On a Monday back in February, Nigel Chapman celebrated his 30th birthday. Chapman, who fronts Halifax rock outfit Nap Eyes, was reading a first-year university psychology textbook. “It’s been pretty enjoyable just to go through it,” he says brightly.
Thumbing through scholarly texts is the sort of birthday festivity one might expect of Chapman. And it was a festivity: Chapman discusses the book not as a dry, high-minded task, but as an exciting endeavor. He’s desirous of knowledge and information not as something to wield, but as something to figure into his world view, a new piece of code to plug into a never-ending algorithm.
Nap Eyes’ new record, I’m Bad Now, is suggested to be the final piece in a trilogy of records that includes their debut and sophomore releases, 2014’s Whine of the Mystic and 2016’s Thought Rock Fish Scale respectively, but still, Chapman sees that designation as ambiguous. “[Life] doesn’t really seem to have a concluding chapter, at least while it’s going on,” he says. “As soon as one thing ends, it’s also a beginning.”
Chapman’s vision of existence as a borderless ouroboros is toyed with throughout I’m Bad Now. It is a record of conflicting curiosities. On the record’s mellow-rock opener, “Every Time the Feeling,” he chastises a tendency to avoid the nagging tug of existential worry. Later, he reluctantly confronts it, groaning, “I can’t tell what’s worse: the meaningless or the negative meaning.” By the song’s end, however, he’s seemingly reconciled the insecurity: “I figured out a way to get on with my life and to keep on dreaming.”
Chapman’s songs often read like an equation, usually without one definitive answer; he probes his existence from all sides, never quite reaching the heart of the matter. On “You Like To Joke Around With Me,” he’s optimistic: “Tuning yourself to catch another’s wavelength sure can make a difference in this world,” he concludes. Later, amid the western shuffle of “Sage,” he laments, “You’d see your teachers fight against the dark and shatter/The damp, heavy disappointment of the wasted day.” Chapman thinks the opposites complement each other. “These things, they are both parts of life. Somehow, integrating them in a symbolic way, whether it’s in a song or in some kind of ritual, I think that this is probably a really good thing in life.”
Listening to Chapman suss out these issues, it’s as if he’s devised his own unique scientific method that balances the objective and the subjective. But his approach is also pegged to a defining humility that perhaps what he’s looking for can never really be known. Instead, he often resolves to seek joy in the present, regardless of whether his conclusions are fruitful or not. He says his process is like “a relaxing of the tunnel vision.” “If you realize the wider scope of life, there’s always ways that you can… navigate through things,” he explains.
“A little bit of frustration is actually not a bad thing.”
It is on this precipice between ambivalent peace and restless cynicism that Chapman teeters calmly, like a zenned-out biochemist rocker. The biochemist assignment isn’t arbitrary; Chapman has worked in biochemistry alongside Nap Eyes, a tidbit that has been trumpeted for a while. The paradigmatic nature of his identity serves as more than a novelty; the two inform one another, and in turn, flesh out Chapman’s existence.
“It’s been a great source of solace in an unexpected way,” he says of the two careers. “I always identified with the subjective and the artistic and aesthetic dimension of life since I was really young. A beautifully-written song could move you to spiritual heights or something. It’s one way to get there. At the same time, there’s also a way via objective contemplation of the nature of existence.” Here, Chapman relays, at a delighted, feverish pace, a SparkNotes version of evolution, from the first self-replicating molecules to the development of cells to the growth of the eye (yes, the organ). “Before that, there was no vision,” he delivers incredulously. “Such a thing is just a crazy change.”
The concrete nature of these facts is a comfort for Chapman. “They’re not subjective realities. These are things that really happened.” He digresses for a moment from his soliloquy. “I guess what I’m trying to get at is this line of thinking, which is less about your subjective, phenomenological experience, this is also another way to access those heights of wonder and a sense of the sacredness of life, or a sense of peace and perspective about your place in the world.”
He remarks that this understanding did not come naturally. “It was a weaker side of me that I had to develop,” he says. But this framing also serves to ground and contain a subjective view that, at times, threatens to either gorge us on self-importance or overwhelm us with unchecked misery.
“I had a feeling that sometimes when I got really involved in the subjective realm, I think that there’s a danger here of losing your balance,” he says, noting that the two-prong approach has helped to steady his mental health. “Sometimes when things seem to go a bit awry, you don’t have as much clear things to cling to, because if you’re in your subjective realm, if one thing tips over, the whole realm tends to also tip a little bit.”
This is the sort of tangle that Nap Eyes meanders through on their new record. Rarely, though, are these conceits named. Instead, Chapman speaks in abstracts and coded narratives, like on the enigmatic stroll of “White Disciple.” These tools act as vessels, perhaps even catalysts, for exponential significance. He points to German writer Hermann Hesse as an inspiration. Says Chapman, “It makes sense to have a symbolic word that contains a meaning that is more broad than what you explicitly describe or define in the song. If you have a figure or a character who is a symbolic representation of an archetype of the psyche, then that word, if it’s invoked in a few different contexts, can have a great richness of meaning that people can kind of explore of contemplate outside of the actual text of the song.”
There is a particular tranquility to Chapman’s discussion of these things. As earnest as he is in his own quest to unknot the threads of his own life, he’s also aware that he might not find any answers. “Existence is a real puzzle because it’s a very strange thing that’s happened,” he says gently. “Trying to figure out where you fit in the vastness of the cosmos is definitely something that has been a guiding question for me.” He reconsiders, “Another way to say it is a hounding question. You might try to ignore [it], and the question will chase after you. Sometimes it’s a source of wonder, sometimes it’s a source of anxiety. But I think that the more you can engage with it, it’s quite possible to gain, over time, to some small measure, a sense of balance or harmony with the wider principles that are there. That’s still a goal of mine.”
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.