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Interview: Nightlands

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Dave Hartley talks about his music, his band’s global reach and some NBA playoffs.

Interview: Nightlands

Nightlands is the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Dave Hartley, known for his work as the bass player of The War on Drugs. The band is preparing for a small North American tour which kicks off May 29 at the Mercury Lounge in New York City. I recently spoke with Hartley about the band, his musical process and even a little NBA Playoffs. 

(For some context, we spoke back on the 9th after the Spurs had just lost Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals to the Golden State Warriors).

CHARGED.fm the Magazine: How did Nightlands first start? I know you were with The War on Drugs but how did the conception of starting Nightlands come about?

Dave Hartley: It happened because Adam (from The War on Drugs) and I both got laid off from our jobs we worked together at the same time. So I had a grant, AKA unemployment. Adam was working on the second War on Drugs record Slave Ambient, and that record took like two years. So I was just home, and we weren't touring very much, and I just sort of had a lot of urges to record and a lot of ideas. I was just compelled to record all day long, and it just sort of happened organically over the course of two years kind of sequestering myself in my bedroom recording.

CHARGED.fm: I saw on the Secretly Canadian website that a lot of your first record Forget the Mantra was inspired by dreams. How difficult is it to translate a dream into a sound and a finished product like that?

Hartley: It was weird. That kind of came out of a frustration that I was having. I had this say compulsion to record and I wasn't really able to finish anything, you know? I'm sure anybody can relate to that feeling of just not being able to finish any idea or thought or sort of creative flow. All the songs I had just kind of slipped through my fingers.

I would hear these little song ideas in my head as I was falling asleep or in the middle of the night or as I was waking up. So I just developed this discipling of speaking about them, or humming melodies, or reflecting on them of sometimes just babbling gibberish into this bedside tape recorder I had. I just made a habit of that and did it for probably over a year before I even started going back through the tapes.

So I had dozens and dozens of tapes. I started going back through them, and a lot of it is just funny, but there were a lot of interesting, sort of Freudian nuggets. So some of the lyrics on the first record came from that and a couple of melodies grew into songs, too.

CHARGED.fm: Did that kind of approach continue on Oak Island or was it a different approach to songwriting?

Hartley: I didn't really do that on the second record. There were other types of experimentation, but I think once I kind of did that it unclogged the writer's block that I was having. Once I got off and running and everything was flying, it was more about experimenting with recording techniques, experimenting with different vocal layering techniques and writing a different kind of lyric that would contrast to the music.

CHARGED.fm: So Oak Island came out in January. What's the feedback been like for it? Are you happy with the record and everything that's come with it?

Hartley: Yeah, I've been really happy with the response. I don't read all the reviews, Jessica just forwards me the good ones. I prefer to do it that way. I don't think I would get too high or low from any kind of review. You really have to take it with such a grain of salt.

But I don't know, just from playing shows and talking to other bands, it's been alright. And even the first record still kind of seeps out. I get people emailing from all over the world. That's what's so cool about the Internet. People are emailing me from all over the world saying something. A lot of people are just discovering the first record. My goal has always been to make something that is worthwhile on a long-term scale, not to be lumped in with any kind of trend.

And that's the thing I'm most proud of is that the feedback that I have always gotten, especially on the second record, it that it's completely unique. So I'm proud of that aspect of it. There are things about it I would change, just like with anything. You listen back and you're like, "Oh, I would've done that differently. Oh I wish I could have turned that up in the mix. I should have changed that lyric." But my worst nightmare would be to make something that's derivative of something that's in style at the moment. So I'm proud that it's just not that.

CHARGED.fm: So you got feedback from all over. How far has your music gone? Like what's the farthest place you've received an email from about your music?

Hartley: All over the world, pretty much. Asia, Europe, Australia and stuff. But actually, and you'll probably see this, just yesterday, this guy from either Puerto Rico or Mexico, I can't remember now, emailed me. He's like, "Hey, I'm an artist, and I'd love to design a flyer or a poster for your upcoming tour." I was like, "Yeah, sure, why not? Give it a shot."

So he sends it back to me, and it is incredible. He absolutely must have spent tons of time on this super beautiful, artistic, appropriate and astute rendering. I guess he felt some kind of connection with it, and he wanted to draw a poster. And I'm totally going to have these printed up and give them away or something like that. I don't know.

But yeah Australia, New Zealand, all over Europe and Japan, people will email me and say, "Hey I like your music! Are you ever coming to play in Okinawa?" [Laughs] And I'm like, "Well, hopefully." But it just kind of makes you feel good and you realize that the Internet is just this great equalizer now. For me it just strengthens my resolve to be unique and resonate above the Static that is the Internet.

CHARGED.fm: And it seems like your music has this, I guess kind of a mass appeal. It doesn't feel like it belongs to any one specific region, it seems like it takes from a lot of different places. How many things do you draw from when you're in the creative process?

Hartley: I don't really know, because there are few things I could tell you that are definite influences for me, but honestly the biggest influences for me are the instruments I have at hand, which are not a lot, actually. Like I have this house organ in my living room that I wrote these sort-of Latin beats on it. And all these drum beats I used on almost every song.

So there are all of these Latin beats going throughout the record. I have been listening to a fair amount of Brazilian music over the past year. But I've read people say, "Oh, there's a big Latin influence on some of these songs." That's probably because of the fact that I have this big house organ in my living room that happens to have mostly bossa nova and rumba and samba beats on it, and I just loved the way it sounded. I'm mostly influenced by the instruments that are laying around my house.

