The story of Britain’s underground math-rock scene, as told by Tubelord

As cult heroes Tubelord ready a re-release of their debut album ‘Our First American Friends’, the trio remember the heyday of the late-00s’ math-rock underworld

The late 2000s’ British music scene was a wasteland. In the wake of The Strokes’ transatlantic success, and Arctic Monkeys’ explosion, a thousand-and-one copycats emerged, flooding UK grassroots venues with gobby groups in trilbies and polo shirts, desperate for overnight success. Quickly dubbed ‘landfill indie’, it was an easy punchline that plagued British guitar music for years. Beneath the surface level of leather jackets and Camden-based excess, though, a more obscure indie scene was thriving.

Buoyed by the then-fresh worlds of MySpace and file-sharing, the math-rock community offered an alternative. Built on the complex time signatures of prog-rock and spindly riffs of latter-day indie and post-punk, it flirted with psychedelia, and encouraged musical oddities at every turn. From groups like This Town Needs Guns and Colour, whose twinkling indie-rock fed classic mid-west emo through a polite British sensibility, to more dissonant, hardcore-influenced groups like Blakfish, via the more anthemic, chorus-driven likes of Tellison, Tall Ships and Johnny Foreigner, ‘math-rock’ became a catch-all term for the square pegs of mainstream indie’s round hole; its eclecticism defied its seemingly niche appeal. It was a place for the oddballs of the musical landscape – one that captivated some, and confounded others (NME predecessors gave Blakfish’s debut album a 1/10 review, a rating over which I will gladly fight to the death). At the heart of it all, lay Tubelord.

Brought up in the practise rooms of Kingston College, Tubelord were the kingpins of this indie-rock underworld. Their linear take on the genre eschewed repetition or even a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, but packed more hooks than a fisherman’s car boot into each and every track, the likes of ‘Feed Me A Box Of Words’ and ‘Night Of The Pencils’ quickly becoming anthems for the weird and wacky. Early singles fizzed like Mentos in a Coke bottle, a youthful energy and charming naivety powering their every move; as things progressed towards Hassle Records debut album ‘Our First American Friends’ (re-released on vinyl this month via Alcopop! Records), they were Britain’s best-kept secret.

“I genuinely only realised that we were math-rock in about 2014,” says singer and guitarist Joey Fourr today. Joey (who goes by she/her pronouns) fronted the group from its 2006 inception to its untimely death in 2012, alongside drummer Dave Catmur and a revolving-door line-up of bassists. It’s Joey’s noodle-fingered guitarwork and dynamic, sing-shouted vocal melodies – and the way both intertwined with Dave’s complex drumming – that gave Tubelord their unmistakable sound.  “From my perspective, I was making just music that I wanted to hear,” she continues. “We set about doing it in the way of like, ‘Oh, we just don’t like repeating sections. Why do people repeat sections?’ It just seemed really silly, repeating something you’d just heard – I wanted it to be as linear as possible.

“We were just literally a melting pot – we were a right mess!” she laughs.

“The naïvety was definitely the best thing,” recalls Dave. “We had no idea what we were doing, and were making it up as we were going along and just having a great time doing it. The people you meet along the way, or people in your band, or just friends in bands, they’d share in that naïve optimism of the whole thing.” Joey agrees: “I think that’s something that helps propel younger bands to get attention. It’s so exciting, and you want to make the most of that perspective. Not everyone has that perspective, especially for young bands – when they get attention and they go on the whole touring cycle, eventually they get to the end of it and they do start to become a bit like, ‘Seen there, done it, blah blah blah.’”

“We were making it up as we were going along and just having a great time doing it” – Dave Catmur, Tubelord

Across the country, Tubelord and their friends popped up at house shows and booked tours through social media, gathering a word-of-mouth following. Gigs became sweatboxes, a ‘plug in and play’ mentality taking the scene to all corners of Europe, be it packed-out venues across England, empty pubs in far-off lands, or the kitchen of ex-Radio 1 DJ Jen Long. Sean Bamberger, bassist at the time of Tubelord’s debut album, laughs: “I learnt that it’s very easy to go insane in a van!”

“Just after the Tellison ‘Wasp’s Nest’ split we did with ‘Night Of The Pencils’, we threw ourselves straight into the longest tour possible,” he remembers. “We had shows with Tellison, and then we did some dates with Blakfish – we all had that level of naivety and passion for it. We just did it. We went to the next place, played a gig to however many people turned up – ten, one hundred, whatever – and then moved on.”

Dave, who now works as a high-level tour manager, cites a complete lack of ego across the board. “We were all on the same wavelength, because you kind of have to be to tour in bands like that for absolutely no money,” he laughs. “Whenever I talk to my bands that I work with now, I do try and tell some of them, ‘In Tubelord, we had one hotel in five years of touring!’ Literally one night, we spent in a hotel. There’s no way we’d have even considered playing for a hotel, that would’ve been the entire show fee on a room, like, ‘Are you crazy?! We need that money for fuel!’ That complete and utter DIY, ‘just get on with it and make it work thing’. It wasn’t even like, ‘Oh let’s just get through this and it’ll be better the next day’, it was just like, this is how it is. It’s never gonna get any better or more glamorous, but this is how it is and we’re having a good time doing it.”

“We had this spirit about us, which is very hard to capture when you’re an older person and you’re slightly more jaded and cynical and you’ve been through it,” agrees Sean. “I think especially on that tour with Tellison, Blakfish and Johnny Foreigner, we had loads of fun… And then there’s the whole Kingston scene as well.”

