by Michele Zipkin
Nightlands is the solo project of Dave Hartley, who you may know as the bass player in the indie band The War On Drugs. He writes songs composed of acoustic and synthesized instruments that support lush, expansive vocals. The songs on his latest album, Oak Island, evoke images of the celestial or supernatural through layers of unearthly voices, ghostly synths and thumping drum loops.
Hartley decided to start this project when he lost his full time job a few years ago. He was working at University City Housing in Philadelphia, and his manager couldn’t keep him on because he was touring all the time. He thought, “What better time than now to make a record?” Having played only in other people’s bands all his life, he found the idea of starting a solo project slightly daunting, but he went into it with guns blazing. He spent about a year experimenting with sounds and recording techniques, creating the songs that you hear on his debut record, Forget the Mantra. “The recording process I liked was very intense; it was very long periods of time, long periods of experimentation- starting over and scrapping things,” Hartley recounts. He knew there was no rush in making his first record, so he gave it his all.
The unique thing about this first album was that some of the songs are based on melodies or thoughts Hartley had in his dreams. When he initially started writing songs that would compose Forget the Mantra, he didn’t really feel that they were resonating with him. However, he would hear these fantastic melodies as he was drifting off to sleep, but would forget them upon waking. So he kept a recording device by his bed and recorded what he had heard in his dreams when he woke up. “I did that every day for a long time and amassed tons of tapes. A lot of it was gibberish, but there were some melodies and lyrics that I used. The melody of “300 Clouds” came from a dream I was having.”
On Oak Island Hartley combines digitally experimental, superhuman sounds with very down to earth lyrics. Some of the songs on the record have hundreds of vocal tracks on them, and for a couple songs Hartley and the engineer he was working with took 40 of the tracks and ran them through a guitar amp to make them sound even more ethereal. It’s strange to think how a voice, created by a human, when multiplied hundreds of times, creates an effect that deviates from that human quality. This experimental, analytical recording style may stem from Hartley’s father, who is a scientist.
“It’s weird because the content of Oak Island is very emotional. It’s a very human record. I wrote a song for my nephew, an angry song about a friend of mine who had stolen something from me and a song about nostalgia. But I tried to make the sound of it completely the opposite- almost inhuman and alienating. We were really pushing to make it sound almost supernatural, haunting and robotic, but all the while these are songs of love. It’s a study in contrast between these classic lyrics and experimental recording style,” Hartley shares.
Hartley compared the contrast in sound and lyrical content on his record to the way the Beach Boys tend to write very upbeat songs about sad situations. “Brian Wilson would write these songs with incredibly sad lyrics, but if you didn’t understand English you’d think it was an incredibly happy song. I wanted to take that idea, but a step in a different direction- a different kind of contrast between sound and content,” explains Hartley.
In the song he wrote for his nephew, “Nico”, which started out as a simple lullaby, we can hear the layers of vocal tracks and synthesized, out-of-this-world warping of the voice. The plush layers of vocals, while psychedelic and almost robotic-sounding, evoke dream-like images and feelings. The lyrics, deviating from the musical elements, include lines like, “Wake up Nico, rise and shine… the stars are all aligned, I think you will find things will be fine.”
“I started this one when I was still working on the first record,” says Hartley. “My nephew had just been born, and I was totally taken by this little guy. I started by writing him a lullaby, but it turned into something science fiction-y and dense. I’m probably the most proud of this one. When I finished, I wasn’t sure if people would connect to it because there’s so much going on, but I was happy with it.”
If you’re a musician who has played in bands all of your life, it’s not always easy to motivate yourself when flying solo. Working with other musicians can inspire you, and can be a kind of sounding board when it comes to bouncing off ideas. But when writing alone, it’s much easier to go through emotional highs and lows- sometimes you’re psyched about what you’re doing, sometimes you fall into slumps. For Hartley, making records on his own proved challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
“Everybody goes through ups and downs emotionally. When you’re in a band, those things tend to mediate each other. Your band mates can pick you up. But when you’re by yourself, you have to pick yourself up, even when you think- ‘this song that I worked so hard on, I think it sucks right now.’ You have to work through that, it becomes a mental game. I still like doing it, I like the solitary method.”
Hartley has a knack for science fiction literature, and that definitely comes into play in his music, but more so in a visual capacity than in an aural one. He painted himself silver to look like a robot on the cover of Oak Island, “…which was a direct play on some of the Isaac Asimov robot series,” he explains. On the cover of Forget the Mantra, he strove to capture the images from the sci fi paperbacks he was into as a kid. “There’s definitely a connection, I’m just not sure what it is other than the fact that I love it and it’s in me. It comes out in weird ways.”
Catch Nightlands perform songs from Oak Island at Johnny Brenda’s on Friday May 31st.