Q&A: Dave Hartley of Nightlands Talks About Composing Orchestral Sounds Bound By Limits
By Priscilla Castro; Photos by Catharine Maloney on March 8, 2013
With his second full-length album, Oak Island, Dave Hartley of Nightlands has explored family ties, past friendships and past relationships in the construction of his new album. As a result of that (and by also sticking to limited resources in his studio) Dave managed to compose a lyrically rich and ethereal sound, with harmonic voices backed by what sounds like a multitude of instruments.
Last month, FILTER caught up with the silver-faced songsmith, to get a better look into how Oak Island was composed, what his influences are, how different it is being a solo artist compared to his involvement in The War on Drugs and more.
How different is it being a solo artist than when you’re with The War on Drugs?
It’s different in every way. First of all, I look at them as sort of yin and yang; each makes me appreciate the other more. It’s scary to do your own thing, and you’re putting yourself out there a lot more and there’s a lot more risk, but obviously there’s a lot of reward. It’s really something that is super important to me, and I felt really compelled to do it. And when I’m touring with The War on Drugs, I think it sort of recharges me, and makes me excited to write songs, and excited to call the shots and excited to be sort of a band leader. With Nightlands, it makes me excited to be kind of a role player and sort of a gear in a machine. They’re really different, and the music is really different, obviously, so they’re just two halves of my brain.
What is Oak Island to you?
I guess it’s a snapshot of my life. Lyrically, it is just sort of where I was at in my life. I try not to contrive too much when I write lyrics; I sort of just let them happen because I feel that the music is extremely meticulous and sort of engineered and crafted, and so I try to let the lyrics be sort of the opposite of that and I don’t think about them. Obviously I work on them, but I try to let them flow out and try to make them be of the moment and whatever I’m experiencing. I started “Nico” right after I met my nephew the first time. He was like a week old, and I just was in love with this kid, [so] I was just like, you know, 'I’m going to write a lullaby.' And it turned into something completely different, but the lyrics are still sort of a dedication to him, [though] it at all sort of morphed uncontrollably into something much more complex.
I guess as a whole, the record is sort of where I was at the time, and I’m really proud of it. I’m proud of [Forget the Mantra] too, but I look at the first record and I think, 'I couldn’t make that now.' The first record I hear a lot of confusion and fear and anxiety in it. I used to make a joke that was what genre it was; I said 'anxiety jazz,' even though it’s not jazz at all. But this one, I’m a little more confident, and the next one will be different and reflect where I am emotionally.
You experimented a lot with sound, both instrumental and vocal, on Oak Island. How did you come to agree on one kind of sound when finishing a song (like in “Looking for Rain”)?
I’m not going to lie, it was really hard. It became sort of a madness of a kind. Some people can just go into the studio, make a record and it’s done in two weeks or a month, and I wish I could do that. It’s just sort of a document of the songs they wrote and how they played them, but I guess I don’t do that. There’s a lot of late nights, drinking whiskey, and listening and messing with sounds.
I think one thing that helps me is that I have a really primitive studio, so I don’t have that many options sometimes. I don’t have a world-class studio by any means. I have really simple stuff, so I kind of just do the best I can with what I have and it kind of forces my decision making sometimes. I also mix the record with this wonderful producer, Brian McTear, in Philly, and that helped me a lot.
Personally, I think the record sounds like it belongs with itself, and it just kind of flows. I think at first it didn’t have that, and it was kind of all over the place, and I didn’t want it to be this super schizo record. I wanted it to be kind of unified, and mixing it with Brian really helped, and he was sort of my mentor in the process. I think I sort of take pride in not having equipment. Since the record, people have actually contacted me asking me if I want to produce a record for them or something, and I think they don’t realize that I use computer speakers that come from Best Buy for $80. I just kind of use what I have, and I’ve gotten fairly good at it over time.
We follow your tweets, and they’re always really interesting to read. It’s interesting that pirating/downloading/sharing music is okay with you, according to one of your recent tweets. It doesn’t bug you even for a little bit that people would pirate and steal your music?
It just depends on the way they do it, you know? The reason I can’t be too bothered by it is because I’ve done that as a kid, or even, occasionally, someone will still send me a record and say 'hey, look at this new record.' I also consume music in a lot of different ways: I buy new vinyl, on iTunes, and stuff like that. I’m not an idealist by any stretch. The reason I tweeted that was because someone, who I won’t say, did a review of the album. They at-mentioned me, and on their review of the album, which was a positive review, they had a fucking download link on it through some file-sharing site. It’s like 'Hey, just have a little discretion.' I don’t mind if it comes from a place of interest, or you have a friend who says 'Oh, you’ve gotta check this out,' because that’s how music disseminates. You tell people what you’re listening to, and maybe you’ll give it to them. That’s fine. You can’t fight that tie. It will never stop. People will share a record the same way they did with mixtapes; it’s just easier now.
I’m not trying to be a downer about it, and get on people’s case, but when someone is just like 'Hey @Nightlands, we loved your record! Everyone can download here, for free!' I was like, 'You don’t know how this works.' I was just really irritated by that, but I actually contacted them and emailed them and said, 'Do you know that you’re doing this?' And they were so sorry, and [said] that they didn’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just had a brain fart. It’s sort of flattering that people want to leak a record and share it, if they value it enough and love it.
Your video for "I Fell In Love With A Feeling" and your album cover have an awful lot of silver on it! What made you choose to make all things silver a prolific thing in all of that?
A lot of different reasons. I guess the main reason is that I kept thinking about it and it kept coming in to my head and I thought it was cool. That’s the most superficial reason, but also it’s really symbolic. I had this idea that I wanted a robot embedded in nature, in some way. I always made the voices this big stack of robotic sound, and I really wanted this big wall of vocals, but I always took a lot of care to make the instruments kind of organic and acoustic. I use a lot of acoustic guitars, dulcimers, mandolins, hand drums and stuff like that because I didn’t want it to be totally synthetic and cold all the time. I want it to have some warmth and humanity to it, and I guess I sort of like that contrast. I thought the visual equivalent of it was sort of to have myself painted up, and it was sort of an awkward experience, but I’m glad I did it.
We’re sort of running with it, and we’ll probably do a few more videos and photo shoots like that, but eventually I’ll probably have to end with it. I don’t want to be “that silver guy”. I want to move on to something else. That’s another thing too, it’s kind of like exposing myself in a way, because I’m putting my whole face on the cover, but at the same time I’m not showing you anything. You don’t see my real stare or anything. It’s kind of a way, which is another thing about making a record which is really personal, but also [working] the shit out of the vocals to the point that you don’t know what my voice sounds like, which is sort of weird. I think it’s kind of a perfect, visual analog. F