There was a period of time, roughly six or seven years ago, wherein I found myself deeply immersed in Halifax’s music scene. I was playing in bands, going to shows quite regularly and, as is often the case in modestly sized Canadian towns, I began to befriend some of the musicians whose work I really admired. In those days, as soon as the after-parties commenced and the pleasantries were disposed of, I found myself asking those musicians one after the other, “Whose work do you admire?”. Invariably, over and over, I heard the same name. This is how I got to know Nigel Chapman.
At that time, Nigel was performing as The Mighty Northumberland, albeit quite rarely. Hot Money Records, a local imprint, had just released their most ambitious product to date: a double-CD collection of Mighty Northumberland recordings, A Dream Of Rivers and The Human Soul. Naturally, I sought it out. To my surprise neither collection did much for me.
In hindsight, I think I understand why I wasn’t immediately taken by those albums. My disinterest with them was, in part, due to the lofty expectations set by such high praises. Though, more accurately, Nigel’s work was beyond me: I was interested in flashier music that I didn’t have to think too hard about. In contrast, Nigel’s songs were tender. His performances were unpolished, his structures were simple, and his lyrics were nuanced and intricate.
By the time his new project, Nap Eyes, debuted in 2011, I felt like I had gained some ground. I had spent the interim years coming to love his particular mode of artistry, internalizing The Mighty Northumberland albums bit by bit. Getting to witness Nap Eyes, a four-piece with Josh Salter, Seamus Dalton and Brad Lahead, from its inception was like watching a prized portrait being cut into an intricate new puzzle. I felt lucky to be on the cusp of such a fascinating band.
I felt even luckier when, this past January, I received a digital advance of Nap Eyes’ incredible debut LP, Whine Of The Mystic, with plenty of time to bone-up before sitting down with Nigel to discuss it. As a wonderful compliment to my weeks of close listening, Nigel, in a typically pensive and selfless mood, had a lot to offer in the way of understanding.
Where did you guys record the new album?
We recorded it at a jam space called Drones in Montreal. It’s where Brad, Mike [Wright] and Christian [Simmonds], Each Other, record and practice. A lot of bands jam and record there. Mostly people from Halifax, I think; a few from other places, too.
Mike Wright has recorded all the Nap Eyes stuff, right?
Yeah, since a long time ago. Well, actually he did the first EP and the second one was recorded with Dave Ewenson. But even way before Nap Eyes, Mike’s been there turning things from the more ephemeral this-is-how-we-see-the-song-for-right-now into something kind of real. If you don’t record it, those things never last, so he’s the one whose made it all possible. He’s the one connecting and organizing our friends a lot of the time. He’s got the practicality and the vision at the same time.
It’s interesting that you talk about the ephemeral nature of the songs, because you guys record everything live, right?
Yeah, all of our releases have been recorded live.
Why is that?
Well…[laughs] it’s partially from an idealized perspective, a refusal to compromise. But it’s also because perfectionism needs to be forced a little. Like, if you give the perfectionism an inch, it’ll take a mile. If you have the ability to correct things, or make changes, or build too much, then that correcting can take over.
I want to let some things go. I want to make songs and I don’t mean to be self-righteous about it. It’s just one way to make music. It feels good when I sing songs and record them that way.
Do you guys generally do a lot of takes?
[laughs] Depends on the song. Some we know better and those sometimes go more smoothly. Others can take, including false starts, fifty or more times, I guess.
Do the songs change much in that process?
I suppose that they do change. You hope that it’s a kind of honing in. They probably do get better, a little clearer; but there’s a danger in losing spontaneity if you take too long. So you have to know when to accept it.
I know with your solo project, The Mighty Northumberland, you had a period of releasing totally improvised material online. How does improvisation work its way into your practice? Does it with Nap Eyes?
Definitely, yeah. I mean, that period was kind of an extreme of being extemporaneous. But a song usually starts with an idea from the stream of consciousness, and sometimes there’s a thread in there and I can remember how I started the song. Those songs can be looped back around, deliberately or abstractly, and they become self-contained.
Other times, they just go wander off the rails. Which, I guess, is less entertaining for people because they aren’t as concise. They start to ramble.
Do you see your songs as linear or narrative?
In a way, sometimes… [pauses]. Linearity in terms of a concept more than a story. I don’t really ever know the concept until the end, when I look back at it. The most concise way to express the concept is the song, from start to finish. There isn’t usually a way to say those things with fewer words.
