Revolver teamed with Have a Nice Life for an exclusive vinyl variant of their 2008 debut album, Deathconsciousness, which sold out immediately. Head over to the store now to see our full selection of extremely limited vinyl offerings.
There aren't many facets of pop culture that reach cult-classic status — but nearly all that do are a total surprise. Just ask Have a Nice Life.
In 2008, the Connecticut experimental post-punk duo — vocalist Dan Barrett and guitarist/noise maker Tim Macuga — dropped their debut album Deathconsciousness. The record was an emotionally devastating meditation on anxiety, depression and death, filtered through a daring mix of lo-fi black metal, shoegaze and glumly experimental ambience, among myriad other dark sounds. Deathconsciousness flew relatively under the radar upon its release, but in the years that followed something fascinating happened: 4chan.
The album found its way onto the anonymous imageboard forum's /mu/ music board — and its cult popularity skyrocketed. Deathconsciousness' melancholic impact — and second viral life — was something neither Macuga nor Barrett could have ever predicted, let alone manufacture.
"A lot of stuff that people resonated with on Deathconsciousness — if we had sat down and decided to make it a super depressing thing that people are gonna resonate with, we could never do it," says Barrett. "You can't do it on purpose — you have to do it by accident, almost by definition. You can't just think it through and break it into its pieces."
Over the years, Deathconsciousness' depressive themes have struck a chord with many outsiders. It has inspired everyone from the late rapper Lil Peep, who pulled from "A Quick One Before the Eternal Worm Devours Connecticut" for his track "Shiver," to 4chan's online meme lords who mine its themes to create macabre moments. 13 years since it appeared, the record has become a beacon for a whole community of ageless (and at times empty) souls fumbling around in the dark seeking catharsis.
But 2008 was a long time ago, and both Barrett and Macuga have built full lives outside of Have a Nice Life. For the two of them, musical catharsis was just one part of their personal maturation. Their path out of the darkness also included starting families and getting "big boy" jobs, like Macuga's full-time high school English teacher gig or Barrett's running of a real estate marketing agency. Still, music always has continued to be a mainstay in both of their lives.
Have a Nice Life have released two additional full-lengths, 2014's The Unnatural World and 2019's Sea of Worry, and both guys have kept busy with a hefty amount of additional musical projects: from Barrett's Giles Corey and Black Wing to Macuga's Consumer and The Flowers of St. Francis. Throughout the pandemic, Have a Nice Life have also begun rehearsing for upcoming tours and recording new HANL tracks. But Deathconsciousness will forever cast a shadow of influence over the duo.
We recently caught up with Barrett and Macuga over a Zoom for a wide-ranging chat about the creation and legacy of Deathconsciousness, dealing with high-school fans and online meme-fication, why Have a Nice Life are an "open door" and much more.
DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS TURNED 13 EARLIER THIS YEAR. A LOT HAS HAPPENED FOR YOU BOTH PERSONALLY SINCE THEN. DOES THAT MILESTONE RESONATE FOR YOU AT ALL — AND DOES THE RECORD POP UP IN YOUR DAILY LIVES AT ALL?
TIM MACUGA This year was sort of a milestone — in that I was asked to sign copies of it by students at my school. That's the extent to which it's encroached on my life.
DAN BARRETT My work life intersects with my musical life exactly zero percent of the time. At home, my kids will sometimes play Have a Nice Life on the Amazon Alexa to bother me. I was like, "You can't listen to 'Baby Shark' anymore. I forbid it. You can't. It's over. You've hit your cap." They're like, "Can we listen to Have a Nice Life?" And I was like "No, you can't listen to that, either." That's about it, but I think both Tim and I, for a very long time, very carefully cultivated creative lives that were very separate from the rest of everything else we did. I worked in schools for a long time before I did this, and I didn't want the people at work to know that I do this. There was never any overlap. As we got older, we just got to a point where Tim's students naturally started to find out. It's much easier to find that stuff now than it was before.
