There is a Ghostbusters themed pinball machine at a Mexican restaurant down the street from where Dave Hartley lives, in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. For the amount of time he spends on it, his name should be on a golden placard with the words ‘Reserved for.’ Playing pinball is a small comfort of home for Dave, who has recently devoted much of his time to touring with the War On Drugs—a band he’s played bass in for over a decade. The pinball machine is even featured in the teaser video for “Human Hearts,” one of the tracks off of his forthcoming album, I Can Feel The Night All Around Me, out May 5 on Western Vinyl.
Another comfort of home is his solo project, Nightlands. Started seven years ago as bedroom recording sessions wrought with a collector’s edition of synths, trumpets, drums, acoustic guitars and accouterment, it serves as Hartley’s outlet for his own musical self-expression. “In the Drugs, I sort of relish being a role player on a team. I just play bass in this sort of giant machine that the Drugs has become,” he says. “And I take pride in that, but I love to write songs and I love to sing, and I have a very specific musical taste of what I like to hear and that’s an itch that’s not scratched. And I can’t just listen to The Beach Boys and feel satisfied.”
Like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who once considered bringing a live horse into his recording studio, Hartley has a taste for challenging traditional songwriting. On “Fear Of Flying,” he takes a synth line donated by Frank LoCrasto and builds 30 vocal tracks around it. The recording sounds like a ‘80s business casual happy hour with its retro synthesizers and mix of faraway vocals. It’s a track that will be impossible to pull off in a live setting, but that’s not the point. Hartley says while there was probably a much less maniacal way of building that song, he didn’t feel he had a choice. “I’m using the tools of modern recording to try to make something that’s not real-sounding,” he says of his process with Nightlands. The goal is to make otherworldly music that shoots through the traditional singer/songwriter aesthetic like a lightening fast silver ball in a glass arcade game.
We recently spoke with Hartley about the new record and the social climate it will be born into. About what it’s like to come off of a two-year tour with the War On Drugs, who was recently catapulted into the big leagues after over a decade of being a popular local band, and what his role with the blues-rock group means for his own music. We also talked to him about making music that sounds like dolphins flying through outer space, sort of.
You’ve had an insane couple of years with the success of the latest War on Drugs record. How did you manage to write an album’s worth of solo material while also touring behind the band’s 2014 release?
Touring is a really strange thing on any level because it’s sort of this manic experience. With the War On Drugs, we played something like 270 shows in less than three years, and my whole life changed. I got married, my professional life changed, I renovated my house… it felt like the topography of life changed. Then you come home and it’s just sort of over. You have stuff going on, but it goes from this mania to wake up, check your email, go get coffee… sort of the drudgery and monotony of normal life, so to speak. I feel like making my own album is the only thing that got me through it. You keep momentum, keep your creativity going. It’s sort of a salve for the post-tour depression.
What do you get out of Nightlands that you don’t get out of playing with the Drugs?
I guess it’s just a statement of individuality. I don’t do it for money, obviously, it’s not a huge money-making endeavor, or even notoriety or anything, it just is a small way to declare myself an individual. It would be like if you wrote for The New York Times and were always writing under someone else’s byline, or editing someone else. If you were Malcolm Gladwell’s researcher and editor and you got great joy from that and made a lot of money or something, but then had something to say yourself and you wanted to write your own Op-Ed. Even if you wouldn’t have the same audience that Malcolm Gladwell would have, it would be an important statement for you to be like: I’m an individual and these are my thoughts.
What did you accomplish with this record that you don’t think you did with the first two?
Better songwriting, or at least more confident songwriting. With the first album, I was staking out the aesthetic territory that I really wanted to occupy. I was sort of reaching around in the dark, feeling around and being like, okay, these sounds inspire me, these sounds feel pure to me. By “these sounds” I mean harmony vocals and certain chord voicings and acoustic guitars. But most of that album is sort of collage-based. The second record I started more earnestly songwriting but I think I was shrouding myself a little bit. I turned my biggest insecurity—which is probably my voice and singing—into an aesthetic choice. Like, I’m going to layer a million vocals on this because I don’t want to hear my naked voice. But therefore it was also my aesthetic identity.
