Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Have a Nice Life
[This is the 18th (CHAI!) installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Have a Nice Life
Album: The Unnatural World
Label: The Flenser
Favorite Song: "Cropsey"
The Bare Bones: The Unnatural World is the second full length by Connecticut post-punk/drone duo Have a Nice Life, comprised of Tim Macuga and Dan Barrett. It is also their first release with the San Francisco label The Flenser, while also being released on Enemies List Home Recordings, the label set up by Macuga and Barrett to release the music of HANL and that of their various side projects.
The Beating Heart: Have a Nice Life occupy a unique position in the contemporary music landscape, appealing to groups as seemingly disparate as synthpop loves to black metal and drone enthusiasts. Part of that may have todo with the fact that HANL are either the least pretentious pretentious band, or the most pretentious unpretentious band in recent memory, mixing the drama, size, and artistic courage of larger-than-life genres and traditions of musical experimentation with a bedroom-sized isolation, angst, and heartbreak. And The Unnatural World is where much of the heavy lifting required to combine all of these unlikely components takes place, a kind of refining or streamlining of the HANL aesthetic – for all its ambiguities – in the wake of the massive slow-burn popularity of their now mythic debut, Deathconsciousness. In many ways the explanation behind all the melodic chaos that HANL produce in The Unnatural World is quite simple: it's what happens when the American tradition of the dreamy, heartbroken, self-recorded folk/indie artist collides with the European grandeur of such influences as Depeche Mode or even Darkthrone. But that's, of course, only on paper. The magic HANL creates, a melancholic beauty hiding a knife's edge, is all their own, as they are a part of that select group of artists that are not the sum of their influences, but transcend and transmute them into a different kind of beauty.
As always, before proceeding to my conversation with Dan Barrett I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year (and probably spilling into the beginning of 2020), with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local, hardcore, metal, noise, and neofolk. Thank you all for being here, and enjoy.
And I'd like to begin with kind of the question I always begin with: Do you remember a time, maybe a kid or a teenager, when you heard band or a song for the first time that really changed kind of how you felt about music?
I think the big one for me was, I can't remember how old I was, but I was going on a trip with my dad, and we were going to the Baseball Hall of Fame: me, my two younger brothers and my dad and my grandfather. And so part of the deal was that before we left we got to go to the local record store which was called Record Express. And my dad was like” You can each buy a tape to listen to in the car” – we had Walkmans. And at that timeI wasn't really listening to music, per se, we had a really random selection of stuff like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, all sorts of random stuff. And just like anything that was on the radio and whatever we had access to, but I wasn't really listening to a lot of music. And the album I picked out was Nirvana’s Nevermind. And I just remember getting in the car and listening to it on repeat in my Walkman over and over and over and over again. The whole trip there was like a three or four hour drive. So, basically the whole way there and the whole way back. I felt like "I'm a different person now," like: "Now I'm angry Dan," or whatever. It was just such a great experience, it was the first guitar-based band I really listened to. I remember that very vividly, that feeling.
That’s pretty cool. How old were you at the time?
I don't really remember. It must have been right around when the album came out and I was born in 1980. But I'm terrible with dates. So I really don't remember how old.
So, about 11?
Yeah. But it was definitely an interesting experience. I mean, it must have been, with me coming into being a teenager and stuff. That’s such a critical period for what you listen to. So that really set me off in a different direction, for sure.
I'm kind of the same age, I was born in ‘81, and I think since a lot has been written and talked about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, and they became all they've become, almost these kind of cultural mummies, that it's almost insignificant, whatever it was that they did. They're like this Jim Morrison figure that you just need to revere regardless of what they did. And I think that I remember as a kid, and I think one of the things that gets lost in that conversation, is how terrifying that music was, and how terrifying Kurt Cobain was. He was a scary guy. And I think part of the appeal for me listening to Nirvana in those years was how scared I was by these people. Like “This guy is a fucking alien who is making terrifying music, but I find myself attracted to it.” So I guess I'm saying all this in order to ask you what do you think was it about that music that made you as immediately responsive to it?