MACUGA A big thing happened. Like Dan said, I'm closer to teenagers and younger people who are having imprinting musical experiences on their lives. They ask me how I listen to music, and it sounds very academic and intellectual. That bums them out, because they're listening to music for it to change their lives. I think it was last year that the "Doge in Space" video — of a dog going to outer space [featuring "Earthmover" from Deathconsciousness] — went viral. They fucking posted that to my Google classroom. Stuck it there with the homework assignments and stuff. To me, I'm like, "Oh, it's like a cute video of a dog." But no, videos like this are their Michael Jackson. "Earthmover" is happening to a new generation, because of this dumb dog video.
BARRETT Tim is surrounded by people who are tied into the zeitgeist in a way the people I'm surrounded with at work aren't. They're all like, "Oh, what do you do?" And I'm like "I like music." And they're like, "Oh, I love Steely Dan. That's music." I'm like, "It sure is. Let's just change the subject."
MACUGA I also had a kid wear Have a Nice Life merch to class for the first time. I was like, "You realize this is a step away from wearing the t-shirt of the band you're going to see, except you showed up for English class?"
TIM, HAVE ANY OF YOUR STUDENTS EVER COME UP TO YOU AND INQUIRED MORE ABOUT THE LYRICS OR STYLISTIC CHOICES ON DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS? OR IS IT MORE LIKE THEY'RE COMING AT IT IN THIS "MEME-IFIDE" WAY?
MACUGA Memes are a part of it, and I approach meme culture with this very detached, academic perspective. They're something I know kids are passing around [but I'm not] throwing them up on the projector to give my visual analysis of what's happening. It's just a funny dog that makes you go "ha." There's nothing about existential alienation or being even ironically detached from irony. One of them described it as memes don't fill up the whole experience, but they're just the desert from the thing you're really [dealing with]. That put things into perspective for me.
But there are a number of ones that use Dan's likeness and rip his professional pictures from his marketing agency. I can barely have my picture taken so I'm profoundly uncomfortable for my friend and writing partner for what has happened to his IDs. It took them a while to explain it to me that no, it's like a separate little bon bon so be flattered by it. Back to your question: They haven't approached me with anything that deep. They'll sometimes share like, "This particular song meant a lot to me due to X, Y and Z or something I was feeling at that time." I think the experience that kids at that age might be having with the music is more rawly imprinted and emotional, so that's the way they'll approach me about it.
BARRETT Plus, I think you're less intimidating now in general.
MACUGA I hope. I mean I can tell a student, "Excellent work, you should be very proud of what you've done." And they won't believe me because of how stoic and dadly I deliver the line.
DADLY, WOW. WELL, I WOULD SAY YOU'RE NOT INTIMIDATING AT ALL. DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS CAME OUT RIGHT AFTER I GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL. SO IF YOU HAD BEEN MY TEACHER, I WOULD HAVE BEEN THAT REALLY INQUISITIVE STUDENT: "WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? WHAT IS THIS IS THIS THEME?" I FEEL LIKE THERE'S ANOTHER ME OUT THERE THAT WILL EVENTUALLY FIND THEIR WAY INTO YOUR CLASSROOM.
MACUGA I think it's gonna happen, though it's different when you become this cultural item in a school. A stand-up comedian friend of mine once said that public school teachers are the world's shittiest celebrities because everyone knows you in this very small bubble.
BARRETT Last week, [my son and I] were at the grocery store and he's screaming, "I see the janitor at my school!" That's the biggest deal to him.
MACUGA Yeah, it's like taking someone from a different context into this normal context. I thought kids ducked you at the grocery store?
OH, 100 PERCENT, I DUCK PEOPLE WHO I KNOW AT THE GROCERY STORE.
BARRETT My friends? In public? Come on.
SO, OBVIOUSLY A LOT HAS CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU STARTED WORKING ON THE ALBUM IN THE EARLY 2000S TO WHEN IT WAS ACTUALLY RELEASED IN 2008 TO NOW. DO EITHER OF YOU EVER THINK BACK TO WHERE YOU WERE MENTALLY AND EMOTIONALLY DURING THOSE TIMES?
BARRETT I mean, I do very consistently when I listen to it. I think for me, because of the way we record, which tends to be over a pretty significant chunk of time — it's kind of a slow process. All the records are kind of like little time capsules where I have certain memories that are tied to those songs. Every time I listen back to anything we've written, I remember everything that was happening, or where I was living. They're very resonant for me in that way.