On the third record, I was like, fuck it. I’m just going to put my voice on there. I feel like my voice is more exposed, it’s still densely layered at times, but because I like the sound of densely layered voices, not to cover anything. Because of that, I was able to more purely write songs. I think in all the songs, at least at moments, a single voice emerges from the mist and is like “hey, hi” before the mist comes back [laughs]. I think that’s my main accomplishment, which took me three records to get to. Insecurity can be a tool for creativity. It’s not necessarily just an inhibitor.
Around the time that the first Nightlands record came out, you played the live score of 2001: Space Odyssey at a small club in Philly. To me, your music has an air of that sci-fi sound to it, so when I saw that performance it made perfect sense. Does that world impact your sound?
I’m glad you were at that, I really regret not recording it. Someone asked to record it and I declined because I was like, what if it sucks? But looking back, it was such a one-time thing that can’t be recreated, that I really wish it had been recorded.
But yeah, sci-fi and my music, I don’t know… I can’t really parse out that connection, I know there is a connection and I’m inspired by it. Sometimes I want to distance myself from it because some of my friends think of me so much as connected to certain things and I don’t want to be the “sci-fi guy” [laughs]. But I am passionate about it.
I would describe my records as surrealist experiments. You know Andy Shauf’s music? That’s a record I’m really into right now. I think it’s spectacular. If you listen to that record, I picture him sitting and playing it with his sick band. I think a lot of records, when you put them on you form a visual image of that person singing surrounded by the instruments you hear. But with my album, it’s not like that. Like, I picture fucking dolphins flying through outer space, you know what I mean? I don’t think you’d picture me sitting in my room strumming guitar.
Well, your music is not really singer/songwriter-y.
Yeah, it’s sort of something else. So I think the connection is that it’s not realistic at all, it’s sort of fantasy music. None of the songs are lyrically inspired by sci-fi. They’re all love songs or more traditional.
When you first announced this record, you spoke on today’s political climate saying that “soothing and being soothed is more important than ever.” Many of the songs certainly have a soothing quality about them. Was that your goal?
I did think about it. A lot of the songs and a lot of my favorite moments on the record are about what it means to feel protection and to feel loved and what home feels like. What it feels like to feel very fragile, but then trust your fragility with somebody.
When I wrote the songs it was much more on a personal, one on one level about finding love, but then as all hell has broken loose in our political climate… after November happened and Trump became president I was kind of like, fuck what does my album mean to people? Because it’s not political, and so is it meaningless? Should I be embarrassed that I wrote this intensely personal thing during a time where we desperately need bold political statements?
And then I was like you know, first of all, I don’t think there’s room for a million political records. I think that it would become a little bit trite. And it would also be slightly disingenuous because as much as I’m pissed off, angry and scared I’m not gonna write “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I’m just not going to write that song. So I do think it’s okay and I think it’s relevant to write songs about love and protection. But the anxiety of it is in there for sure, big time.
How does that anxiety show itself?
I think if there’s a thesis statement for the record it’s probably the third song on the record, “Easy Does It,” which is sort of the Boys ll Men sounding track with finger snaps and the three-part harmonies and stuff. That song is just about feeling hopeless in the face of something like, I don’t know, fascism, or could be something like depression. And the only solution to that just a connection with another human. And I think that applies post-Donald, too. There’s only so much Facebook posting you can do, and there’s only so many petitions you can sign at some point you have to be happy and you have to go on with your life and find a way to not be a miserable person. I don’t mean disengage with the political process, I just mean how do you be happy as a human. If you sit on your computer all day, it’s just misery pouring into your pupils.
I’m actually on a flip phone now, because during the lead up to the election I had a few days alone at home, and my wife works in New York and I was just on my phone a lot and I just had this moment of realization where I was like: this phone is like poisoning me. And I just smashed it. I fucking smashed it to pieces and bought a flip phone [laughs]. But you know, I still have a computer so I can’t claim that I’ve totally unplugged.
By: Nikki Volpicelli