by Jasper Willems March 14th, 2018
In the same week Elon Musk launched a car into outer space, it feels strangely sensible to link up with Nigel Chapman, the remarkable voice behind Halifax-based outfit Nap Eyes. The group’s previous two albums — Whine Of The Mysticand Thought Rock Fish Scale — deftly weave Chapman’s starry-eyed cosmic reflections into rudimentary humdrum recordings.
Like with Musk’s SpaceX program, an overwhelming sense of awe can only be palpable once you juxtapose something commonplace with something otherworldly. Some people consider owning a Tesla a luxury, a cosmonaut might get that same visceral impulse from the sight of earth from space. If SpaceX can be considered a very expensive piece of performance art, one possible conclusion could be: great art is prismatic for a plethora of impressions, both shallow and deep.
This avowal is likewise what makes Nap Eyes such an incredibly lovable bunch. Though you’re inhabiting Chapman’s idiosyncratic headspace, his lyrics — always delivered with that same meek Weltschmerz — don’t stress certain sentiments more than others to the listener. The wonderful track ‘Delirium And Persecution Paranoia’ is a microcosm of that singular appeal: we hear Chapman unravel his thought process almost in real time. He vaguely pronouns an inconvenient interaction with a person unbeknownst to us, without landing on a satisfying conclusion:
“Wanna know what tells me something / When you talk you don’t talk to me / When you talk you talk about me / Wanna know what tells me something”
Chapman, who juggles music with part-time work as a biochemist at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, then digresses to the more concrete questionnaire of tectonic science for some kind of answer. In endearingly aw-shucks fashion, it ends with a question instead:
“Round the inner core rocks / The outer core flows, the outer core flows / But while the outer core cools / The inner core grows / If Lord Sun sent, sent out heat and light / Sent out deadly magnetic radiation / What you gonna do the human race / When the solar wind through the magnetosphere is breaking?”
Which, at its core, is a more rigorous, tongue-in-cheek way of saying we’re all royally fucked. Chapman’s quirky lyricism is driven by this very conundrum: of whether or not to embrace individuality vs. populace.
On upcoming album I’m Bad Now, our restless hero somewhat bashfully comes to something resembling a resolution. Like any great lyric or phrase, “I’m bad now” holds a very simple and elemental quality. But depending who interacts with it, however, it can elicit a variety of meanings. “That kind of performance anxiety of doing a bad job on the third album was really present — at least for me,” Chapman admits. “So I liked the title, because it could either be taken as coy kind of boasting, saying ‘You’re baaaad’. Or the other meanings, saying ‘I’m wicked or super sick’. But I also like that you can take it at face value. All those things people expect to be doing a good job at, you can simply reveal: ‘I’m actually bad at those things, I lost all of my abilities.’ That’s nice feeling to fall back on, to not take things too seriously.”
For now, Chapman has chosen the nomadic, chaotic life of a touring musician over the stationary routine of being a scientist. With his polymathic curiosity, from Chinese poetry to skipping rope, in mind I’m Bad Now finally emancipates Chapman’s inner logic. In the past, Nap Eyes songs run adrift in queries on what ones place in this world, this universe, entails. On new song ‘Dull Me Line’ — almost as a riposte to the displaced, disillusioned partygoer narrated so vividly on ‘Mixer’ — Chapman welcomes some light beams within his dim-lit cobwebbed auditorium. You can’t help but smile when he insistently — and gleefully — tries to rhyme “smile” with “natural”: the sage’s roundabout dwelling redeemed as an endless victory lap.
Skyping from his home in Halifax, a perky Chapman seems content for now juggling his many virtues from a day-to-day basis. “Especially lately. I’ve been doing some reading, getting back into some science literature, which has been nice. And you know, practicing Tai Chi and listening; I’ve tried listening to audiobooks — that’s my favorite format now. And I recently took up skipping rope — that’s been pretty fun.”
DiS: So wait, you’ve been listening to audiobooks and doing Tai Chi simultaneously?
