Couchsleepers - 10 Questions Interview
A soundtrack for restless nights.
Couchsleepers was formed by neuroscientist & songwriter Harrison Wood Hsiang, uniting under a single name a sprawling collective of musicians and artists. The band made its debut with the nine-track Only When It’s Dark in 2019. On the road, Hsiang is joined by frequent collaborators Mike Nunziante, Brendan Ronan, Max Shashoua, and Gloria Breck.
Was there something (an experience) or someone in your life that was the "catalyst" for you to start writing music? Tell us about it.
You know, I've been thinking about this and I can't point to any one thing, it was always just something that I did. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an author or an illustrator, and I guess when I picked up the piano in middle school or so I just kept on trying to tell stories that way, too. But there have been a lot of people who have really shaped me as a songwriter — helped me get a little bit better at telling stories — and the most obvious one is Jasper Sloan Yip. Jasper's this incredibly literary songwriter out in Vancouver BC. His second record, Foxtrot, was very much the soundtrack to my early years in college, right when I was very much beginning to get serious about songwriting, and I devoured every interview he had out there. Eventually I ended up interviewing him about his music for a school project I was working on, and he's really been a mentor and friend to me throughout my musical journey. Big shoutout to Jasper!
Let's get this out of the way. What is the CRAZIEST thing that has ever happened to you in your music career?
Someone got a Couchsleepers-inspired tattoo! I mean, it's gotta be that. That's crazy! I'm so incredibly happy to know that someone connected so significantly with our music, but also it really highlights the responsibility that comes with this, all of this, making music. I want to honor that responsibility.
What has been the high point of your music path?
It's not actually a Couchsleepers thing, necessarily — but in the past year, I've had the chance to share a stage with my brother, Conrad (who produces and writes under the name Public Library Commute), and to contribute some instrumental parts to a song my sister, Emily (who goes by Emily Mae), wrote. They're both amazing, amazing musicians — Conrad manages to craft these incredibly interesting sonic environments with pop hooks and Emily has the most engaging sense for melody — and it's been really cool to have collaborated with them.
So, how do you approach songwriting or what is your creative process like?
So, typically very late at night and often with a glass of whiskey.
I'm one of those songwriters that has long droughts — I call these "resource-gathering phases" — followed by bursts of activity. And during that time I just try to observe the world around me, expose myself to interesting ideas and the voices of many different storytellers, and reflect deeply on my own experiences. I always carry a little pocket-sized notebook around with me and these all go in there. Also lots of words — I love words and I'm always writing down new and exciting ones (I see a lot of them, since I work in the sciences).
When the dam breaks and the songs start to come, I tend to get a "seed crystal" (speaking of scientific words!) that will bloom rapidly into a full song. Usually a small melodic idea accompanied by a phrase. From there, it's a matter of unraveling the rest of the story, trying to identify what the critical moment or punchline of the idea is and working backward, filling in the details. I believe in detail — you aren't trying to relate your emotional experience to someone, you're trying to create the conditions for them to have an emotional experience of their own, and you can't do that without detail.
I find the songs that come the quickest are the ones I tend to still like a month later, and that's the final test. If it passes, I'll demo it out on my own and send it along to my bandmates for creative input — but I also have friends I turn to for more immediate support and excitement when I finish a song, like my friend Julia. Jules is incredibly supportive and artistically insightful (she's a writer), and discussing a new song with her always bring new, exciting ideas while making me feel good about the piece. I think those feedback loops of varying timescales are important; the immediate reward of writing and then the more educational and humbling reward of editing.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Indie Artists today? Or, if you could ask the music industry to change one thing, what would it be?
There are all sorts of challenges... The bar-to-entry for music-making is lower than ever, but that also means that the market is pretty saturated. It's easy to feel like you're screaming into the void. The rise of streaming has eliminated a classically major stream of revenue for most musical artists and, in turn, prompted shifts in the way artists must relate to the public. These are tough.
But maybe the most difficult challenge is the same? Being an artist is hard. It's vulnerable and trying and failure on someone else's terms is basically assured. There are a lot of notions around it that make it even harder, like this idea of a solitary genius or overnight successes or that you have to "make it" to be successful. If ever I'm so lucky as to make something great, it will be because I have an incredible community of artists and collaborators around me and it will take many, many years. It's hard to keep that perspective. I try to remind myself: write the song that you want to hear, and try to make someone feel a new feeling, and forget about the rest of it.
If you could share the stage with one other artist or band, who would it be and why?
I have a dream of throwing a show that features every single one of my friends and family and artistic collaborators, a huge, Broken Social Scene-style, 30-person endeavor. I would love that. But two artists right now that I have a lot of respect for are Pinegrove and Phoebe Bridgers — that'd be a fun show!
What are your rehearsals generally like? Or, how do you prepare for a live show?
I'm lucky to have a pretty focused and dedicated group of players alongside me, so rehearsals tend to go pretty smoothly. We'll usually have an idea of how the song goes by the time we first meet to play it, and from there it's just getting everything fixed in place and starting to focus in on the details. We also spend a good amount of time trying to imagine fun or exciting things to do, be that within a song or as we transition between songs. As we move toward a show, we do some longer "mock show"–style rehearsals. The general idea is to have everything so deeply committed to memory that it's instinct and leave the mind free to focus on giving an engaging and dynamic performance!
Pick one song that was your greatest challenge to write. Tell us about it!
"Monsters" — which is one of the songs of which I'm proudest — was really tough, in large part because it came so differently from all the others. For a long time, it was just a disembodied set of lyrics in my notebook with no clear chorus or refrain. I loved the imagery and themes it held but I wasn't sure how to translate it into music. I tried and tried and tried. So many voice memos of different harmonic and melodic ideas. None of them worked. Then, one night, something clicked. The key was to change the lyrics, to add a chorus, that "tell me darling, would you leave me if you knew all the little things I do?" line that imparted a bit of structure onto the song rather than trying to through-compose it. From there things fell into place pretty easily.
I often find this kind of thing happens — I'll be committed to some idea and completely blocked. Usually it's the decision to write AROUND the idea that finally lets the song come out. In my experience, trying to corral an idea early doesn't work very well; better to let the song lead and just guide things on the right track as you go.
What's coming up in the future?
Well, most immediately, this EP! But we have some music video shoots planned and (fingers crossed) the idea of some live performance this summer, if safely possible. We're also back in the (home) studio and working on lots of new and exciting ideas for the future!
Tell us where fans can access your music?