It sounds like you’re talking about an economy of ideas, which is interesting because the new record has, at least in Nap Eyes terms, some really short songs. Was that conscious effort?
I’m happy about that. I think it’s a good thing. It’s something I do want to try to do and when I have the mental concision, it works. The longer songs come from the extemporaneous monologues that have clear enough concepts that I can remember them and sing them again.
The old way I used to write was with a recording device nearby, and the words would start as sounds to go with the guitar, and the meaning would come to me after.
Speaking of words as sounds, I feel like the song ‘Tribal Thoughts’ contains the first wordless Nap Eyes vocal. Do you know what I’m referring to?
[laughs] Yeah, I think so.
Could you describe that sound? Or talk about its significance?
There’s so much meaning in the human voice, even without words, just in inflection. So if you’re listening to foreign language music, or even scat, or someone crying, it can have a potent effect even if it’s non-verbal.
I like to make that sound. It feels good. It became more clarified as we practiced it. I’m really happy to sing it, and I’m happy it became a song. I’m glad it didn’t fall by the wayside the way some of them do. What makes them last, I don’t know.
Do you conceive of songs as individual pieces? Or do you see them as a larger system? I ask because there seems to be a lot of recurring themes in Nap Eyes.
My thesis here would be that they should work as a system, because they’re supposed to be a reflection. Any art is supposed to be, like… [pause] worship of beauty and a reflection of life as it really is, one that points to profound values or a kind of idealism.
So my personal conception of art should go along with my personal conception of the universe and existence, which is definitely cyclical: from Big Bang, reaching, expanding, maximum, and then start returning inward, back to the golden seed again. Everything within that, down to the smallest micro-instant or nano-instant is contained and a part of the larger system. So even a small idea in a song is a part of the whole album.
I want to ask you specifically about some of those recurring themes. On the new record, there’s a song called ‘The Night Of The First Show’. In some ways, that song feels self-explanatory, but I was also there on the night in question, so maybe I have a better sense of what happened (or almost happened). Could you talk about that experience, and that song, in relation to self-reference?
Yeah. [long pause] If I sing to me, it helps clarify things. I do need that; to sing the songs again, to listen to them again.
In that song, I’m talking about the first concert we were scheduled to play. It was before Brad joined the band, so it was just me, Josh and Seamus. We’d been practicing and I was proud and happy. It came after a long period of standstill, so it was good to start playing and practicing again. So that night, in itself, wasn’t a mistake, or couldn’t have been entirely a mistake.
To get right down to describing it: at the practice earlier that night, I had brought a big bottle of whiskey, like, way too much whiskey to drink in a short period of time. Anyway, it was fun for that short period of time, but I just got really, way too drunk. I don’t know if I’ve been that drunk before or since.
The next day I woke up and walked into the kitchen and saw Mike. Suddenly I thought, ‘Oh no! Did I miss the concert?’. It hit me quickly. That was a period of finding balance in a new world. In a world where things mattered so much to me; I didn’t realize how much those things mattered until I got there.
I remember, in the days before Nap Eyes, the days of The Mighty Northumberland, that you had a reputation as a somewhat reluctant performer. Between then and now, it seems as though you found some comfort in that role. Can you talk about what it feels like to be onstage?
I do really like it, but I think sometimes to myself, ‘Why would I want to be a singer? Why do I want to be the centre of attention when I hate being the centre of attention?’. But then wondering that seems like pointless strife to put myself through.
I think I have some inhibitions that need a means of expression; I need a way to let them go. And I love to sing. It’s very powerful, it really charges, it give me a great feeling; especially when it’s going well. Though, there is a shyness and a great sense of self-reproach. If you value humility, and you want to be someone who doesn’t impose on others, then to get up on stage and have everyone listen to you and look at you, for all the joy that you feel, there has to be an equal amount of self-reproach.
It’s about striving for equanimity, not being to excited about good feelings and not being too dragged down by despair. You should be able to just experience both and then let go.
Another recurring theme in your songs is the idea of ‘friends’.
Friendship is one of the most important things. You can never quite weigh its value or its burden, you always fall short. And when I say ‘burden’, I mean that in the best way possible. I mean, I would love to live in an environment where I saw no other humans. There would be no surprises for me there.
But that would be good and bad, wouldn’t it?
Yes, of course. But that way I wouldn’t have to force a situation of company or force a situation of solitude. I would just listen to what my heart told me to do, and I would do that, instead of worrying about having to go to a concert or go support a student, or something like that.
