Considerations | On Songwriting At The End Of Days

With Subtitles Borrowed From "Oscar, Please?" By Dutch Interior. Via Issue 187, The Critical Mass Issue!

Written by

Jack Nugent

Photographed by

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Styled by

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Haena Yoo. “I’ve Gone To Look For America (Revolver Iii)” (2022). Rice Paper Dyed In Soy Sauce. 6.25” X 11” L X 1.5.” Image Courtesy Murmurs Gallery.

Hello, Hello Procession

In March of 2020 the air outside was scary, full of dubious pathogens and wildfire smoke. In the wake of global catastrophe, Noah, Davis, and I holed up in our little upstairs apartment in Long Beach, still spinning over the kneecapping of our band Skin Mag, each of us manic; each of us swiping wildly at meaning. Noah rearranged the hall closet, removing forgot- ten items from the depths and arranging them in crop circles on the floor, pondering the utility of each relic and tossing out what didn’t check the right boxes. He said we needed to “pack it in” for the apocalypse. We were reduced to hoarding animals; to chipmunks packing it in for winter. Davis hunkered down in his dungeon and bought a six-foot by six-foot canvas, on which he planned to paint a surrealist landscape in oil from his recently deceased grandma’s 1960s paint supply box. As for me, I spiraled into a nauseating obsession with (and eventual depression over) poststructuralist literary theory while finishing my last year of undergrad on Zoom. I couldn’t bear to make art anymore. My apocalypse was twofold.

We needed something to sideline our doom spiral. The 8-track tape machine gathered dust atop the rickety kitchen table. We lost the studio we built around it to the thrashing changes wrought by the pandemic. Amplifiers scattered the cobwebbed corners of the living room; guitars laid untouched like subterranean totems robbed of religious gravity. My white bed sheets gathered the ash drifting in from the record-breaking fires up north. Every single song I tried to write seemed corny and tone-deaf. It was as if the pleasure of creation was no longer possible in the wake of all the suffering that had suddenly sprung upon an unsuspecting world.
One day, Conner suggested that we make a body of songs following strict guidelines: no computers, one song per session, simple topics, eight tracks only; keep the mistakes. We set to recording. We ran with song ideas we would have never given the time of day in our previous, crowd-pleaser bands. We often got drunk and high, as if to numb ourselves from the absurdity outside our front door; or, perhaps, to heighten the absurdity of what we were doing behind it. Thus was born a record meant to remain forever in the womb of our apartment: the mantelpiece in our fortress against the rapid decay of the world around it, never to be born to the light of day. We called the collective project Dutch Interior. 

I Let Go of all Conventions

Later on, after our inspiration had fizzled out and no music was being made, we took two hits of acid and walked with our heads down into the decay. Somewhere on the walk, I was frozen by prolonged eye contact with an ancient woman in an easy chair. Because of LSD’s dissolution of social norms, I didn’t break eye contact and continued to stare through her open bay window. The dancing of television lights projecting on her melting face lit a fire that slowly burned through the soles of my feet. I ran away and was almost hit by a speeding sedan. The briny depths of city life felt lonely and bleak.

So I committed to an old pipe dream and built out a van. I took off into a vagrant life, burning my remaining savings climbing rocks and running at full tilt from something, I just wasn’t sure what (I still am not). If I had to put words to it, I would say that the something I was running from was a concoction of fiscal independence, rote jobs that barely paid the bills, stagnance, and the very grim realization that I am not in control of what happens in my world—that my agency could be taken away in an instant by forces beyond my own. In those two years spent adrift, my friends all strayed too, each in their own ways—some physically, and some in ways less tangible. Noah and Davis left the apartment to move to LA, and other friends cycled into the rooms of the Long Beach apartment against the ink-set will of our lease. Conner wrote music in the background. Shane garnered hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok making hoax videos. Devin, SkinMag’s drummer, got married. I committed to a pathetic Beatnik cosplay. It went on like this for eighteen months. I was never home for more than a week at a time.

