Musical Tapestry: Nightlands' Dave Hartley on Experimenting With Sound

Musical Tapestry: Nightlands' Dave Hartley on Experimenting With Sound
(Photo by Catharine Maloney)

Dave Hartley’s solo project, Nightlands, has always been a place for The War on Drugs bassist to experiment. That continues on his second album, “Oak Island,” released last week under the project’s name and the follow up to 2010’s “Forget the Mantra.” As on that first record, this one sees Hartley – who plays numerous instruments on the new album – creating dense song tapestries filled with baroque instrumentation and warped, layered vocals, resulting in some of the more unique indie pop out so far this year. ARTINFO recently spoke with Hartley about the importance of lyrical directness, his love of collaboration, and how he created the vocals for album highlight “Nico.”

We have three different versions (see below) of that very track: vocals only, instrumentals, and the finished work, so you can get a sense of how Hartley put the beguiling song together.

Was there a specific theme you were exploring with “Oak Island,” or one that you saw come out during the recording process?

I really wanted the lyrics to be direct and universal, and almost classic, in a ’60s kind of way. I was listening to Lee Hazelwood, the Beach Boys, and all these things. The music was so dense that I felt like if the lyrics were too abstract, it would just kind of float away. I was also exploring organic versus synthetic elements. I wanted the vocals to sound robotic, which I achieved through overdubbing like a motherfucker and tape speed manipulation. With the instruments, I played all them, I didn’t loop thing. If there was a drum part I played it all the way through. I thought that would be an interesting contrast between this sort of robotic mass of vocals and this tapestry of acoustic sound with all these things dripping away underneath it.

There are a lot of interesting sounds throughout the album. What was the recording process like?

Basically in the beginning I just track and track and track and track, and later I switch into an editing mode, and I just discard quite a bit. It’s sort of manic, and it’s sort of a form of madness. I always try to make it like a game, and take each song like what would be fun to do to this, what would make it more fun to listen to. I’m never thinking about what I want it to sound like in the end.

What about on a song like “Nico,” which sounds really unique, especially compared to a lot of the indie pop that’s out there?

On “Nico,” I don’t know if anyone’s ever done it. I’m sure someone has, but what I did was on the record – and this took days of figuring out how to do this – I sang the note and as I held the note up, I changed the speed of the tape, so that it would warp it up. I kept trying that until I could know exactly what speed to change the tape machine to, to make my voice warped. So when it sounds like I’m singing higher and higher and higher, the tape is slowing more and more. I got pretty experimental with the tape machine.

There’s a density to most of the music on the album, a baroqueness almost, which is missing from much of your collaborative work. Why is this?

It’s a totally different part of my brain I’m using when I’m working on Nightlands and right now, that’s just sort of the aesthetic I’m interested in. Now, I don’t know what will happen on the next record. I’m sure at some point I’ll play around with making really sparse stuff. I guess the main thing is I just don’t want to make music that sounds like other music, if I can avoid it. “Oh, this sounds like some other shit that’s out there.”

As someone who has worked with others for much of their career, do you appreciate being fully in control with Nightlands?

Absolutely. Especially because I’ve been collaborating my whole life. I love collaborating, and it’s fun to be a gear in a machine. I still love it, I never want to stop doing it. But I also love working for a month on one bridge and get crazy with something. This is a thing where I’m going to take it wherever I want, and no one can say a thing. I just feel like I’m getting started and I want to go to extremes, making bizarre music.

Now that you’ve put out two Nightlands albums, has it become more of a focus than a side project?

It doesn’t take more priority but it becomes more viable. Now there’s a body of work, for better or for worse. I don’t see one taking precedence over the other. The War on Drug is very relaxing for me, because I don’t have to call the shots. I just have to play bass, which is something I’ve been doing since I was 12. I love doing that, but it’s not completely fulfilling because I have these other things I want to do. Adam [Granduciel, the band’s frontman] is super supportive. He also has a really intense process, so he needs long periods of time off to work on his stuff. I’m going over to his house tonight and we’re going to record. If Nightlands started selling tons of records, then it could be a problem. Obviously I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, and it’ll be a welcome bridge to cross. I just don’t see any conflict – they’re mutually beneficial.

"Nico," Album Version



"Nico," Vocals Only Version



"Nico," Instrumental Version