photo credit: Charlie Boss
Over the past few years, much has changed in Dave Hartley’s world. The War On Drugs’ founding bassist saw his band become the rare rock act popular enough to headline major music festivals. He also became a father twice and moved his family from the band’s onetime homebase of Philadelphia to Asheville, North Carolina.
Despite all the welcomed changes in Hartley’s life, his Nightlands musical persona remained consistent – a sonic headtrip with layered vocals, which can swell to more than a hundred overdubs, create a dreamy and lush atmosphere that’s evolved naturally from its 2010 debut, Forget the Mantra, to its current and fourth full-length album, Moonshine.
“I spend 90 percent of my studio time building these vocal stacks with endless vocal layering and lots of speeding up and slowing down of the track,” he said, “overdubbing at different speeds and with different microphones. I really perfected that, I think, on this record.”
Hartley’s immaculately-crafted tunes take their cues from the Beach Boys, Tropicalia, and even the Bee Gees that, when combined, present a auditory embrace that tend to mask the sharp-tongued lyrics.
It’s most striking on the album’s title track, a nearly acapella recitation of “America the Beautiful” hovering over soft keyboards that transition to his own words lamenting the faded glory of the American Dream. “This was never intended to be an overtly political record,” he said. “I have so many friends who are able to process the frustration of current events gracefully or with wisdom or in a nuanced way, but I often find myself just consumed with anger about it all. I decided to just let that come out, and it manifested itself lyrically.”
While much of Nightlands’ newest allows Hartley the opportunity to sculpt away his musical ideas in a strictly solo manner, a select group of collaborators including four of his bandmates from The War On Drugs—Robbie Bennet, Anthony Lamarca, Charlie Hall and Eliza Hardy Jones—as well as saxophonist Joseph Shabason, exotica virtuoso Frank Locrasto (Cass McCombs, Fruit Bats), and producer Adam McDaniel (Avey Tare, Angel Olsen) aid him in defining the project’s musical vision.
JPG: As far as your approach to Nightlands, is it something you do during breaks from The War On Drugs recording and touring or is it something that you’re constantly tinkering with wherever you are?
DH: No, it’s definitely more the former. When I’m doing stuff with the Drugs, I’m all in on that and I’m wearing my bass player hat all the time and I try to function as a member of this team and a member of this band out there, trying to be a great American rock and roll band.
My Nightlands brain fires up during extended hiatuses. Nightlands exists probably because The War On Drugs typically has taken extended breaks between records. So, I’ll be recording with The War On Drugs, and then I get into this mindset of recording and I start writing and tweaking.
The stretch between the last two Nightlands records this time was quite a bit longer because I had two kids and I moved and there was the pandemic and…as everybody knows the last few years have been atypical. During downtime between The War On Drugs cycles I tend to focus pretty quickly on expressing my musical vision, which is Nightlands.
I have a lot of buddies and they all do different things with their free time, musically. [Drugs members] Jon Natchez scores films and Charlie Hall is a very collaborative person, a very social person, so he’s forging these collaborations and Robbie Bennett likes to work on his gear set up. He usually adds a new tool to the way he plays. He’s always practicing and tweaking his gear. I’m the kind of person, I just start writing and recording. Anthony [LaMarca] is a little bit the same too because he has The Building. Although I really hate him. (Hartley’s joking because he earlier described him as “one of my good buddies.”) He writes so quickly. I always get angry. I’ll be just finishing a single demo and he’ll be wrapping up his entire record. He’s very fast but there’s just a lot of different ways to skin a cat.
I do some collaborations. I did some session work during the pandemic where I played bass on some records, but I love crafting the Nightlands sound, which I feel over these four or five albums, depending how measure it has become more distinct and more of a trademark. I’m really excited to make another one even though I probably won’t get in depth with it for a while because The Drugs are so busy. But I definitely started thinking about it.
JPG: As Nightlands has moved on from its debut, I have heard less guitar on subsequent releases. Is that intentional or accidental? At the same time there’s a sonic consistency running through all the releases.
