On May 5th, Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist Dave Hartley, best known as the bass guitarist of indie rock titans The War on Drugs, will release I Can Feel the Night Around Me, his excellent third studio album under the moniker Nightlands, on Western Vinyl.
Meticulously recorded over a year at The War on Drugs' rehearsal space, the album is a beautifully-crafted gathering of hazy synth-pop jams, featuring contributions from his War on Drugs bandmates, alongside other noted collaborators, including prolific harpist Mary Lattimore and multi-instrumentalist Frank LoCrasto.
Speaking to The Reprise over a cup of morning coffee at his Fishtown home, Hartley discussed the all-encompassing process of writing and recording an album, the Nightlands live band, and his enduring love of The Beach Boys' lesser known creative peaks.
It's been over four years since the release the last Nightlands album, Oak Island. How does it feel to be on the cusp of releasing your third studio album and are you excited for what lies ahead?
Yeah, it's been a while! It's funny, because this is my third record, and after the first, and after the second, I sort of thought to myself, 'Oh, man. I don't know if I'll ever do another record.' Every time, it's a painful process; it's so immersive. I just go really deep on it. Some people just kind of crap stuff out, but I don't do that. It feels like I've made each record ten times [over]. Each one took over a year [to record], and then I've toured on each one. I then get sucked into a bunch of touring with The War on Drugs, and then as [that] touring goes on, it replenishes my desire to make another Nightlands record.
So, part of me right now... I'm super proud of my new record, for sure, but part of me thinks that this is the last one I'll make, and that I'll move on to new musical projects. I know, though, that as soon as I'm back out playing shows, and playing bass [in The War on Drugs], a year from now, I'll start itching to make a new record. I'm in part of that cycle of birth and regeneration; death and rebirth. I'm making it sound more dramatic than it is! It's the life cycle of your creative power, and, right now, what I'm trying to do is figure out how to bring this album to the stage.
Who's currently performing in the live Nightlands band and helping you with that process?
It's really such a sweet band! There's my friend Eliza Hardy Jones, who has pretty much always played in Nightlands. She plays with a bunch of people; she was in a band called Buried Beds, a classic Philly band, and she went on to play with Strand of Oaks and Grace Potter. She's sort of all over the map, and a very personable musician. She's helped me put all of this together.
Also, [The War on Drugs guitarist] Anthony LaMarca. Do you know his music? He's opening the tour, and also drumming with Nightlands. He's just such an amazing player. I met him through Nightlands, and that's how he got involved in The War on Drugs. Over the years, I've played with him more and more, and I'm just so in touch with him [in terms of] musical sensitivity; he's one of the most humble musicians.
Then there's my friend Jesse Hale Moore, who has a burgeoning solo career in his own right. He is a phenomenal, phenomenal singer, and if you listen to the record, I'm sure you can tell there are just so many vocal harmonies that I need all hands on deck! My friend Scott Churchman is playing bass, and I've never actually had a bass player before, which is sort of funny.
I guess it must be funny having another bass player on stage, when traditionally that's your role within The War on Drugs.
Yeah, for sure! I mean, on the first record I didn't put any bass on there. I think, subconsciously, I was trying to do something that I hadn't done before, you know? As a result, there wasn't any bass in the live show, and then, on the second record, I just wanted it more stripped down. So, I've got my friend Scott [now], who is just this shredding bass player that plays fretless [bass] really well. He actually plays with Chubby Checker.
Yeah, I know! He's a young guy, and Chubby is like eighty and still tours! He gets younger musicians to play with him live, so Scott's day job is shredding the bass with Chubby, but he's eager to do [Nightlands], and I'm happy to have him. That's the band. We've just finished a bunch of rehearsals and it's sounding pretty amazing!
You noted that it took over a year to record the album. When did you first start writing the material that would become I Can Feel the Night Around Me? Were you working on the songs while still on tour with The War on Drugs?