MACUGA It's an interesting baseline for what psychological or emotional distress felt like and how I processed that sort of thing however many years ago versus how I do now. I haven't gotten better about getting my shit together. It's not my voice on the album, so my processing of those things in contributions tend to be in the abstract instrumental. I don't know, some things have changed. I like to think I've been a put-together person since then, and it's just different issues now that give me an existential crisis on a daily basis. It's not the same things. But I also listen to Deathconsciousness and think, Whatever I'm dealing with right now, can't I just pick up my guitar, plug in my gear and feel better that way? Since the pandemic, I've recorded like four hours worth of music and it's been a pretty difficult time for me. That's maybe been me trying to process some of my issues in that way. We're in different places in life, and what it means to be dealing with depressive tendencies or anxiety now just isn't the same as when we were 20 and had few responsibilities and whole weekends to dream on that stuff.
RIGHT. AND MAYBE THIS IS ME PROJECTING, BUT DURING THE PANDEMIC I'VE REVISITED A LOT OF THESE DEPRESSIVE ALBUMS, DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS BEING ONE OF THEM. THE ME OF 17, WHEN I WAS FIRST LISTENING TO IT, VERSUS THE 30-SOMETHING ME NOW — I'M THINKING BACK ON HOW IT HELPED ME THROUGH THOSE TIMES. BUT I'M ALSO PICKING UP ON OTHER THINGS ON THE ALBUM AND RELATING IT TO HOW MY MIND IS NOW DURING THE PANDEMIC. HAVE EITHER OF YOU REVISITED DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS LATELY?
BARRETT It's funny, I certainly agree that even if your life changes and your external circumstances change, there's different stuff you can pull out from those things you listened to a long time ago and got something out of, and then you can get something new out of it now. I deliberately didn't listen to it. We've been practicing that material over the last couple of months to get ready to go back to live shows, but over the pandemic specifically, because I wanted to write new stuff, I didn't want to revisit it. One of the things I've noticed is if I revisit that material, I tend to internalize the kind of Have a Nice Life formula. It's like a verse/chorus, verse/chorus, quiet part/loud part. There's something in that format that really gets me, that's why a lot of the stuff we write has something like that. There are dynamics I'm looking for that I'm getting in the process of making that music. For me, it's almost like I can revisit that material, get something out of it and enjoy it, but when I want to do something new, I have to deliberately put it out in my head. Otherwise, we'll get trapped in making Deathconsciousness II you know?
There's always this tricky relationship with that material, of wanting to have the continuation of the stuff people like and the stuff I like out of it, and then also wanting to do something new and be able to express something different or do something a little bit surprising. I do revisit it every now and then, but during the pandemic I even tried not to listen to other people's music. I wasn't going to listen to new records that came out that I was interested in just because I want to try to be in my own little bubble and do something kind of as ignorant as possible about what's going on in the world.
MACUGA I haven't touched it at all really, outside of referencing certain parts in the rehearsal space. I don't know, I sent Dan an email with some of the recordings I've done and they've now become of a time capsule of a profoundly shitty time, but I have this attachment to them. I need to detach, and the way to detach is to finish them and get them out into the world. I wasn't purposely avoiding listening to old material because I don't want to repeat or relive anything, but the stuff I ended up working on in the now became so entirely consuming. Now I'm realizing it's a part of a year of grief that I have to do something with, because otherwise it becomes this thing for holding onto. I don't know, maybe that then becomes the next thing in the future. It's like, when I listen to those, it's going to bring me back exactly to that time, and do I want to feel bad?
RIGHT, WELL THAT'S KIND OF A GOOD SEGUE, BECAUSE I'M WONDERING HOW, IF AT ALL, YOUR SONGWRITING PROCESS HAS CHANGED FROM THAT FIRST ALBUM TO NOW.
BARRETT I think it's very much in a transitional period now. Like a lot of things, the pandemic sped up a process that was kind of already happening. The traditional Have a Nice Life recording method was Tim would come down for the weekend, we would hang out in my apartment, I would have some parts, he would have some parts, then we'd record and work on it together. I was primarily the one working the computer, Tim would bring guitars and bass or whatever. We'd go eat a burrito, we'd come back and do some more work. That's how we hung out. It was spread out over a significant period of time where we're working on songs over months and months and we just dipped into whatever we were interested in. Logistically it got harder because I had kids, Tim is a full-time teacher and things just got more difficult, so we sort of drifted towards a little bit more of a shared process.