When I listen to your songs, I get the sense that your friends offer you a sense of awareness or some kind of measurement of your being. Does that resonate with you?
Definitely. It’s a mirror for me. And everyone has that, thank God. [laughs] There’s no way to not get feedback from the world. The world will just give it to you.
The last theme I wanted to mention is religion. It figures quite prominently into a lot of Nap Eyes songs. And I dare say that having a song like ‘No Fear Of Hellfire’ sitting at the end of this new record feels like a kind of resolve of that theme. Does that reflect something really personal for you?
There’s definitely something very personal about every religious thought that I have. For any person, even if you’re rejecting it, you can’t do so impersonally. For me, I’m talking about concepts that I haven’t felt in any depth so far, but I do believe in them.
‘No Fear Of Hellfire’ is related to a strong personal experience of being excited about religion as a powerful thing. Y’know, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”. That kind of notion is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s taking things to an extreme… as a religious perspective will lead people to do if they aren’t thoughtful, equal-tempered, patient people.
If you take away the depth or significance of religion, it just presents you with two extremes that are so extreme that the human mind cannot conceive them. One is a magical heavenland of sweet clouds and God and nectar or whatever, and the other is a horrible, painful, burning hellzone. And you just keep putting yourself in one or the other. And those things are for an eternity, right? But there’s no real concept of eternity around here.
Anyway, I’m not trying to dismiss it all. I’m trying to hold on to certain ideas, but no fear of hellfire, for sure. None of that.
Let’s work our way back to some easier questions, try to wind down a little. This is the first Nap Eyes release with a title that isn’t simply pragmatic. How did it earn such a title?
Right, so the first two EPs were just Nap Eyes and Four More Songs By. This one is Whine Of The Mystic, which is a title that Josh came up with. He also came up with the band name.
Oh really? That was my next question.
Yeah, yeah. So I had this idea of what I thought the record was about thematically. All these things like existence and value, revelry and friendship, study and song, love; all these things. And the thing that I thought reflected all these ideas most fully is this poem that I’d been listening to. I had downloaded this audiobook by chance, or destiny [laughs] who knows. It’s a really famous poem by the Persian poet named Omar Khayyam.
He was a philosopher, a mathematician, a poet, and probably a great lover of existence. He obviously thought existence was great, but he didn’t mince words about the pain and the challenges of it. It’s all there in the imagery of this poem, which is called The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam. It’s one of my favourite poems.
And the title comes from that poem?
Well, drinking wine is the theme of the poem.
In Omar Khayyam’s time in Persia, Islam was a very powerful force. And in that, there is a strong current of repression of enjoyment of things; things that are seen as evil, or ignoble, or damning. So many of the verses of this poem are a defence of these things. It tells the reader not to treat life like a dim house, not to hide away all the colours and pray all the time. There should be love, there should be these things.
[recites the poem from memory]
“Men call the Koran God’s Almighty word,
Yet read it rarely, or forget it quite;
Yet doth a graven verse the cup engird
That all men con, and all their tongues recite.
You drink not wine, but why the drinker flout?
Must I repent? First will I God forsake.
You always boast that wine you do without,
And yet a hundred weightier precepts break.”
These ideas really ring true to me, because getting high and getting drunk are great, y’know? But at the same time, I’ve had a very challenging relationship with intoxicants. It’s easy to do those things too much. Reading this was a kind of validation for me. There are great verses at the end of the poem that really highlight the dangers, too:
“Lend me an ear, a warning I give thee,
For God’s sake do not wear a cloak of lies;
Now is but time, the end eternity,
Sell not for time, then, the eternal prize.”
Anyway, that’s where the title comes from. The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam by Omar Khayyam, translated by H.M. Cadell.
But the album title is whine with an ‘h’, right?
[laughs] Yeah, right. Well, y’know, a little self-deprecation is good to engage in now and then.
Read the entirety of The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam here and make haste to catch Nap Eyes on their ‘Whine Of The Mystic’ tour:
March 25 – Sackville – The Pond
March 27 – Fredericton- The Capital
March 28 – St. John – Pub Down Under
March 29 – Montreal – Drones Club
March 30 – London – House Show
March 31 – peterborough – The Spill
April 02 – toronto – Smiling Buddah
April 03 – guelph – Silence
April 04 – Kingston The Artel
April 05 – Ottawa – Gabba Hey!