Nigel Chapman: Yes, I found this to be an incredibly beneficial joy. Both activities are so mutually conducive to one another. It’s been really great, because sometimes you would feel like: “Ah I can’t just sit around and read”, and sitting around is like the new smoking. Generally speaking, I feel there’s a pretty strong stigma against simultaneous activities in our culture. You don’t want to multitask too much with the danger of becoming distracted. But I think you can definitely pair certain activities. It’s been really beneficial for me. I was never very active before.
Why does Tai Chi work for you personally? Out of all the martial arts, I mean.
In all martial arts’ philosophy, there’s an internal aspect dealing with mental concentration and generally positive values. Confucian virtues such as honesty, service, pridefulness, and filial piety. So there’s always an internal element to the martial arts. But Tai Chi makes those internal values more explicit. Especially going so slow, it doesn’t put focus so much on external force — on power — but trying to generate an internal concentration and serenity.
All martial arts have this; it’s implicit within them. But sometimes the external part gets overemphasized, so it seems like more a fitness thing. Which is, of course, true as well. But sometimes it loses its emphasis of the internal. This could be said about Tai Chi and the more internal martial arts as well; sometimes they strip away the ‘martial’ aspect. It’s actually okay to have such a school, because many people don’t want to have anything to do with fighting. So it’s nice to acknowledge both aspects are part of martial arts.
When did your fascination with martial arts start?
I mean, I always liked martial art culture as a spectator, things like Anime and Legend Of Zelda. In my earlier twenties I was taking karate lessons. I found I was never good at this, I had a total lack of stability in my hips. So trying to kick was just painful. I also found that the speed in which you are encouraged to learn from the get-go was much, much faster than I could even do a close approximation of. If I slowed down my kicking by like twenty times, I could maybe practice karate with good form. This is why I think a slower martial art was more beneficial to me.
It’s been a great reintroduction because I thought I was some weak imposter when I began practicing martial arts. It took me some years to get over it. When I started to practice Tai Chi and felt like: “Oh wait, this is something I too I can blossom in, and fulfill my potential with.” When you’re learning something — whether it’s attending school, or physical/mental learning — it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong. Or that everyone is better than you and you don’t stand a chance… those thoughts obviously can be very unpleasant.
Outlets have written in length about Nap Eyes and the dichotomy of you being immersed in both science and music. Science is bound to facts and equations, which is relatively rigid. Whereas music is partly about technique, but a powerful medium to address not-so tangible things. Is that part of you drawn to martial arts too, to reach for something beyond your immediate perceptions?
Yes, certainly. Looking for the implicit dimension of things, the unstated, the underpinning. The complement side or the shadow side of things. That very absence in the philosophy would be: what gives rise to the factual or material presence? In integrating different styles of work or activity lies a great reward and fulfillment. To not think in terms of achievement, but focus on the activity itself.
Doesn’t that sometimes feel like chasing the carrot on a stick though?
(laughs) But chasing the carrot, therein lies a reward; to embrace this mental imperturbability to not be bothered by failing, to embrace persistence.
I assume you took up academic study with your own future in mind, and at the same time, eased into music more organically. Was it difficult to prioritize one thing over the other?
While I studied science in school as a teenager, my true passion — what I buoyed towards the most — was always to play music. At the same time, in studying science, I did it with some recognition of my parents suggesting it to me. I knew they would be reassured if I took up such a discipline, as opposed to studying music. But in my case, skillfulness and technique wasn’t as much a priority as songwriting ideas. I never had any high-achievement goals in the academic sense for music. Neither with science, so I thought it would be good to get an education. Besides, my parents were helping me, they were paying for it. I was very lucky because even at a time I didn’t realize its full value, I was caught in the habit of studying. I had an easier ride to do so, I didn’t have to work as well, so I could focus my attention more on music. I don’t want to suggest I was lazy, because I was very focussed. I’ve just been very lucky.
Do you sometimes catch yourself guilt-tripping: I’m traveling the world playing house shows when I could do my small part in saving the world?
Certainly, it’s been a guiding principle of mine, the guilt factor inside the mind.
Unfortunately, making art doesn’t elude the stigma of solipsism. Be forewarned, this could get really dark really fast; but are you somehow driven artistically by the notion of futility, that subliminal realization that we as a humankind are all doomed anyway?
