Nightlands on Oak Island
During breaks from his duties as bassist in the War On Drugs, Dave Hartley worked solo under the moniker Nightlands. Over two albums he combined his love of science fiction with a recording approach that welcomes the possibilities brought about by accidents.
On his latest effort, Oak Island, he creates an otherworldly sonic playground that incorporates the early ‘70s pop with modern rhythmic touches and a layered vocal approach that would make Brian Wilson smile.
His intellectual yet open-minded way to make music corresponds to the album’s themes of humanity, nature and robots.
Just as he did on Nightlands’ 2010 debut, Forget the Mantra, Hartley recorded the majority of the album by himself at home. Like everything attached to the “group” it’s a decision that has been thoughtfully considered.
JPG: First off, since it’s pretty much a one-man project, why go with the band name Nightlands rather just using your name?
DH: I think if you call it by just your name it presents a singer/songwriter thing and that’s not really what I do. Although I sing and write the songs, I never really considered myself that.
When you have a band name it can grow into something more and it can be anything you want it to be. Partly, I want it to become a band where people, my friends and my bandmates, become more invested in it. Also, it lets me hide behind it and do whatever I want with the project.
JPG: That’s interesting that you want this to blossom into a band project because your first two albums feature mainly you on instruments and vocals. Is it a matter of wanting new ideas to come in or just tired of doing everything?
DH: It’s not that I’m tired of it. Who knows? Maybe, I’ll totally go back to sequestering myself and making the next record alone. I’ve just seen it happen in other bands that I’m in, and it’s kind of a cool thing.
Sometimes, people start bands under the auspices of “This is gonna be a democracy. Let’s be a band.” And that works one out of a thousand times. A lot of times because they start with that concept, it short circuits so quickly. I’ve seen a lot of bands start where, “We are a band! We’re all members. We’re in this equally” and then it just goes to shit quickly because of that. Whereas, some of the other bands I’ve played in has started as a one-person thing and then other people are attracted to it because they like the music and the personalities gel. Then, over time, over the course of a few records, it becomes a natural band. Because it happened in this organic way, there’s a lot more staying power to that. There’s exceptions to anything you think about in music but that’s what I know and if Nightlands becomes a band it will become a band in that way.
JPG: When you play your live how many people perform in Nightlands?
DH: We’re a four-piece band; four people who all sing, drums, two synthesizers and me on guitar. There’s a lot of harmonizing. For the last record when I toured on it I tried to use some triggers and loops and stuff like that…and it’s actually cool and some people do that really well but I wasn’t interested in it this time around. I wanted to rely on the musicianship of the people in the band. That’s not to say that anything’s wrong with using loops or drumbeats or pre-recorded stuff but I just wasn’t interested in doing it this time.
But, it is a band and it’s more stripped down [compared to the studio versions of songs] out of necessity because the record’s really dense. I can’t tour with a 10-piece band right now.
JPG: You’ve spoken of how satisfying it’s been working on Nightlands’ two albums by yourself. I’m curious why not just continue the experience in the live setting?
DH: I may tour later this year by myself. It’s pretty daunting to go out there by yourself. Even though I like recording alone I like playing music with others. It’s really pleasing and my favorite thing is the sound of harmonized voices and it’s not something you can do by yourself unless you’re a Mongolian throat singer and I don’t have that ability.
JPG: Besides the musicians joining you onstage, will you be using visuals or some of your music videos?
DH: That’s something I want to get into. As of now, I’m not doing with that just from a logistical and financial perspective. Sometimes, people on the fly do that. Recently, I recomposed the score for 2001 the Kubrick film. That’s the next hurdle for me, the next move.
JPG: The “2001” performance, is it where the film runs while you’re playing brand new music or reinterpreting the soundtrack?
