It’s been four years since Dave Hartley released an album under his Nightlands moniker. In between he’s recorded and toured as a longtime member of the War on Drugs, wrote and performed an original score to 2001: A Space Odyssey, got married, and renovated his new home.
Finally, he entered his basement warehouse studio, aka his lab, during a record-setting blizzard in his Philadelphia hometown and wrote and recorded the next Nightlands effort, I Can Feel the Night Around Me. He also worked on the release with fellow War on Drugs member Anthony LaMarca at Peppermint Studios in LaMarca’s Youngstown hometown.
Released in May, the latest by Hartley continues his obsession with overdubbing vocals that frequently build up into self-made “choirs.” Just like 2010’s Forget the Mantra and follow up, Oak Island, he creates a lush pop atmosphere that echoes the lasting influences of the Beach Boys’ Friends, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Hiroshi Satoh’s This Boy.
We discuss Nightlands’ third creation, Hartley’s signature style and much more the same day that the War on Drugs announced its new album and fall tour.
JPG: The press release about the War on Drugs album release and tour announcement recently came out. Does that enhance rather than take away the release date of your solo album or does it even matter since Nightlands is in a different realm anyway?
DH: It’s pretty different. I never had that feeling like, “Oh man, can you announce it at a different time?” I always want the Drugs to get as much shine as they can. I feel as much a part of that as Nightlands. It’s just in a totally different way. And Nightlands, it’s musically so different that I tend to get a whole different audience. If someone comes to see me or buys my record they’re not thinking, “Ooooh, I need to get my War on Drugs fix.” It’s really not going to scratch that itch for ya. It’s just such a different thing.
I have a pretty small audience that I always feel honored at the passion that often people will be like, “Man, it sounds like you’re really into this record. Is that true?” I’ll be like, “Yes.” “Oh my God! I’ve been waiting for someone to channel that sound a little bit.” It’s a little separate thing. That’s not by design. It’s just how it comes out.
JPG: It’s been four years since Nightlands’ last release. Obviously, you’ve been busy with War on Drugs. Were you working on any of it over time? I’ve read the press release about you working on it in your basement studio during the winter. But, were you working on it here and there or all of it last winter?
DH: Yeah, not much. A little bit, but my whole life changed over the past four years. I got married. The Drugs changed in status, went from a middling indie rock band to playing bigger shows. Then, I got my house renovated and my wife moved in. The whole four-year process was just taken up by life; things that happen to you in your life. Finally, when the dust settled from all that touring, I found myself in Philly. I didn’t even set out to be, ‘Okay. Let’s make another record.” It’s just when I have an open-ended period of time that I’m unoccupied, I just start twiddling my thumbs and songs start happening, gear starts getting purchased and piling up. It’s one of those things.
I’m not the kind of person that can grab an acoustic and sit in the back lounge of the tour bus and be like, “Oh, cool. I just wrote five songs on that drive.” That isn’t how I work. I need my lab and I need time and I need mental space…
JPG: What about lyrically? Are you able to do that on tour or does the music influence the words and the album’s themes?
DH: I don’t but maybe I could. Actually, a couple things came to me on tour. Usually, it’ll be something like a song title. I’ll love a phrase or image and I’ll write it down. But, that’s more like collecting shrapnel that you might use to build something later.
When I’m on tour, it’s like being on a sports team, you’re part of a larger organism and enter each night hoping to win. It’s like “We’ve got a show, we’ve gotta win the show! We’ve got to win over this audience.” It’s not a creative mindset. It makes you really good at your instrument and it can give you a lot of creative juice because it gives you confidence and excitement. It’s very visceral. You’re playing with people every night and there’s that level of engaging in music. So, you can store that up and use it but the studio is really where, at least for me, I find that to be the creative place. When you get into the lab and you start playing with sounds and ideas. I find touring…it’s hard work. It’s travel. It’s physical. It’s all these other things that to me are not an act of creation. It’s more like execution. It’s exhausting. Not meaning to overstate but it’s true.
JPG: You described your solo recording being like going into the lab. Your songs do have that sensation about them, almost like sonic sculptures that you’re chiseling away at them. They sound like constructed songs but they sound like portions have been put together in a way to make them whole.
DH: Yeah, that’s true. You used “sculptures,” and I actually always think of them as sculptures. I don’t know why I think of them in a visual way. That’s part of the reason I overdub so many vocals. I’m like, “This song needs this type of emotion to make me feel something.” I add it by creating a little choir.