With Sea of Worry, we had written a bunch of demos the traditional way, but it took us longer because we were meeting up less often. Then when we were performing live, we wanted to incorporate the guys who were in the live band. The front half of Sea of Worry is the full band lineup, and that was a very different kind of process. They met, they recorded, and they gave me the songs to do the vocals on. I would work on the vocals by myself, then I would ship them off to get mixed. That was kind of like this weird transitional period.
The material we're working on now — he's done a bunch of stuff on his own. He's also invested in his setup, so he doesn't have to come to me in order to put stuff into a thing. I think the future for us probably looks more like that where we're still meeting up and playing together, but it's also pinging things back and forth. We have more capacity to do that work, where we can trade ideas back and forth.
It's interesting, because when we started recording none of that was feasible at all. The idea of sending a GarageBand file on the internet would have taken two hours to get to his computer, but now this is so much easier. Working apart probably fits our life situations better, but I think the core of the project will always be in some way getting together, hanging out in person and fucking around with shit. Tim is the one who's made the most changes over the pandemic period, in terms of getting equipment and having a computer that runs something other than Windows 92, or whatever.
MACUGA I'm not the same Luddite that I used to be, but the difference is I'm still very much giving myself an education in this stuff.
BARRETT Tim sent me a bunch of demos mid-pandemic and then he just sent me demos again recently. I was totally shocked at the difference between version A and version B. The quality and improvement rate is very, very high. You also have to remember that my production methodology is I've never bothered to learn what I'm doing at all. I had to Google something about Logic and the guys like, "I hit this button." I was like, "That's what that button does?!" I still have no idea what anything does, I just have my way that I've sort of hacked together to make things happen. Ultimately, that's something I'm comfortable with. It's intuitive for me, but it's also limiting, because I don't know what I don't know. It took me like 10 years to learn that I could press a button and make the drums line up with the metronome. Now all of a sudden all our songs are in time.
MACUGA I think my curve has been much steeper, because obviously there's a lot of hindsight. It took us however many years to figure out how to record stuff in time, and that was one of the first things on my list with my software so maybe it'll continue to accelerate.
BARRETT It'll be interesting to see what the next year or so is like because we are playing together and doing live practices again. We're then getting ready to do Giles Corey shows and Have a Nice Life shows over the next couple of years. We're a home recording band and we've been that since the beginning. I believe in that model of the person in the bedroom, making the special thing that would never exist otherwise. But there's really something to the experience of being in a room with people who are really talented musicians and seeing what they do and how they build on top of the stuff we originally made. It's a motivational experience for me to get together and play live and have the energy behind it, which kind of drives all that other stuff.
RIGHT. SO SOMETHING I'VE NOTICED, AT LEAST ABOUT MYSELF, NOW THAT WE'RE ALL STARTING TO BE AROUND EACH OTHER AGAIN, IS AN INABILITY TO KEEP OUR EMOTIONS BACK OR KNOW WHAT TO KEEP INSIDE VERSUS WHAT TO SHARE. I'M INTERESTED TO SEE HOW FANS WILL HANDLE SEEING HAVE A NICE LIFE OR OTHER BANDS THAT EVOKE THESE VISCERAL REACTIONS IN A LIVE SETTING — AND WHAT THAT WILL BE LIKE FOR THE BOTH OF YOU ONSTAGE.
MACUGA Even before the pandemic, we've never been fully prepared for the way people react to our music. We just have to be braced for if it's going to be twice as intense.
BARRETT I'm ready. I'm psyched for that. In my day-to-day life, I wouldn't say I'm bottled up, but I am 41. I'm old, and the pandemic was the first time I was like, "Oh, I'm the adult. I need to make sure we have the toilet paper in the house." It just really clicked in and I think part of it's that I had kids and this was the first really unexpected moment in that kind of trajectory where who knows what's gonna happen. There's definitely a thing with me where I have an emotion and that's cool but no one gives a shit. You just gotta move on. I'm not even saying this is real — that's the script in my head. I'll always feel it, but if I don't have the release valve of music, either recording it or performing it or whatever, I have noticed over time I feel real disconnected. I feel very separate from everything around me and that's the sign for me that I need to spend the time to get back right. A lot of our music offers the catharsis part at the end. When we play live it's, "Here are the cathartic parts all strung together." That's no accident — that's there because it's not in my day-to-day life. We put that there so you can have an experience in a safe way. We haven't played live in a while so I'm gonna really lose my shit, and that's gonna be okay.
