An artist can’t possibly predict the cultural climate into which they release their art. THE NEVERLY BOYS ─ composed of TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Ledinsky ─ unleash their debut album, Darks Side of Everything, while the world is in the throes of a pandemic. Songs like “Mushroom Cloud” ─ with its eerie opening line “future so bright / gotta wear protective gear” ─ feel prescient, and alarmingly so.
“It just turns out the world is how we were describing it. There were some strange coincidences,” Sitek, known for producing Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Weezer, Foals, and others, admits to American Songwriter over a recent phone call.
The duo first released their first single “Burning Hollywood” (originally titled “Burn, Hollywood, Burn”) two and a half years ago, a smoldering teardown of Los Angeles and the constant desire to fit in. “All these words, they don’t mean a thing / Burn Hollywood, burn / ‘Cause I don’t give a fuck about you,” the words fall as acid from Sitek’s tongue.
He’s simply trying to find his place, navigating an industry in which he’s long been a staple, even if mostly on the fringes. “There are two different machines going on in music. There’s the makers and the sellers. The prize shrank considerably when records stopped selling, so the sellers started pushing for makers to be more cooperative,” he says. “Daniel is the outsider of Swedish pop writers, and I’m the outsider of pop producers. We’ve always been on the outside. Every once in a while, we’ll land a song in the normal land. If you’re a songwriter, in particular, you don’t really have any power. Our rights get coughed up left and right. The entertainment machinery is built on selling you your own dreams.
“A lot of people get into this industry with delusions of grandeur. In order to get involved with this system, they start to get disheartened,” he adds, also noting the song “speaks to a much larger idea of trying to fit in.”
After its initial 2017 release, the pair didn’t really think much of it or had any inkling to form an official band together. “We always write together whenever we can. We cancel a lot of other sessions just so we can hang out and write. Even when we’re just planning on hanging out, we can’t help but write songs,” says Sitek.
A good friend and owner of LA’s Zebulon soon asked him to do a show, so he decided to get a band together, simply as a one-off gig, a favor for a friend. But it was evident they had something magical together.
Their album statement reads, in part:
If you can manage to cultivate stillness in the midst of the hustle, THE NEVERLY BOYS would like to present to you a human story. An honest story about finding your place in the world. With all of its glory and all of its drama, they seek to give a voice to the unknown, the magic, the heartbreaks and the aspirations. They hope you find comfort in their songs.
Dark Side of Everything doesn’t have a specific arc, necessarily, but it emerges as a collage of emotions and experiences ─ some extracted from their own lives, others borrowed from others. “I’m not really good at personalizing it. We just tell stories, but I think you can find a song on this record, no matter who you are or what you’re going through. Some might not speak to you at the moment, but there is a wide range of emotion,” says Sitek. “We were trying not to conceal doubt or vulnerability. There’s been a lot of emphasis in modern music on escapism and things are better than they seem.”
Instead, they douse the record in themes of desperation, confronting death, and accepting modern living. There is an unavoidable misery wedged into the record, particularly in songs like “Never Come Down” (a blistering mid-tempo about emotional fatigue and its aftermath) and “Mighty Pine,” an alt-country tune about realizing no one ever lives forever.
“When you’re younger, you think you’re going to live forever. Then, you reach a point when you know that’s not possible. In western culture, we avoid death like the plague ─ no pun intended. We don’t really look at the certainty of it,” he explains of the latter. “When I was writing this song, there were a couple of lines alluding to that. It’s about being ping-ponged around emotional states your whole life. Then, you realize all of a sudden, it’s all temporary, and that’s OK.”
With “Misery,” haunting guitars jangling as one, he dissects the psychological toll of social media has, an ever-present, ominous force dictating everything in our lives. “Getting inside a song when it’s not emerging is difficult on a number of levels. In this particular one, there’s the whole idea of… I’m not going to tie it directly to social media and the internet, but it was definitely on our minds… It’s about accepting this digital representation and curated version of somebody’s story over reality. What you present to me is better than nothing at all. I’ll interrupt the loneliness with following this story.”
“Wheel of Fortune” intertwines directly into “Misery,” both thematically hooked into the idea of dogs as the most basic, instinctual representation of behavior. “Daniel and I have this whole idea that humans aren’t really far from animals with the exception that we do stuff that’ll willingly kill us. You’re just trying to find love, scraps of food, and we think humans have been reduced to this. We’ve lost our relationship with nature, and what’s left is this very fundamental dog behavior.”
As heavy as the record stands, the closer “Your Life is Blooming” is a welcome, refreshing, and soothing reprieve. “It just sounds like an end-of-record song. It wasn’t originally going to be on the record. Even in the dark songs, not a lot of time goes by without there being a joke in there or some irony. Daniel and I aren’t miserable people by any stretch,” he says. “In fact, laughter is everything for us. Almost all of us have been in a situation with someone who we know that we believe in and they don’t necessarily believe in themselves. You can see something in someone, and they don’t see it. You know they’re on the precipice of greatness.”
He then draws comparisons to an Arctic Willow and its ability to “exist in the most adverse conditions ever and still produce these people flowers. Modern living is kind of like that. It’s when you’re walking down a sidewalk in Baltimore and it’s all concrete ─ and there’s a crack in the sidewalk and there’s an explosion of clovers. It’s the will it took for that to happen.”
He continues, “That’s humanity. I think we’ve boxed ourselves in on so many levels, socially, intellectually, intuitively. But we still have that impetus to growth.”
Sitek and Ledinsky are explorers, scaling various mountain peaks and craggy crevices of humanity to examine, to provoke, to make you feel. But their songwriting process, at its core, is far less strenuous. “We know a lot of people who work on songs, and they’ll sweat it and sweat it and sweat it. It gets really think-y,” he explains. “Daniel and I are very clear this is an over-feeling business, not an overthinking business. The arena for overthinking would be chess or finance. This is really about shutting all that chatter down and seeing where your heart goes.”
“We’re not really big on trials and tribulations of songwriting. We feel the trials and tribulations are in life. Songwriting is a sketch of those trials and tribulations. We don’t put ourselves through the grinder to write.”
THE NEVERLY BOYS’ Dark Side of Everything wrestles with life’s most tortured feelings, and in the end, Sitek simply hopes you “feel any which way you need to. I hope it alleviates loneliness and that you say, ‘Oh, there’s someone just like me out there!’ We’re not trying to outsmart anybody.”