Petrol Girls, Bob Vylan, and Dream Nails
Collage: Cathryn Virginia | Photos courtesy of art

The Most Exciting British Music is Happening Away From the Charts

It's been a weird year for mainstream music, but artists like Bob Vylan, Petrol Girls and Dream Nails are keeping things alight.
Emma Garland
London, GB

For more end of year essays and analysis on VICE, check out 2022 in Review.

The dominant narrative about independent music in the UK is one of seemingly endless hardship. Touring has been impacted by rising fuel costs and Brexit bureaucracy, with pricey Carnets (basically: a passport for guitars, etc) required to get equipment over to mainland Europe. Meanwhile, the cost of living crisis has made daily life harder for everyone in general. It’s an extremely difficult time to be a musician right now – but beyond all the bullshit is the remarkable fact that DIY and independent artists have had such a notable year in spite of it.


“Returning to touring in the wake of the past few years has sort of felt like coming back from the dead,” says Nathan Stephens-Griffin of the power pop band Martha. “It was already fucking difficult to be a band, and now we've gone from just about managing on hard mode to staggering about in nightmare mode.”

In October, Martha were finally able to release their radiant fourth album, Please Don’t Take Me Back, which they started recording at the beginning of 2021. It was delayed by a backlog at the vinyl plant – another fun disruption that looks set to continue into 2030, largely due the trend of major labels repressing the discographies of legacy acts like ABBA and The Beatles in massive quantities. 

“The last couple of years have been extremely rough for lots of reasons,” continues Nathan, who, like all Martha’s members, is from County Durham. “The post-industrial North East is a place at the sharp end of multiple crises. For example, we now have the highest rate of child poverty in the UK, with 38 percent of children in the region facing destitution. As a region we've been abandoned or straight up fucked over by successive governments. When things are bad, music often goes to the end of the list of priorities, but we all need music.” When Nathan thinks about perseverance in the face of adversity, the first thing that comes to mind is Pop Recs in Sunderland.


Co-founded by former Frankie and the Heartstrings drummer Dave Harper, who sadly died in 2021, Pop Recs was initially set up as a temporary record shop / venue / café to promote one of their albums. It’s since become a permanent fixture in the city, currently making its home in an old branch of Binns where it hosts everything from gigs to pop-up book fairs to community markets. “I don't know if Dave would necessarily have used the term 'DIY' to describe his approach, but his commitment to creating from the ground up, to welcoming people in [...] to making stuff happen and facilitating other people to do the same, was a blueprint for DIY done properly,” Nathan says. “The fact that the venue is established and operating based on similar principles now is a real story of how people can come together and meet tragedy with hope and positivity.”

The story is the same across the UK as musicians and fans alike have had to find ways to become more resilient. Amid escalating financial hardship and lack of government support, there has been a general turn towards community and self-sufficiency, which are fundamental aspects of independent and DIY music by nature. “There’s a song on our new album called ‘Hope Gets Harder’ and it's probably the bleakest song lyrics we've ever released as a band,” says Nathan, “but the response from people tells me that lots of people feel the same, and at least there’s some catharsis in acknowledging that.”


The UK music industry as a whole has struggled to bounce back from the pandemic, and is still a third smaller than it was in 2019. Naturally independent and DIY musicians feel the financial burden most. Many bands have had to make the tough decision to call it quits, or push music down the list of priorities as more reliable forms of work take precedence. “We had to cancel our European album release shows because of mental health difficulties and the pressure of balancing touring with our jobs,” says vocalist Ren Aldridge of the tenacious post-hardcore band Petrol Girls, adding that bands now “can’t financially rely on a tour definitely going ahead”.

One encouraging thing, though, was the support they received from fans. “We were open about our reasons and had such an overwhelmingly understanding and kind response from our community, which was so validating,” she says. “We’re currently taking some time to work out how we can best move forward as a band in the context of all these difficulties.”

For bands slightly further up the ladder like Rolo Tomassi, whose members are split between the UK and the US, touring has also become more expensive and precarious. “Naturally the rising costs of things like fuel have impacted the bottom line of what we're able to take home from a tour,” says keyboardist James Spence. “Brexit has created additional paperwork and bureaucracy, which comes at a hefty additional cost that we didn't have to budget for before. It also impacts travelling with merch, which for bands at our level is an absolutely essential source of income.”


Again, these setbacks haven’t come at the expense of progression. When Rolo Tomassi returned to touring this year in support of their sixth album Where Myth Becomes Memory, vocalist Eva Korman (who’s based in the US) recalls being at 2000 Trees – where the band performed alongside Idles, Thrice and Jimmy Eat World – and feeling hopeful to see that things had far from stalled in her absence. “After being away from the UK for so long and not being able to travel, it was great to see so many new bands that have emerged, and to hear and see new music that had been written or been released during that time,” she says.

