The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Delayed Gratification: An Interview With DreamTX
Zara Hedderman , July 31st, 2023 09:37

Nicholas Das speaks to Zara Heddermann about how retreating into a cabin in upstate New York provided the time and space he needed to turn a period of displacement into amorphous and entrancing new album as DreamTX

Photo by Abigail Taubman

It’s 9:30am in Los Angeles and Nicholas Das is starting his day with some domestic tasks. For the last couple of months he’s been living in a pool house in suburban Los Angeles, house-sitting and, as he puts it, “cosplaying” in someone else's existence. This sense of displacement and inhabiting another space feels apt when discussing Das’ multifaceted debut LP under his DreamTX moniker, Living In Memory Of Something Sweet.

Prior to writing and producing this body of work, Das had entered a transitory period in his personal and professional life. For several years he had been playing music in friend’s bands and had co-written ‘On + Off’ with Maggie Rogers, which initially featured on her 2017 EP Now That The Light Is Fading before finding its final home on her critically acclaimed debut, Heard It In A Past Life two years later. Today, the song has amassed over 57 million streams. In 2018, Das returned home to Texas following a stint of touring and immediately felt unsettled in his familiar surroundings. He felt an urge for a change in environment and exploring a different direction creatively. This brought him to the renowned Byrdcliffe artist residency in Woodstock, New York.

“I was really into this idea of just really going out there, being alone and trying to figure things out and just having space to think to myself,” Das explains. “When I was living in Texas, after getting back from tour at the end of 2018, I was in a place of not really knowing what to do or what was going on. I felt like I hadn't really made anything that was all that interesting; like a body of work that was kind of cohesive, I'd been making so many different things, instead. I realised that I really wanted to do [that residency] and I knew it was a place I felt connected to. So, I applied and was able to move there, live in a cabin for half the year. Mainly I wanted the time and space and like, was very attuned to how the place made me feel just kind of like, peaceful and good,” he says pensively.

Whilst living in Woodstock, Das worked in a local coffee shop and radio station. These outlets enabled him to integrate with the community, become familiar with the faces of the town whilst maintaining a distance to retreat into his music back in the cabin. Throughout the ten songs he emerged with, there are reverberations of Animal Collective, early Broken Social Scene and hints of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, as well as more contemporary comparisons to Alex G.

Das’ high school years involved intently reading music blogs such as Gorilla Vs Bear and the early iteration of Pitchfork, which informed his musical taste and almost inspired a career in music journalism. “Animal Collective were pretty goated for me, back in the day. I was so Pitchfork-pilled in high school and liked whatever they liked. I remember going to a camp in eighth grade at a jazz university in Texas and that band, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead spoke to us. They had earned a Pitchfork 10 and I was totally mesmerised by that back then. I remember Merriweather Post Pavilion dropped when I was becoming a freshman, and that seemed to have blown everybody's mind, but it especially blew mine because I'd already been into them and, I don't know, like when you’re a high schooler who's starting to do drugs, it's the most crazy, inspiring, beautiful, and meaningful music. Particularly, if you're not someone who cares about lyrics too much.”

These processes Das established in his formative years, where so much time was spent obsessively exploring alternative outlets, seeped into his own process when developing and expanding the worlds of his own compositions. Whilst making Living In Memory… in Woodstock, he might sometimes spend up to nine months working on a song. “I never really thought of myself as being very skilled at playing and improvising. I'm always someone who needs a lot of time to work on things and prepare. I used to write, like do music journalism, and it was always the case that I would be turning things in right at that deadline, sometimes even a little after, because I would get so obsessive about something that literally no one would read,” he laughs.

“I would get feedback that I was making good things but there's always a delay. I think I need that extra delay and space. Being in this place and working alone felt very familiar because I’d done it on another record that I made in 2016. I'm inherently a quiet and not very communicative person. I guess I was just totally tapped into what I was making. I mean some people would probably say I was going a little crazy, but I just felt really tapped into knowing when a song was done. Some of the songs I had, which I was making either by collaging things together at the residency and taking little bits and pieces of ideas that I had made from previous years, and also a lot of the recording process took place there. A lot of what I was doing was in reaction to things I had made previously, which were fine but weren't that interesting. I had written a lot of bad songs in 2018 and 2019 but within them there were interesting ideas. And so, I wanted to figure out how to make every part of a song interesting. I just had this sense that I had to keep working on that stuff. I would have an idea for a song and be like, ‘OK, that’s pretty good,’ but then there's a certain point where it lost its luster after a couple of weeks. I got to a point where I was trying to figure out how to make songs continuously layered and complex and interesting and new to me without sounding like I'm trying to make something that's hyper articulate and totally wild.