DH: That is pretty much who I am. I’ve gotten good at knowing what I like to do in the studio and following the signposts. You sit down at a guitar or a keyboard and you start playing and then that makes me feel something. That’s a signpost. Go that way. And you play something else. Okay, here’s another signpost. Follow that one. I feel like they always lead me to this place where the songs are cohesive because they’re changing a little bit over the years, for sure, and I feel like my songwriting has gotten a little more sophisticated, more compositional.
I feel like no matter what I do I’m gonna end up in the same place because I just follow those signs naturally. My GPS will always take me there no matter which way I start out. The GPS will always reroute me into the Nightlands world. And I love being like, “Oh, wow! Here I am. I made this. I didn’t even know that I was meaning to do that.”
As far as the guitar thing. I don’t know. I did actually put a lot of guitar on the record and then, as I was mixing it, I just wanted a really open sound because there’s so many vocals. There’s always a lot of vocals but there’s more than ever on this record and I just wanted those to have more room to breathe. So, I was muting things and a lot of the time I would mute the guitar and I’d be like, “It sounds better.” There is a lot on there. I don’t want to go away from it. I love playing guitar. There’s a lot more guitar on the EP.
JPG: Your cover of Brinsley Schwarz’ “Hymn to Me” on last year’s Moonshine EP has a lot of guitar on it.
DH: Definitely. Nick Lowe (and the rest of Brinsley Schwarz) composition. I found out recently that he’s heard it and he likes it, which is cool. (slight laugh) Unexpected. I was almost like, “Shhh,” feeling embarrassed. No,I didn’t want him to hear that.
JPG: Listening to Nightlands, I hear the influences and associations in styles from early ‘70s Todd Rundgren, which I’ll touch upon later, to the Beach Boys, Animal Collective and even Tropicalia.
DH: Those are in there. I’m not a huge Rundgren head but I have a lot of respect for him and some of my closest musical friends are massive Todd Rundgren fans and are always playing him for me. I like him a lot. His vocal work is great. The Beach Boys are huge for me. Always will be. That’s a building block.
One that, it was pretty explicit was the Bee Gees. I got really interested in some of their songwriting and their blend, and a couple times I literally sat down and said, “I’m gonna write a Bee Gees song.” Of course, it doesn’t come out like that at all. You end up nowhere near what they do and I’m in a totally different world. But that was definitely inthe front of my mind. Stuff that exists in the back of your mind with recording, that’s just in your DNA.
Then, there’s times when you’re like, “Oh, I want to do this. I’m gonna literally try to do this.” The Bee Gees…because there’s a documentary that came out recently about them. I watched it and thought, “Damn! I love some of those tunes.” Their chords are so good. They have some of the best chord progressions ever, the way they sang and everything.
We grew up thinking of like that Saturday Night Fever era because that was so dominant and such a huge album, but they’re catalog is really rich and varied.
JPG: I don’t know if it’s a matter of viewing things differently years later or, like you said, when something becomes too dominant, but I originally disliked that disco era of the Bee Gees, and disco in general because it took away from rock and roll. But now I don’t mind it and can listen to it.
DH: I think for a lot of people disco represented the growing commercialization of music. When disco hit the mainstream, it was very commercial and cookie cutter, the opposite of punk rock and the more authentic things that were happening. But when the dust settles from all that, and the stink fades, (slight laugh) you can see these guys were many cuts above their peers in that genre. And they existed long before that, and had many greatest hits, volumes worth of fucking massive tunes that they wrote before they ever wrote a disco song. They’re much deeper than disco.
JPG: Back to Todd Rundgren. What made me think of him was the saxophone playing on the Nightlands song “Down Here,” which reminded me of his song, “Zen Archer” from A Wizard, A True Star. There’s the song for maybe two minutes and then there’s a three-minute outro of saxophone. And it’s not like, “End it already,” you’re on the musical journey.
DH: I don’t know that song but I’ll definitely look it up. My impression of Rundgren is that he does so much stuff himself that he often takes the listener into some really strange places and I fucking love that. I do just about everything myself and there are a lot of collaborators — people who’ve added stuff — but 99 percent of the time I’m alone in the studio and I record 99 percent of the stuff myself. That allows me to get into some strange places because there’s no one telling me, “No.” That was the Rundgren thing as well. I admire him. Now, it’s quite commonplace to have people be like, “I wrote and recorded and mixed this myself,” but that was not common in his day at all. He was one of the first.
