The Tubs exist at the intersection of several concurrent crises — urban decay, the housing crisis, the mental health epidemic, the gig economy and the devaluation of the arts, just to name a few. However, the southeast London band carries on against the odds out of creative necessity, and their debut album, Dead Meat, serves as a funny, warm pick-me-up in these increasingly unforgiving times.
Historically, London has been a magnet for British bands, with many flocking there to be a part of its music scene and closer to industry opportunities. But in 2023, its independent venues are struggling to stay open, rent prices are skyrocketing and government grant money once available to bands has largely dried up.
“A lot of bands that we were friends with just gave up and got salaried, middle class, marketing jobs,” vocalist and guitarist O Williams says over Zoom. “I get it, but it means that the people left are genuinely obsessed with doing it and will do it at the expense of their sanity and finances … Really popular bands are still signing on the dole and hustling to get by. It’s an incredibly hostile atmosphere to make music.”
The Tubs’ lyrics mention the unaffordable, often unlivable apartments that have characterized late capitalism, as well as mental health issues — Williams’ OCD, in particular — and the struggle to feel sane. But they don’t use these concepts to get on a soapbox, lean into cynicism or pour their hearts out. Instead, they describe how these struggles can result in absurdity, from manic episodes to goofy self-delusion. After all, the Tubs are no strangers to life’s oddities, having written songs while living in an abandoned Greenwich police station — one of the few places they could actually afford in London — which guitarist George Nicholls recalled had washing machines in the jail cells.
Williams’ lyricism is overly dramatic, but not overly sentimental, using silly, occasionally self-degrading language to illustrate his frenzied mental state. “A pain in the arse / Alone, alone and a lot to ask / Well, here I go / Another manic episode!” he sings on “Round The Bend.” While on “Sniveller,” he refers to himself as a “bootlicker,” a “worm” and a “sniveling sycophant.” Then there’s the title track, which amusingly (and depressingly) could also be read from the perspective of a Victorian child: “You’re walking around with your mind in a sack / In a repulsive life, a repulsive hat / The rot has spread and you’re out of beans / A disgusting life, a disgusting dream.”
“I think you can only access moments of earnestness or sentiment if they’re in the context of humor or facetiousness or pettiness, and I think that tends to be more true to life and my feelings,” Williams says of his lyricism. “And I like inserting gross details about my life and my mental health.”
Williams describes his experience with OCD as a complicated one—sometimes it gives him manic energy that’s helpful for creativity, and sometimes he’ll spend weeks convinced that he’s going to die of cancer.
“People who have OCD, there’s a real clownish element to it, because you’re essentially making the same mistake over and over and being ridiculous in kind of a comical way,” Williams says of his obsessions. “I think that gives you a lot of good material to work with, because you’re suffering profoundly, but it’s actually quite funny. You’re like fucking Mr. Bean or something … I do think that trope of the suffering artist is bullshit, but at the same time, it gives you stuff to write about.”
Before making humorous jangle pop as the Tubs, they were all part of the Welsh punk-pop group Joanna Gruesome, who released two albums on Slumberland, embarked on a few American tours and fizzled out in 2017. They were part of the first generation to have unlimited access to music through internet filesharing. As a result, they spent their teens accumulating disparate tastes and a knowledge of underground pop music beyond their local scene, which you can still hear all over the Tubs’ sound.
“There’s an implication that we’re crazy record collector nerds who’ve said ‘We’re going to combine Felt and glam rock and whatever,’” Williams says. “It just all comes out, and we don’t really talk or think about it. I don’t even buy records. I don’t have enough money. We just download things.”
“I think you’re more anal about influences [when you’re young],” Nicholls adds. “Like is it Riot Grrrl enough, or is the album artwork enough like a zine in the ‘90s for people to think we’re cool?”
So far, the Tubs’ most frequent comparison is Richard Thompson, because of Williams’ resonant “chest voice.” Although Thompson wasn’t a conscious influence, Williams grew up around folk music, as his mother was a folk singer and his parents hosted folk and country shows in Cardiff for musicians like Alasdair Roberts and Victoria Williams.
“I thought [folk] was kind of uncool, but I think I’ve bounced back into appreciating that stuff — and it’s definitely informed the way I sing and use trills,” Williams says. “I didn’t realize until every review came out that I sound a lot like Richard Thompson, but it’s not a bad thing cause I stan Richard Thompson.”
Since Joanna Gruesome split up, Williams and Nicholls have been writing songs with such velocity and forming so many bands that you’d think they were living in fear of an imminent doomsday event.
“I’ve got a real problem,” Williams says. “I’m in maybe five bands at the moment … We all shift in these roles where we become a backing band or move center stage. It’s fun because different personalities get to dictate it.”
Williams and Nicholls are part of a small circle of southeast London musicians who play in various projects with the same 10-or-so people in different permutations, often releasing music on labels like Memorials of Distinction and Gob Nation. The Tubs also share members with Ex-Vöid, Sniffany and the Nits, SUEP and more, who play everything from harmony-laden power pop to body horror-inspired hardcore. If this sounds slightly confusing, it is for them too, as they sometimes repurpose riffs, forget lyrics or cover each other’s songs.
Joanna Gruesome and this microscene have garnered critical acclaim over the years as deft pop writers, most notably with Porridge Radio. But perhaps the collective needs a name at this point. Grue wave? Gruegaze? Gritpop? Nitpop? Whatever term you use to refer to it, The Tubs are a welcome addition, as their pop melodicism is second to none.
“[Hooks] are the only things I actually like in music,” Williams says. “It can be the most derivative band ever or pop music that I think is heinous in an aesthetic sense, but if it’s got the right hook and melody, then I’m sold.”
Listening to The Tubs is like that meme of Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at a television in thrilled recognition. Dead Meat is an inspired tour through several eras of music, from the traditional clubs of the British folk revival and the sweaty bars of the pub rock boom to the college campus radio stations that championed the jangle pop and post-punk underground. Every time The Tubs play, listeners might hear something different — Richard Thompson fronting The Undertones, The Jam covering The Smiths, the strummy clamor of The Wedding Present, the taut punk of XTC — but that’s part of the fun of this circus of groups. You never know what’s coming next.