I think that outside of the songwriting – I think those songs are really just quite good and kind of still stand up – it was the first time I really heard music that was very self expressive about anything that wasn't just the stuff that was on the radio. It was the first time I really got that you could do something else. I mean, I don't really think I understood this honestly on a deep level, but it was really the first time I was exposed to that, and that was a pretty profound thing for me, they were clearly doing something that comes from somewhere, it was indicative of a deeper scene that I clearly didn't know anything about. And I just found it really interesting. And still do. I think that music holds up really well. It's been so commercialized since then, but it's pretty profoundly non commercial. If you don't really know what ends up happening and don't really know their trajectory. So, It was a big deal for me for sure. And I don't listen to it a ton now, but it's still in my “top whatever list” just because of the effect they had on me
Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because… and I'll jump ahead, just because I'm a jumpy person, and one of the things that's striking to me about about The Unnatural World specifically…. I’ll preface this by saying that a lot of the appeal of what you've been talking about, if I may reword it, of Nirvana was that it has a kind of commercial appeal. You can understand why a lot of people would like to hear it, it’s a kind of pop music, but it's the kind that’s ruining pop music within pop music, if that makes sense. And when you I listen to The Unnatural World it feels like someone tried to ruin a Depeche Mode album.
[Laughs] I like that.
It has that sweet melancholy, and obviously the 80s are very influential, at least aesthetically, for you guys, because you hear in the album, a bit of Joy Division here and there. But other than that it shares this idea, that the 80s were kind of notorious for for a while, which was bands that were the most artistic were very, very popular, and intentionally so. And so it has that melancholy pop feel of that period, but at the same time you guys are really trying to ruin that moment – and I'm saying that obviously in a complementary way. So, to what extent does that resonate with you, this idea of ruining a pop song?
I definitely think we think very consciously about subverting expectations a lot of the time. And we're are pretty conscious of something like: “Here's a thing that seems like it should happen now” or the way a song should resolve, or a way a phrase should end. And we really enjoy not doing that. Doing something that's dissonant, or something that doesn't fit in that space. Obviously we share a lot of DNA with like, you know, ambient music and shoegaze music and the kind of heavier types of music that are not super melodic or that can be pretty abrasive. But, for me, the kind of music I like listening to has a lot of that pop-song-structure DNA, I do like melodic music. And I think Tim and I are on, not opposite ends of the spectrum, but Tim is into a lot more experimental music, a lot more abrasive music than I am in general. I'm on the more poppy or traditional side.
But we're still within the same kind of world, we like most of the same bands, but the thing that I like is usually on that poppier end of the spectrum and Tim, he originally trained as a jazz saxophonist, that’s where his background is. So he gets way more into the technicalities of music and understands more of what's going on and has a kind of intellectual enjoyment from it. But I just want the big moments, that's always what I want. So it's like for me, you know, when I listen to music I'm like “Well, where's the hook? Where's the rich? Where is this thing that pulls me in?” And I think we just naturally balanced out that way, because we both have different things that we look for in songwriting moments. And it just kind of naturally happens that way. But I think we both have enough of a chip on our shoulder where we can't just write it straight up. Nothing can be straight ahead. There's always gonna be a little barb in there, and we both enjoy that a lot. It’s a weird balance, but hopefully it ends up working in the end.
Well, obviously it has been working. But is that where you think that dual dynamic comes from? Say, every time Tim tries to get too experimental, you would be kind go “Let’s do it the another way?” and then vice versa, so that you guys self correct for each other?
I don’t think it’s that deliberate in the sense that Tim would come up with and I would be “Hey that’s too much, could you cut it back a bit?” What ends up happening is that Tim comes up with a part and I would say: “Wow, that's amazing, I would never have thought of that.” Like, that's something I would never do, and I am almost always really into it. So, a similar case, but just kind of from different angles. But I think what ends up happening that is he'll write a song or I'll write a song, and so the songs balance each other out, or sitting down working together writing our own parts, and the parts end up balancing each other out. But it's gotta work together. And I almost never edit or revise his parts, and vice versa. We just gel together very well, naturally and it’s super rare to find that. That’s also part of the reason why Tim and I have been such great friends for so long have worked together for so long, it's very hard to find that kind of relationship.