Photo by Hadley Rosenbaum

“One of my favourite pieces of art,” he continues, “something I think about a lot, which gave me one of the most powerful emotional experiences when I saw it, is [Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished Barcelona church] La Sagrada Familia. It’s this thing that’s never ending and so singular and beautiful and completely transcends certain periods of time. I think a lot of things are made today with only the consideration for now. And because everything was so unpredictable and unsettling over the last few years, also there was the pandemic, I didn’t want to make anything that feels reactionary to the wider world. I wanted to take some time to really go into my own little world. At that time, everything was so loud and so in your face and I really felt the need to just work through it and reveal things in the songs and take them to interesting places. A friend of mine and I would talk about how when creating work you can either make something new or something good. I was desperate to make something that was in some way both, but I had no idea how to do that so it felt like it took me forever to get to that point.”

The care and consideration that went into Living In Memory... is evident. Its long gestation, from getting away from his Texas base to revisiting and reworking older compositions, had a positive aspect, Das says, particularly with regards to gaining a new perspective on the world around him. “A lot of a lot of things that I've written about on the record now, I’ve only come to understand in hindsight. That's why it's also taken so long to put out, too. I always go straight-up off the subconscious and really not thinking about any of this stuff. And if I put it out or tried to make it all happen, right as it was happening, I don't know if I would have a good sense of what it was. And so, in a way, I think that music for me, especially during that time period, I was a little bit rudderless. It was a way of being. It was a way of spending my time and feeling productive and a way of knowing myself.

“I'm definitely in a period now where I want to work with more people and engage a bit more,” he continues. “I was looking back at a lot of journals from that time and I was definitely driving myself a little insane! I think the one thing that is reflected in some of the music, is that I was almost thinking about the songs themselves as personal breakthroughs; the act of finishing something and feeling a true accomplishment. I'm definitely not a tormented artist or anything like that, but I was setting myself all of these harsh barriers to accomplish. In the first half of 2019, I was living at home with my parents and a lot of my friends were gone. I was working in a bad job at the time and I was a little bit unhappy. I just didn’t really know what was going on. Music was a distraction from that and did make me feel better about myself, even if I wasn't fully directed or motivated in what I was doing. I think you can hear me trying to work through different emotions within each song. I think that somehow got reflected in the work but I really wasn't thinking about it at the time. The only guiding thing throughout a lot of the process was the idea of songs as trails and music as skies. I was trying to draw these comparisons between the natural world and geology and the way that things like grow and reflect that in the music.”

In light of music being a catalyst for these significant breakthroughs, and touching on Das’ revelation earlier in our chat about not having as strong a connection to lyrics, the conversation turns to how he incorporates and weaves words on this record. More often than not, notably on ‘I Tried’ and ‘Cannot Believe’, Das’ lyrics become another layer to the arrangements, often masked by the rest of the songs’ intricate and swirling motifs. Obfuscation was a conscious decision, Das says. “There was just so much noise and I wasn’t even that online. But I remember being like, ‘I feel like everybody’s talking really loudly’. And it was also reactionary to things I’d made in previous years of trying to be hyper-literate or poetic. I had gotten to a place where I felt like music wasn’t a place to communicate ideas that you can attach to discernable language.”

He continues, “I had this feeling that I had nothing to say and I didn’t want to say something for the sake of it. I also wanted to find ways to make a song stay fresh because the second I would write lyrics was when a song would feel, not dead, but the flow would start to feel stagnated and I wanted it to have this ever-growing sensibility. By improvising and doing a lot of editing, I felt like that way of making music better communicated what I was trying to express which was a sense of familiarity of like walking somewhere and then passing it from a different angle; like when you’re walking down the street one way and then you walk down that same street from another direction. You start to see these new things within it.”

A natural place to conclude our delve into the world of Living In Memory Of Something Sweet is with its closing instrumental, the sparse and sentimental ‘More Than Anything’. “I wanted to punctuate some idea of beauty,” Das explains. “It was one of the first things I made that was just simple and beautiful and I liked it a lot. Even though I’m talking about there being so much noise, I realise the album is kind of in your face at times and I wanted people to have a second to breathe. I wanted there to be space for people to insert themselves into the process. At the end of the day, I am just a guitar player. And it goes back to making the good and the new and I just wanted to make something pretty. It’s almost like a sunset at the end of it all.”

DreamTX’s Living In Memory Of Something Sweet is out now via Memorials Of Distinction