Writer’s block occasionally weighs so heavy on the mind of lyricists that it takes over as a subject matter. The same creative ailment that was impeding the next great love song or poetic masterstroke appears as the only available source material. It’s as though the only way to cure it is to tackle it head on.
Bruce Springsteen spent one night in 1984 pouring out his frustrations over the pressures to write a hit, with the resultant ‘Dancing In The Dark’ proceeding, ironically, to become a certified smash. The inspiration for The Beatles tune ‘Paperback Writer’ derived from Paul McCartney seeing a kindred spirit in a struggling author, when challenged by his aunt to write a song about something other than love. And Joshua Tillman first tried out his singer-songwriter moniker Father John Misty largely via the tune ‘I’m Writing A Novel’, which depicts the manic, Hunter S. Thompson-esque chase to pen something truly original.
It might feel like a curse, but these periods can sometimes be blessings in disguise. And Do Nothing’s debut album Snake Sideways is one such musical gift – a product of the struggle and anxieties with which it was formed.
From the opening concerns on ‘Nerve’ that “They’re gonna fire you in the morning / If you don’t get right / All our souvenirs of glory” and along the lugubrious note-to-self on ‘Fine’ (“Calm down, you don’t have to make the greatest film of all-time”), in many ways it’s an album about making an album. How very meta.
It’s also a true reflection of the artistic burden held during its composition by its chief songwriter and vocalist Chris Bailey, who constitutes the Nottingham band along with his childhood friends: guitarist Kasper Sandstrom, bassist Charles Howarth and drummer Andrew Harrison.
“I got myself into quite a deep hole, creatively, while making it, more so than with anything else,” Bailey tells me. “I’m always quite stress-ey about these things, but more so with this than anything else we’ve done; probably because it’s an album, and it’s our first album, there’s all this expectation you place on yourself.
“I managed to sort of completely lock myself in a box, in an overly self-critical kind of way, where you lose touch with what you actually like. I basically wrapped my whole sense of self-worth in making this record; and when it was hard to write, both those things just spiralled down.”
These tightly squeezed confines where Bailey penned a lot of the album were both metaphorical and literal. After the band were forced out of their rehearsal space for renovation, Bailey would slink his way into the studio anyhow, burrowing himself in a songwriting hole, often for hours on end.
“We had a rehearsal space we had to move out of while work was done, and when that wasn’t getting done, I was sneaking in. It became me constantly being down in a basement, basically.
“Murdering your own social life and being down there all the time is counterproductive, really, because creatively you need to give yourself breathing room, time to reflect on things, and things to write about.”
Whilst musing on life in his self-made creative bunker, Bailey still found plentiful substance. In fact, pondering everyday life from afar is what gives the record such coherence. Riddled with a striving for perfection, whilst being caught in the humdrum of everyday life, the line it treads between assurance and uncertainty is its central and most interesting tenet.
This is typified by the album’s jangly lead single ‘Happy Feet’, the band’s sixth consecutive single to be added to BBC Radio 6 Music’s B-List, which remarks on the “hair of difference between being in control” and feeling aimless. Its wise, concluding admittance from Bailey, “Don’t freak out if you don’t know what you’re doing / I don’t either” earmarks the album’s reckoning with a sense of helplessness.
‘Moving Target’, meanwhile, which opens with perhaps the most memorable refrain of the bunch – “We worked for a long time / But now we’re home with our dicks in our hands” – also reconciles with the Sisyphean efforts of creativity, asking simply: “Why is it always / A moving target?”
The album might be called Snake Sideways, but there is at least some degree of resolution it shuffles towards – in as cautiously human a way as possible.
“I’m basically working through that in the album,” says Bailey. “It’s about recognising what you’re doing in your head, the stupid loops you’re getting into, because you can get to a point where you’re kicking yourself for not being happy – and because you’re already not happy, you’re making it worse.
“It’s talking about whether you will ever be able to get out of that… So it’s very insular, but it’s not a negative album. I didn’t want it to be a message of ‘it all just sucks’; a long, sustained whinge about how hard it all was.”
