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Dave Hartley of The War on Drugs gets local and vulnerable with his latest Nightlands album

Dave Hartley inside his home studio in Asheville.
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Dave Hartley inside his home studio in Asheville.

In the early 2000s, Dave Hartley was just another young musician, playing guitar and bass in a handful of Philadelphia bands.

“If you’d asked me ‘Which band will you be playing in in 2022?’ I wouldn’t have said The War on Drugs,” Hartley said. “But only because all the other bands I was in, we were explicitly trying to make it and get signed.”

As The War on Drugs toured and built a national following, Hartley made friends with several luminaries of the Asheville music scene. Making a home here never crossed his mind, until he and his wife began thinking of raising a family.

“I just felt this need for seclusion or the idea of a safe place,” he said. “I’m just very paranoid, very proactive. I think that comes from a place of love.”

Hartley’s calling to move to Asheville is all over the lyrical content of “Moonshine,” his new solo album and fourth under the name Nightlands.

Like Hartley’s previous expressions as Nightlands, the music doesn’t resemble anything you would hear in The War on Drugs. While there’s nothing cryptic about Hartley’s lyrics, he drenches them in layered vocals over a bed of floating bass and keyboards. The album is part personal journey, part meditation.

“I think my compulsion to make my own music might not have happened if what’s in me wasn’t so different from The War on Drugs or these other bands I was in,” he said. “Do I have anything to say musically? I wanted to see about that and I feel like I’m still finding that.”

Along with the bevy of instruments you’d expect to see, Hartley’s home studio is adorned with with a life-sized cutout of Michael Jordan, a painting of the Blue Angels in flying formation, a Grammy Awards trophy, a framed scoreboard from a classic pinball machine and an old publicity photo of his father, who was also a musician.

Hartley grew up in Maryland, moved to the Virgin Islands after college and settled in Philadelphia when he decided to lean into music. He credits The War on Drugs cofounder Adam Granduciel with modeling what he calls “radical artistry.” That influence inspired Hartley to create Nightlands.

“There’s a real causality to meeting Adam, seeing the way he operates on such a deep level of artistry and digesting that for a few years and then being like ‘Oh, I want to try this,’” Hartley said. “Not in any similar way artistically, but I want to try to find what’s in me.”

From the beginnings of Nightlands, Hartley wanted to reach beyond the commonality of harmonized vocals as a support for the lead vocal, to the notion of a group of voices as the lead vocal.

“I do feel like I have a thesis, where I’m trying to explore the boundaries of vocal layering,” he said. “And I don’t feel anybody else is doing it in the same way I am.”

Hartley said people could track his struggles with mental health along the lyrical paths of his Nightlands music, dating from his first album, when he included a sample of his therapist’s voice. He created “Moonshine” in the early run of the pandemic.

“This record is probably the first album where I’m trying to struggle with what it means to bring a life in this world and then be tasked with protecting it and providing for it, when that’s not really possible when the world is beyond saving, as it feels sometimes,” he said. “But also trying to rationalize that it’s still worth doing, to raise a child in the right way.”

Calls of loneliness and a desperation to keep his young family safe are laced throughout the lyrics, but Hartley said none of that was premeditated.

“The idea of sitting down with a piece of paper and pen and being like ‘Let’s write some really profound lyrics,’ if I ever do that, it’s gonna be bad,” he said.

While Hartley earns his living whenever he’s on tour with The War on Drugs, he intends to keep Nightlands strictly as a studio exploration.

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.