Nightlands Turned to Science, Sci-Fi and ELO on ‘Oak Island’

Photo: Catharine Maloney

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When Dave Hartley isn’t playing bass with indie rockers the War on Drugs, he helms an intricate prog-pop solo project called Nightlands. That group’s latest release, Oak Island, contains 10 ornate tracks that Hartley has built from lushly arranged vocal harmonies and orchestrally layered instruments, the likes of which form the core of songs like the down-tempo “So Far So Long” and the shimmery, upbeat “I Fell in Love With a Feeling.” To find out where Hartley’s diverse inspirations come from, we interrupted a recording session where he was doing a Nightlands take on Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s All for Everyone.” From there, he told us his five biggest influences.

1. The Beach Boys

“My girlfriend makes fun of me for how often I play the Beach Boys,” Hartley says with a laugh. “They’ve brought me joy at every stage of my life. On my first record [Forget the Mantra] I recorded ”Til I Die,’ which is a Brian Wilson composition on Surf’s Up.” For the Nightlands musician, who sings in a men’s choir, the Boys’ vocal harmonies are one of their most beguiling features. “They’re the gold standard,” he says. “They just had a vocal blend that was completely absurd. They just sang.”

2. Jeff Lynne

“I’m really into pop music,” Hartley says. “But I prefer bizarre pop. When ELO came along they were unique. And I think Jeff Lynne was a bit of a madman. Where the Beach Boys were the masters of the vocal blend, Jeff Lynne took vocal layering to a place it had never gone before. It was just him with himself over and over again.” Hartley feels a kinship with the group, whom Hartley feels achieved something special on the group’s 1981 album Time, not just in their vocals but also Lynne’s working process. “He’s an introvert and he’s more comfortable in the studio making these strange soundscapes and compositions; that’s totally me, as well,” Hartley says.

3. Arthur C. Clarke

“Sci-fi is in my blood, I guess,” says Hartley, who has posed in silver paint for his recent promotional photos. “The author Arthur C. Clarke represents the most pure sci-fi in my mind, because his writing is founded in scientific fact. He took a scientific principle and let his imagination extrapolate how far the insane possibilities can go. I read all his books.” His favorite Clarke novel to recommend is Rendezvous With Rama, which came out in 1972, but Hartley has had a musical relationship with another one of the author’s masterworks. In late 2012, Hartley composed and performed his own soundtrack to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was based on Clarke’s 1968 novel of the same name. “We screened the movie and we performed the soundtrack for the film,” Hartley says.” It was my way of trying to honor the movie and Arthur C. Clarke’s concepts.”

4. Richard Feynman

Hartley’s interest in science-fiction goes almost hand-in-hand with his interest in science itself, a side effect of growing up the son of a genetic engineer. One of his favorite scientists is Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, and when he talks about him, he gushes about the scientist’s accomplishments. “He was a huge innovator in nanotechnology and string theory and quantum mechanics,” the Nightlands musician says. “He worked on the Manhattan Project and he helped develop all these theories of particle motion, none of which I really understand, but that’s not really important.” Hartley’s interest in Feynman arose after reading the scientist’s 1985 book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! “I read it as a young man and I just fell in love with this guy,” he says. “He just had such a joy about what he does. He just had this insatiable fascination with life, with living and learning. That’s what made him one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, along with Einstein.” To demonstrate Feynman’s inspiration, Hartley handpicked this YouTube.

5. Cormac McCarthy

“After I read the book Blood Meridian,” Hartley says of author McCarthy’s 1985 novel. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as obsessed with anything to the degree I was obsessed with it. And I don’t really understand why. I think it’s one of the greatest books ever written, but it is also very dark and very violent and there’s not really a very discernible plot.” Nevertheless, the book — in audio form — helped him get through a tough time. “For literally two years I just read that book over and over again and listened to the audiobook of it,” he says. “I used to drive around Philly aimlessly. I was having some sort of depression and mental-health problems, and I used to just drive around in my Ford Taurus, blasting that audiobook. I don’t know why.” One positive side effect of his obsessiveness, though, is the fact it gave him the Nightlands moniker. “There’s a line in the book that I was particularly fond of that used the term ‘nightlands,’” he says. “I just knew that should be the name of the band. The line is sort of referring to the concept that with a landscape, when the sun goes down and it becomes night, it’s not the same landscape: it’s a different land. And of course now I’ve been watching Game of Thrones, and they use the term ‘nightlands’ all the time. I just want people to know that it did not come from Game of Thrones, even though I love that show.”

Nightlands’ Oak Island comes out January 22 on Secretly Canadian. Watch the video for “All the Way” below:

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