I lived as a rat, hiding in the woods with my rat friends, avoiding civilization entirely and hoping to not be booted out by the police. As I passively watched an unraveling America crumple beneath the weight of its own absurdities, I couldn’t ignore that the radically divergent lifestyle I had transitioned into (stealing food, squatting on private land, ignoring the economy, etc.) didn’t feel all that radical after some time. People were experiencing true suffering while I slept in parking lots and put myself in needless danger to escape the sheer terror of living in a world where I saw no good future. I needed to reach for meaning again, and when I wasn’t climbing, I was too cynical to write music or prose. Road life drew me in because it was communal and anti-transactional: it produced no capital in the face of a capital-obsessed world in crisis. Still, I became jaded. The climbing community was artless. I found that if you take away the aggravating factors of life in the dwindling days of the American experiment, the drive to create is lost completely. Somewhere in the once-again record-breaking heat of summer 2022, the Dutch Interior decided it time to try again. Perhaps enough distance had put itself between us and the catastrophes of 2020 to feel like things could be stable enough again to eek out another record. Elated at the potential for a new chapter, I dusted off my roots, returned home, and lived in the streets outside my friend's houses in my van. The project my friends and I started while locked in was to be once more. Time to try again at this weird pursuit: the only one that reveals the magic left in the world. We released the quarantine tape recordings under the name Kindergarten, in hopes that the few that heard it would find a score for the darkness and absurdity of these days.

Washed Clean of the Dirt I Ought to Be

I was asked to write a piece on making music during the decline of Western civilization. When this proposal drifted in, I was taking a break from redrafting a novel I’d been working on and off for four years and working on a newsletter that might be sent out on the release day of our upcoming record Blinded by Fame. Upon returning to the newsletter, I realized that I had already been struggling to understand why I chose to make music instead of committing my time—the elastic time of a privileged person—to studying, say, a science that might help save the world from heat death, or to hoarding capital so that my loved ones and descendants might survive the imminent collapse of the economy. My reintegration into this world after road life was slow and agonizing. I’d spent so much time adrift that I’d forgotten what normal felt like: the rage I felt paying a rising fee to an absent landlord, the warmth of mom’s stale coffee, the relentless news cycle, standstill traffic, keeping a calendar, or taking regular showers. While my friends worked nine-to-fives, I remained holed up in my cave, hemorrhaging money and writing when I felt inspired, and killing the hours in between with “idle” tasks (sewing, gaming, reading, scrolling, juggling). I felt lost, telling myself, in my frequent manic spirals, that I was just experiencing growing pains—that the yawning void of city life was worth peering into if it meant I had the space to make music again. There was no sudden epiphany. There was no making sense of my situation. How can you make sense of playing the starving artist when people are fighting for their lives in tents outside your front door, in the face of climate scientists' self-immolating, school shootings, hate crimes, culture wars, and water shortages? The gist of it is that making art made me happy. Call it a coping mechanism if you’d like; call it a product of the basic human desire for communication beyond language. I might call it a comfort blanket against a wave of nauseating change. I still question if it’s worth it. Sometimes it feels like I’m broadcasting my insides to parasites. Sometimes it fills me up in a way nothing else can. All meaningful things, at least for me, tend to have this back-and-forth.

Dutch Interior was born in the beginning of the end: in the empty streets of LA on a Tuesday at five pm, under the punches of record-breaking heat waves, under the nose of a burgeoning 21st-century fascism, and in the trenches of mass simulation and relentless commodification. The music we make may or may not reflect that, but it is clear to me now that we do this because we have to: it keeps us from falling fully into the meaningless grind of life in modernity.

Despite this, our music has never really been in protest of the conditions it was born in. Or maybe it has, unintentionally, as to open oneself up and make vulnerable art with a group of loving friends despite societal unwinding—more specifically, the ongoing economic exploitation and discrimination within a capitalist experiment in its final days—is a profound and radical act. Even in my lowest days, this silly pursuit of meaning in a world devoid of it gives me more substance than running from it all ever did. And while living paycheck to paycheck is uncomfortable (I haven’t had a full tank of gas in months), the few days a week I get to make music with my friends remind me that this is, in fact, a mysterious and beautiful world. If the music I make can remind just one other person of this same conceit, then that music is worth more than gold.

Y. Malik Jalal. “Memorial Day Weekend” (2022) Mild Steel, Archival Inkjet Prints, Plexiglass. 37 1⁄2” X 24.” Courtesy Murmurs Gallery.

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Considerations, On Songwriting At The End Of Days, Jack Nugent, The Critical Mass Issue