Yeah, a little bit. If I had a week off, I would do a little bit of exploratory writing and recording, but it didn't start, in earnest, until the last Drugs album cycle was over. I'm not the kind of person that can sit in the back lounge of the tour bus with an acoustic guitar. I think part of it is that, when I'm playing bass [in The War on Drugs] with Adam [Granduciel], Charlie [Hall], Robbie [Bennett], Anthony and Jon [Natchez], I'm just so immersed in that project. It's like my whole being becomes that; it becomes focused on being in this great American rock n' roll band, and I'm not making a solo album in my mind. It's only when the dust settles, and I'm like, 'Oh Shit! I've got a year and a half off right now.' Everybody goes their separate ways, and you get into your routine; you wake up in the morning, you get coffee, you listen to some music, and your mind is free to roam, and that's when the juices get flowing. I pretty much write when I get home. I actually got married right as the last Drugs album was wrapping up, and as soon as we stopped touring, my life kind of settled into this nice, domestic, creative groove.
Congratulations! That's incredible news. Did this new-found domestic groove end up influencing your songwriting in any way? What music were you listening to at this time?
I think sharing music with the person you live with is a really cool and special thing. You know, I still listen to music on my headphones, and in my car, but that's more just for me. When you're living with someone, you find these albums that become the connective tissue of your relationship. We have music on in our house all the time. We listen to a lot of Paul Simon, tons of Brazilian music, Georgie Benson, and The Beach Boys, who are a constant presence in my life.
I've read that you're a huge fan of The Beach Boys' lesser-known albums, and as a fellow Beach Boys obsessive, I was wondering which albums you consider to be their most underrated?
[1968's] Friends is probably my favourite ever. I mean, it's hard to compare it to Pet Sounds, which is this towering [piece of work], but that album has been so explored that the mystery is sort of gone a little bit, and it's a bit like Sgt. Pepper's. I think it's a masterpiece, but there's something about Friends that is so fascinating to me. I think part of it is the decline of Brian [Wilson]; he's sort of sitting in the back at this stage, and that album is so out of step with what was happening musically at that time. You think about the counter culture, the civil unrest, psychedelia... all these things happening in America at that time, and The Beach Boys make this album that's almost super delusionally happy. Songs, like "Anna Lee, the Healer" and "Little Bird", they're so fairy tale, nursery-rhyme-happy, that they almost sound surreal; it's like the songs are psychedelic in a reverse-psychology kind of way. I think that one is probably my favourite; it's pretty invincible straight through. But, you know, all of the albums from Wild Honey and Sunflower [through to] Surf's Up and Holland - which has some moments! Pretty much anything from that era when Carl Wilson was taking the reigns of the band.
I've always been fascinated with the overall psychology and mythology of The Beach Boys, and you're right, you have these distinctly different eras of the band where different members take the reigns to varying degrees of success. It makes the lesser-known Beach Boys albums a fascinating listen.
I agree. I think a lot of people actually check-out because it just becomes so scattered. You have other guys coming in like [long-time Beach Boy] Bruce Johnston, who wrote amazing songs. You have that guy, Blondie Chaplin; he was only there for, like, a year, but was a huge part of [1973's] "Sail On, Sailor", which is this super towering song in their canon. He was almost like an interloper, who came through the band for a while. It's the most fascinating thing. If you were to chart out the web of The Beach Boys, it starts with Brian, and then it spiders out: you have Charles Manson, and then you have NBA players [Mike Love's nephew Kevin Love]. It just gets so tangled, so quickly. I could talk about that all day!
As could I. What other records and artists influenced you during the writing and recording of the new album?
In terms of more modern stuff, I've been really on a kick of getting into more modern R&B right now. Something happened recently where most of the interesting music has become R&B music.
That really does appear to be the case. Arguably, the most culturally relevant and innovative music getting made today often falls under the banner of R&B.
Yeah! I think the most amazing album I've heard in the past year is probably the Frank Ocean record [Blonde]. I know that's not an unpopular opinion, and it wasn't a contrived thing to try and include R&B influences on the new album; it was just playing a lot in my home, and it's probably seeped in there.
