Have a Nice Life's 'Deathconsciousness' Is the Next Greatest Album of All Time
An interview with Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga on the construction and writing process of 'Deathconsciousness.'
In 2008, Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga released arguably one of the greatest double LPs of all time, Deathconsciousness. And when it came out, no one really gave a shit. But for the duo, critical acclaim and mounds of attention were the last thing they were worried about. Instead, the record was a result of about five years of hard work, crafting together songs that dipped in the waters of shoegaze, noise, black metal, synthpop, drone, doom, and everything in between. On top of that, the record was recorded with an incredibly low-budget set-up in total costing less than $1,000. Jonathan Tuite, owner of The Flenser, the label responsible for repressing the record recently stated, "This is a record was created with tools that are available to anyone. Pretty easily, very cheaply, a lot of the sounds are probably presets, and it didn’t need a lot of tweaking. It’s kind of like a record made by an everyman, even though it’s a work of near-genius."
After the album's release, it started gaining traction in territories one probably wouldn't expect; namely 4chan's /mu/ board for music. Not too long after the record was released, a few users on the board picked it up, and started posting the record's album art nonstop, leaving the image of Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat burned into the retinas of regular users. As someone who spent more of their high school years on /mu/ than anywhere else, I'd say very few records received as much universal praise and attention as Deathconsciousness. No matter where someone's tastes lay, there was something on the record for everyone, and everyone got something different out of it. Many people could relate to the soul-sundering honesty of The Big Gloom, feel the complete emotional release of Earthmover, or just feel the infectious dancey parts of Deep, Deep. Music aside, Dan Barrett's transparancy and willingness to chat with anyone makes him seem more like a buddy than a musician to a lot of people.
Really, the record shows that no matter what a person does during the day, they're capable of creating something universal and larger than life if the time is put in. So, we chatted with the band—Barrett and Tim Macuga—about the record and some other stuff.
Noisey: At the start of writing these songs, how did your visions compare and contrast to each other?
Macuga: As far as eventually coalescing into “this is going to be a double album of thematically connected stuff,” I didn’t see that until a couple years later in 2005 or 2006. Around the time Dan was with In Pieces but then they disbanded and we started getting more serious with the possibilities. And recording, wheras before it was writing a lot of songs and putting them into a four-track and a digital video thing. I remember it more or less being, “Dude, I got a song today, it goes 'duh duh duh duh duh,' and some words should be in there about x, y, and z, cool.” I think Deathconsciousness itself ended up being a stylistically mixed album, and we picked those pieces out of an even bigger mix of stylistic pieces. It was just a grand sum of a lot of ideas we tried to flush out and bring to fruition.
In terms of contrast, there was certainly never conflict. I think a few songs on the album were, like “Holy Fucking Shit 40,000” was based on an old acoustic song. Dan was playing just that and I was like, “What about the Casio tone beat playing? What about these keyboard lines around it? What about a part that sounds like Rammstein after?” There were a lot of layers after a bare bones acoustic thing. I think Dan was more likely to continue with, and he ended up doing more Giles Corey stuff around the same stripped down instrumentation with, where maybe our relationship ended up being, “How can we take that core of a song and turn it into something that sounds much bigger and has a different darker tone based on different synths and electric guitar instrumentation we can add?” There are a handful of songs like that on the album, but not so many. Contrasting-wise, he was always better writing quieter songs and I could ruin them with the cymbal preset with the yardsale keyboard. We were both into it.
Barrett: Yeah it was like, “Hey let’s write some songs.” We didn’t have a grand plan for it. A couple things ended up happening. We were recording songs and we had a bunch of stuff we didn’t know what to do with. We had a lot of material always because we would just get together and always write new stuff, and never work on the old stuff. I think it started coming together as a project, like my dad passed away and I think that sort of threw things sharply into focus. After that, I took some of the life insurance money, which wasn’t a ton but it was enough to spend on something. I went and did the stereotypical white guy thing and spent a couple months traveling around Europe. I wrote what’s essentially the first draft of the booklet over there, and wrote the final version when I got back. A lot of it gelled into what the record was going to be about and what the booklet was going to be about during that period. Before then it was just kind of a record we were making. But I don’t think it had any clear theme or anything.
It’s really interesting. Tim and I are very different in some ways, but since the moment we met each other, like he’d say something ridiculous and I’d be like, “Yeah!” We just have the same approach to things. For us, it was always like, “I want to make a hundred page book to go with the thing” and he was like, “Of course.” There was never a band meeting kind of thing to figure everything out, it would just naturally happen. Even though he’s very different in the way he approaches a lot of things, on all the important stuff we’ve always been very in sync which is rad.