Creating a choir takes a lot of getting those voices to blend together. It’s a series of very small adjustments. “Okay, that voice is too loud. Okay, that’s too bright. Got to darken that up…Too much reverb.” These little adjustments feel like you’re chiseling at something to get a bigger picture to happen. So, that is how I think of it.
JPG: Before I listened to the new album, I listened to Forget the Mantra and Oak Island first and once I got to “I Can Feel the Night Around Me,” I noticed the lush layered vocals but they weren’t as deep and thick as previously. Forget the Mantra has really thick layered vocals
DH: I don’t listen to my old records very often at all. It’s kind of a really weird thing to do. It makes you feel all sorts of weird things but I do think that a lot of that was putting my finger on a button that I like to push but also trying to obscure things a little bit. This time around, I feel a little more confident and wanted to play…clarity was definitely a thing I wanted. Even though I still want lush choirs and big vocals, I don’t want it to sound soupy. I think that has been achieved.
JPG: With how you are so into the vocals, I’m waiting for you to make an album like Todd Rundgren’s A Cappella or like what Petra Haden does; something where it’s all vocals and they’re tweaked into becoming the musical elements, too.
DH: Yeah, it’s occurred to me (slight laugh). That Todd Rundgren record is really interesting. It has been done a lot so, and I also think the term a cappella has a lot of negative connotations that I would have to shoo away. It’s not that kind of a cappella…
I don’t know if I’d ever go full bore in that direction but it is interesting, and it is what I consider my medium in a way, these blends.
JPG: At the same time, some of these tunes remind me, in the way the harmonies work together, like Brian Wilson bringing in The Wondermints to recreate onstage Beach Boys material, especially the albums Smile and Pet Sounds .
DH: They’re amazing. Truly, they’re incredible.
JPG: I also hear, for example on “Lost Moon,” there was something early on, a verse where there was the warmth of how David Gilmour records his voice.
DH: Oh, cool. I’ve heard that from a couple people on that. People do say the Brian Wilson thing, it’s a tough comparison because to me, no one will ever beat him at that. So, it’s nice, sometimes, to channel something that’s a little a little bit different.
JPG: Last thing in regards to Wilson. I’ve been obsessed with watching the Amoeba Records “What’s in My Bag? clips on YouTube and I saw the War on Drugs episode and you bought the Carl Wilson solo album. Did you ever listen to it? Did you find anything that was remotely inspiring for anything you did musically afterwards?
DH: You know, I gotta go back to it ‘cause I listened to it briefly and it didn’t do much for me. Then, I put it to the side and, recently, I saw something about it online, about being worth digging into and I, sometimes, have the bad tendency that if something doesn’t flip my switch right away I move on to something else. We have so many options now. I should go back and dig into that. Is it a cool record?
JPG: I’ve never heard it, probably because I thought, “Hmmmm…Carl Wilson by himself. I don’t have the money for that. I’m getting this other thing instead.”
DH: At the time it wasn’t digitized. I’m not sure, maybe now, there’s so many things on Spotify now, maybe it’s on Spotify. At the time, it was another reason I bought it because I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t out there in the ether, at least that I could find.
JPG: Just talking about it, I hear a little bit of Carl Wilson in your vocals in that, too.
DH: Cool, thanks. I’ll take it. That’s the period of the Beach Boys that I’m most interested in. Obviously, the stuff in the ‘60s up to Pet Sounds, there’s so much there that is so fucking good. You could spend a lifetime digging through it.
The stuff — post-Brian collapse but pre-“Kokomo” — there’s a run of six records after Pet Sounds. To me those are the most interesting, even though they’re very like flawed at times, and Carl was definitely carrying the musical director role at that time because Dennis was a hot mess with drugs and Brian was a mess and Mike Love was sort of artistically vacant. (slight laugh) That’s why they named that record Carl & the Passions ‘cause he was doing so much.
JPG: Mike Love might sue you for saying that.
DH: I do tend to be not a Mike Love apologist but a Mike Love realist, sort of the same thing with Robbie Robertson, because, sometimes, people pile on so much with these guys because there’s this narrative that we buy into. It seems like Mike Love is just a huge asshole but he co-wrote a lot of those songs and his voice, you couldn’t take that away. If you had taken him out of that whole equation, the Beach Boys would be very different. He’s a big element of that band. They’re my favorite band.
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