It seems to me there there quite an obvious sonic aesthetic, I don't want to say “shift,” but a change between Deathconsciousness and The Unnatural World. And one of the things that seems apparent about The Unnatural World it it’s much more abrasive. And so, I know that there was a really long time between those two albums, and you did a bunch of other stuff in the in the interim, but did that feel like that was something you were trying to achieve, that you were trying to make something different with that album or this? Or did it just come out that way?
It's a little bit of both. I think ultimately everything just kind of comes out that way, and a lot of the time we don't really know what the through line is of something until it's almost done. Because a lot of the songs were written over a two- or three- or four-year period. We've been working on it that whole times. They kind of just have a life of their own. And it's only when we put them all together that we noticed commonalities. And I think there's something also to be said for the fact that when we did the first album, we didn't know what it would sound like, right? There's nothing to sound like it, it doesn't exist. Nobody knows who we are. So there's no preconceived notion. And a lot of those songs were really old and came from a time when we were playing, just me and Tim, on acoustic guitars or we were doing a lot of like coffee houses in our college. And so we were just taking those songs and saying “Hey, we can record on the computer.” And so just kind of transposing them, and going: “Well, what can we do now?: And just figuring everything out.
In The Unnatural World, when we were sitting down to write those songs, it was like: “Okay, I've done this a couple times now.” So both in the sense of I have a kind of like a bag of tricks I'm comfortable using and I'm more familiar with the tools that we're using, but also it's within the context of “OK, now the first album exists and people have heard it.” We deal with this now too, our next record, Sea of Worry, is going to come out this year and we thought about that a lot. To what extent do we “owe” it to people to have something that's recognizable as the band called Have a Nice Life, versus how much do we want to subvert that expectation? Because we have that natural inclination to subvert expectations, so much of that do we indulge in versus how much of that is just a middle finger to people that have supported us versus, you know how much should we care about that? How much do we care about that? What do we want to do? It's impossible to remove all that from the context of writing songs. Ultimately, it's just: “This sounds good, I like this. I'm enjoying writing it” but that’s always there, in the background, it just kind of naturally evolved that way.
So, I actually wanted to ask something about that, about the involvement of other people. Because, for whatever reason, and maybe you have a reason, you have a religious following. So you have people who are very emphatic about following you, and who are waiting for the next Have a Nice Life album. And I would think that would involve a lot of pressure because. I assume there's always pressure when you're creating art and have an audience in mind, so I don't think it's more than the usual, but they're there. The people are there in your mind and maybe in the songwriting process.
But one of the things that I've noticed is that you are very forthright with fan communication, the subreddit you have, and the Patreon, and giving out rough edits of songs, which is really kind of unheard of in today's music industry, to give access to songs that aren't all the way ready. So that's a weird combination right? For me, I would think, well, you're feeling so much pressure from these people even existing, why then lead them even more into the process? Is that does it have a diffusing effect on you?
A little bit. I think partially the reason some people are so connected to the project in general is because I think people sense a lot of emotional transparency in the music, and I think that that just kind of naturally carries over. So, I share songs and stuff mostly because I'm excited about it. And I I want to share, that’s what it comes down to. It's hard for me not to share more songs from the new record, and I'm not really supposed to because we work with The Flenser and they're like: “Hey so we should really like roll this out on a certain day” and I'm not used to that. I'm used to just, I put all our songs in an mp3 folder on my website, just to whoever can download them, and I enjoy seeing the reaction to it. So for me, all that stuff is just a natural outgrowth of the way we already are. Were were already like that, we've always been like that.
