Nightlands on Oak Island
JPG: Who contributed trumpet on the album?
DH: That was me.
JPG: Oh, wow. That was a nice job.
DH: Thanks. I don’t play very often and I actually smashed my trumpet when the War On Drugs played Lollapalooza. The valve had been sticking for two years and this was this big show. I had oiled it for two hours and it stuck. So, I got so frustrated I threw it up in the air and…I haven’t gotten a trumpet since then. So, I have to get one. It’s funny. People keep asking me to play trumpet on their albums and I have to tell them, “A, I don’t even have a trumpet. B, I’m not that great.” I play on my records because I give myself 30 tries (slight laugh) because there’s no producer there so I just sit there and I do it ‘til I get it. But, it’s fun. I played it in high school. So, it’s cool to dust it off once in awhile.
JPG: That’s one of the advantages of doing it all by yourself, the first 29 tries…
DH: I’m really methodical. To me that’s actually fun, to keep doing it because things like percussion you just do it a bunch of times and you kinda get in a trance. Then, you can trick yourself into being in this hypnotic state and some really cool stuff comes out in those moments when you’re on the 15th take and you lose yourself a little bit. It’s almost like a form of meditation.
*JPG: There’s that word. (Hartley laughs) I was listening to “Forget the Mantra,” thinking of the term itself and then my wife, she’s a yoga instructor as well as leads meditation classes and mindfulness sessions and retreats. *
DH: I dabbled in that myself.
JPG: I did as well, then stopped and now I’m slowly getting back into it.
DH: Yeah, it’s weird. I’m a big believer in it but believing in it and actually practicing it are two different things. It takes a lot of discipline. I don’t practice nearly what I should.
*JPG: I think that’s the problem for most people, making the time.
*JPG: I’ll try again if you try again. *
DH: Fine. You got a deal.
JPG: Since the body paint was to make you look like a robot. Elaborate on the ideas behind that, the vocals, the imagery on the album cover and video.
DH: It’s something that I gravitated towards. I am really into science fiction. It’s a little bit based on some of the Isaac Asimov robot covers. It’s also the kind of thing where I love the Beach Boys and I love all these bands that have all these cool vocal blends. I chased that so far that it almost became…some of these songs I would be putting unbelievable amounts of overdubs vocally and get to the point where the blend is so thick that you’re actually in a robotic realm. As I was doing it I was like, “Wow! The vocals actually sound almost inhuman at this point.” Instead of coming back from that and saying, “No, I’ve got to back off,” I kept going further.
What I did was I started to offset the vocals with organic-sounding instruments. I kept most of the guitars acoustic. I started using hand drums; things that you could visualize like a trumpet. That led me to the cover art, which is the idea of this inhuman vocal or being in an organic environment. So, I have this silver man in the foliage, in the woods.
But, it also goes with…I always thought the idea of a sad robot. There’s something even more sad about a sad robot than a sad human to me. I don’t know why. Maybe, I’m just strange in that. I’ve always liked finding that line between human and inhuman and there’s something about a cyborg or android or robot that illustrates the differences more. It’s almost like a mirror to humanity.
JPG: There’s that idea of them being sad because there’s that lack of emotion other than C3PO losing his shit all the time or Woody Allen in “Sleeper”…but he wasn’t really a robot.
DH: Right. It’s still the same thing. No one’s going to look at the cover of my record and think, “Oh, is that a robot?” it’s obviously still me. That’s kind of the other idea of putting the paint on. I’m putting myself out there but also still covering myself with something. It’s like, “Here I am. I’m going to let you see me in a vulnerable state but actually I’m still retreating away from you.” It’s sort of the same thing with the music where I’m overdubbing my vocals so much that the ear’s looking for that lead vocal and it’s really not there. Actually, there’s a million vocals, and that is the lead vocal. It’s a combination of revealing and hiding at the same time.
JPG: In that same vein comparing Forget the Mantra with Oak Island, Nightlands’ debut album had numbers such as “A Walk in Cheong, 1969,” “WFMS, 1993” and “Longways Homebound 2010” with the spoken recordings. I don’t know if those were radio broadcasts or tapes you had of people talking or ones that were made specifically for those tracks…
DH: Those were all from my personal life. The one, “A Walk in Cheong, 1969,” the crazy story behind that is it was from a recording my dad made when he was 24 years old that he had forgotten about that I had found in the basement of my house, and had to have it painstakingly restored and transferred to digital because the tape was all decayed. He was in Korea in the Peace Corps when he made it. All those tapes are from things like that. They’re all from my life.
“WFMS, 1993,” that was me when I was 13. And it shows the different stages of my life and my family life. That record (“Forget the Mantra”) was less song-oriented, especially the second side of it.
*JPG: Yes, I was going to bring up that in comparison Oak Island is much more song-oriented. Is that a result of offering more of yourself now than in the past? *
DH: Yes. I just felt like I had more songs. The first one, I was just tentatively…it was the first thing I ever recorded by myself and I didn’t really know what I was doing. That was just how it came out, and I happened to be finding these recordings in my life of various people that I thought were significant. So, I started integrating them into the work. Then, when it came time to make the new record I had all these song ideas and they just kept coming and coming. That’s just how it ended up. That’s a natural progression. You want to challenge yourself as a songwriter. I’m sure on the next record I definitely want to experiment more with different songwriting challenges.
JPG: I found it interesting that a song like “Brothers” off the War On Drugs last album sounds like it could be on Nightlands’ latest.
DH: Hmmm…That is interesting. Ya know, there’s no doubt, I will never deny that there’s gonna be a lot of influence of Adam and the Drugs just because I’ve been involved with the War On Drugs for so long, especially his guitar playing has seeped into my guitar playing a lot and we also have a lot of similar musical influences. So, yeah, I could see that.
JPG: A lot of people view Oak Island as being influenced by ‘70s pop. I can see that on “I Fell in Love With a Feeling” with its poppy horns…
JPG: …but I don’t know if I would go as far as they do because your album sounds like a 21st century version of ‘70s pop. Is it good that I don’t see it like that or am I just missing something?
DH: No, I’m glad actually because some people were like, “It reminds me of Seals & Crofts or America,” these ‘70s band that are a little bit cheesy…or the Eagles. Well, they’re really not one of my favorite bands. I always thought that I was pushing a little bit more into the future trying to make something a little bit stranger sounding. But, whatever. People hear things through their own filters, and that’s probably based more on what they listen to than what I listen to. But, I would never argue with anyone’s perception of it.
Whenever I sit down and record, my biggest influences are the instruments that I have around me because I’m the kind of person that will pick up an amp off the side of the street and use that to make an entire record. I’m really into honoring chance in the moment as opposed to trying to be like, “Oh, I want to make this record sound like Simon and Garfunkel.”
JPG: The most that I got out of the comparison game towards other artists is “Rolling Down the Hill,” which reminded me of Animal Collective as far as the rhythm and the layered vocals at their least complex but I didn’t see a lot of ‘70s things.
DH: On that song I was definitely just trying to make something completely strange and a little bit frantic. I was actually playing with different recording techniques, warping my voice with tape and speed, etc., stuff like that.