JPG: I was just about to ask about collaborators because Nightlands music contains so much of your vision.
DH: It’s a passion project. It is sort of a hobby. Although, I’ve carved out a little niche for myself, I feel like the project is in a good place and I’m excited to make another one and grow the audience a little bit.
I’m in this band that’s become this juggernaut. Live, we are now a seven-piece, and we play these huge concerts and it’s fucking awesome. It’s very fulfilling because these are my best friends and I love the music. I love Adam [Granduciel’s] songs. I love working with him. I love helping him in whatever way he needs me to, and I’m able to support myself financially doing that. But whatever’s left over from all that is what goes into Nightlands.
I love to sing. I love to write these chord changes. I love these beats and stuff and I just pour that in there, and if there’s an audience for it, great. If not, I would still be doing it. It’s something I’ll probably never…my wife will laugh at me because every time I make a record, I’m like, “This is probably my last one,” because it’s hard. It’s hard to push the boulder yourself up the hill. Towards the end, you get tangled up in self-doubt. Then, once it comes out and you start getting feedback. it takes a life of its own and finds a few listeners around the world. Then, of course, I immediately get excited to make another one. She’s like, “I told you. You’re never gonna stop making these things.”
JPG: I could see how you can feel like that, especially if you’re doing it all by yourself and there’s no collaborator or producer to listen and offer a different set of ideas. Do you play anything for someone else or do you trust your instincts and sense you’re going along the correct path?
DH: I’ll share a little bit, not much. As the years go by, I’m more and more confident in what I want it to be and I don’t need as much feedback. I can tell. “Down Here,” that track you referenced. When that was getting close to being done, I was like, “I know this is what I want it to sound like. I don’t need anybody to tell me whether they like it or not. I’m happy with the way it sounds.”
When I often do send it out to people to collaborate with in order to get their ears on it…I’ll ask Eliza Hardy Jones to play a little piano and sing, and it’s also a way of me sharing the song with her to get a vibe of what she thinks of it because she knows my music really well and knows me really well. We’ve been making music together for many years. So, she’s a valuable sounding board. Same with Robbie [Bennett] and Joseph Shabason and a few other folks.
I often will send it if I’m feeling a little stuck. With Shabason, that’s him doing all the sax on “Down Here.” I’d recorded this spoken word passage for that part of the song. Maybe that’s my Rundgren thing, where I was like, “I’m just gonna try to take this in outer space a little bit and go somewhere unexpected.” I wrote this long, spoken word thing and I recorded it a bunch of times and it just didn’t sound good. It just sounded a little too out there. I was stuck. “What am I gonna do here? I’ll see if Shabason could do something here” I sent it to him and the sax tied the room together perfectly. That was like, phone a friend, help me get out of a jam thing. There’s a couple of those in there.
JPG: When you send the song off to somebody are you very specific with what you want because the songs sound as if they come together in a very precise way or they’re like a clay sculpture and they’re formed into something?
DH: It depends on the person. With Robbie, who I’ve been making music with forever, he’s one of the more underappreciated musicians on the planet. He’s a complete genius. I generally don’t tell him anything because I’ve learned that, when given no direction, Robbie’s first instinct is often like a bolt of lightning as far as inventive, melodic, unexpected. He’s so good. I have also noticed with Robbie, if you clog him up with too much directions, you take that away from him and it robs him of his superpower a little bit.
On the other hand, with Eliza, she’s such a virtuoso and such a technician that a lot of specific direction is good because she could just crush it. She can dominate any task. So, if I ask, “Can you do it like this?” She’ll absolutely nail it. So, just depends on the person.
Usually, I layer a ton of stuff and I start sculpting things off, start chipping pieces away, but not always. The Shabason thing, the song was essentially completely done and then he added the sax at the very last moment.
JPG: While you might sculpt a song and take instruments away, vocally it sounds as if you add and add and add. How many vocal tracks do you normally put on a song?