I think a lot of people have an emotional connection with a record, and then they start to dig into it and they see that there's more stuff there, there's more stuff to figure out, there's more stuff to go and find. We don't blow everything up. I post things in the places that I post them, but we don't promote that or spend a lot of money promoting it. So people end up kind of doing a little legwork to dig deeper, and it gives them a sense of ownership. And that creates this really powerful bond. And, yeah, you have to kind of catch yourself because it's very easy to start feeling like there’s an obligation. Like: “Well, hey, Jimmy in Iowa had a really strong reaction to this. I want to do that again, or I want to recreate that feeling,” or whatever it is. Part of it is just the realization that you can't deliberately do it, you can only accidentally do it. And so for me, we just do the things that we enjoy and that we have a connection to, and you have to trust that enough of human experience is universal that what makes me excited and what makes me connected to something is what’s going to do that for someone else.
I'm an anxious person, right? So I have a problem with holding satisfaction. If I had a new song, I’d release it the day it was written. So I would think that that kind of mindset where you say that even if people do like the songs, it doesn't always have everything to do with me. I'm not even talking about composition, it can be the time of day, what they're feeling in that moment, and so on. And I would think that the easy way out for me, as anxious person, would be hard for me to say: “This person responded positively that song, or a larger proportion of people responded positively to that song, let's just write those types of songs.” And obviously that spells ruin for any artistic process, but that seems to be a very difficult thing not to do.
Yeah, I think it is hard not to do. But I think that, for me, I’m writing songs primarily for my own enjoyment. When we write or record, the moment the song is playing or pressed to a certain point where it just clicks and it's exciting to listen to, that’s just what I want, all the time. That's the moment I'm constantly looking for. And because I naturally have different things going on and naturally don’t want to do the same thing which is good because I have my tendencies as a songwriter, I kind of write the same song over and over, at least it feels that way to me. And so if you combine with a natural desire to not repeat what ends up happening is that there's a body work that comes out that shares the same DNA, that shares a common theme or a sense of togetherness, but is just different enough that don’t feel like I'm just repeating myself. And I throw out away a lot of music.
Yeah, one part may sound like a “Have a Nice Life drum part,” and that’s something we’ve already done, so I'm not gonna finish it, you know? I don’t worry about it a ton, at least I try not to worry about it a ton, just trying to keep it as organic as I can.
Is that part of the reasoning, I mean, obviously there is no reasoning to anything that we're talking about right now, but is that part of the background to the fact that you have a lot of different projects in a lot of different directions, that you don't want to repeat yourself?
Yeah, I mean, with different projects I try to give myself different rules in order to force myself to be more creative. So when I did Giles Corey was like “Well, okay, you know, I just recorded a lot of synth parts, so no synth parts.” I did end up putting in synth parts in that because I have no self discipline.
But that was the idea, all acoustic instruments. But I do think that caused me to be more creative. Same thing with Black Wing, which was a project where I said: “Okay, now it's only synth, nothing else, no guitars, and can I do that?” And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There was a while where I said I was gonna write a choral album. It's gonna be all kind of medieval voice thing. It didn’t last long, but i gave me a chance for me to do some things I would have never done.
And so with Giles Corey I had a set of restrictions that helped me write that album. Now if I want to go back to that, how similar does that need to be in order to qualify? Say, the first album was very depressive, if I do a second album for that, does it have to be depressive? Does it have to be all acoustic? What qualifies as being that project? How much do I care about that? How much do I think about that? So, it's good and bad, the way that we can do so many projects because we're primarily based on the internet and that gives us a lot of freedom, but it raises questions that I don't think we would have if we were kind of a traditional five-people-in-a-van kind of band.
I think that the five-people-in-a-van set up also has its own set of limitations. Maybe they're not predetermined, but they come with the territory. So maybe that’s also a kind of sometimes unconscious springboard of creativity, right? Even if it’s as dumb as “I won't write that riff because that guy in my band hates those kinds of riffs.” Or if I do choose to write it, I need to understand that there's going to be conflict, and try to figure out if it’s worth it? They're social limitations, I guess, not as much as Intellectual.
But I wanted to ask, I mean, you said that people felt or that you felt that people feel a connection to Have a Nice Life specifically because of what you called emotional transparency. And I wonder is that emotional transparency to some extent an effect of this double action that you're working on? Right? That isn't just “Dan being sad on acoustic guitar,” even though that would make for a great Have a Nice Life song title.
