interview: Alex Napping

In May, Alex Napping will release Mise En Place, the follow-up to their 2014 debut. The Austin-based quartet draws from the uncertainty of adulthood and brings a honest, unflinching look at the most tumultuous moments that life can throw our way.  Ahead of that we chatted with the band through e-mail, speaking with guitarist and lead vocalist Alex Cohen. 

photo: Helmut Studio

photo: Helmut Studio

The Grey Estates: What is it about this particular period in your life that you were able to draw inspiration from? And do you ever find it challenging to open up and share the uncertainty that surrounds this time of adulthood in your life?

Alex Cohen of Alex Napping: When I was writing this album, I was at a place in my life where songwriting was a very reactionary process for me, usually in response to very specific moments or occurrences. All of the tracks (except for "Wife and Kidz") exist very temporally, by which I mean something would happen, or I would experience some feeling or emotion, and write about it immediately. I think I was pretty unhappy while writing this album — my life severely lacked balance, the writing process became a form of wading through and realizing that. Nothing was particularly inspiring about these events, but it was an outlet for a lot of inner turmoil I felt about my professional and romantic world. 

It’s easy to talk about it now, though. I feel so far removed from that uncertainty and imbalance. I think it’s a very natural progression as you move from your early twenties to your mid-twenties, and something that I’ve realized to be a part of a lot of people’s experiences.

You said on Stereogum that "Living Room" was like the thesis statement of the recording. What part do the other tracks play and what elements do they explore?

“Living Room” is a thesis track in that it’s the moment when I more or less acknowledge that a relationship has failed and that a lot of that was rooted in my inability to make the best decisions for myself. And that’s kind of what this album is about — how do you balance it all? I was second-guessing my career decisions (“Tender” is about regretting not finishing my degree in electrical engineering after watching Interstellar in theaters and reading a book called Einstein’s Dreams in the fall of 2014). I felt crippled by my partner at the time constantly being away on tour (both “Get Used To It” and “Pilot Episode” touch on that) to the point where I felt like his crazy schedule dictated too much about my life and the decisions I was making. “Temperamental Bed” and “Heart Swells 2.0” are a pair of tracks that explore emotional balance and the struggle to face really tough and unpleasant realities with as much clarity and maturity as possible. All of these tracks are supposed to come together and say, “How do you do it?" How do you balance your ambitions, your relationships (romantic and non-romantic), your hobbies, your regrets, your ego, and the idea that amidst all of that you're supposed be okay with the fact that you don’t know how anything is going to turn out ever. 

When did you first begin to write and record this album? What is the writing process like for you? Do you a space that you write in or is your head ever constantly swimming with ideas? How do you refine the beginning inclinations into final songs?

“Heart Swells 2.0” and “Temperamental Bed” I wrote as far back as late 2013, which is absolutely crazy to think about. What’s even crazier is to think about how much my writing process has changed since then. I’m always working on writing songs, but have become a lot less sensitive to the need to feel “inspired.” These days I schedule time for writing into my day-to-day life and try and treat it like I would a job. I personally believe that requiring a specific set of circumstances to feel “inspired” to write or create is actually a really inefficient way to work.

With these songs, I wrote mostly on guitar and then would share them with Adrian (the other guitarist). We’d flesh them out more/refine them and record a decent demo before sharing with the rest of the band to fully arrange. 

I started producing electronic pop music in early 2015, though, (I have a side project called Pema) and that’s completely transformed my writing process for Alex Napping as well. I’ll still start off writing things on guitar here and there, but I feel much less limited being able to develop vocal melodies and lyrics first while not worrying about also writing for/playing an instrument at the same time. I sing constantly throughout the day and record little melody ideas onto my phone. It’s really nice being able to pop those into Logic on my computer and develop a song around that.

I'm in love with the track "Get Used To It." What is that song about? And are there any other tracks on the album that have an interesting backstory or you're really in love with?