Going back to The Beach Boys, one thing that I love the most about Brian's songwriting is when he writes songs that are so achingly beautiful, but the lyrical content is creating this dissonance with the music; the lyrics are confessional, dark and crushingly sad, but you have these songs that are so lush and beautiful. That was an explicit motive of mine, where I was like, 'I want to do that.' I want to write songs that tackle issues of despair, depression, and some of the bleaker themes [of life], but I want to drape them in the most beautiful harmonies I can conjure up.
On that note, how was it creating such warm sounding synth-pop music in a cold warehouse-based environment? [I Can Feel the Night Around Me was recorded in The War on Drugs Philadelphia-based rehearsal space, affectionately named The Space, and owned by Dave Hartley]
You're right, I don't know why there's these contradictions are happening! The Space is just... I don't know if you've ever lived in a house with your friends that was a dump, but you actually kind of loved it? At the time, it's inhospitable, but then you look back on it and you're like, 'Oh, man. Those were the best times!' It's a bit like that. We complain about it, and there are all these musical inconveniences, but it is pretty amazing, and it does have a lot of good vibes, creatively.
I think the cool thing about it is that it's filled with years and years of ephemera from being in a band. If you just dig around in there, it's like, 'Oh, shit! There's like a thousand amps in here, and I don't know where they came from, or who they belong to!' We've been putting stuff in there for years, and there have been other bands putting stuff in there too. I share it with a couple of other guys, but I think the days of The Space are numbered, sadly, and that we're going to move onto bigger and better things.
Are you moving out and giving up the place?
Yeah, The War on Drugs are going to get a space here in Philly that's maybe a bit more professional; not so much just a warehouse, or a place where you'll get black lung recording each other. We're trying to make it a little bit more pleasant, but it's been a good run and it did work into my domestic routine of waking up, having coffee, walking or driving over, flipping on the computer and all of my gear, and not even having to plan. It's been almost like putting your pencil to paper and just letting your hand start drawing.
Your fellow War on Drugs bandmates Robbie Bennett, Charlie Hall and Anthony LaMarca helped with the recording of the new album. Was it fun to working with the guys in a separate musical context from The War on Drugs?
Yeah, always! I've worked with those guys on just so many things. Robbie and I have been making music together for, like, fifteen years now on tons and tons of different projects. I've played with him for so long, and he always surprises and delights me, musically. For him to be still unpredictable after all these years is pretty amazing. He always adds a little bit of chaos to a recording session in a good way, and it's the same with Charlie and I. It's funny, I guess the older you get, you tend to find yourself working with other people, and when someone's like, we need drums on this song, it's like, 'I'll just call Charlie!' Partially, because I love him as a person, and of course as a player too.
Who else contributed to the recording of the album?
My friend Severin Tucker, who's this synth-wizard who lives here in Fishtown, here, he plays some beautiful Yamaha DX7 on the record. The first song, "Lost Moon", everyone thinks there's a slide guitar, or a pedal steel, or something, but it's actually him on a synthesizer! It ended up being one of the main flavours that I used on the album. My friend Mary Lattimore, who's this super prolific harpist, she played on "Easy Does It", and one of the songs, "Fear of Flying", has this loungy, exotica feel to it. That was actually my friend Frank LoCrasto, who's this pretty wild jazz guy who plays with Cass McCombs. He has these solo records that are super ambient. They sound like soundtrack music, somewhere between Brazilian music and video game music! I fell in love with his solo records, and I just emailed him saying, maybe we should write a song together. He literally just sent me that synth part, and I wrote everything else around it. That was the first time I've ever collaborated with someone like that. I'm sure I'm forgetting some people, but there are great players for sure ,and I'm lucky to have so many people at my finger tips.
What are your favourite songs on the album?
