On a bright day in a dark corner of a Halifax bar, I ask Nigel Chapman about Lou Reed, and he defers to William Blake.
“If you have any sort of sense of self-importance in your creative work, try to remember your influences, your ancestors, the people who are your teachers – they’re the sun,” Chapman says, alluding to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Their work has been incredible, amazing, vast. …You’re holding a candle, but anyone can see that it’s daylight.”
Chapman, frontman of the Halifax-meets-Montreal band Nap Eyes, gets compared a lot to Reed; at times, their coos couldn’t be more similar. But he’s cool with that – he was listening to Berlin on the way here. “You never want to be too much in the shadow of your idol, because it’s embarrassing,” he says. “But it definitely helps. … ‘I like the Velvet Underground – I’ll listen to Nap Eyes!’”
If some bands have a long tail of recognition after a burst of hype, Nap Eyes is riding the reverse of that bell curve. They formed about five years ago, but waited until 2014 to press a limited run of their debut LP, Whine of the Mystic – another literary nod, this time to Omar Khayyam. Paradise of Bachelors and You’ve Changed Records re-released the album last year, with wider, joyous reception. And their followup, Thought Rock Fish Scale, was released in February, earning them a Polaris Music Prize long-list nod and fans around the world.
Nap Eyes may welcome even more Velvets comparisons, if only because they don’t stick to a single sonic template. Where Whine of the Mystic trades in bombast, Thought Rock Fish Scale simmers in slowness. Labelling a genre is futile these days, though including Thought Rock in an album title rewards subjective interpretation. At the least, you can tell they’re 90s kids, mixing Pavement’s dryness with Guided By Voices’s sweetness.
Being from Halifax, Chapman isn’t used to wrestling with commercial success. Hence the 200-vinyl first-press of Whine; the city is historically a place where people are content just playing music for their peers. The last time labels came hunting en masse – those heady 1990s “pop explosion” days, when Sloan and Hardship Post and Thrush Hermit all got signed – ended with a bunch of broken bands who might have been happier staying in their backyard.
There are plenty of bands in Halifax, but since Whine of the Mystic saw wider release, Nap Eyes began commanding more outsider attention than many. It leaves Chapman feeling a little weird. “Obviously, we rock and we deserve it,” he says with a nervous smile. It’s the same reflexive smile he gives in concert, at the end of every song, paired with a double thumbs-up. He jumps to complete his thought – it’s a joke. “I have a lot of other friends who are artists – it’s just arbitrary that it would be Nap Eyes. It’s, like, good luck and a lot of help from people who have connections.”
Nap Eyes has another thing in common with East-Coast bands of yore: many of its members have moved away, and only Chapman remains. Drummer Seamus Dalton, lead guitarist Brad Loughead and bassist Josh Salter now live in Montreal.
A biochemist by trade, Chapman has chosen to stay behind. His partner and his lab are here, and neither mind him taking long trips on tour. “It’s so beautiful, and the ocean is here,” he says. But he knows he might not be here forever. “It’s a long drive away from things.”
On the East Coast, it’s common to wonder about your life’s place in the world. Biochemistry, however coincidentally, is the study of how life works. Chapman’s lyrics ask similar questions to those he asks at his day job, though turned inward. On songs such as Dreaming Solo, listeners find him interrogating himself in the second person. The approach adds an aura of intrigue missing from much of the slacker-spirit rock that’s invaded ear canals since the advent of Mac DeMarco.
“It’s good to evaluate or ask yourself questions,” he says. “Maybe Kendrick Lamar is doing that these days, but from the voice of other people he makes up in his songs. … It serves a function, psychologically, of self-analysis.”
It is important, after all, to keep one’s self in check. “It helps a lot, coming from Nova Scotia, because there’s not a lot of music industry opportunities – if you didn’t have that, if you didn’t have this sense of idealism, why wouldn’t you do it? I think there’s a lot of idealistic musicians around here who make music because they love music, which rocks. It’s really nice here.”
Nap Eyes plays Ottawa’s Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival June 25 and Guelph’s Hillside Summer Festival the weekend of July 22.