I think for a lot of people who are constantly looking to make something or who want to do something, they have this kind of ambition. And a lot of it's how you can experience, in a safe way, this kind of annihilatory feeling that you have to kind of repress in order to be a member of society. I think a lot of the reason we get a lot of young people or get a lot of people going through a certain phase of their life regardless of what the actual age is — they're experiencing that stuff full-time. They haven't really learned the skill to repress it enough or move through it, they're just in it. So they externalize it in music and it actually gives them a little bit of separation, and that separation gives some breathing room to do something about it. But that structure also separates you from the emotional reality that you built those structures to separate you from, right? It gives you that space, and then all of a sudden, it's too much space. Then the challenge is to get back to it.
SO YOU'RE WRITING NEW MATERIAL. I'M CURIOUS: HAS THE APPROACH TO CREATING THESE CATHARTIC MOMENTS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
MACUGA I think looking at or listening to what I've been doing lately, there's a new structural muse I've been following. It's kind of like the Mulholland Drive of song structures, where it'll just be something completely different with a tenuous thematic link for the second half of the song, but the catharsis comes from a complete rug pull. Like it almost shouldn't even be the same song because it's an abrupt turn. It follows a similar feeling in an abstract way. It's something I've been experimenting with, like how do I get to a different place by going to a very different place?
BARRETT I'm always looking for the moment in the recording process where I listen back to it for the first time and I get excited. If I feel myself get excited about it, that's it. You've got to choose that moment. I always want that moment and sometimes that's useful, but sometimes the weakness of that approach is you just lean into the same two things you like over and over.
MACUGA I have been trying to make a more concerted effort in how I could reach catharsis in a more subtle way. Like, can I reach a cathartic moment without going over mezzo?
STEPPING BACK TO DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS, I WAS ALSO WONDERING WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO USE THE DEATH OF MARAT [BY PAINTER JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID] FOR THE ALBUM ART.
BARRETT First, I was wondering what we could use in the public domain since we didn't have any money. Like a lot of things we do creatively, the way it starts is there's just something we think is cool, and then we'll build on that and make it fit. Rather than saying, "Here's what I want to say, what are all the great pieces of art that might fit?" It's much more instinctual than that. I'm responding to it in some way and asking why I like it so much. A lot of stuff that people resonated with on Deathconsciousness — if we had sat down and decided to make it a super depressing thing that people are gonna resonate with, we could never do it. You can't do it on purpose: you have to do it by accident, almost by definition. You can't just think it through and break it into its pieces.
LAST ONE — IN A HYPOTHETICAL WORLD THEN, IF THERE WAS ANYTHING YOU COULD GO BACK TO DEATHCONSCIOUSNESS AND MAYBE CHANGE OR REDO, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
BARRETT There are so many cringy moments on everything we've ever done, but if we went back and fixed all the stuff I view as imperfections, something just tells me no one would like it.
MACUGA Or it would just never be enough. The thing with Deathconsciousness is the reality of the hard drive crashing and losing the masters. I have the most recent recording of "Deep, Deep" that doesn't appear on the album and has different parts. For a while, there was a part of me that thought this was the superior. It's the holistic sum of the end product of Deathconsciousness with the abandoned masters and the 192 bit rate that makes it that moment in time. That misfortune in life is also a necessary part of it.
BARRETT Part of the appeal of Have a Nice Life is that people can listen to it and legitimately and accurately think, Well, if this passes as something people listen to, I can definitely do that. It's an open door, and everybody can come in and enjoy it. That's part of the charm. I very rarely do more than two or three takes on anything — unless it's unlistenable. Part of that is because I don't want it to be the perfect take out of 100 takes. I want it to feel more immediate than that. And part of that is just embracing our fuck ups and making that part of the story.