A stone’s throw from London, Kingston-Upon-Thames became the unassuming epicentre of this obscure indie scene. Supported by local record store Banquet Records, and a bevvy of promoters keen to turn ears towards anything more interesting than the landfill indie of popular radio, Tubelord and their peers packed into the pubs, clubs and local hubs of their former college town at every opportunity. “The Fighting Cocks in Kingston…” Dave smirks, “the number of times we played in that shit-pit, with sweat dripping down the brick walls, and cramming way too many people in there for what the official capacity was…” With a fervent following often ready to pop up and pop off at a moment’s notice, the scene became a mecca for math-rock fans. “There weren’t many rules, it didn’t really matter if you did something that was weird and kooky, the fans were still gonna like it,” says Dave. “That was the whole point of that scene. It was weird and different, and that was what was appreciated by people – it wasn’t middle-of-the-road.”

“We were a melting pot – we were a right mess!” – Joey Fourr

For all its left-of-centre credentials, though, that math-rock scene harboured its own conservatism. Male-heavy and dominated by white, middle-class faces, it was a world that Joey found herself increasingly alienated by as Tubelord’s career progressed, and her own sense of self came into question. “I began coming to realisations that my identity was changing – gender identity, sexual orientation and all that sort of stuff – and not really feeling that the culture the band existed within was very hospitable to that sort of change,” she explains. “It was so bro-y, and being in the vans with people, and everyone making these jokes, and talking about women and stuff, that’s not what I want to be associated with. I just couldn’t hack it. You’d have this man-boy come up after you after the gig, telling you how much they love you, and then their girlfriend’s just there and they haven’t even introduced their girlfriend. It just did my head in – just the general disrespect for women that I saw. Microaggressions. If you brought it up with anyone, they’d probably disagree, but it’s just the things that I witnessed; the microaggressions I saw.”

It’s a conversation that still lingers today. “The whole thing about the bloke-iness, in terms of any sort of guitar scene, is basically because boys are allowed to do whatever they want to do, and are predominantly given support to do stuff like learn to play guitar,” says Joey. “Boys look around them, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I see other boys playing guitar, that’s something I can do.’ There’s no representation for girls, or whatever-identifying people, to see themselves in and replicate. As soon as that representation starts to change, then maybe that bloke-iness will hopefully fizzle out.”

That lack of diversity, combined with growing tensions between the band’s members (Joey asked to speak to NME separately for this piece – she and Dave haven’t spoken since the band’s split), and a lack of a real breakthrough moment, ultimately contributed to Tubelord’s demise. “It also just didn’t… go. The trajectory that we were told we were gonna take just didn’t happen,” Joey continues. “Dave, I think, became really jaded and found it difficult to be enthused by it. It just became cynical, or whatever.”

It’s a sentiment that Dave backs up, somewhat. “It was funny to see bands like Foals come out of what was previously the very highbrow Oxford math scene, and see them breaking through,” he says. “I gotta say – and I’m pretty sure George from Colour felt like his band were capable of breaking through into the mainstream that same way – I thought, ‘Oh, if that’s what Foals have done…’ I figured that it was probably possible. Obviously it didn’t happen.” Blakfish split in 2010, mid-way through a tour with Biffy Clyro. Tubelord followed suit after a riotous pair of Kingston and London shows in December 2012.

Threads of that once-thriving underground scene still exist, however. George from Colour is perhaps now better-know as George from AlunaGeorge, while Blakfish vocalist Sam Manville can be found producing electronic music under his FTSE moniker – despite his old band’s proclamation that “I don’t like dance music, and I don’t think that I ever will”, on the excellently-named ‘Ringo Starr – 2nd Best Drummer In The Beatles’. Tall Ships split last year after the long-delayed release of second album ‘Impressions’. Tubelord’s memory, meanwhile, is commemorated every 28th November, on the lovingly dubbed ‘Tubelord Day’.

There’s still trickles of that first wave around, Sean argues: “I think there’s been a consistent flow of what, I guess, would’ve been labelled math, psych-pop, whatever, back in that time. It’s still existing – Tangled Hair [who feature ex-members of Colour] have just put their album out and it’s fantastic. Or bands like Tricot in Japan – their scene is crazy, and it’s not even a math scene, it’s just very, very popular, guitar-based, heavy, technical music, that has existed completely separately from anything we’ve ever done.”

Joey, on the other hand, cut away from the scene all together. Now producing music under her Joey Fourr guise, and fully ingrained in London’s drag and Vogue scenes, it’s a footnote on a much longer story. With oft-wheeled-out reunion show rumours swiftly put to bed (It’s definitely over… we might go to each other’s funerals, I guess,” says Joey, while Dave remarks that he has “no idea what happened”, nor any inclination to pick up sticks again), the records exist as a snapshot of a more naïve time. ‘Our First American Friends’, nine years on, is still wrapped up in that same ten-Jägerbomb, spindly energy that left so many house parties with smashed ceilings and disgruntled neighbours.

Kids still get in touch with Joey after discovering her old band, all these years later. “They’ve probably just turned 18 and they’ve just found that music, and they end up finding Tubelord somehow. I still get messages – I got a message this morning like, ‘I hope this email reaches you, and I don’t want to disturb you, I just want to let you know that it’s really important to me’ and blah blah blah. And then they ask me to send them some songs! Like, ‘Bitch, I’m not sending you some songs!’,” she breaks off with a laugh: “The cheek of it! I’m not Limewire!”

Tubelord’s ‘Our First American Friends’ is re-released via Alcopop! Records on April 13.