DH: It depends. “Hymn to Me” off the Moonshine EP was the least I’ve ever done. It was nine tracks of vocals. So, it was three-part harmony that I tripled. Each part was done three times. “Stare into the Sun,” off the new record, there’s over a hundred vocals on there because that song, lyrically, I wanted it to sound like a lot of people singing, to strengthen the lyrical message.
I do, sometimes, chip some stuff away, vocally, because, sometimes, I’ll write multiple melodies and have them weaving around each other. Sometimes, I’ll be like, “This is fucking chaos. I need to mute some of these.” In the beginning of my career with my first couple records, I would let that ride. It’s still pretty dense but it’s a little more economical with the vocal stuff. It’s more about the blend.
JPG: Not meaning to belabor the Todd Rundgren point but has someone told you about his album A Cappella (His 1985 album where he used an E-mu Emulator so that every sound on it including instruments and handclaps is the product of his voice.)
DH: Yes! My buddy who’s the Rundgren evangelist turned me on to it. It’s really interesting. It’s zany.
JPG: I could see you doing something like that because you have worked so well with your vocals.
DH: Who knows? Going back to the GPS thing, I always start albums with ideas like that and then the GPS takes me back to it. I’ve definitely done records where I’m like, “Nothing but acoustic instruments on this, no electronics. It’s gonna be drums and acoustic guitar.” Then, I start recording and I’m like, “A synth would sound good here,” and then it slips. So, maybe, that’s where collaboration would keep me in line. (laughs)
JPG: If it’s working, why change it?
DH: I’m at peace with it. I like following the GPS. I’m happy with it.
JPG: Speaking of change. You moved from Philadelphia to Asheville, North Carolina, was it just that you needed change?
DH: Change was in the air. Philly represented a certain era of my life, which was being young and discovering myself musically, and The War On Drugs coalescing and that kind of thing. Once The Drugs hit this new level and then I got married, had a kid and some of the other guys in the band moved away, it just felt time and there was no question.
We didn’t really debate it. We just felt really excited about it. Asheville has, shockingly, a vibrant music scene. I knew there was a music scene but it’s way richer than I expected, and it’s growing really quickly. There’s some kind of zeitgeist happening in Asheville.
I expected to retire a little bit from being part of a scene because the Philly scene is unparalleled. It’s so rich. It’s so deep. There’s so many bands. So many different genres. So, I was like, “I’ll move to Asheville, live in the mountains, play with The War On Drugs and raise my kids. That’ll be that.” But there’s tons of people there and young bands and young people and people moving there. Killer studios. So, I’m really happy with Asheville as a music city.
The Moog factory is there. There’s also Make Noise, where they make modular synths, and then there’s two killer studios—Echo Mountain Recording, which is where The War On Drugs made parts of a couple records, which is how I fell in love with the area. Then, a new studio just opened called Drop of Sun Studios. They’re doing really amazing stuff. Tons of great records. So, there’s a lot happening there. Best record store, Harvest Records, is there.
JPG: Are there colleges around there? I recall Asheville as a good music scene but I don’t recall if the college population is what keeps it vibrant.
DH: There are colleges there, but I don’t know enough how impactful those are. If there are young kids cooking up weird shit, only for themselves, then you have a good scene, not necessarily kids trying to get signed. That’s happening everywhere all the time.
You notice that there’s these kids and they’re listening to Drive-By Truckers and country music but also Sonic Youth, and they’re having house parties and they’re making art for each other. They’re only playing for each other. That’s big time happening in Asheville.
There’s a whole groundswell of weirdo kids doing really interesting work, which makes me feel old because I’m like, “Can I come to the party too?” But, it’s also awesome and exciting and makes you feel like the future is in good hands a little bit.
JPG: That is a nice thing. Speaking of older, I see in your press photo you’re wearing a Philadelphia 76ers cap, celebrating its 1983 (and last) championship, and I’m thinking why haven’t you updated with a Philadelphia Eagles cap since that team won a Super Bowl championship in 2017.
DH: (laughs) Well, I’m a basketball guy through and through. Some of the other guys in the Drugs are big Eagles heads and have become friends with some of the Eagles players but I’m the basketball dude. I’m sort of a monotheistic sports fan where I feel like basketball is the most musical sport and I have always gravitated towards it. So, that’s my nod to what I think is the most artful sport.
