Coming off the bench: Hoops and music mix for 32-year-old Philadelphia songwriter Dave Hartley

Posted: January 25, 2013

When does it make sense to interview a rising indie-rock musician and man about Fishtown at a 76ers game?

When that man is Dave Hartley, the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who records as Nightlands. This week, Hartley, who also plays bass in the acclaimed Philadelphia rock band the War On Drugs, released Oak Island (Secretly Canadian ***), his second album of what he calls "baroque bedroom pop." On Saturday, Nightlands will perform as a four-piece band at Kung Fu Necktie.

But besides helming Nightlands, singing in the all-male indie choir Silver Ages, backing up John Cale on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and moonlighting as an amateur photographer (25 of his shots taken in Fishtown appear on the website of Spin magazine, which named Nightlands an artist to watch this month), Hartley is a big basketball fan.

So big, in fact, that the bearded and bespectacled 6-foot-3 bassist writes "Top of the Key," an NBA blog featured on the WXPN-FM local music page The Key. And he's the force behind "Let Bonner Shoot," an online petition to include San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner in the three-point shooting competition during NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston next month. The petition has attracted the celebrity support of Spurs fan Eva Longoria, among others.

On Monday night, the Spurs and Bonner - an unglamorous bench player who leads the league in three-point shooting percentage at 48.4 percent, though he takes fewer than two treys per game - were in town to play the Sixers.

Hanging out with War on Drugs front man Adam Granduciel - and proudly wearing his Bonner shirt in enemy territory - Hartley answered questions over beer and wings at the South Philadelphia Tap Room en route, and talked some more about music and basketball while watching the outclassed Sixers lose 90-85.

"I'm happy when the Sixers do well, but I'm more a fan of the league," says Hartley, who grew up in suburban Maryland, the youngest son of a genetic engineer and schoolteacher, before "the tides of randomness" brought him to his adopted hometown 11 years ago.

He did, however, have reason to be bummed about the performance of his buddy Bonner - a music fan whom Hartley met when interviewing him for Paste magazine last year. The 6-foot-10 redhead - the 12th-best three-point shooter in the history of the league - shot 0-for-1 from beyond the arc against the Sixers.

Hoops and music overlap in conversation for members of the Drugs, who sell T-shirts at shows in which Granduciel's silhouette takes the place of Jerry West in a design modeled after the NBA logo.

The Drugs recently finished a year-and-a-half tour behind their 2011 album, Slave Ambient, and Hartley recorded the sleek, catchy Oak Island during time off back in Philadelphia.

"I'm a role player, coming off the bench, doing whatever it takes to win," says Hartley of his role in the Drugs. "Adam's the star player. I feed him the ball, don't worry about my stats."

If TWOD were an NBA team, "Adam would be LeBron and I'm like Shane Battier. Or if this were the '90s Bulls, Adam would be [Michael] Jordan and I'm [power forward] Horace Grant. But with Nightlands, I've also got this other team in a summer league. And I'm the Michael Jordan of that team."

The Nightlands sound on songs like Oak Island's lead single "I Fell in Love With a Feeling" blends 1970s pop influences such as the Electric Light Orchestra with man-melding-into-machine rhythms and vocal harmonies. It's very different from the Dylan drone perfected by The War on Drugs. "It's a nice counterpart," says Hartley, "I get to go out on tour and play rock-and-roll music, and then I come home and have this, which is like a weird chemistry experiment that takes place inside my bedroom."

Before Nightlands' 2011 debut Forget the Mantra, Hartley, who picked up a trumpet in fourth grade and an electric bass when he was 14, had never written music. "It bothered me," he says. To spur himself to create, he recorded his thoughts every time he woke from a dream in the middle of the night.

"I think it was just an arbitrary way to unplug the faucet," says the songwriter, who studied philosophy at James Madison University in Virginia and enrolled in Temple University law school in 2010 before deciding against it. "I don't need to do that anymore.

"But there's a real crisis of too many options sometimes, especially in today's world. You can sit in your bedroom and make any kind of music you want. And that can be paralyzing."

Hartley is a pinball enthusiast and a sci-fi fan who recently, with the help of Jeff Zeigler, performed his own original score to accompany a screening of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He's going on tour with a four-piece version of Nightlands in March, but hopes to repeat the performance soon.

On Oak Island, Hartley's interest in sci-fi futurism - often played on vintage instruments - blends with classic pop romanticism.

"I was listening to Lee Hazlewood, Roy Orbison, and Dion, all these guys who wrote songs about the idea of love. I really wanted to write songs with lyrics that were almost fantastical and idealistic. I thought that would be an interesting contrast to the otherworldly, spacey undercurrent of the music."

Songs like "So it Goes" and the skittering "Rolling Down the Hill" try "to take the vocal layering thing as far as it would go. I was actually going to call the album Experiments with Tape Speed."

He settled on Oak Island, inspired by a place in Nova Scotia his father told him about as a child that is rumored to hold the greatest buried treasure of modern times.

"They've really never found anything other than more mystery, which makes it all the more appealing. Ambiguity piled upon ambiguity," the Nightlands man says. "It really appealed to me because in many ways I think I tried to cloak my voice. I wanted to alienate and confuse and disorient the listener . . . I just think mystery is such a crucial element to art, because without it, it's hard to inspire awe and wonder."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

Nightlands

7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kung Fu Necktie, 1250 N. Front St. Tickets: $10. Phone: 215-291-4919; www.kungfunecktie.com.

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