Nightlands Interview: Dave Hartley Visits ‘the Big Sur of the Mind’ on New Album

Hartley discusses his efforts to "shape reality" with the sound of 'I Can Feel the Night Around Me'

nightlands band

Last month, we raved about the forthcoming Nightlands album and shared three of its songs. That album is I Can Feel the Night Around Me, due May 5th. Nightlands is Dave Hartley, who is also a member of The War on Drugs. Hartley recently spoke with Culture Creature founder Dan Redding for an interview, which you can read below.

Dan Redding: In your bio, you describe this contrast of making this warm, lush album in a cold basement studio. Can you describe that space?

Dave Hartley: It’s really cool. I don’t wanna trash it and make it sound dystopian or something. I should preface it by saying it’s a really sweet, big space. It’s bigger than my house. It’s littered with equipment and band ephemera. But it’s also unheated. It’s in the basement of a giant warehouse. There’s occasional gas leaks, and it’s extremely dusty. There’s a furniture warehouse above it so there’s constantly dust coming through the cracks of the ceiling. It used to be in the care of The War on Drugs so it kinda became the cold storage for tons and tons of gear from over the years. It’s kinda where amps would go to die. But then [The War on Drugs leader Adam Granduciel] moved to Los Angeles a few years ago and I decided to take over the lease and I moved a bunch of my equipment in there and acquired some recording equipment and pieced together a cool little studio. I’ve done some other records there too, not just my records. It has kind of a clubhouse feel to it. I like being there. Especially early in the morning or late at night, when you might very well be the only one in the building and it kind of feels like the kind of place where you can make little discoveries.

Is there something to that idea that the music was made in response to the environment?

I think all music is connected in some ways to the environment from which it comes. For me, I have a real attachment to the West Coast, and particularly parts of California. Big Sur especially – it’s where I was married, it’s where I fell in love with my wife, it’s where I’ve taken a bunch of vacations. Whenever we go on vacation, we usually go out to Big Sur, we’ve done vacations in Joshua Tree, et cetera. You probably can relate to this but East Coast winters can be so bleak, so challenging, they just seem to go on forever. It’s so cold and the snow melts and gets covered in soot.

It’s fucking gross! (laughter)

It’s just gross, you know? In a way, that’s what I love about it, because Spring is blooming right now – you feel new life, and you remember all these things. So, when I’m walking to my studio and seeing needles and trash and I’m wearing – during the depths of last winter when I was really working on my record a lot, I would sometimes wear two pairs of long johns, I would buy these chemical handwarmers… it was impossible to stay warm enough. I was cold to the bone while recording. I think I was just dreaming, I was California dreaming in a literal sense. I think those wishes and hopes seeped into the some of the lyrics and some of the implied imagery of the music, you know?

Were you going to the Big Sur in your mind, in a way?

For sure. Going to the Big Sur in your mind… it’s also sort of the spirit of the music. I’m not making punk rock. It’s not hard-nosed, East Coast, Fugazi-inspired music – not that I have anything against that. But when I put my finger on a button, the button that I’m looking for would inspire the same feelings that a Big Sur experience would, or the Lost Coast, or you could go on and on.

I want to talk about that feeling of nostalgia and longing. Does that mood just come naturally to you? Is that a style that you’ve developed over the years?

Yeah, I guess for any songwriter, part of developing your voice is just figuring out which feelings or emotions you can tap into in the most sincere way, if that makes any sense. Because nowadays with technology, and the infinite options you have in making music, you can really make anything at any time on a pretty small budget. You’re not really limited anymore to a sonic palette. When you have this wealth of options, it becomes sort of a challenge of intuition: where do I go? Where do I go that’s truly my voice and not just, ‘oh, I wanna make dance music because that’s what sells records,’ or something like that. I think that as I was finding my way, I hit on certain sounds or chords or aesthetic decisions, and certain ones just felt sincere. I like all types of music, but I think I have a consistency in my sound – maybe it comes from being raised on certain Simon & Garfunkel songs, or certain Beach Boys songs that must’ve had a big influence on me, and I am trying to recreate the last minute and a half of [Simon & Garfunkel’s] ‘The Only Living Boy in New York.’

Was that stuff that your parents had on the turntable when you were a kid?

Yeah, for sure. A lot of ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders’ by John Denver, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York,’ among other things. I think with the Spotify-zation of music now, finding what you wanna be inspired by can be really overwhelming. We all probably jump all over the place in our listening habits. When you go to create something, it’s hard – I think often you just have to go back to one of your core influences – something that goes really, really deep into your childhood.

Yeah. And, you know, there’s so much choice now, but when I was seven and my dad was playing Little Feat or Genesis at home, there was no choice involved in that – that music is just part of my memory and life at that time. It seems like almost the opposite of choice – that’s just what was given to me as a kid.

