I was lucky enough to get in touch with Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga, the creative minds behind Have a Nice Life. Approximately 10 years ago, Dan and Tim quietly released what would become one of Sputnikmusic’s most continuously-praised albums, Deathconsciousness. Regardless of whether that distinction is worth much of a shit, the high praise extends towards many corners of the internet (and beyond, as they’ve recently upped their live show appearances). Initially, the album went mostly unnoticed; it’s through attrition (constant exposure at the hands of devout fans) that Have a Nice Life has garnered much-deserved recognition. Their early work was emblematic of many tireless bedroom producers: low-budget, impassioned, and resourceful. They toyed with aspects of shoegaze, black metal, drone, noise, post-rock, and so on, developing a sound that harkened back to the 80s, but was collectively unique, and emotionally situated in present-day sentiments. Moreover, there is a unique approachability when it comes to Dan and Tim that lends to a reciprocal fan community.
Their newest album is entitled “Sea of Worry”, and we talked about it a bit.
Tristan: I don’t know how deep the allegorical component of Sea of Worry’s title is meant to run, but can you elaborate on the name choice a bit? The promo blurb seems to only scratch the surface. Like, without spilling too many beans, is “Sea of Worry” meant to reference uncertainty about the world in a way that feels more pressing than the themes of nihilism in previous work?
Dan: I think uncertainty about the world is probably the overriding theme. Lyrically, all my projects have been very self-centered…focused on how I feel about whatever it is that’s happening to me at the moment. Sea of Worry differs from that in the sense that it’s the first record that’s really about broadening that scope. I’ve got kids, a wife, a life that’s built on top of a lot of structures that seem impossibly frail to me. There’s a sense that there’s a lot to lose.
Tristan: If the lead single is any indication, the new album could sound a bit more urgent than HANL are perhaps used to. Does this work thematically with the album’s content?
Dan: A good amount of the lyrics were written after the full band versions of these songs came into being, and I do think that influenced how they turned out. I typically have lyrical ideas when I start, but I try as much as possible to write “to” the music – to feel like vocals and other tracks make sense together.
Tim: The lead single is not too much of an indication of overall style, but yes, it is one color of anxious dread within that greater theme, nervy and turbulent. Other songs take a more subdued, ponderous, or weighty approach.
Tristan: Bands like Joy Division, Xasthur, MBV and Rammstein have been cited as influences on earlier HANL material. What bands have been in your peripherals leading up to the release of your new album?
Tim: Chameleons, Sisters of Mercy, Mission UK, Samhain, Julee Cruise, Tears for Fears, the Earthbound OST. The poppy post-hardcore bent of the new “Trespassers W” reminds me that Hey Mercedes was one of the first bands that Dan and I got into together, as friends, at the same time, forever ago. “Quit” was “our song”.
Dan: I still love Hey Mercedes. Chameleons was definitely a big influence on me this time around.
Tristan: A slightly personal question for Tim: I’ve heard through the grapevine that you’re a teacher – me as well. We have, I’m told, this thing called “teacher mode” where we carry ourselves a certain way. It’s almost an act. Do you ever have difficulty doing this, in conjunction with what might be fuelling the sounds of HANL?
Tim: Managing anxiety and depression sucks when you need to reserve an emotional well for 100+ students and engage them with the material at hand. The expectation is that you regularly inspire your charges and connect with them where they’re at, broadcasting on every possible frequency. I get inside my head a lot about that. On paper, I guess I’m doing a good enough job with it, but I still have a difficult time believing anyone.
I try to present the most honest version of myself as possible without it being an act (kids see right through us anyways) but, I dunno. Maybe I’m existential death guy. Maybe I’m super encouraging and motivating. Maybe I’m just another interchangeable adult in the way with the Peanuts wah-wah voice. Maybe I’m good at masking my angst. Maybe not. You’d have to ask my students to characterize the true shape of my “teacher mode” – they are the beholders.
Tristan: A slightly personal question for Dan: I’ve heard through the watermelon vine that you are a bit of a gym rat. What is your relationship like with your workout regime? As in, do you find it therapeutic? Does it kinda tether your days together with a routine?
Dan: I hate the gym. I hate going there. I hate physical exertion in general. But I found a few years ago that it was a powerful tool in managing my mood. It’s also just a part of getting older – if I don’t do it, I get very out of shape, very quickly. I’m very aware that heart disease has killed most of the men in my family, so I do what I can to mitigate that risk.
Tristan: What books are you reading lately?
Tim: I finished Lonesome Dove a few weeks ago, then A Confederacy of Dunces. I’m currently working on Piers the Ploughman – Dunces reminded me I picked up a copy at Savers a while back but forgot about it. I’m teaching a medieval course this semester, so I’ll probably throw some of it at the kids.
Dan: Tim is reading smart shit, while I decided to work my way through all the Jack Reacher novels from the beginning.
Tim: Ugh, I never sound relatable in this section of the interview. That Greek zine piece from 2008 was recently unearthed and I discovered that then, I said “Chekhov” or something – which was true! – and man, that makes me look like a jerk. Who tells music press they’re earnestly reading fucking Chekhov? Give me credit for Lonesome Dove, at least. It was made into a mini-series and had a bunch of cash-in sequels and prequels, I’m pretty sure.
Tristan: In early interviews, I’ve seen you say that Deathconsciousness what written under the assumption that no one would hear it. (Somehow, it still feels like a “hidden gem” when I replay it.) Anyway, would you say that you’ve retained that as a modus operandi of sorts? Obviously you’re more popular, and plenty of people will hear what you put out, but, do you still write music as though it could be sealed in a vault somewhere after?
Tim: The new album is, in our estimation, the best possible sequence of material pulled from a larger set the two of us wrote, and the best possible document of our identity at the present moment (Side A features our collaborators in the live band, Side B is 99.9% me and Dan). It’s everything we hoped it would be. We never asked ourselves, “How can we create something that lives up to an audience’s idea of what HANL is supposed to be?”
Yet, we chose to pursue the LP format – 45 minutes total, 20+ a side – which, while a puzzle I personally enjoy putting together, is obviously a concession to how it will be consumed and what an audience expects. Does observation necessarily change behavior of the observed, if on a subconscious level?
Dan: In the end, it’s impossible to recapture what it’s like making art without the knowledge that people will see it, judge it. Ever since the first single came out, I’ve been very aware (in my head) of how people might see it, how they might connect with it (or not). There’s a part of me that worries about that, just like there’s a part of me that worries about which parts of my personality got passed down to my kids.
But in the end, we did what we’ve always done: exactly what we wanted. It’s a deep, deep part of Tim’s and my DNA to want to subvert expectations. We love the record…ultimately, that’s all there is to it.
Check out “Sea of Worry” on Bandcamp:
Sea of Worry by HAVE A NICE LIFE
And, on Spotify