When my 11 a.m. phone call to Nathan Hardy goes straight to voicemail, I'm not surprised, but I am a little concerned. For years, the frontman of the Atlanta band Microwave has been writing songs about drinking every night, binging on drugs and casual sex, and surrounding himself with the types of people who end their nights passed out on the floor. His band's new record, Death Is a Warm Blanket, begins with a tune about injuring himself while wasted and then continuing to drink upon exiting the hospital. By the end of the song, all Hardy has left to his name are "a pile of regrets" and "two fifths of cheap shit." With those worrisome lyrics in mind, I'm pleasantly shocked to learn that Hardy missed my first call not because he was sleeping off a bender, but because he was out on a morning run.
"It's so funny that you called me when I was running," Hardy says in between giggles. He's fully aware of the irony it brings to our conversation about the extraordinarily unhealthy lifestyle that informed Death Is a Warm Blanket.
Hardy, who's lived in various parts of Atlanta for his entire life, was born into an extremely religious Mormon family. He left the church in his early Twenties, but that wasn't until after he'd spent his late teens as a Mormon missionary. Microwave's 2014 debut, Stovall, detailed his tumultuous fallout with religion and his subsequent nose-dive into the world of reckless hedonism. "These drugs will be the death of us/At least whatever's left of us," he sings on the record's fan-favorite title cut.
If that album was Hardy's dilated-eyed introduction to self-sabotage, then the one that followed, 2016's Much Love, was about the pathetic complications that came with fully embracing the dirtbag lifestyle. There are songs about being the other guy in an adulterous relationship, chain-smoking blunts while pounding junk food, and cynically refusing to accept that love is real. In one song, he identifies himself as, "That neighbor that you try to ignore/But you wave to so you won't feel like an asshole." The stuff he was singing about was depressing, but his dark sense of humor — and the anthemic swagger of his R&B-inflected hooks, which cooled the band's fiery alt-rock instrumentals — was weirdly reassuring in a way that made you feel like Hardy was ultimately going to be OK.
That's not at all the case on Death Is a Warm Blanket. The record begins at Hardy's rock bottom and manages to crumble and crash even further downward in just a quick 29 minutes. After a load of lyrics that candidly sum up his disillusionment with the overwhelmingly unglamorous rock & roll lifestyle, the final three-song run plays like a drunken letter of resignation from music. Sonically, the record is a flaming tour van of snarling post-hardcore and thunderous emo. Most of the hooks are screamed, and whatever composure Hardy had on previous albums has been fully consumed by rage.
"I feel like a lot of people have a theme like that, but there's always a sort of hope," he says. "You're hoping that there will be this big coming-of-age moment where you're like, 'Oh, I thought it was hopeless and then I realized there was hope for this reason or that reason. I fell in love or some shit.' But I feel like people just convince themselves to find something like that so that they don't want to kill themselves.
"I guess that's sort of the theme between Much Love and Death Is a Warm Blanket," he continues. "It didn't get any better."
Right around the time Much Love was released, Hardy dislocated his shoulder while drunkenly climbing up on his friend's roof (the aforementioned intro track is about that night). He had just quit his job to dedicate his life to the band, and he was about to lose his health insurance upon turning 26. He scrambled to get the necessary surgery done, but then continued to live dangerously while he was still healing. He drunkenly (again) bruised his knee while jumping onstage with his then-tourmates All Get Out, and it ended up hurting for upwards of six months. To dull the pain he kept drinking, which resulted in significant weight loss that induced debilitating spells of vertigo. "We had to drop a show with Pinegrove because I couldn't stand up for a day or two," Hardy admits.
And on top of all of that, he was barely making enough money to live from touring — which speaks to the immense challenge of being a successful, or even functional, touring band in the United States. Microwave are signed to a notable label, have millions of Spotify streams across their catalog, and tour mid-sized rooms throughout the world. But Hardy still returns to Atlanta to sleep on people's couches and live below the poverty line.
"Honestly, my first thought when we came out of Much Love was like, 'Damn, we should do something where we can actually make some money," he says. "Which would seem to be more toward the poppy, upbeat stuff. But after we started to work on stuff, life was just really shit. I was like, 'I literally don't have it in me to write these songs right now.'"
Because of that, the songs on Death Is a Warm Blanket are genuine, but bleak. "When all our stickers are peeled off of the bathrooms that we shit in/In the places that we visit, I'll have nothing/Nothing to show for this," he sings in "The Brakeman Has Resigned." There are other lines about sleeping while covered in chip crumbs, letting dirty laundry air out in the wind, and relying on fan compliments to keep him going. However, the last few lines of the penultimate song, "Carry," spell it out blatantly: "I found my niche in this pile of shit/I've got nothing left to prove/But there's nothing else that I really wanna do/So this is what I do."
"I spent a year working on the record and I probably spent thousands of hours," Hardy explains. "You're like, 'Well, I'm 28 and I'm doing something where I'm not making money and I can't even pay my health bills, and my health seems to be deteriorating.' I started to get anxious like, 'Why do I have vertigo? And my knee and my shoulder won't heal and it's been six months?' I tried to cut back on drinking already and it didn't do anything."
Eventually, Hardy found running. "It's like science. Everyone knows it, we've heard it since we were in health class in middle school. But you're supposed to get 20 to 30 minutes of your heart rate being above a certain rate two to three times a week, and it literally makes your brain release chemicals that make it so you're not depressed."
Hardy assures that he's in a better place now than he was during those dumpster-fire years, but none of his overarching problems are necessarily solved. However, he has found one thing that he didn't think was possible, and in the unlikeliest of places: hope, deep in the fabric of that warm blanket.
"I feel like a lot of people just settle for something because they gotta do something and they pick the thing that's the least painful. But you end up hating whatever you do anyways. I've always been really afraid of dying, but I feel like it's more of a hopeful, liberating philosophy to have that sort of, 'I could die any second, I don't give a fuck.' Because when I die, it's not gonna be worse than it is now, it's just not gonna be anything. It's not even really anything to be afraid of, which is more of a comforting thing.
"I've always thought that, with nihilism, too," he continues. "To say, 'I don't give a fuck about anything and it doesn't actually matter.' It sounds like a depressing thing, but it's just the honest truth about the way that it is and, in a way, it's sort of a liberating thing. Because if you're worried about something you can be like, 'Why am I worried about something? Literally nothing matters at all.' Which could be a source of hope in a weird, fucked-up way."