A write-up in The New Yorker is a powerful validation. Both immensely respected and incredibly visible, it’s the kind of publication that can help kickstart a project in its infancy — and provide a valuable confidence boost to an artist seeking wider appreciation. Dave Hartley, who creates hypnotic soundscapes as Nightlands, had his first solo performance featured among those precious pages. In his case, the words had a particularly special impact.
“That was a pretty legit thing,” he recalls. “That was the first time that my parents took me seriously as a solo musician. I remember my mom saying, ‘I don’t want you to spend all of your time in your room making records that no one’s ever going to hear.’ Which is a really brutal thing for her to say, but kind of true. And then The New Yorker blurbed it, and it seemed like it legitimized it.”
For most of his dozen or so years in music, Hartley, who performs at The Mothlight on Friday, Dec. 6, has played the role of sideman. He’s a skilled bassist, capable of lithe grooves that stick like gristle, a crucial mooring for The War on Drugs’ psychedelic drift. He’s played with the Philadelphia outfit for about eight years, and it was during the extensive sessions for the group’s most recent effort — 2011’s Slave Ambient — that he began approaching his own ideas more seriously.
“With the War on Drugs, that’s a project that I’ve learned so much from,” Hartley explains. “But at the same time, the more I work on something like that, the more I just have a desire to make it my own way. The last War on Drugs record took a couple of years, and I had a lot of free time. I decided to start working on my own music, and just sort of spun, spun and spun until I had a couple of records under my belt.”
Like the War on Drugs, Nightlands is incredibly tranquil. But while his bandmates take cues from Crazy Horse and other rangy folk bands, Hartley is concerned with the intricate sweetness of acts like The Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel. His 2010 debut, Forget the Mantra, includes a narcotic reinvention of the Beach Boys’ unheralded gem “’Til I Die.” Hartley enriches the song’s sumptuous melodrama with sheeny synths and airy vocal effects. This year’s album, Oak Island, refines his idyllic headspace with swelling robotic choirs and clouds of pillowy texture. It’s rigorously composed, but the dominant melodies are always easygoing, like a lavish resort painstakingly constructed to help you relax.
“It’s hard to say if I tried to make a non-War on Drugs record,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I was more thinking about the song and how I wanted to do it. I think if you try to go away from something, you’re in the weeds. You can’t think about what you don’t want it to be. You’ve got to just think about what you want it to be.”
Hartley’s songs alleviate anxieties, but playing them live was once a terrifying prospect. His first record contract explicitly stated that he would not be required to tour. He bested his fear eventually, but not without help.
“Klonopin,” he laughs. “Lots of Klonopin. I had to medicate myself in the beginning to get up there. Now, it’s totally easy and fine, and I don’t need to take Klonopin. It helped that people liked the music and wanted to hear me play the songs. If nobody had been asking, I don’t think that I would have ever done it, but there was sort of a demand.”
Nightlands’ comforts are born from contrast. Hartley’s dense vocal effects would feel constrictive if it weren’t for the warm guitars and earnest horns that lighten their load. His lyrics express intimate doubts and bittersweet nostalgia, but they’re repeated wistfully, inspiring trances instead of freakouts. He notices a similar duality whenever he stops in Asheville — a mixture of simple Southern courtesy and forward-thinking culture.
These days, Hartley loves playing shows in such welcoming towns, but he’s a studio junkie at heart. On Christmas Day, the War on Drugs jets to Australia for a short run of shows. The band has a new album out this spring and will tour hard to support it. But Hartley insists that he’ll find time to work on a new Nightlands album — this time with his mother’s approval.
“I think I’ll always keep pushing and making records until no one wants to hear them,” he says. “Even then, I might continue.”
— Jordan Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Nightlands with Eric Slick and VA/MD
where: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
when: Friday, Dec. 6 at 9:30 p.m. $7