So it isn’t just Dan being sad on acoustic guitar, so not just that acoustic sadness, but that it’s coupled with something else, something that's even menacing or harsh. Maybe that coupling is what creates emotional responsiveness, not necessarily just being open about your emotions. You get what I’m, weirdly, asking?
It's possible. I think eventually, and I thought about this a lot, ultimately it's kind of impossible to know why people connect with some albums rather than others. Especially in a world where it's even more true now than when Deathconsciousness came out. To certain Deathconsciousness is well known because it's well known, and kind of gets its own momentum and goes from there. So I think we're in a lot of ways just very lucky that people were able to connect to it and that it found an audience early on. And now people keep finding it because other people have found it. And it comes with a certain expectations of “this is an album that you could have a certain relationship” and people come into it with that context. And we get into a world where your music recommendation, the choices are so driven by algorithms that recommend based on what other people have liked, that part of it is us and part of it is chance. Maybe part of it is the fact that it doesn't sound well-produced. Maybe the album seems more honest than an album that sounds really clean and crisp. When we were mixing and mastering Sea of Worry, I did some of production and stuff, but most of the mixing was done by Joe Streeter, who plays the guitar in the live version of Have a Nice Life. And he asked us: “Well, how good do you want it to sound?” Because he was in a band before he was in the band, and he was like: “I don't want to strip away something that makes the band what it is. But I also know that like, you don't have to put distortion on every track.” All of which is to say, I have no idea why it is that people are as attached to us as they are, we’re just luck that they are.
So, I don't want to take up much more of your time, so I have a silly short question and not as silly last question. The silly short question is: “Tim and Dan, Reunited by fate,” is that a Rival Schools reference?
It is a Rival Schools reference! We both like both the video game Rival Schools and the band Rival Schools, so, yeah.
That makes me very happy. So, the last thing I wanted to say is kind of what I always ask at the end of these interviews, and may be especially relevant here since now you're doing the album that came after, and there’s been a good amount of time elapsed between The Unnatural World and Sea of Worry. You obviously have been busy writing songs but also with kind of maybe setting yourself apart from that album. So when you look back at The Unnatural World, if you ever do that, is there something specifically that you like about it – a specific song, something in the process that felt especially good?
About The Unnatural World?
Yeah, I love that album, a lot. I think that in a lot of ways it’s objectively a better album than Deathconsciousness, but I think that a lot of people have a different connection to Deathconsciousness, it came out in a different part of my life and so I think Deathconsciousness still kind of more emotionally resonates with me. But I think the songwriting on The Unnatural World is better, I think the tracklist is a lot more concise. I mean, Deathconsciousness was a collection of songs we wrote. We didn't really treat that like a record, and so with The Unnatural World we thought: “How do we want to pace the record? How do we want to organize the record? What experience do we want you to have start to finish?” And a lot of those songs I think are a lot better for that process. And I also think that specifically that song, “Dan and Tim, Reunited by Fate,” is one of my favorites. We play it live and have been playing it live recently, and I love playing it live. We we really make the end…. We transformed the end, which I think works on the recording, but to make it work live we basically just made it like get progressively heavier and heavier. And it’s just one of the moments in the set that's like really transcendant for me, it just feels really amazing live.
So, when I listen to that record I think about that moment and I kind of think about those songs and and thinking that me and Tim really put in the effort. We knew someone was going to hear it. Deathconsciousness was more like “We don't know if anyone's going to hear it,” and at no point did we have any idea that anyone will listen to it, literally, I didn't know that would happen. So, to me, [The Unnatural World] is us getting better at what we're doing. And I feel that way about the new record, too. I just feel like we're getting better at this every time we do it. And it’s very gratifying for me to see that.
That sounds amazing. It sounds like the best and most you can hope for.
Yeah. I hope people like the new songs. It’s about half with a full band and half just me and Tim. I’m hoping that people see the connections and see that it's the same, just a different direction.