For the rising Dream Nails – who had a big year playing Glastonbury, opening for the Pixies and Pearl Jam at BST Hyde Park, and supporting Nova Twins in Europe – the highs and lows have come in equal measure. “There’s been a lot of hopelessness,” says bassist Mimi Jasson, citing Brexit and venue closures as particular low points. “But we’re hopeful that charities like Music Venues Trust exist, where they’re protecting grassroots venues, and the Musicians Union are currently pushing a campaign to fix streaming.”

“Also the amount of new bands popping up with fresh sounds, looks, inclusive politics,” adds drummer Lucy Katz. “Punk isn’t one thing, and we love to see new bands carve their own ways through –  that always makes me feel hopeful.”


On that note, it’s worth paying attention to where British music is making strides against adversity. Besides a few surprise hits like Eliza Rose’s sleeper hit “B.O.T.A.” and Dave’s record-breaking “Starlight”, the UK charts have been a bit of a wash in 2022. UK rap has become overly-reliant on sampling, unless you’re a sort of talk-shouty post punk band you’re probably not getting a look in guitar music-wise, and the Top 40 makes for sad reading (“As It Was” by Harry Styles, a few Sam Fender cuts and the return of David Guetta does not a groundbreaking year make).

“What brings me joy and rage is not to conform to Britain itself,” says Dream Nails vocalist Leah Kirby. “Britishness is rooted in colonialism. The British have taken these incredible cultural points of reference, from Black to Middle Eastern music, and [now it’s] a melting pot of all those cultures. Punk is in a lot of the culture that we draw from across the board, whatever genre you’re working in. There’s a sense of resistance in Britishness anyway, but additionally because of the melting pot. That resistance is intersectional, it’s underground, it’s punk, it’s special. That’s what I enjoy about it! There’s actually a loop where inside British music is a big ‘fuck you’ to Britishness itself.”


Almost everyone I interview mentions one particular event as a beacon of hope. “I love that the MOBO Awards created a new category for alternative music,” says Ren. “It’s brilliant to see Bob Vylan – whose music and politics I respect massively – win it, and Big Joanie get nominated. Both of these acts are brilliant examples of DIY bands sticking to their principles and finally getting recognised for their efforts.”

To say Bob Vylan has had a good year would be an understatement. Comprised of vocalist Bobby and drummer Bobbie, the duo whip up grime, punk and noise into a headrush of songs that rail without compromise against systemic racism, police brutality and inequality across the board. Dubbed “the most exciting and important punk band in the UK'', their self-produced, self-released album ​​Bob Vylan Presents the Price of Life entered the UK Albums Chart at number 18 in May. They toured Europe for the first time, did their first “proper” festival circuit, supported Amyl & the Sniffers in the US, took home Best Album at the Kerrang! Awards, won the inaugural Best Alternative Act Award at the MOBOs, and topped it all off by selling out their biggest show to date at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, the outside of which they draped with the band’s banner for the occasion. 


“I don’t think anyone has ever ‘dressed’ the Electric Ballroom before,” vocalist Bobby Vylan chuckles, enjoying some well deserved downtime at home. “That moment felt like it pulled energy from everything that has happened this year and captured it in this room, and just exploded.”

With friends and collaborators joining them on stage, including Josh from London reggae punks The Skints and Soft Play (formerly Slaves) members Laurie and Isaac, the show was a chance to take in the success of the year and share it with “all of these people that had helped us and showed up in one way or another when we needed them,” as Bobby puts it. “Even if it was for some sort of emotional support or opinions on a song.”

For everyone else it simply feels promising to see a DIY band have the success of a major label band without any of the invisible weight and machinery that comes along with it. On an even broader scale, Bob Vylan’s story speaks to changes that are underway within society as well as the music industry. You’d be hard pressed to find a more glaring state of the nation than seeing their album – which opens with a clip of Guyanese political activist and historian Walter Rodney talking about the lived reality of economic crisis – sitting high on the charts, sandwiched between Dua Lipa and Queen’s Greatest Hits. 

“I love the idea that bands with radical politics can find ways to break through into more established or mainstream music spaces,” says Nathan. “Like Chumbawamba throwing a bucket of ice water on John Prescott at the Brit Awards in 1998 and giving a big chunk of profits from their big hit to the 1in12 club in Bradford. I want to see equivalent antics from other generations. People on the inside fucking shit up and doing radical stuff.”

“It’s cool that we can make this kind of political music – us as Bob Vylan, as well as artists like Big Joanie and Nova Twins – and get recognition for being who we are and doing what we do, and not having to play anything down. That’s quite a beautiful thing,” Bobby concludes. “It gives me hope that we’re giving other people hope. I don’t know if that’s incredibly narcissistic,” he laughs. “But the fact that people are motivated by that, and looking at us and thinking ‘oh they don’t have [a label or management, maybe we can do it too’ – that gives me hope. If we can inspire other people to go about independence and DIY business and music, then I think it’s on the right path.”