Yep. Yeah, and the way you enjoy Little Feat or Genesis as a child is such a pure thing, whereas inevitably as you get older – especially if you’re in the music industry – you know, I can hear Andy Shauf’s record The Party, which I think is amazing. When I heard that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really great.’ But of course, my enjoyment of it is tempered by in the back of my mind thinking, ‘how can I apply some of these recording techniques, how can I recalibrate my compass to somehow take into consideration some of this…’ You know what I mean? Immediately, I’m sort of having a dialogue with it about how I relate to it as a musician.

Yeah, there’s an analytical element.

Yep, there’s an analytical component. When you’re seven and you hear John Denver and it makes you happy, it’s just like eating a cupcake. It’s a very simple thing. It just makes you feel good and you want more of it.

Can you describe what is a major-seventh chord and what is its emotional significance?

Yeah, it’s just a major chord, but the octave of the root note is just a half-step lower. It’s a really simple chord…. To me, it just sounds like nostalgia. It sorta just sounds happy and sad at the same time. My friends make fun of me because I lean so heavily on it. Often times, you’ll hear someone drop it into a composition in certain moments as a flavor – but I would say on my new record, maybe three-quarters of all the chords are major-seventh. Maybe more actually. That actually might be some kind of record! Get Guinness on the phone.

Honestly, a lot of it speaks to the limits of my music theory knowledge. I don’t have a super-comprehensive chord vocabulary, but I’m drawn to certain types of music that are very sophisticated, like Brazilian music, which I love. I sort of fake Brazilian music by just using major-seventh all the time. It’s just my favorite thing, I don’t know how to say it other than that. It makes me feel great. Oftentimes when I hear a song – you know, the kind of song that you wanna hear forty times in the course of a day or two, when you really get hooked on a song – most of the time, it’s major-seventh-heavy, for me. That’s the stuff that I really, really get obsessed with.

I want to ask about one lyrical moment from the song ‘Easy Does It.’ On that song you sing, “there’s a shadow man living inside of me.” What did you intend to represent with the shadow man?

That song is just sort of about fear and despair, and I think the shadow man is just the worst version of one’s self. That weak child that’s within us. The one within us that acts due to fear – all his decisions are influenced by fear and anxiety and despair. That song, I sort of wanted to make something that musically, was almost like a Boyz II Men kind of song, a sort of harmony-drenched ballad. A slow jam almost. But to contrast that with extremely dark and confessional lyrics, to sort of twist it, so it’s not just an ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ kind of thing. I’m actually really proud of the lyrics to that song. I felt like they’re really direct, and they were satisfying to write.

I guess that’s also the happy and sad balance again.

Yeah, and it’s not just about the shadow man, it’s about meeting a person in your life who accepts that part of you, and who you can show the worst part of yourself and still feel loved and protected. It’s about the relationship between love and protection, and fear and despair.

How has your work with The War on Drugs impacted your solo work over the years?

On one hand, I’ve learned a lot from it. When I first met Adam, even though The War on Drugs basically didn’t exist, I was already blown away by his songwriting and his creative vibe, so I learned a lot right off the bat by watching him and recording with him. And pretty much any artist – I’ve recorded a lot of people and you kind of take something from everybody. I think with The War on Drugs, it’s sort of this ‘by any means necessary’ record making style. I just really sympathize with that.

What do you mean by that?

I’ve worked with producers before who are like, ‘we’re gonna cut the basics in two weeks, and then we’re gonna mix in ten days, and then revisions for three days…’ They try to conform the music to some sort of premeditated system. But working with Adam and the Drugs, it’s like: whatever it takes. It’s done when it’s a masterpiece. That’s it. (laughs) It’s done when you’re satisfied with it. That kind of means a very meandering path sometimes, with redoing things, or rewriting things. It can be more painful, I think – it’s not as fun. But it’s just fueled by a passion and obsession. I think I’m wired for that as well. Some people just go into the studio and record their songs. They document their songs and then that’s it. Sometimes that’s really successful. I’ve worked with people where that’s how an album is made, and it’s been great. You just go in and you’re like, boom, we’re gonna document how the band plays these songs, make it sound as good as we can, and it’s over. Whereas, with the Drugs and Nightlands, I try to do this thing where you’re trying to shape reality a little bit more. I kind of think of it as surrealistic record making. You’re not trying to just document something real; you’re trying to shape sound. Elicit feeling.

But on the other hand, I sort of deliberately try to make Nightlands not sound like The War on Drugs. Which is not that hard; it’s not a super deliberate thing. I just have a very different set of touchstones. But yeah, there’s a part of me that’s probably defiantly trying to make my music sound completely unrelated, because of the side project shadow. But that’s not in any way – I love being in the Drugs, and I love that sound. But when I go to do my own thing, I want it to be my own thing.

What is one thing that you’re obsessed with right now?

I’ve been obsessed with a science fiction novel, which is sort of an ongoing obsession with me. I’m reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It’s been sort of a revelation for me.

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