As a member of The War on Drugs, Dave Hartley is a rock ’n’ roll bass player. As Nightlands, his solo side project, Hartley is Doctor Frankenstein, concocting mutant forms of pop music in his secret lair (well, his house in Fishtown).
War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel is “a true artist,” says Hartley. “I don’t consider myself to be an artist. I’m more of a scientist who wants to create art through experiments.”
The sci-fi bent of Hartley’s music is evident from the cover of Nightlands’ sophomore CD, Oak Island (Secretly Canadian): Hartley gazes out, his body painted silver, dappled by sun in a wooded spot like an alien just arrived on earth and studying his surroundings from a secluded vantage. The album’s retro-futuristic sound is at once nostalgic and venturesome; the fact that Hartley recently performed an alternate soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s speculative head trip 2001: A Space Odyssey is entirely in keeping with the songs’ suggestion of a future glimpsed from a lost past.
The son of a genetic engineer, Hartley is a self-professed fan of “hard sci-fi.” (“2001 is the holy grail because they were painstakingly accurate with the information on space travel, as opposed to Star Trek, which is interesting but if you dig beneath the surface it’s just fake.”) Lyrically, Oak Island deals with the stuff of most pop songs — relationships, love stories, interpersonal conflicts. But musically, that material is run through Hartley’s laboratory, where the DNA of Brian Wilson is spliced with Scott Walker, ELO with Eno, and Alan Parsons with Herb Alpert.
“I want to make really strange pop music,” Hartley says. “I like stuff that’s catchy but gets to that place in an abstract or oblique way. I want to go as far in the weeds as you can go to find this new place.”
Oak Island is full of a shimmering optimism, a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful wistfulness. It was largely written as it was recorded, in short bursts during pauses in The War on Drugs’ relentless touring schedule. Members of that band and other Philly notables — Brian “B.C. Camplight” Christinzio, Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick — were recruited on various occasions to contribute. “I don’t demo songs,” Hartley says. “A lot of people face infinite decisions and it’s paralyzing. I learned to get over some of my demons by committing early. I build a skeleton randomly and just start decorating it. A lot of times I’ll record a song and then I’ll have to learn how to play it.”
He’s been brushing up on the songs from Oak Island for this weekend’s record-release show at Kung Fu Necktie. In addition, he’ll soon be going back into the studio with The War on Drugs and hopes to reprise his 2001 performance. He recently sang as part of the annual concert by the ragtag choral group The Silver Ages, and has recorded with the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Sondre Lerche; earlier this month, he got a last-minute call to back up John Cale at an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
As we wrap up our interview at Loco Pez, however, Hartley has other issues in mind — he’s occupied the number two, three and five rankings on the Fishtown taco joint’s Spider-Man pinball machine (initials WOD) and is vying for the top spot. Pinball is one of his passions, as is basketball, his encyclopedic knowledge of which he shows off in a sports column for WXPN’s blog The Key.
A man of obviously eclectic tastes, Hartley reserves his deepest admiration for off-kilter geniuses like Brian Wilson, whose music “you can play for anybody and they’ll love it, but they’ll think these dudes are fucking crazy or they’ve gone off to this really strange island. Brian Wilson is a total freak, but you could play the Beach Boys for a 2-year-old and watch them dance around. That’s my goal.”
If getting to that point requires going a little crazy, well, Hartley already has that part down. Nightlands’ 2010 debut, Forget the Mantra, was a direct reflection of Hartley’s mental-health issues, battles with panic attacks and anxiety disorder.
“The first record was really hard for me to do,” he says. “I became suicidal and depressed and went into therapy, which I don’t think a lot of people have the balls to do. I never could have stepped on stage and performed my own songs without medication, to be totally honest. I can’t relate to people who haven’t tasted despair. That darkness provides a contrast and helps you appreciate how fucked up and temporary life is. In a way, I’m weirdly thankful for all of it.”
Sat., Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., $10, Kung Fu Necktie, 1250 N. Front St., 215-291-4919, kungfunecktie.com.