Right. Well, that should be a cure for solipsism, for sure, (laughs) or for the fearof solipsism. But you don’t need to be scared of being deemed selfish. Because you are finite. You cannot have flaws in an ultimate sense, only a finite flaw. I think that should alleviate some of your pain I think. (laughs)
There are less lyrical detours on I’m Bad Now. Almost every line you sing feels like an assertion. On ‘Sage’, you can hear this dialogue between you and Brad (Loughead)’s guitar melody. The instrumentation on the album sounds more expressive in supplementing your words.
This really reveals the work that Nap Eyes do. The sage is a quite well-established character in my own mind. The idea that a sage is still just human, someone imperfect and fallible and yet really trustworthy, because they are not blind to their own thoughts. They have a sense of perspective someone like the ‘White Disciple’ lacks. The white disciple has a tendency towards megalomania and sees the god in their self-sown image. The dangerous thinking of the white disciple, who claims to be a sage who learns about introversion and questioning. But has a strong egocentric bias that makes him aberrant and dangerous. As a literary device, creating your own characters really justifies itself. It’s a persuasive way of expounding some philosophy in describing something. When people think in terms of characters, they have an easier time intuitively grasping the meaning of these abstract concepts. Myself included, if there were no grounding in individual figure, archetype or literary character, then sometimes it would seem like disconnected ideas floating around, attached by like a dotted line web that’s hard to interpret. But these are characters I’ve seen in my own mind, I’ve been them at different times.. so yeah, they’re all in there. I definitely veer towards being a sage with the best of intentions instead of the white disciple, the megalomaniac version.
I blatantly assume you have read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, a book about making the most of life in this sort of ersatz-Buddhist way. Have you thought about moving beyond the whole musician-moonlighting-as-scientist-or-vice-versa regimen?
In certain ways, yeah. My idea of vocations has changed a great deal these past few years. That’s such a helpful integration. Whereas previously, I saw these paths as totally different and mutually conflicting, in terms of how much time I had in my life; what each would ask of me. Kind of like: “Oh it’s my obligation, this is such a drag.” One of my greatest faults since I was a child is: “I don’t wanna do this, I don’t wanna go to that concert, I don’t wanna go to work at the lab.” Basically, “I’m busy”, which is totally solipsistic. There’s such a low threshold of how much I’m willing to compromise within my own basic activities. This has been something I’m now aware of, this almost pathological stepping point. Some people’s threshold for how much they’re willing to do for others — before they get all grumpy about it — is pretty high. I say “almost pathological” because mine is pretty low, in one way.
But in another way — over the past few years — I figured out how to do more of these things in a way that’s fulfilling to me. And still meet some other people’s expectations. Although it’s never going to be perfect, and there will always be a sense of guilt of not doing enough. Still, I found a place where I’m getting enough things I need and simultaneously, generate more positive things with less feelings of resentment than I previously held. I would often do things for the sake of others, out of a sense of duty and obligation, and not have enough time left to make some shitty recording on a four-track. Anyways, this is quite a monologue, so it has its own area of thought. But maybe it’s not that important.
Or maybe it is. It sounds an awful lot like an overwrought version of what you wish to shake on ‘Every Time The Feeling’, the idea of getting over yourself. “But you can never get away that easily” and “To keep on dreaming”. It’s got more a strut in its step, breaks free from the cycle of guilt.
That’s definitely an accurate song to bring up in terms of the album’s thematic content. The line you quoted about “Figuring out a way to get on with your life” and still be dreaming. It’s really important; Carl Jung would talk about this, saying things like “It’s so important for an introvert to honor that profound heed to this inner self’, an inner world where they derive such a great sense of truth, reality, and fulfillment of life.
If you don’t pull your focus inward and live your dreams, it would be a great loss, in terms of fulfilling your potential and individuality. That’s why Hesse is such an incredible writer. The idea of wanting to dream, and being able to recognize that in a time when I was really shaken. Because I’m noticing the difference now between believing and following a dream versus living in a dream. But I don’t want to give too much credence to the illusion, and at the same time, continue to pursue the richness of the inner world.