CHARGED.fm: And you play all of the instruments on the album, right?

Hartley: No, no, not all of them. Most of them. Probably 90-95%. Eric Slick played some drums on it. He's a pretty talented drummer. Then Michael Johnson is a friend of mine who has this great studio, and he played some drums and some other synthesizers on there. And then Adam from The War on Drugs played some really cool guitar parts that really became important to the record. So stuff like that. But mostly me, just because it's sort of a private project where I'm alone in my room adding vocals and guitars and stuff.

CHARGED.fm: Are you from Philly or did you relocate?

Hartley: I'm from Maryland, but I've been in Philly for about ten years, so I consider it my home.

CHARGED.fm: And the War on Drugs is a Philly band, are they all from there, is that how you all met or how did it all develop?

Hartley: Adam and I worked together at the job that I mentioned before, and we were kind of just co-workers and friends. This is when he was just starting to play music. I remember the War on Drugs had their second show, and I had gone to it and watched it and was like, "Oh man, this is awesome." At that point it was sort of like Adam and Kurt (Vile) and then sort of this gang of people. They had two drummers and stuff.

So I told Adam, "Hey your band is so good, it's so different. And the next show he said, "Hey, do you want to be in the band?" And I said sure. So ever since then, it's been a thing that meant a lot to me, because I just believed in it. Even though I've been in tons of bands along the way, it's always been the thing I've been most excited about because I believed in it the most I think.

CHARGED.fm: So when does your upcoming tour start, here in NYC at Mercury Lounge or before then?

Hartley: Yeah, Mercury is the first show. That will be the kick off, and I'm really excited about it. We're bringing a choir up.

CHARGED.fm: Oh really?

Hartley: Yup. It's going to be an awesome choir featuring April Harkanson, who is a really wonderful, sort of operatic singer who I'm really lucky to have sing with me. And there's a bunch of other Philadelphia luminaries involved, so we're going to try to bring the vocal density of the record live on stage a little bit.

CHARGED.fm: Will they be joining you on the rest of the tour or just in NYC?

Hartley: Just for New York and Philly. Those two are kind of close by. I wish I could bring them all. It would just be logistically difficult for me, and probably for them too because some of them have jobs and other bands, etc.

CHARGED.fm: How does the live show for Nightlands differ from the studio sound? Is there a different aspect you bring to the live performance?

Hartley: Yeah it's really different, and it's been interesting. It's been interesting because I've made these records and I refuse to think about what the live performance will be like when I make them. I don't want to limit myself in the studio just because it might be difficult to pull off later. My whole thing is I'm just going to go crazy in the studio and try to make the most beautiful thing I can.

With that, of course there's a challenge where you get to a point and it's like, how can you recreate this thing that is essentially - I would need like a mariachi band, or the fucking Harlem Boys' Choir, or an ARP 2600 modular synthesizer - to even try to recreate the record.

So it's really impossible. But my friends are good at music, we strip back and go through the songs, and we end up actually rewriting some of the songs. I change the key, change the tempo, change the feel, maybe make things a little longer or shorter. So it's very different. It's kind of like you're seeing that I write the songs to record them, and then I almost rewrite them to perform them. It's sort of like a different interpretation.

CHARGED.fm: So I know you're a big hoops guy.

Hartley: Yeah, yeah.

CHARGED.fm: So what team do you root for? Are you a Sixers fan having lived in Philly for the last decade?

Hartley: I am a man without a country, actually. I will root sporadically for certain teams, and people find it hard to believe that I'm so into basketball without a specific rooting interest. But I approach it more from an anthropological viewpoint. I just like game. I can watch any game. I can watch the shittiest game, a blowout between two terrible teams, and I still will enjoy it.

But as far as teams go, I really like the Celtics and the Sixers. I sort of like the Miami Heat because they're this juggernaut. I like the Thunder. I don't know, I just like teams that play with a lot of heart and play with an interesting style and teamwork, energy and stuff. And I like the Knicks.

CHARGED.fm: What are your thoughts on the playoffs so far? What's been the biggest shock to you?

Hartley: It's been a freewheeling, weird playoffs. The injury thing has been weird. I don't know what to make of it and I haven't heard any satisfactory theories as to why there have been so many injuries. There's been speculation about the condensed season last year and stuff, I don't know.

Personally, the overriding story for me is LeBron James and just watching him. It's just insane. You only get a player like that once in a generation. I just want to watch him and see what he does.

CHARGED.fm: I feel like we all kind of take him for granted because he just does it on a completely regular basis. We sort of look past it and focus on the drama everywhere else, but he's doing things that nobody's done in years.

Hartley: And he makes it look so effortless. It will be like, hey let's back that up. He just grabbed that, went the length of the court and just dunked over a bunch of people with his left hand. It's like, back up, that's not easy to do.

CHARGED.fm: So final question, NBA-wise, based on what you've seen so far, who is going to be in the Finals?

Hartley: It was weird, before last night I was going to say Spurs/Heat, but then San Antonio lost to the Warriors, so I'm going to go with Grizzlies/Heat, and then the Heat in five.

CHARGED.fm: Oh, I would love to see that series, but agree that it probably wouldn't last long.

Hartley: Yeah, I don't think anyone is stopping them unless Derrick Rose comes back from the dead.

Let CHARGED.fm get you tickets to see your favorite bands and artists live all summer long!

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