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Escape Velocity

Science And Limitation: An Interview With Nap Eyes
John Freeman , August 18th, 2015 08:52

Canadian scientist-cum-singer-songwriter Nigel Chapman tells John Freeman how Nap Eyes' debut album Whine Of The Mystic was honed by self-limitation and inspired by an 11th-century wine-loving Persian astronomer

Photograph courtesy of Colin Medley

Great science intersects with great art. Science relies on innovation, spontaneity and creative thinking. It sees beauty in patterns and chaos, while promoting a universal desire to reach beyond known truths. Similarly, be it a painter's intense understanding of light and colour palettes or a sculptor's skilful mastery of their chosen stone or wood, all great art has an intuitive relationship with science.

To my mind, all musicians are practising scientists. From a deep understanding of sound and tone, or the joyous mathematics pervading time signatures and looping rhythms, to the hardcore electronic engineering underpinning all manner of amps, pedals, instruments and recording kit, musicians are constantly surrounded by science.

Nigel Chapman, singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist in Canada's Nap Eyes, understands the balance between art and science more than most. By day, Chapman works as a biochemist in a lab at the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His research is focussed on the apelin receptor - a structure that sits on the surface of certain cell types and, when misbehaving, can trigger a variety of cardiovascular crises. His days are spent creating Western blots - a series of brown smudges that reveal the identity of mutated proteins.

However, when not in a lab, Chapman and fellow Nap Eyes bandmates (bassist Josh Salter, drummer Seamus Dalton and lead guitarist Brad Loughead) have crafted a fine debut album, Whine Of The Mystic (released in the UK last month), full of melodic lo-fi guitar-based goodness that tips a hat to Tom Verlaine, The War On Drugs, Swell Maps, The Modern Lovers and a smattering of Lou Reed.

Whine Of The Mystic owes its title to Omar Khayyám, an 11th-century Persian mathematician, astronomer and poet, who - rather marvellously - wrote passionately about the virtues of drinking wine. When I speak to Chapman over a razor-sharp Skype video link, he is sat in his laboratory. Behind him, on top of a bookshelf, is a row of empty champagne bottles. Each one is the remnants of a celebration for a new research paper being accepted into a scientific journal. Undoubtedly, Omar Khayyám and Nigel Chapman would have got on famously.       

As a fellow scientist, I am intrigued about your 'day' job. Can you tell me a little bit about the biochemistry research you do?

Nigel Chapman: I work as a lab technician at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It's an academic lab and we do basic science researching the apelin receptor, which is involved in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We are trying to understand how the receptor functions using something called NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] spectroscopy. It is a labour of love. I do a lot of cell culture - trying to look into different mutations of the apelin receptor - which has had varying success. I am trying to develop a methodology to get various assays to work.

How does your science background affect your creative process and vice versa?

NC: I would say that my non-methodical, disorganised, intuitive approach of my music bleeds as much into my science as the structured, method-driven work of my science bleeds into my music. Having a job in which you are being asked to carry out certain tasks and you are responsible to people in order to accomplish a common goal has been immensely helpful for me as someone trying to pursue something he cares about. Those were things that had been lacking in my artistic world, just because of external factors that hadn't aligned for me.

Your laboratory work must be pretty structured and process-driven. Does this help your songwriting?

NC: The science and music have definitely influenced each other a lot - the perseverance factor is pretty significant as I fail a lot. Also, I get external feedback from people about my lab work - things that are good or not so good - and my friends tell me similar stuff in my musical side. Both things keep me going.

I have interviewed many musicians about their songwriting techniques. While some seem to be struck by lightning bolts of inspiration, others seem to have to undergo a tortuous process of trial-and-error to eke out their songs. The latter almost seems a vaguely scientific endeavour in its constant retesting and revising. How is the songwriting process for you?

NC: When you talk about creating piles and piles of material - that is familiar to me. I find editing to be very difficult and not something that comes to me naturally. So, what I usually do is put on a tape recorder or computer and just begin to improvise things. My guitar is usually really rudimentary - maybe repeating just two chords - and the lyrics won't be very focused, and even though I will never go back and listen to 99 per cent of what I record, the process of creating means that one day I will get a song that is more coherent and more incisive, and with a meaning that is clear.  And, it's roughly the same in science, which can be a problem for me as a scientist. I don't troubleshoot very well. If I do an experiment and it doesn't work, I just assume I have to do it again and I don't always think about why. I just assume I screwed up.

While your research job must require the use of some pretty cutting-edge equipment, Whine Of The Mystic was recorded as live takes, straight to tape. Why did you take such a 'rudimentary' approach?