For each of you personally, do you think the album was born out of personal necessity?
Macuga:Yeah. For both of us, the themes we ended up covering song to song, and then stitching those particular songs as a whole, for that whole project, yeah. I think when I do step back and think about any of the other music I had done in the past, or punk rock bands in high school playing in tool sheds out in the middle of nowhere, none of that was done out of necessity of the process. The traumatic experiences I had with death or that Dan had at the time while the project was coalescing. For me, putting together those songs, sure, basic necessity to test the limits of my own or Dan’s own composition with the new technology we figured out to use. Thematically, in the long run, I think it was necessary. I hadn’t written songs about stuff like that before.
Barrett: It’s weird, obviously in a lot of that stuff, I was trying to process what was going on with my dad. I think largely during that record I wasn’t processing it super well, and a lot of that stuff came out in later records more than that record. But I was out of college, working a couple shitty jobs, and living in an apartment with my friends, but didn’t feel a connection to what was going on, and didn’t hang out with a whole lot of people. So I had a lot of time to write and work on stuff. Tim would come down and we would write and hang out and make these songs, and it was just a personal thing. We didn’t think of it as anything in particular, it was really just our hobby. We didn’t think of ourselves as a band, we never played out, no one knew we really played music aside from my roommates 'cause that’s what we did when we hung out. It was a very unconscious thing that emerged naturally from the stuff we liked to do, and we weren’t trying to make it anything in particular. Just wanted to do something cool. We printed 100 CD-Rs of it when we finished, and I never thought we’d get rid of them. I thought we’d send out 20 of them, they’d never get reviewed, and would just sit in my mom’s basement. It was a very unconscious sort of thing.
What song affected you the most emotionally to put together?
Macuga: Certainly the big, loud, kill/destroy moment at the end of “Earthmover.” Dan does tell the story, fans will always ask about how we got that “bass drop” at the end of the song. Quite literally I threw the bass guitar down and stalked out of the room. Recording that particular track, it was a lot of songs we built from the base up. That one instrumentally ended up being particularly backwards and we were doing bass last. I physcially acted out and ended up in the recording. It was a bit too much to take to keep going with it at a certain point. I guess that’s a real in the moment example.
Barrett: "The Big Gloom" is probably still the song that hits me the hardest. It was the first song we recorded with the set up we had and we kind of recorded in a concise amount of time. I remember feeling after that song like we had really done something cool, and really used the recording set up in a cool way. That song too is very emotional lyrically and is still my favorite on the record.
When’s the last time you listened to it and how did you feel about it?
Barrett: It’s probably been over a year, and before that, I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. It’s always interesting for me to listen back to it because I still get a close emotional reaction to it. But now if I listen back to it, I have enough distance from it that I can actually listen to it and enjoy it, I was never able to listen and enjoy it. Because you just listen to it and hear the mistakes and what you should’ve done instead. But as time goes by, the mistakes become what the songs are. You stop worrying about what the song could’ve been and just learn to listen to what it actually is. I can kind of listen to it now with distance and feel the connection, but still enjoy the process. Every now and then, I’ll get back into certain songs, and now that it’s on Spotify I don’t have a copy on my computer. Humorously, I’ve lost my digital copy, so I just pirate it every time I want to listen to it. So now it’s on Spotify and it’ll be easier for me to listen to.
When I see people discuss the album, some of the exciting parts that add to the mystique of the album are the loss of the masters and how it was recorded on such a low budget. Normally, these would be criticisms or whatever, but a lot of fans embrace it. Not to mention you guys seemed to have a bunch of fun with it.
Barrett: People connect with the fact that it’s such a personal feeling project, and it feels that way because it is. It’s recorded at such a low budget because we had no money. The story of losing the masters, and the story of putting the thing in the booklet about recording it for less than $1000, we were very excited by all that and it comes through. People connect with it because it feels personal and like a real thing, and not like “we’re a band that needs to pump a record out.” It feels like a couple friends doing something for themselves, and the more real something feels, the more people get attached. We were lucky enough for people to have that going for us.
Macuga: Yeah. Five years is a long time to assume anyone is really gazing at their navel the whole time. [Laughs] It was born out of experimentation, and sometimes we felt like we hit on a, let’s see what happens for the sake of experimentation, what happens if we add all these things but take a step back? That was the approach with a song like “Holy Fucking Shit”. Like, “Oh this is a lilthingly sad song that happens to be about The Terminator.” There was a fan bootleg that compiled really old demos that were castoffs on Dan’s blog or we never did anything with. It was an accurate representation of what it sounds like when we’re just screwing around. For that double album, it’s here and there and some of the songs seemed to come out of a recording game we were playing at the time. We did many times realize that we were actually getting towards the expression of these many different variations on the themes of death and alienation for robots, or death and alienation for giant terra-forming golems that eat their way into the center of the earth, or all the sci-fi themes that are in there and we ended up committing to pretty earnestly.
