“There is definitely a need for the reality of everyday life to be told, particularly in response to the last decade of this horrendous Tory government; since the Mumfordisation of the industry I don’t think nice middle class voices need to feel ‘seen’ on top of all their other entitlements.” So says Martin Andrews, the man behind Octavia Freud, the electronic music artist who this month releases his third studio album. Martin, born and raised in Manchester by his father alongside his three older sisters, is talking to Nightshift about the need for more working class voices, particularly northern ones, in music, particularly music of a political bent. ‘Land Ahoy’, Octavia Freud’s follow-up to 2020’s ‘Smoke & Mirrors’, is dominated by one particular northern working class voice – Martin’s own. His deadpan, wryly funny or quietly angry narratives drive his synth-based songs, drawing comparisons to Sleaford Mods and Yard Act along the way, although it is a range of female voices that has provided the biggest influence on his latest music. “I was listening to Anika, the band Audiobooks and Billynomates when writing this album as I just think they are cool,” he explains.
In fact Octavia Freud itself was originally intended to provide a gender-neutral platform for Martin to explore sounds and stories while inhabiting a character other than his own. “I bought a VT8 FX and a looper pedal and put an octave on my voice and what came out sounded non-gender specific. That appealed because I was brought up by a single dad, so I have a different perspective on gender roles being quite fluid. I enjoyed writing the tracks as an alter-ego and becoming someone else away from my previous history of music making. I liked Gazelle Twin, Fever Ray and Planningtorock’s vocal approach as they played around with identity and authenticity. I guess it is harder for a straight man to do that. I wrote the songs as a process of internal investigation but then I started to realise I might need to evolve the sound.”
Over the last few years Octavia Freud has been a leading light in Oxford’s compact but increasingly fertile electronic music scene, releasing a succession of albums and singles while regularly sharing a stage with likeminded acts such as Means of Production, Tiger Mendoza, Bruno Muerte, Moth Drop and The Subtheory. Drawing on acid house, post-punk, analogue synth-pop, big beat and disco, ‘Land Ahoy’ is a stylistic shift up from his previous albums with its more prominent vocals and storytelling which deals with childhood, coming to terms with middle age, and grief, as well more overt political songs, such as recent single ‘Boris Can Dance’.
The album is Martin’s latest move in a long, highly productive musical career that took shape when he was growing up in his native Manchester. “My oldest sister was the first punk in her school when she wore a bin liner and safety pins combo at her school disco. She wagged off school and went to see the Stiff Records tour in 1978 and met Wreckless Eric and Lene Lovich, and Tony Wilson gave her a lift home in his escort; my other sister got into synth pop and remembers seeing Pete Shelley and The Redskins at a miners’ benefit at the Haçienda in ‘85. For a time we lived a few houses down from where Morrissey grew up in Stretford. My dad had hundreds of jazz, blues, folk, krautrock and 70s rock records so I listened to lots of stuff. By my teens I was going into town to buy clothes and records and watching The Other Side of Midnight program, which was the first time I saw The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses.”
One of the formative experiences of Martin’s musical life was visiting Manchester’s legendary Haçienda Club as a teenager. “Before the Haçienda central Manchester was full of blokes in white shirts and shiny shoes looking to cop off and have a fight. When acid house started the city went mental and the Haçienda was the epicentre of that new energy. I first got in around 1988. I remember hearing the bass sounds of Chicago house tracks as I waited outside, walking through the plastic sheeting on the door, seeing this massive industrial club space and hearing tracks like ‘Voodoo Ray’ for the first time. It was very liberating for the city to party again after Thatcher’s toxic economic policies in the north. The maddest thing were the night buses going home through Moss Side as everyone would be skinning up and the police raided them as they had become the unofficial after parties.”
Despite his roots and his home city’s vibrant music scene, Martin subsequently moved to London where his own musical career began to take over in earnest. “I moved to Brixton with some mates and we set up a label to release electronica stuff and started live electronic nights. A track got played on the John Peel show and another got licensed to an Australian Sports show for ten grand. I was working in a record shop so met loads of people in bands. Punk-funk new rave was taking off and Jamie, who worked on the tills, won the Mercury Prize for his Klaxons thing. That motivated me to start Volunteer with Chris Shade who wrote for NME and played synths. We DJ-ed in Shoreditch in an old strip joint before the area took off and young hipsters queued around the block. Our manager Frank got us a gig in Paris at Flèche Dor and in East London when we played for Lilly Allen’s management. It was funny trying to play bass and sing while Lilly Allen stood in the front row dancing along in her trackies and hooped earrings. I got a residency at The Heavenly Social called Neural Ohmlette with my mate Chris Allinson. It was one of the few live electronic nights in London. We supported Steve Mason and Simon Jones from the Verve borrowed my crappy amp. Alan McGee came down to watch and have a chat.
