotating combinations of the same musicians, the 10 bands within Gob Nation seem completely different. The Tubs’ diverse jangly sound on their acclaimed album “Dead Meat” is vastly different from Sniffany & the Nits’ wild punk debut “The Unscratchable Itch”, which is the complete opposite of Garden Centre’s genuine art-pop on “Searching for a Stream”. However, they all share an unconventional sensibility, sharp wit, and rebellious attitude. When asked what keeps them together, they all agree on one thing: “banter”.
“It can be challenging to be in a band with individuals you don’t have a good relationship with,” states Owen Williams, the lead singer of Tubs and a multi-instrumentalist in at least five other bands. “Despite occasionally finding each other annoying, we are a tight-knit group of friends and always end up supporting one another.”
George Nicholls, who fronts the GN Band and is a member of the Tubs and Suep, explains that their sense of humor is quite unique. Most of the members, hailing from south Wales and growing up in Cardiff, share this distinctive humor. Nicholls, along with bassist Max Warren and singer-guitarist Lan McArdle, first came together in the beloved noise-pop group Joanna Gruesome. Even then, they were united by their differences – a group of 80s jangle enthusiasts making music that did not fit neatly into the dueling guitar scenes of the early 2010s. They were too edgy to be considered twee and too catchy to be categorized as hardcore. Williams adds, “We wanted to be part of the DIY indie pop scene, but we also wanted to show our punk side.” This created an interesting tension where they were clearly passionate about pop music, but also aimed to subvert it.
Warren, the self-proclaimed leader of Gob Nation, founded the group in 2017 in Brighton. He had previously led a similar venture in Cardiff under the name Reeks of Effort. The bands within Gob Nation are constantly changing, and their defining characteristic is not a specific genre but the creative voice of whoever is at the forefront. The Tubs may be considered easy listening, but Williams’s lyrics add a neurotic edge that sets them apart from typical genre influences. Josie Edwards brings a fierce femininity to Sniffany & the Nits, while Taylor Stewart’s larger-than-life personality adds flair to the pub-rockers, the TSG. These bands also share members and sometimes incorporate similar motifs into their music, such as a hardcore punk element in an Ex-Vöid song or a jangly riff in Sniffany & the Nits that references the Tubs. Williams reflects on this blending of personalities among the bands, wondering if it may be unhealthy.
Many of us have a tendency to be judgmental and solitary. This harshness towards ourselves can make it difficult to form friendships with others. Edwards, who is responsible for Gob Nation’s visual identity through their album art, gig posters, and merchandise, believes that our inability to tolerate boredom or uninteresting people contributes to this issue. Someone recently described us as a dysfunctional family, and sadly, there is some truth to that.
In the late-2010s, when everyone relocated to London, Gob Nation became a method of organizing projects that were already in progress. Acting as a centralized entity, it encompassed a record label, promoter, and digital TV channel, operating as a self-sustaining machine fueled by each member’s individual talents. Edwards specializes in design, Stewart directs music videos, Deacon hosts Gob Nation TV, Green records albums at his studio Head Cold, and Williams is launching a small press called Perfect Angel to showcase the collective’s literary works. Additionally, Warren’s administrative skills and “normal” personality help to keep things running smoothly.
“Despite leaving his suitcase in America and forgetting his passport the day before our scheduled festival performance in Spain, Nicholls commends Max for being quite well-prepared.”
“When one of us goes on tour, we all gather around Max,” Edwards says. “He has a natural ability to connect with others, unlike the rest of us who are too self-absorbed. Max knows how to relax and unwind. He can even take off his shirt, listen to a football game on the radio, have a beer, and go to sleep.”
Gob Nation exists in a space between DIY and mainstream environments. Certain bands, including the Tubs and Suep, are actively touring and hoping to sign with larger labels. Sniffany & the Nits have gained a devoted following and have been noticed by Steve Lamacq, as well as performing alongside Screaming Females and Deerhoof. Meanwhile, the industrial electronic duo PC World and new wave group Lash are more rooted in underground punk scenes.
“According to Warren, there is a humorous transition from being a top DIY artist to entering the lower ranks of the music industry. While it may seem like a promotion, the reality is that there is a significant decrease in earnings due to others getting involved. As a result, we are constantly struggling to stay afloat. Therefore, if someone offers us financial support, we gladly accept.”
The situation is especially challenging for Georgie Stott, who plays the keyboard for Mercury prize-nominated band Porridge Radio as part of Suep. She spent most of last year on tour and was able to cover her rent expenses. But as Suep gains more success, the reality of constantly finding a place to stay while on tour becomes less appealing with age. While she wants to continue making music with Suep, the trade-offs between the benefits and drawbacks are becoming clearer. Making a living doing what you love is great, but it’s also starting to make her feel old.
The issue of financial instability has both personal and practical implications. With the majority of members in their 30s, there is an unspoken concern about becoming too reliant on each other and remaining stagnant. While the collective’s social structure keeps them together, the competitive rental market in London often results in living in close quarters, such as flatshares and guardianships. This close proximity makes it easy to start new projects (like Sniffany & the Nits’ debut album, which was written while living in an abandoned care home in Sydenham during the pandemic, or The Tubs’ album written in a disused police station), but can also lead to conflicts when faced with challenges.
Urban areas evolve quickly. Locations close, communities divide, and individuals opt out to focus on their jobs or families. McArdle suggests that this may be why we continue to collaborate – because we can count on each other. While we may occasionally lose someone to a traditional career, most of us still want to spend time together and the best way to do so is through making music.
Due to Conservative austerity and reductions in arts funding, opportunities for those without financial backing have decreased, resulting in a music scene in the UK that is dominated by major labels or fiercely independent artists. Despite facing challenges, Gob Nation offers an independent and self-sustainable option. Nicholls expresses their hopes for the future to involve individuals having more control over their own creative output and contributing to the cultural landscape, but acknowledges that this is not currently the reality.
At the moment, Gob Nation has achieved a state of balance that enables everyone to survive. Edwards expresses mixed emotions of pride and guilt, comparing their situation to children pretending to run a store. He attributes their strong bond to that of a frat house, protecting them from the pressures of the outside world and conventional measures of achievement.
Williams notes that many individuals may give up on their musical aspirations due to the loss of hype and lack of support from a community. However, being a part of this group provides a sense of security and a constant source of inspiration. Even if we deviate from our original path, we always have a strong foundation to return to.