UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This month, Nap Eyes talks 11th century Persian poets, how biochemistry is like indie rock, and the virtues of wine drinking both figurative and literal.
One of the best albums of 2014 nearly passed under our noses, limited to a short run of just 200 LPs. Whine of the Mystic introduced the raving, rambling intellect of Nap Eyes' frontman Nigel Chapman, whose idiosyncratic voice and gargantuan talents were already well known in his home, Halifax, where he'd been delivering his charismatic sermons as The Mighty Northumberland. He's joined by a Canadian all-star squad of players: Monomyth's Seamus Dalton and Josh Salter and Brad Loughead from Each Other. Now, thanks to a juicy reissue from You've Changed and Paradise of Bachelors, Whine of the Mystic is finally getting its due.
It happened slowly — as organic as acclaim-building gets (which seems unusual and significant within the present day PR-driven hype programme). Those original 200 records made into the right 200 hands. People liked it and passed it around. The word spread. Somebody with the means to print a larger run took notice. Somebody else handed it off to their own label rep. Whine of the Mystic passed near every gatekeeper. It's in front of us today, I assure you, because it deserves a second spin.
Chapman's performance will remind you of other hyper-literate seers: Bob Dylan, Jonathan Richman, Joni Mitchell. He often takes the long way to arrive at a point, and I think, it's because he's knitting together so many ideas. He's not afraid to show you how his thoughts take shape. And most endearing: he's hopeful.
I spoke with Chapman by phone during the band's Chicago stopover near the end of a 6-week tour. Our conversation begins with 11th century Persian poets and ends on The Clash — which, given the scope of the album, sounds about right. His team also passed us a brand new live video performance of "Delirium and Persecution Paranoia," recorded at a Coach House Sound session. Watch that below.
Chart Attack: The title of the album kinda spoofs the book of poems, Wine of the Mystic, by the 11th century mystic Omar Khayyám. How’d you come across this thing, and what is the significance of that to you?
There is no one in particular that I am trying to emulate, but there are so many people I found my voice through emulating.
What were the themes you pulled out of it?
I think one of the biggest ones is “no fear of hell fire.” That poem is sort of in praise of wine and a justification for drinking wine. People slander wine drinkers and say that it’s unlawful, basically sinful and will lead people to hell. There’s a lot of questions in it: who goes to hell and who comes from heaven divine? Basically, questioning the worldly authority on who gets dammed and who gets salvation. I think that kind of stuff is really empowering — rebellious but also righteous.
Why did you want to make a defense of drinking?
In a personal way, it’s definitely something that I relate to, whether it’s like drinking literally alcohol or any other habit you have in your life — and I don’t just mean substance use or abuse, but other things like taking solitude when you need it in your life, all kinds of things that not everyone understands. They sort of have a bad rap, sometimes deservedly because they lead to troubling things.
I don’t want to be a universal moral relativist and say that there’s nothing that’s bad and there’s nothing that’s good, but it’s important not to let opinions or judgements like that, which really have no context about how a person’s life is...those judgements are totally unjustified, almost always, because people’s lives and situations are so specific.
Experimental science is, like artistic creation, so full of frustration and failure. You try an experiment nine times and it won’t work, but maybe the tenth time it’ll work if the conditions are right.
As a lyricist, do you see yourself as having a mission? Is it confessional or are you doing storytelling?
I wouldn’t say I have a mission in any way that relates to the outside world. Personally for me, I would like to be a good storyteller or a compelling confessional singer, but when I’m writing songs, I’m not conscious of trying to do those things. Rather than having a mission, it’s more of a personal thing that helps me work out some of my inner feeling and get a distance from them, but also, when I sing them, enjoy a really strong connection to them.
Yeah, looking through your lyrics, it seems like you’re thinking through some things on the page. It seems therapeutic.
Definitely. Creative expression is so good — in whatever form — it feels like it helps a lot. Just always create. Even if you’re saying things that are troubling, it’s creative. It helps you. I recommend it.
When you’re writing lyrics are there other writers or poets who you find influential? Is there a voice you are trying to emulate?
I think emulation is the first stage of learning to do what you want to do. When I was younger and I first started playing guitar, the summer of 9th grade, and, yeah, just naturally, because you don’t know how to do anything else, all you know how to do is sing your favourite songs. For me, it was emulating the accents of Pete Doherty from The Libertines and Joe Strummer from The Clash, and later for sure like Dylan and Morrissey or Lou Reed, then Joni Mitchell, too, or Neil Young — different aspects from all these singers and songwriters — Fiona Apple. All these people.
I think, hopefully, I’m at the point where I’m not copying their style anymore. But you have to go through that stage where you try to do what they’re doing to the best that you can. Any artist would understand. They wouldn’t think, ‘Hey, who are these kids?’ They should understand, ‘I had to do that, too.’ That’s roundabout, but there is no one in particular that I am trying to emulate, but there are so many people I found my voice through emulating.
You’re a biochemist by day, yes?
I still am, for the next few months anyway. I have a contract. I am working with the supervisor that I did my master’s degree with and I am sort of on a part-time basis, working on the same experiments and projects and trying to answer similar questions.
Does that world — I don’t know: trials, examining things microscopically — ever creep into your writing?
In a couple ways. Thematically, my writing might have literal references to my thoughts about science or cell biology. The other way that it creeps into my writing is that it inspires me to keep working and stay positive and focused, because experimental science is, like artistic creation, so full of frustration and failure. You know, you try an experiment nine times and it won’t work, but maybe the tenth time it’ll work if the conditions are right. Just staying positive and persevering through that. Writing songs or just trying to get people to listen to your band — all those things have a pretty high failure rate, but they’re worth continuing.
And even though you’re a scientist, it seems like there’s a large place in the Nap Eyes universe for religion and mysticism?
That is true. I definitely don’t have a mission, definitely not, in terms of getting people to see my point of view or something. That’s something I have strong feelings about. A lot of scientific people write off religion. My thesis is science and religion are not mutually exclusive; actually, both are true, but there are all kinds of problems with both of those frameworks for thinking about the world.
If you have either one of them in isolation, it’ll become imbalanced. You need a crossover and a meeting of those two systems of thought. You need to be sceptical when you’re talking about religion: what do you mean literally when you say the world is 5000 years old? What do you mean that there’s only one way to salvation? And as a scientist you need to have a sense of awe and wonder and a sense of appreciation of the miraculous nature of life and the sacredness of life. You don’t want to end up killing mice all day and forget why you’re doing it.
Yes and no. I’m usually flattered if I like the band. If someone says you sound like The Clean, that’s great. Sometimes people will say we sound like bands I don’t like and I’m like ‘oh,’ or bands we haven’t listened to and that’s cool too. I don’t know, it’s a new thing. People being interested is new.
If you do identify with any of those bands, those are all of a very specific time. What do you think it is about that sound or mode that’s especially expressive to you? What about those types of songwriters and songs interests you? People like your Jonathan Richmans?
Yeah there’s definitely something about that ‘70s and ‘80s era that’s fertile for great bands and songwriting. I wouldn’t say I gravitate towards it more than other eras, but then again, the aesthetic is pretty amazing. People who were the precursors to a band like Pavement - there’s a reason why they made it: certain things suddenly seemed possible. They’re coming after punk and the total iconoclasm of, like, the Sex Pistols. I love The Clash so much. They are one of my favourite bands, and one of the reasons I love The Clash so much is that they're great songwriters, both Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. It’s cool to see the context in which great songwriting is still valued in the generation of bands that followed the punks. There’s always good songwriting, but it’s about how it comes out.