It changes over time, because the way you hear your own music changes. I think "Lost Moon" will probably always be my favourite. I pushed myself to a new place compositionally on that song. When I wrote and recorded it, I was like, 'Yes! That's what I want to feel like when I listen to my songs.' It just captured loneliness, melancholy and nostalgia. I also really love "Human Hearts", which is at the end of the album. It's so strange; it has this, like, 50s doo-wop via sci-fi feel. And then probably this other jam, called "Easy Does It", that when I mixed, I was like, 'Wow. I think this sounds a little like like Boyz II Men, and I think that may be a good thing.' The songs where I tapped into unexpected influences stick out to me as the most fun ones.
What is the significance of the album's title, I Can Feel the Night Around Me?
It actually came to me before I started working on the record. I was at the Joshua Tree in California, with a friend of mine, and we were siting around a fire, looking at the stars. We were a little altered, mentally, and that phrase just came into my head. It was almost like a disembodied voice, and I just knew that it would be the album title, and I hadn't written a single song for the record yet! It was kind of funny. I think I wanted there to be a lot of congruence and similarity [across the project] between everything: the album cover, the lyrics, the sounds, the title. You know what I mean? I just wanted it all to to be about a late night, lovely feeling.
Where was the album cover taken?
That was from Big Sur, actually! It was taken on a disposable camera. I loved the [original landscape] photo, it had the prefect vibe, and then the image of the man - which is me - was actually from another photo. The graphic designer had a genius idea to put that in there. I was like, 'I want this to be the album cover, but it needs something, because otherwise it's just a sunset, and I think that has been done!' He just took this other photo [of me] and plopped it in there. He did this really cool thing where you're not sure what the scale is. It's a landscape, but the image of me just throws everything out of perspective. It kind of makes sense too, because so much of this album was inspired by California. It began there.
You're about to head out on tour with the live Nightlands band in May. Are there any more plans for future tours throughout the year?
We'll see. It's going to get pretty crazy with The War on Drugs right after I get back from this Nightlands tour, and I'm hoping to get over to the UK, but we'll see. I'm sure I'll squeeze in a few shows, especially because the band sounds so sweet, and it would be a shame to only do this one tour. We'll see how it goes. It might be possible to squeeze in some shows next summer.
In the past you've collaborated with Sharon Van Etten on her excellent albums epic and Are We There. In addition to your work with Nightlands and The War on Drugs, I was wondering if you have any other collaborative projects lined up?
I talk to Sharon pretty regularly; she's a great friend. She actually just had a baby a couple of weeks ago! There's this group called The Dove and the Wolf. I produced their EP, which just came out on Fat Possum, and we just recorded it at The Space. We've also just wrapped up a full-length, as well. They sound insane, really great, really lush, sort of, like, Chris Isaak vibes. You know the band The Roches? It almost has that vibe, but with Chris Issak. I'm super proud of the work we did together, and that's something that people should look out for. There's big things in store for them.
Finally, what do you consider your career highlights to date?
You know, I was just thinking about this the other day. It was John Cale's 70th birthday recently, and four or five years ago, he was on The Late Night Show with Jimmy Fallon, and I don't know what happened, but for some reason his guitar player and piano player got scratched from the gig, and someone called me and was like, 'Do you want to play on Jimmy Fallon with John Cale tomorrow night?' I was like,'Holy shit!' It was just one of those things that just fell out of the sky, and it wasn't the kind of thing that led to bigger things or anything; it was just this one beautiful night where we got to share screen time with one of our idols, and that's something that I always look back on.
The rise of The War on Drugs is also pretty satisfying because it happened so steadily. I think when a lot of bands get to headline End of the Road, it happens over the course of one album, and for us it happened over the course of, like, four albums. Also, I think one of the highlights for me, as a solo musician, is something I did a few years ago, where I re-scored the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I didn't record it, and that's one of my great regrets. I had written this score - and it was really cool, because there's so little dialogue in that movie, and it never overlaps with the music! If you have a copy of that film, you can literally remove the music and keep the dialogue. So, I did a performance where I wrote all of these songs [and played them alongside the movie]. I couldn't believe how well it went, and the response I got was so positive. It took so much time, and I spent weeks and weeks composing the music. I do think that will always be a highlight for me.
I Can Feel the Night Around Me is released on May 5th on Western Vinyl