Every night for two years, Dave Hartley, who plays music as Nightlands, would periodically rise from his slumber and sing, muse, or hum into a tape recorder. Suffering from “crippling writer’s block,” it was the only way that the musician was able to properly articulate any ideas that he considered valuable. The only issue was that these strokes of genius almost always made appearances in the dead of night.
“I would often hear songs while I was falling asleep or in the middle of the night when I was dreaming,” said Hartley. Unsatisfied with the material he was producing in his waking hours, he turned to unconventional measures.
“It took a lot of practice and was hard to do, but I started waking myself up and singing into a tape recorder,” he said. “A lot of it is just hilarious gibberish, real tongue-twisters and weird stuff that doesn’t make any sense. But occasionally, there are these little melodies and lyrical stuff.”
While Hartley currently has everything under control, from his sleep patterns to his musical career, it was not always the case: the Nightlands project owes its existence to a job layoff. “There was a three-year period where I was basically unemployed, and recording with [my other band] The War on Drugs,” he said. “I had a lot of time to be creative and experiment a bit, which is a luxury that not many people have, so I was lucky. The project was born out of that.”
As someone whose musical beginnings are rooted in playing the trumpet in elementary school, the bass guitar in high school and as a member of multiple bands over the years, it comes as no surprise that Hartley evolved into a multi-instrumentalist.
“By virtue of being musical and being around it, you pick things up.” His true musical awakening, however, happened in sunny Philadelphia.
“I feel like I came of age in Philly,” he said. “When you’re living in the suburbs and at college, you think you know what it’s like to be musical, but really, you’re just trying to get laid by playing music onstage. Then you meet people who are really doing something profound and it crushes what you thought you knew. I met a ton of really creative people who were dedicated to trying to do something that was pure.”
Since then, Nightlands has taken off, producing Forget the Mantra, his debut record, and Oak Island, which was released in late January. For those curious about the contents of the dream tapes, some of the tracks on the first record have samples lifted straight from them: “Fly, Neanderthal” starts off with a direct pull from one of the twilight recordings.
Oak Island sees less of such transposition, as Hartley shifted his attention towards other details.
“It was more about the recording process and writing songs in a more conventional way,” he said. “Not super conventional – I don’t sit down and write them on a guitar or anything, I just record and build these sound structures. I didn’t use any of the dream stuff, although I think the music is dreamy in its own way.”
Indeed, the sound that Nightlands possesses dances a line of haunting and comforting, undeniably dream-like and celestial. To Hartley, however, this does not dictate the omission of elements of weight and groundedness.
“I use a lot of major seventh chords,” he said. “You can describe those chords as being comforting, but not completely comforting – it’s kind of twisted. I tend to gravitate towards those sounds, and I don’t exactly know how to get them, but I’ll just mess around until I do.”
Similar concepts can be found on some of Hartley’s favourite albums, such as The Beach Boys’ Friends.
“The kind of music I like is the kind of music that rewards extended attention,” he said. “I know that if I overdub less vocals and mixed a single vocal much more forward, [my music] would be easier to listen to, and you could listen to it without having to lean in as much.”
But that’s not the Nightlands way. “Maybe someday, I’ll want to make a record that smacks [listeners] right in the face, but for now I’m more interested in the geeks and the nerds like me.”
Nightlands plays Il Motore with Efterklang on Friday, Mar. 22 at 8 p.m.. Tickets are $15.