I remember “There is No Food,” I thought I got EVP or ghost noises while recording. I think Dan had to go to Tae-Kwon Do, or he had to run out of the apartment for a couple hours. I kept on putting the song together, and recording different tracks and by the end you can hear a sort of reverse muffled laughter. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I caught it. That was very fun and interesting and exciting, and I kept building the song on top of it and recorded a vocal track about undead wraiths on the moon. Long story short, I got into this game with myself of putting it together, and Dan got back and I played what I had and he said, “Woah that’s really creepy,” and he added a bunch of things. We really felt like we told this ghost story about starving to death, and found out later his roommate was having a dinner date in the kitchen and the microphone had caught on a reverse track her laughing with her boyfriend. Totally took the wind out of our sails, once I discovered where this noise had come from, and had no idea this was going on in the other room.
What’s your favorite thing about each other?
Barrett: Wow. My favorite thing about Tim is he’s the smartest person I know. I was going to say probably, but he really is. He’s smart to a stupid level. He’s too smart. And he just thinks of things and looks at things in a way that I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it for a solid year. And he looks at his life of the mind as a project that he’s constantly working on. We have like a subscriber email list label supporter thing, and he emailed me and was like “I want to create content for it. I’m gonna do this project called ‘Tim Responds to Victorian Fiction.’ I decided last month that I should learn all about and read all the works of Victorian fiction.” That’s just something he wants to know. And now he’s reading Middlemarch and responding to Middlemarch in these crazy essays that are brilliant. I want to be like that, but I don’t have the willpower to actually do that. He’s like the guy who reads all the books you wish you read. Like, “Oh I wish I read War and Peace,” and Tim’s already done that. He’s an awesome dude. I don’t know if he told you, but he’s building a shed for chickens. Teaching himself to build buildings, just an interesting guy.
Macuga: On the one hand, we joke we’re very, the thing people almost, that’s not true in many respects, it’s not even like hanging out with a twin I suppose when we’re hanging out or creating, but I don’t feel like either of us have to be existentially generous with the other because we’re already along the same brainwave length. We don’t have to explain ourselves to each other so much. Sounds like a cheesy Full House identical twin thing, but certainly the act of art creation facilitates that and leads to more interesting things. So there’s that, but also like I pointed out, he has the ability to actually make audience interaction happen that I never could, even when I met him in high school, he was the guy hustling CDs in the parking lot learning people’s names and stuff like that. To me it was like, “Who is that?” And it’s my job to interact with kids for a living, and I’m not some black metal introvert that the music suggests. Intellectually for me, I think it’s important for me to be generous to others and be able to try to relate and connect and be open and readable, and he does that for a living. Arguably, I do that for a living, but high school is just a sea of chemical hormonal haze that you’re just coping the same way as students sometimes to be forging some kind of connection. He can talk to other people in a way I can’t to an extent, and it makes a difference for the band and label and we wouldn’t be anywhere without there, and he makes good on behaviors I believe intellectually are good and right and true and egalitarian and all those things that I don’t have the courage to summon sometimes. And he’s good with puns.
In this present moment, are you happy?
Macuga: Not in a Tom-Hanks-on-a-yacht-waving-to-kids-on-a-sandy-shore way, but happy that I have the ability and opportunity to do these things—have an audience to create art and based on the time scale that Have a Nice Life works that people are patient to hear what we have to say, and that makes me happy. I was just picking onions in the garden with my wife, I was pretty happy with the turnout we got for the year, even though it turns out we planted in crappy construction dirt this year. I’m happy that, in terms of everyday work I do, I see the value in it. I have a very hard time doing it or believing I could do it at the level I owe it to students. So if I took myself out of the equation, am I happy? Yes. But I tend to be the type of person that makes myself profoundly unhappy sometimes based on this realm of form's idea, or this composition isn’t coming together. What I want to come together in the classroom isn’t coming out to what I think it ought to be. At the end of the day, I’m probably my own biggest source of unhappiness. That’s an odd way to answer the question but if I step back to describe it the way I am, that counts as happy.
Barrett: Yeah. I’m definitely happy. I’m a very happy guy. For sure. I lucked out in a lot of ways.
John Hill is having a pretty nice life on Twitter - @JohnxHill