Interview + Premiere: Don’t Do It Neil – I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE
Over the years, Mabel Harper has dipped her toes into a boundless well of varying musical styles. Her current project, Don’t do it, Neil, turns toward the bombastic expressivity of pop music. Informed by both a lifelong love for the sounds and structures of pop as well as an almost unconscious experimental edge sharpened from her tenure in electronic, metal and noise areas, Harper’s new release, I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE, presents her unique vision in its most thrilling and moving form to date. Check out I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE today on SLUGMag.com, and read our interview with Harper below about the past, present and future of her Don’t do it, Neil project.
SLUG: What is your background in music? How did the Don’t do it, Neil project start?
Mabel Harper: I was in a few hardcore bands in high school; I [also] had some friends I’d produce beats for and rap with. After I dropped out, my best friend at the time and I did an experimental post-hardcore thing for a little while because we listened to way too much Mars Volta and At the Drive-in, and that experience sort of engendered a love of concept albums in me. But honestly, I found the most freedom to be myself and experiment and try new shit when I was just working on my lonesome. I’ve been all over the map—hip-hop, dubstep, black metal, noise music. Just about everything except for pop. I loved pop more than anything else, but didn’t feel like I was good enough to make it for the longest time.
Don’t do it, Neil started when I was living just outside of Philly and was super depressed and never left my house. I needed a musical outlet for a lot of the shit I was working through, and the black metal thing I was doing at the time just wasn’t cutting it. I was making black metal under a persona and catered the music to a scene full of fucked-up and alienated people online, but what I really needed was to be making music as myself, for myself.
SLUG: How have you seen the project grow since you started? What’s changed? What’s stayed the same? What’s been surprising?
Harper: I mean, the very earliest years of me doing Don’t do it, Neil were before I had transitioned. No one was paying attention back then, aside from a couple of friends who liked it and put me in their zine. It wasn’t really until I transitioned that DDIN found its identity. There were so many ways I’d limited my own expression before, and after I came out as a woman, I just felt like I had so much more to say about myself and so many more ways to say these things. As soon as I started making this way less blocked-up music, I started getting more attention for what I was doing. It’s not like it blew up or anything, but that was the point where I could tell that my music was finally striking a chord with some people.
A lot’s changed since then. I started doing emo, then eclectic lo-fi pop, and now I do eclectic pop but in hi-fi. But I think the core of the project has remained the same, even as there’ve been genre and aesthetic shifts—it’s a one-to-one reflection of where I am in my life and what issues I’m dealing with. Surprisingly, keeping it so personal has resulted in this kind of developing narrative across the Don’t do it, Neil releases. Over time, it’s definitely gotten a little self-referential. If you listen across my three albums, there are lots of callbacks, motifs and recurring themes. Some people have started noticing too, which is rad.
SLUG: To my ears, your new album, I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE, deals with a lot of dark, personal themes, but there’s also a kind of self-empowering reclamation going on. Can you please elaborate on what you’re trying to explore here, lyrically?
Harper: Obviously, suicide plays a big part of I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE, as it’s a pretty upfront reflection of my real-life suicide attempt from last November. Fundamentally, though, I think the album’s about the process of detachment. If my last album, B/X, was about dealing with the up-and-downs of being in love as someone with borderline personality disorder, then I WANNA SEE is about what it’s like to actually lose the person you’ve totally lost yourself in.
Grieving isn’t a linear process; it doesn’t follow some neatly ordered steps. Sometimes you wanna deny and hold on as tight as you can, sometimes it’s just total darkness and despair and sometimes you just wanna say “fuck it” and “fuck you” and “I never loved you.” It’s messy and complicated, but fundamentally it’s necessary to move on. I don’t know if the album will come off as empowering to people in any traditional sense, but I do think it gives voice to all sides in that inner conflict, and I think acknowledging all the parts of you that get stirred up when you lose someone is a major step towards actually resolving that internal chaos.
SLUG: Pop music seems to be something that makes up the framework of I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE, but filtered through a stylistically omnivorous and experimental lens. Can you please outline your relationship to pop music and how you approach these conventions/influences with Don’t do it, Neil?
Harper: The funny thing is, I wasn’t necessarily trying to be experimental. I was just doing what felt natural to me. I really, deeply, sincerely love pop music. And for this album and my last, I went in thinking I was just gonna make pop songs, but they always come out a little off-kilter—probably because I have a really broad range of musical influences, some of which are extremely specific (I mean, how many people still actively listen to the Breath of Fire III or Fruits Basket soundtracks?).
I like knowing how things work. The structures, sounds and formulas of pop music really interest me. But I hate feeling confined. I like knowing the rules and knowing how to follow them when it suits me, and I like breaking and subverting them just as much. Mainstream pop is a capitalist project anyway. Its innovations deserve to be expropriated.
SLUG: Your music also seems to jut and jolt around a lot, moving between wildly different sections or tracks or moods quite quickly. What inspires/informs this writing style? How do you feel like this interacts with your lyrical subjects?
Harper: Maybe because of my own struggles with extreme polarization, I’ve always been drawn to sharp contrasts and juxtapositions, and that kind of polarity just seems to naturally express itself in my own music and art without even thinking. Like, if I was a playlist, I’d just be a bunch of BTS, Miguel and Code Orange songs alternating into eternity.
I was processing so much during the period that inspired this album. I felt so many different ways towards the person I was detaching from—and felt so many different ways towards myself, at that. It was a constant switching of feelings, opinions and perspectives, and it feels to me like that thematic content could really only be expressed by violent musical contrasts. I’d even say at points, the lyrics are a little vague—mostly because I didn’t want this to be an intimate, exhibitionistic call-out of the aforementioned person, I just wanted to express my particular struggles. So it’s the music and production that gives those moments their color, power and sting.
SLUG: What effect do you hope I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE has on listeners?
Harper: I really just hope people like it because it sounds great. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to automatically relate to the subject matter nor grasp the specific nuances of why it felt so important to write a whole album about. But, for those who can relate a little more, I want them to feel less alone and to pay more attention to themselves. I’m not trying to set an example or be heroic on the album or anything. I don’t condone my venom, my ideation or my brooding, yet I don’t disown it either. And maybe it seems extra hoping that people will get better at self-compassion, especially with an album like this, but fundamentally that is what this album was for me—an act of compassion for myself. I hope others can do that for themselves too, even if it’s imperfect, a little dark, fucked-up, and murky.
SLUG: Obviously the release of this album is a big milestone for you. That being said, what do you have planned/what do you hope for in regards to the future of Don’t do it, Neil?
Harper: Everything that happened with the suicide attempt—a.k.a. everything I was dealing with on this album—that was all a major psychological milestone for me. It brought up a lot for me, and I had to work through it because it was the only way to be okay afterwards. So I don’t expect everything to be perfect, but I feel like some of the biggest goliaths I’d been fighting in my life have, at least for now, been put to rest. So I’d like to write about things other than love or attachment. I’d like to maybe write something fun. Potentially even happy. But we’ll see.