Nightlands: An Interview with Dave Hartley
For anyone who isn’t in the know, Dave Hartley spends a good deal of his time playing bass guitar for the outstanding band, The War on Drugs, out of Philadelphia. I could go on and on about his solo project but, it might just be best if I step aside and let his label, Secretly Canadian, tell you a little bit about Nightlands:
Nightlands is the recording project of Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist Dave Hartley. The music he creates in his bedroom is itself a bed of delicate, chiming strings and bubbling synths beneath a blanket of choral vocal arrangements. It’s dreamy in the literal sense — the seeds for the album were sown when Hartley began archiving musical ideas that occurred in his sleep with a simple bedside tape recorder. As a result his debut album Forget the Mantra is, in essence, a field recording of Hartley’s dreams — a travel journal through pop music and a collection of psych-hymns from the first human lunar colony. The songs sound both huge and intimate, breathy and cavernous like massive echoes of a faraway concert. It’s the big, shadow music from just across the lake.
Nightlands released a new album, Oak Island, this past January (which you can purchase right HERE) and Dave was kind enough to take a little time to sling emails back and forth and answer a few questions about writing, reading, music, and a little basketball for safe measure.
The futurism of Oak Island seems to line up with themes that appear in the work of Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick. The multi-layered vocals of your songs certainly creates a robotic vibe. Although, your cyborg seems a little more at peace than the Replicants in Dick’s story. If anything, your robot seems to come from a planet with a fascination for 70s era AM radio. From reading other interviews, I know that you have an interest in sci-fi. Any authors in particular?
Those are interesting observations. I don’t really understand exactly what the connection is between my interest in sci-fi and the music I write… It’s not explicit, but it’s certainly there. I generally favor really ethereal, spacey sounds but more classic, universal lyrics as a contrast. I like the contrast. My favorite sci-fi author is far and away Arthur C. Clarke–I’ve read and reread all of his classics and even some of his non-fiction. The City and the Stars is my favorite, followed by Imperial Earth, Fountains of Paradise, Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, and 2001, of course. He just thinks with such amazing scope…he can take a human story, zoom out to show interpersonal context, zoom out again to show communal context, zoom out again to show cultural context, zoom out again to show geological or biological context, and usually zoom out to some unheard of distance to show the story in the context of time itself. It’s just so heady and sensitive and mind boggling. I’m also a big fan of Dune, although the sequels weaken substantially. Other authors I admire are Heinlein, Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Dick, and some others that are escaping me.
You do a little non-musical writing here and there. Most notably, your NBA blog for WXPN has been a showcase for your written work. As a writer who loves music, I’m always trying to convince myself that the two are really closely related but, being that I only know three chords, I can’t say I’m an expert. Since you wear both pairs of shoes, what kind of relationship do you see between being an author and being a musician?
I see myself absolutely writing a novel someday, probably relatively soon. Writing to me seems a bit like recording: long periods of frustration with occasional bouts of exhilarating inspiration. I imagine everyone writes differently, just as everyone records differently. The huge difference is, of course, that music is meant to be performed, whereas literature or prose are meant to be read. Much less payoff, it seems. Perhaps that’s why authors are so grumpy.
You have a degree in Philosophy. If you could sit down at a bar with any author and just shoot-the-shit about philosophy, who do you think you’d be sharing a beer with?
Well, I come from the school of thought that Philosophy is more of a process rather than a body of knowledge. So in that sense I don’t really have a favorite Philosopher or Philosophical thinker, though there are many interesting texts. The author I’d most like to have a beer with is William Knorpp, and I have had a beer with him on a few occasions–he was my advisor and mentor. He is just a profoundly reasonable man, capable of cutting through mounds and mounds of jargon and rhetoric with a single phrase. On the other hand, I’d love to “shoot the shit” with Cormac McCarthy, Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Krakauer, to name a few.
I’ve heard you say before that the freedom to make almost any kind of music can be taxing. I believe you used the term paralyzing. I think our readers, who are mostly trying to pound out words for novels, can relate to that feeling. I know I struggle with containing myself to a single idea at times. How did you rein yourself in while working as a solo artist? What was your most consistent struggle?
I impose restrictions upon myself by using a primitive recording set-up. My goal is to use consumer-grade gear and stretch it to places its not meant to go, using hyperbole and innovation. I love when I send an album to be mastered and the engineer says, “wow–what studio did you use to record this? what microphones did you use?” and I say, “I used a 7 year old M-Box, a 6 year old macintosh and a beta 57”. You don’t get bonus points for making a record with shitty gear–if it sounds good, it sounds good, but I think the shitty gear really helps me, at least at this stage in my development. I have to make lots of commitments early and figure out strange ways to make the gear work, and its my process. I like it a lot. I’m sure I’ll graduate to better gear and choose new, arbitrary restrictions at some point.
My most consistent struggle as a solo artist is choosing between comfort and discomfort. There is no right or wrong. Sometimes comfort is a signpost saying “go this way, follow this impulse” and sometimes comfort is a signpost saying “you’ve done this a thousand times, you’re scared–go the other way.” It’s a struggle, and without other sounding boards, I’m constantly challenged.
You’ve said that you grew up as an avid reader. A fairly significant number of our readers (and the writers on our staff) write books for kids. What are some stand-outs from when you were a kid?
Ender’s Game was a big one. It was one of the first books I choose for myself and devoured. It was a private world and stoked my love of reading. I’m also massively indebted to my Dad, who read me Lord of the Rings and Dune as a kid, both of which remain my favorites to this day. From there I plowed through all sorts of sci-fi and youth literature. Clan of the Cave Bear was another big one. All these books still hold up now.
Am I right that the name of the band is inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”? Your music and McCarthy’s grittiness seem like strange bed-fellows. Is there a significance to the connection or was it one of those “that sounds cool” moments?
I went through a two year period where all I did was read Blood Meridian or listen to the audiobook (which is spectacular, by the way–totally recontextualizes the work). It became something of a pathos. Anyway, I remember reading the phrase “night land” or “night lands,” and it made me stop. The context was, a landscape or a stretch of earth, is a different place at night. It is not the same place. And then a few months later I was re-reading 2001: A Space Odyssey and came across “night lands” in reference to the side of a planet that doesn’t see the sun (the dark side of the moon, for instance). I just knew it was the name for project–later I realized that my music was all coming from my dreams and from recordings I had made of my dreams. I swear it didn’t register to me that there was any connection. It was either subconscious or coincidental.
I can’t emphasize, though, how deeply Blood Meridian wedged itself inside me. It was insatiable. I couldn’t get enough, and I couldn’t explain why it fascinated me. It was a little embarrassing, actually, because the book was so incredibly dark and morbid–but there are thousands of gruesome and violent books that do nothing for me. I still don’t completely understand the connection, aside from the fact that it’s simply an astounding, colossal work. How does something like that get written? What sort of mind set was McCarthy in during its creation? What sort of combination of inspiration and analysis did he use? I will come back to it for the rest of my life, I’m sure.
Do my Celtics stand a chance in the play-offs this year?
No, but they could upset the Knicks in the first round. Without Rajon Rondo (and Ray Allen, for that matter), they won’t get out of the conference-semis, though.
Any books on your nightstand right now?
Right now I’m reading “Time Enough for Love” by Robert Heinlein.