Aww thanks! So, “Get Used To It” is about dealing with a partner who was constantly touring with his band. I was extremely frustrated because Alex Napping wasn’t at a point where it made sense to tour yet so I had a lot of crazy feelings of both jealousy because I wanted to be out on the road also and then also the standard feelings of longing you get when your partner is away for an extended period. It became really hard to distinguish when my neurosis was coming from a place of professional envy or if I was just really missing him, or a probable mix of both.

Musically, “Wife and Kidz” is one of my favorites. It’s the only track that was written way, way after the events of the album and also the only one that we really got to develop fully in the studio (something we’ve never done before) and it was both fun and validating to end up with the song as it is now.

“Pilot Episode” probably has my favorite backstory. It’s sort of about Twin Peaks. I watched it for the first time in summer of 2014 with that same partner right before he left for a month long tour. We had 4 or so episodes left to watch when his band left and we promised each other to wait until he was back to finish and it was really, really hard to keep that promise. The song draws a lot of parallels of keeping that promise with the idea of romantic fidelity and also the stories of some of the characters in the show. So, ultimately it’s a song about “Netflix cheating,” but for a show that came out almost 30 years ago.
 

How has Alex Napping changed as a band since you first began? Did you have any goals for this album when you began recording it?

I think learning how to write and function as a band is something that takes a while (years?) to hammer out. So, I feel endlessly fortunate that we’ve had the same lineup since our inception and thus had time to shape how we work and write together.

I definitely wanted this to be more of a “studio” album, which I think we accomplished. For the most part, we spent less time rehearsing the songs and locking in parts before recording. A lot of these songs we didn’t even play live until after we finished the record, which was cool. I think it’s easy to get attached to the way a song is if you’ve been playing it live a bunch before recording, so it was nice to be free of those strings. We also had more time in the studio with this record than the last, which allowed us to do that. I can always use more time in the studio, though. There’s never enough studio time.

When did you first begin singing and playing instruments? How have you grown as band members and individuals in your music making process? 

I started playing piano when I was 4 years old - so I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing an instrument in some fashion. I started writing songs and singing when I was 16 and picked up guitar a couple of years after that.

I think we’ve really learned how to work with each other and how to manage each other’s “quirks” these last few years. That sort of emotional accommodation can’t not translate into both personal and musical growth. I definitely think being in this band has toughened me up to criticism and made me a much more flexible person and musician. I like to think my bandmates have also experienced that.

Do you feel that you've moved past their period in your life that the record represents or are you still going through a period of uncertainty? Was the album a means to cope with what you were dealing with at the time?

It’s sort of unreal how far removed I feel from the time in my life when I wrote these songs - emotionally and also I now physically live in a different city.

I realize now that uncertainty is inherently part of life. I really struggled to accept that. It’s where the title of the album comes from. Mise En Place is a culinary technique in which you prepare all of your ingredients before you start cooking. I falsely believed throughout most of my life that if I did things a certain way, if I put all of the right things in place, I could control an outcome. It led to a lot of anxiety and disappointment. Accepting uncertainty and “the unknown” has been a huge challenge, but one that’s been ultimately liberating in so many ways. That said, I feel a lot less uncertainty about who I am, what I want professionally and romantically, and how to make space for different things in my life with where I am right now. I feel a lot more balanced. 

I never want to treat my creative process as an emotional compulsion or coping mechanism, but I do think that being able to look back on these songs and what they're about helped me realized that I was deeply unhappy and unsatisfied. Songwriting to me is an opportunity for self-analysis and growth, especially when retrospectively viewing a cohesive body of work. These songs, and a lot of the songs I am writing now (even ones a lot less auto-biographical in nature or transfixed on specific events) are an opportunity for me to think “why am I writing about this and why is it so important to me?” thus forcing a moment of introspection that might have never otherwise happened. I also just love making music and there are so many aspects of composing and recording songs that, for me, are completely removed from any sort of personal emotional narrative.