Away from the purely lyrical, too, it also has one thing words can’t really capture, no matter how many hours you spend in a basement writing them: it sounds fucking terrific.
This tightness – captured especially well in two live-recorded videos of ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Amoeba’, as part of Vevo’s respected DSCVR series – derives from a near lifelong friendship between the quartet.
Bailey’s own musical education consisted of his dad holding a-capella folk sessions in the family home when he was growing up. “A lot of people’s parents will give them records and show them all these bands,” Bailey recalls. “I think it was less that for me and was more about picking up through osmosis all these folky bits.”
As a collective, Bailey describes Do Nothing’s decades-long journey in terms that are as straightforward as their band’s name: “We decided to give it a little go and then just never stopped doing it.”
“Nothing has ever come in the way enough for us to feel a real quandary,” he says, when asked if the pull of the so-called ‘real world’ has ever halted their togetherness. “Because it’s the main thing we’ve been doing for ten years.
“People have their own lives – well, they have their own lives,” he adds of his bandmates, half-jokingly, as though he still spends his days locked in a studio basement. “I think they have their own lives.”
Channelling the band’s best attributes for their debut album was producer Andy Savours, whose prior credits include shoegaze stalwarts My Bloody Valentine, as well as contemporary outfits Sorry and Black Country, New Road.
Do Nothing have worked with top-notch producers before: their second EP, 2021’s Glueland, had Bristol-based Ali Chant and Cardiff-based Tom Rees at the helm. But for their first full-length, Bailey describes, they had the luxury of forming a deeper working relationship with the person responsible for fine-tuning their work – and someone with experience to put paid to some of the singer’s lingering self-criticisms.
“We hadn’t really had enough time in a studio before with a producer to form a working relationship where they’re contributing something distinct to them,” he says. “[Andy] has the thing you get when you’ve been working in music for years and years: you know the bones of it, know how it works, and what things need. He was able to hear a section and say, ‘This doesn’t need to be here; or ‘This is a dead bar, that’s useless.’”
“It was nice because I’m probably a bit of a megalomaniac sometimes,” he pauses. “Does ‘megalomaniac’ work there?” he asks, before looking-up the term, on-brand with his search for lyrical accuracy. “A person who has an obsessive desire for power – no, that’s not right. Let’s go with ‘control freak’; so I don’t often get the chance to let go of that, and it was good to be able to trust somebody with it.”
It’s this sense of letting go that’s soaked into Snake Sideways album closer ‘Sunshine State’, aptly titled for setting the sun on a pensive, thoughtful record. Originally scheduled to sit on the band’s debut EP, 2020’s Zero Dollar Bill, the track is inspired by Keith Haring after Bailey was eager to learn more about the man behind the distinctive doodles.
Bailey speaks with a genuine interest about how Haring fostered a period when “street art made its way, for a while, into the world of the proper art world”, and you wonder if it’s this spirit of imperfection, the true definition of a DIY approach, that resonates with him most in light of the new album.
“At some point during pre-production, which is a fancy word for us sitting in a room and trying to make sure we were ready to record the album,” Bailey explains, of how the track ended up on Snake Sideways, “I think it came back into our general consciousness.”
“It’s a song we’ve played live a few times and always wanted it to go somewhere. Once the album was coming together, and it was clear the thrust of it was having this horrible, creative journey and trying to find some acceptance within of what you’ve done and what you can achieve, it completely made sense; lyrically, and as a nice little note from the past.
“It’s a bit of us that works at the end of the album, ties it together, and reminds me we’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Whilst Bailey admits to “always thinking about the next thing” – spawned in-part “to try and form a positive relationship with music-making, because it’s the only thing I want to do” – he can now pause, if only for a moment, to revel in the release of Snake Sideways. If the album is what working through writer’s block sounds like, then we can only hope more songwriters suffer at the hands of a bit of lyrical impotence.
Snake Sideways is out 30 June via The Orchard.
See Do Nothing live at various dates across the UK, visit the band’s site for more details.