DH: The film plays behind us. It’s a unique thing to do with this film because most films if you want to play music to them you have to sacrifice the dialogue because the music and the dialogue overlap. But in 2001 there’s almost zero overlap between the dialogue and the music. So, what we did was we had a really elaborate time sheet for when the music was going in and out and then we had someone muting and un-muting the dialogue. Basically, the viewers were able to re-watch the movie with new music but still have all the dialogue and silence in the film. Then, I wrote some new songs and performed those. There were some improvisational pieces. My friend Jeff Zeigler, who is a great producer in Philly (The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile, Lymbyc Systym), he is this synthesizer guru and great with sounds. So, he and I created these soundscapes in various parts.
That was really satisfying. I really want to do it again. We’ve been talking about it. The problem is it’s expensive to get the rights to do that. Kubrick’s estate rightfully wants to be compensated when you do something like that. We did that. We sold a bunch of tickets and didn’t make a dime off it because we had to pay this licensing fee. I talked to promoters who said, “Yeah, we’ll just do it. We won’t license it.” I’m like, “No, I want to license it.” It’s a fucking masterpiece! Kubrick’s grandkids deserve to make money off of it.
JPG: Which is a nice thing because, as a musician, you’d want someone to pay you if they’re using your material.
DH: I don’t want someone ripping off my work. Those copyright laws are there for a reason and I’m totally fine. My goal for that performance was to break even and we did. I knew we would have to sell a fair amount of tickets to break even but I was confident we would. There’s some people in New York who want to bring us up to do it. So, I’m hoping that it happens. We’ll see.
*JPG: Did you also reinterpret something like “Also Sprach Zarathustra?” *
DH: No, we didn’t do “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or “Blue Danube.” For the “Blue Danube” theme I wrote a new song, “To the Moon,” which is totally different. It was really fun. That’s a playful balletic piece with these heavenly bodies floating around and I was like, “I want to put a different spin on it.” That makes me feel a slightly different emotion. I felt more awe and also nostalgia because the space race…that was such an optimistic time in the ‘60s. People thought that science and space was gonna lead us to the stars and beyond and eventually eradicate all these problems. And, of course, none of that happened. I look back at that time and have a lot of nostalgia for that thinking. So, I went in a nostalgic direction for some of the music.
JPG: Back to your videos. I watched the clips for “Born to Love” and “I Fell in Love with a Feeling.” They were different stylistically. I probably enjoyed “I Fell in Love” more. It seemed to fit with the song and the silver orbs were interesting visuals.
DH: Yeah, I’m really happy with the way that came out. My buddy Dave [S. Kessler] did all that and really did a great job.
JPG: …and you being painted silver to look like a robot. You could even go with the robot theme for shows.
DH: Yeah, I’ve dabbled with painting myself for shows. I would if it wasn’t such a hassle to get off. (slight laugh) It’s like a two week process.
JPG: Musically and onstage, you don’t really see that many musicians doing it all themselves. I saw Todd Rundgren last May and he’s done that in the past in the studio and in concert. With his set up now he could probably do it again with sequencers and programs if he really wanted.
DH: Yeah, one of the first one-man bands.
JPG: Maybe it’s a Philadelphia thing. He’s from there. Now, there’s you.
DH: I don’t think I quite have the chops of Todd Rundgren but…there’s certain things that people, do like the whole live looping thing, I’ve toured with a guy who did that really well and there’s guys like Owen Pallett and Jon Brion that do that. They do it so over the top and well and virtuousically that it’s not interesting to me to try and throw my hat in that ring. I just leave it to them.
That’s the same thing for people who are like, “I recorded every sound on this record by myself.” I never set out to do that because I’m not trying to prove anything by doing that. I’m not gonna be like, “I played everything on this. Therefore, I’m a very versatile musician.” The only reason I play most of the instruments on the record is because I was by myself and happened to do it. No one else was around. When people were there they contributed, and there are a lot of other musicians on the record. At the end of the day I played probably 90 per cent of the music on the record but there’s some pretty vital input from Michael Johnson, who’s a Philly producer who played some cool stuff on synthesizer. Eric Slick, he plays for Dr. Dog, he played drums. Adam [Granduciel] from the War On Drugs played some great guitar lines. At the end of the day they contributed a lot.