There’s the sense in basketball where the coach can draw up a play but the play is just gonna breakdown pretty much immediately and then all of a sudden the guys have to improvise and play off each other. Coach will drop a scheme and a play, but these guys have to do it themselves. It’s jazz. Play the angles and react whereas in football, you have to execute. Obviously, plays break down in football, too. It’s truly a coach’s sport where you have tons of guys who are performing specific functions, cogs in the machine. Football is more akin to war. We have generals and the troops follow directions exactly.
I really do feel basketball is like music and the best coaches often are the guys who just…[Chicago Bulls Coach] Phil Jackson would get guys into this most zen head space where they jam essentially.
The best teams are always the ones that are together the longest. They know each other and you have guys that know how to play together and sacrifice and listen in the same way like…the Grateful Dead. They’re all great players but they listened to each other on a level that’s not normal. They took listening and reacting to a whole other level.
That’s basketball to me. You hear about the [Golden State] Warriors. How with the smallest motion of Draymond Green’s head, Steph [Curry] knows which way to cut and the only way he’s learned that is they played together for so long and through all these intense battles. You can try to teach a new guy that. You could practice a million times but there is no way to fake it. It’s a synergy thing.
Obviously, the Dead’s the best example of it. I think the Drugs, we’re coming up on our 10,000 hours as far as live shows we’ve played. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, and I feel like it’s starting to pay off for us.
With the Dead, it seems pretty clear that their experiences with acid during the Acid Tests, where they really cut their teeth, I feel like that has to be part of it. I’m not trying to be an LSD evangelist but people always say when you’re on LSD, you lose the sense of self and you feel this grand togetherness and this oneness and that seemed to be their whole ethos. Now, whether that translates to jazz, I don’t know.
I do believe it’s a discipline instead of a skill that you have or don’t have. It’s on the same way meditation is a discipline. You can get good at meditating because you get good guiding your mind back to this sense of focus and with music, if you’re trying to remind yourself to listen to the other players, you keep reminding yourself until you get so good that it’s become second nature that you hear everybody at once. Also, if you master your instrument…For me when I’m playing bass, ideally, I’m not thinking at all about what I’m playing because I played so many gigs now with the band that I shouldn’t have to think too much about it and then you’re in a really good place because then I can completely listen on my own. I can be like, “What’s Anthony doing right now?” and just lose yourself to that.
JPG: Because that’s where the focus of meditation lies…
DH: Absolutely. I don’t meditate as much as I should but what I do know about it it’s a practice of if your mind wanders, you gently bring it back and bring it back and bring it back, and you do it so much that you can achieve this intense focus where it doesn’t wander anymore. There’s something musical about that as well.
JPG: I just remembered that we discussed this in the past. So, I’m curious, again, because there always seems to be an in-depth idea behind your album titles. So, why call this Moonshine?
DH: Well, it’s a double entendre for sure because on one sense I just love moon imagery. I’ve recorded a lot of songs with the word “moon” in it. It’s also a bit of a reference to what some politicians are selling people these days. There’s some moonshine being peddled out there; something that’s being sold as the truth but it’s actually a lie. It’s a pretty common thing happening. I think most people would agree.
I didn’t ever intend anything to be political on this record but looking at it now there’s a lot of anger about some of our leaders baked in these lyrics. That’s a double thing with that. You can look at the lyrics of a song and see specifically what I’m talking about.
It does have a harsh undertone because I think moonshine, if you’re just thinking it as looking at the moon and the way it shines it’s this dreamy, fairy tale, mystical kind of thing, but it’s also such a harsh image as well. So, I was playing with that double meaning.
That’s something I leaned into more. I’ve played with that before but that’s something I leaned into a lot on this record. It’s super dreamy music that, maybe, it could wash over you and you don’t even think about it, but when you start listening to lyrics it’s like, “Oh shit! This is actually angry music.” The music doesn’t sound angry but the words are quite angry because that’s what I was feeling. I wasn’t meaning to. It just came out that way.