I also played guitar for Camp Actor, we played Bestival and The ICA where Throbbing Gristle famously played. I wrote vocals for IDC’s single ‘Modern Touch’, promoted it with a live session for XFM and it got voted number one in Mixmag. Volunteer did a show in Soho at Madam Jojo’s and Mark Moore came back stage and said he loved our sound. I went to Death in Vegas’ Contino studios and Richard Clouston did a remix and Andrew Weatherall was lined up to do the next one. We had a single on a compilation with Goldfrapp and I was finishing the album in a studio when I got a call from my sister. She told me our dad had terminal cancer. I spent the next two months by his side until he passed away. I was angry and the band drifted apart. Looking back, it was a hard way for it to end. But it also feels good knowing I had played a part in building a scene in London.
While his father’s death brought Martin’s nascent career to an abrupt halt, becoming a father put a long-term stopper on making music, while also ushering in a whole new chapter in his life as he moved to Oxford, which he now calls home. “My partner, who is originally from Oxford, was offered a job here and moving to Oxford meant I could spend time with our daughter as a stay-at-home dad and it was great to have the time to bond with her. It was when she got old enough to go to nursery that I thought about doing music again. “I didn’t record any music for four years; I needed the break mentally and to refresh my ears. That was really important: helping me to realise making music was not about those external signifiers of success or seeking validation or love. It was about trying to find a way back to making music that had meaning for me.”
Before he began to fully focus on Octavia Freud, Martin eased himself into the local music scene by promoting gigs at Modern Art Oxford, where he works. “I liked the industrial look of MAO so I set up the Basement and the Yard live sessions. The crowd reminded me of my nights in Shoreditch. I booked stuff from London and added local bands and they got a decent fee. I gave Public Service Broadcasting their first gig in Oxford. The Coloureds gigs in the Basement were always packed. Spring Offensive’s final show was scarily busy as loads of kids sneaked in. The MAO director at the time, Michael Stanley, was very supportive of hosting music events and it being a hub for the younger creative types. Then the news came that Michael had killed himself. The whole gallery went into shock and retreated back into the art world. It’s a shame the current curating team weren’t around to see the place packed. Divine Schism are putting on Julia Sophie over the summer and EMPRES do brilliant experimental events so I hope MAO can get back to being a central Oxford music venue again. That would be a fitting tribute to Michael.”
Martin’s backstory could fill this feature twice over but we’re up to date now with the release of ‘Land Ahoy’, its title a recognition of “finally getting to a place emotionally and musically where I can feel landed and be myself”. Two of its stand-out tracks were released recently as singles, the thematically linked ‘When I Was a Kid’, about the simple mundane joys and tribulations of childhood and fatherhood, and ‘50’, which finds him dealing with hitting the big 5-0 as a musician, playing gigs to 50 people and earning 50 quid if he’s lucky. ‘When I Was A Kid’ is partly inspired by Martin’s mum leaving when he was a baby; Tamara talked about parental abandonment in last month’s Nightshift – how much as it affected his life and music? “I read the Tamara interview and found it very honest. Her point about feeling ‘unloveable’ and being sensitive to others leaving rings true. I was interviewed for a Radio 4 program called Afterlives in which two people examine their journeys since their mothers left them as children. My mum left me and my three sisters when I was a baby. Before I did the interview I did EMDR therapy sessions which helped a lot. That inspired my track ‘Tappin’ which I did with producer Adventures In Noise. With ‘When I Was a Kid’ I wanted to write something that was respectful to my dad for bringing us all up on his own. It made me realise I could do talkie songs, which has opened up a new avenue for my music making style.”
