After years of intense dedication to making music in every crappy van, cramped attic, and waking moment that presented itself, John Bowers and Aaron Chapman—core duo of the Portland-based avant-pop band Nurses—decided to get busy living life for a change. Their art depended on it.
“If you’re not living life then what the fuck [kind of art] are you going to make?” Bowers says over the phone from Los Angeles, where he currently lives. “You have to live life, and there are so many aspects of life, and clearly being in a band isn’t the only one. So we took time off of being in a band in order to write music.”
Bowers and Chapman were probably due for a break. They met in their hometown of Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1999, where they started making music and never stopped. That’s nearly two decades of collaboration between two guys who are only in their early 30s.
The duo left Idaho and floated around for a bit—a California farm, a van in Chicago—before ending up in Portland, where they released a couple of well-received albums for indie label Dead Oceans. Their 2009 debut Apple’s Acre and 2011’s Dracula earned glowing reviews (Pitchfork likened the band to “the shaggy younger sibling of Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear”) and landed Nurses opening spots on tours with Stephen Malkmus and the Mountain Goats, among others. The band’s strange, rhythmic folk-pop held appeal outside the indie world, too—members of A$AP Mob rapped over the Nurses track “You Lookin’ Twice.”
All this acclaim and activity, however, took a toll on Bowers and Chapman, who eventually stopped touring and committed to doing just about anything else.
“We just shifted down a gear, like, all right, this is still our primary focus, but we’re not going to feel like we have to be on a schedule or feel some urgency to be constantly putting something out,” Chapman says. “After a while, that doesn’t feel good or natural. We need to allow ourselves the space to not do it for a second. And sometimes, that’s how the best ideas come about.”
About four years of work went into the new Nurses album, Naughtland, which the band self-released earlier this month. Like Apple’s Acre and Dracula, Naughtland overflows with Bowers and Chapman’s kaleidoscopic pop sensibility, where acrobatic melodies meet deep thoughts on identity, isolation, sociopolitical issues, love, and the beauty and terror of life in general.
Sonically, Naughtland is different from Nurses’ previous work, thanks to the duo’s evolving interests, improved production skills, and the technology necessitated by long-distance collaboration. That means more synths, drum machines, and manipulated sounds, which give the band’s irrepressible tunes a sort of bizarre, underwater-funk feel.
“When we made Apple’s Acre, we had a certain type of song we wanted to write, but aesthetically and sonically we were embracing our lack of a technological side—singing at a MacBook because we didn’t know where the mic was,” Chambers says. “We’ve spread our wings a little bit.”
With no label backing and cover art by Chapman’s wife Andrea Glaser (in collaboration with photographer Chantal Anderson), Naughtland is a Nurses project through and through.
“It’s a testament to life and all the complexities that go into it,” Bowers says. “It’s not always a direct reflection of events that happen, but the record is our combined two lives and how we express them. And that’s ultimately what we try to do. We’re not just trying to make sick songs. We’re trying to make a deep reflection on life.”