NC: I really like the limitation of that method of recording. I really need to limit myself and I really appreciate being limited. If I had limitless freedom with re-recording and overdubbing - redoing a vocal take because you didn't like the way you sang - I would lose a lot of spontaneity and naturalness that is key to the songs I write and the music that we play. So, there is definitely a conceptual basis for why we did that. I love that if we play well enough, we just keep the tape like that and it makes it easier to accept things. Again, that is pretty different to science where I don't have that luxury. I feel more of a natural songwriter than a natural scientist, but I benefit a lot from a scientific approach and bringing that into my songwriting process. There is a sense of being patient and that improves the quality of my work.  

I hear a lot of reverence towards a range of guitar-based music in Nap Eyes sound. What sort of stuff did you listen to as a kid?

NC: It would be from my dad who was the big influence. We would drive around and he had a tape player in the car. He would have some of Dylan's Bootleg Series and loved the song 'Walls Of Red Wing'. We would listen to Cream and have reggae mixtapes. The Kinks were huge - Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) was very much a centrepiece of what we listened to. Then I left those albums because I assumed because my dad listened to them, then they weren't cool. That's when I got into bands like Green Day, who are still one of my favourite bands and I love their early records. Dookie was the first album that I really loved as my own, when I was, maybe, about 12. Mike [Wright], who was my best friend back then and recorded Whine Of The Mystic and our new album, and I would listen to it all the time.

I would imagine Dookie would have been a 'gateway' album for many kids your age when it came out.

NC: It was. My sister would then say to me that bands like Green Day weren't that punk, and that other bands were much more punk. She was right - and that's how I first got into The Clash. I listened to The Clash from the ninth grade onwards, plus Up The Bracket by The Libertines, which was produced by Mick Jones. There was other stuff too - Pavement and the Animal Collective album Merriweather Post Pavilion, which was really sweet.

So, and this is a question from a man who has never been in a band, was their a mission statement for Nap Eyes when you formed the band? What gap in the world of music were you trying to fill?

NC: To an extent, the gap in the music world was shaped like me. In terms of a mission statement, or what we wanted to bring to music, I have been through different degrees of cynicism, negativity and self-righteousness about that, in a very unjustified way from my very limited perspective. I have very grand ideas about the things that I want to do, even when my songs were unoriginal and my singing was very bad. I have a mixture of self-aggrandising and self-loathing thoughts and usually I try to balance those and walk in the middle. But, in terms of our ambition, we wanted good songwriting and a focus on lyrics, although it is hard to say what our ambition is having not yet succeeded in any aspect of it, without sounding like a jerk.

You mention focussing on lyrics - what are your sources of inspiration for the words you write?

NC: It depends on my mood. If I self-analyse my lyrics - which is a pretty questionable practice - the themes I gravitate to have to do with my inner mental state. It's about describing what's happening in the external world and how that affects a person's inner state. I don't explicitly describe my mental state, but more about how I am affected by social situations and relationships. Songwriting per se is about self-expression and creativity and that feels good. It doesn't matter that my mental state was conflicted, I still worked on something and achieved. That's similar to science, or any field, I guess.

And talking of a specific scientist, the title for Whine Of The Mystic was inspired by a guy called Omar Khayyám. Why would an 11th-century Persian mathematician be the catalyst for naming an album?

NC: He was a polymath, but he wrote this poem - translated by Jessica Cadell in the 19th century - that I grew to love. It was a very inspiring piece that was echoing a lot of the stuff in my mind in terms of social living and interacting with people in a positive way. Also, the poem is in the defence of drinking wine - at that time, a lot of people would malign those that drank alcohol as a form of damnation. The idea that people can be damned really bothered me. I felt that the idea - however it had been formed - needed to be purged from a person's psyche, so that you don't have this crazy, judgemental thing going on inside you. The poem helped me understand all that, and that's why I liked it. The 'No Fear Of Hellfire' song has been directly inspired by the poem.

Whine Of The Mystic was first released in Canada last year. I believe you have a second album due out soon. What can you tell me about the new record?

NC: It's going to come out early next year. The new record is wider and more subdued. It was recorded more in a home environment and less of a jam-space environment. That had a big effect. We were even more limited with our recording set-up as we used a four-track tape machine, which I got to work really well. My guitar and Josh's bass went on the same track, and the process was really fun.

Nap Eyes is very much a band, as opposed to your personal project. What do your band mates bring to the party?

NC: Without my band mates there would be much less of a creative vision and much less of an achievement. The songs would have less force and relevance. They are co-songwriters. Socially, and for my mental state, it helps me to be working with my friends, rather than trying to navigate this on my own.

Whine Of The Mystic is out now on Paradise Of Bachelors