The song ‘50’ has a balance of humour alongside some serious points; for a musician who’s been around for and seen plenty, where does Martin see his place in musical life now? Any particular regrets or does he feel he’s making the best music of your life now? “I was reflecting on becoming 50 and having a kid myself, but it’s also about only playing to 50 people in the back of a pub for £50. That is often the reality of making DIY music so I am acknowledging something maybe people are afraid to say. I am far too old to be worried about that any more. At the same time it’s me saying ‘I am worth more than this!’ I am enjoying having fun writing quirky electronic stories about life. I am not expecting my music to be credible but hopefully people can find something in the songs to connect to.”
The song is also about resilience. What do music scenes – musicians, promoter and others – need to do to look after each other that they might not be doing, especially in a small scene like Oxford’s? “Oxford struggles because bigger promoters focus on national acts with a following and ignore local acts, and smaller promoters struggle to get a crowd. Putting local and national acts together would help put acts in front of bigger audiences. That model is dependent on decent sized independent music venues being available. I think the Labour led Oxford City Council have a big part to play in the future of the local music scene. They need to repair their damaged reputation from their horrendously botched job of closing down Fusion Arts, stop being obsessed with only using property for housing and start reinvesting into community projects for the future of the arts in the city. Maybe some of the big hitters from Oxford’s past music scene, who all benefited from grassroots support, can come out and help galvanise a campaign to make the national music press aware of the Council’s inadequate policies.”
‘I Find This Hard’ is probably the most emotive song on the new album, very different to the humour of some other tracks. “It’s a eulogy for my friend Chris Shade, who died last year. He was the synth player in Volunteer and died during Covid. I wrote this a couple of days after I heard about his death. It came out in one take and was written in about an hour. I put on some gnarly Korg synth sounds similar to how Chris would have played them, he would have liked that. They say people die twice, first physically and second when people stop talking about you after you have gone. It has been a year now since he died so it is nice the track can come out on the album and Chris can be around for a bit longer.”
And of course there is the brilliant, overtly political, Underworld-influenced single ‘Boris Can Dance’. How much, if at all, can music act as a catalyst for political change and does Martin ever feel powerless in the face of such unrelenting corruption, incompetence and cruelty from the Tories? “Boris is a pure Teflon narcissist. The song is about my frustration at northern working class voters who have enabled Boris to do his worst. It’s fascinating the discrepancy in people’s logic when they vote for something that is against their interests. It’s Boris dancing with the truth rather than his actual dance floor skills. Maybe he is like Fred Astaire, who knows. I am influenced by ‘personal is political’ thinking from feminism, with acts of resistance through art and culture, such as making sardonic electronica. I am not expecting my opinion to change world events but sometimes you have to come out fighting. To be fair, most people at my gigs seem to agree he is a plum.”
Someone who would doubtless agree with such sentiments is fellow local artist and political activist Mila Todd who guest sings on Octavia Freud’s forthcoming single from the album ‘Straight To the Top’, while Martin repays the favour by playing keyboards in her live band; is she an artist he particular admires and how does he feel about Oxford’s electronic music scene generally – it’s got so many great artists in it but seems to struggle to attract a larger audience. “Mila has a strong voice and big personality and can write a tune. She has the same northern directness I have where you just want to get on and do stuff. We talked about doing a collaboration but when she came round she said did I want to join her band and by the way there is a gig in a couple of weeks. I laughed but I thought that attitude was cool. I did some shows on synths and she added some vocals on my next single, ‘Straight to the Top’. “The electronic scene in Oxford is getting stronger as more acts emerge, collaborate and support each other. I want to say a big shout out to Osprey; he has been one of the few promoters who continually puts on live electronic nights and supports acts. Other promoters need to get involved or acts will have to look for more established nights in Bristol and London.”
Octavia Freud has, without doubt, been a hugely important part of the emergence and ongoing expansion of Oxford’s electronic music scene. As he readies himself for the release of his new album, having been involved in two of the UK’s biggest city music scenes in Manchester and London, how does Martin think Oxford compares? “I bought the first couple of Ride EPs as a teenager and I remember thinking Oxford must be a cool place to have such a big sound. Since living here I would say the Blessing Force events and then the Divine Schism nights have impressed me the most with the local audiences they have built. I think Nightshift, OMS mag, BBC Introducing Oxford and local radio show Melting Pot do amazing jobs in keeping the scene going. Most of all I appreciate Oxford has given me a chance later in life to find my voice and make music again.”