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Dreams, Psychedelia and Muses: Inspiration from Nightlands

Nightlands: Forget the Mantra

Who: Nightlands
Title: Forget the Mantra
Label: Secretly Canadian

I heard recently that on the International Space Station, there is an immortality bank, containing several human DNA samples, supposedly to ensure that should we all wipe ourselves out here on Earth, someone will be able to recreate us. As I write this, it’s occurring to me how idiotic this idea seems. But let’s just assume that such a thing was possible – I would propose to include music and art samples that would give the would-be re-creators a reason to bother remixing the human race, and I’d argue to include a few tracks of Nightlands’ 2010 release Forget the Mantra, an album that just doesn’t fit into a nice, tidy category.

If you’re still with me, I have to warn you that it’s going to be hard to write about this album without sounding like a space cadet. I’m just going to give that disclaimer right up front. That being said, get ready to accompany me to the anywhen of other multiverses.

Nightlands is Dave Hartley, a part of The War on Drugs, also a Secretly Canadian band, who is also set to have a new album out soon and will be on tour with Destroyer. In my opinion, TWoD had a sound that was a bit more organic and down-to-earth. Nightlands is in a completely different orbit. Okay, okay, no more crappy space puns, I promise. I had a chance to ask Hartley about Forget the Mantra and try to figure out what kind of a creative process comes up with this kind of stuff. Before I do, here are a few random thoughts on some of my favorite tracks from the CD that has been added to my art supplies list:

300 Clouds: This one seems to roll over you like warm ocean waves – rhythmically, soothingly, womb-like. In a perfect world, I would listen to this in a cathedral or a massive cave.

Suzerain (A Letter to the Judge): Yeah, I admit it. I had to look it up. This song is melodic, meandering, deeply layered but still sounds pristinely clean and uncluttered. I meant to ask what that stringed instrument is near the end of the song but I forgot.

A Walk in Cheong, 1969 / WFMS, 1993 / Longways Homebound, 2010: These three are really wonderfully different. They’re like audio collages, incorporating spoken words. An interesting visual collage (to me) has a fair amount of overlap among the elements and an attention-getting composition, and each part has a reason for being there, even if I don’t initially get it. Turns out that all of these same things are here in these three pieces. It’s all somehow very textured.

There is a sound collage quality to the songs on the album but it never sounds fragmented. How were you able to keep all of the ideas cohesive and what conceptually was your thought process in making Forget the Mantra?

Well I’m glad that it feels cohesive to you, there was never any kind of conscious goal during the recording process. I just felt compelled to record sounds for a couple years and eventually switched gears and started sifting through, mixing and editing them. Then I narrowed the pool of 20 or 25 songs down and found 11 that I liked the most. I put the songy ones on the first side and the sound collages on the second side, because it felt more like a narrative that way. Again, there was no premeditation during the process just a series of reactions and judgments. I guess that’s appropriate given that the genesis came from dream tapes and the lyrics were almost all either from those tapes or written stream-of-consciousness.

I read that you’re a fan of science fiction novels and the cover art that accompanies them. Do you think that has that influenced your compositions on this project?

Oh definitely. When I was a kid I hated school and I’d fake being sick so I could stay home. My mom wouldn’t let me watch TV so I’d just lie in bed and read Arthur C. Clarke novels. I’d read a bit, then close the book and look at the cover. Those books are literature, and the covers just had this amazing combination of detail, psychedelia and mystery. They really made me feel safe and when I record music I want to feel that same sense of safety.

I love to stream YrockonXPN, which has given you some good press. What’s going on in Philly that makes it such a great place for new musicians?

Philly is the best! It’s so concentrated with talent and a very do-it-for-the-love attitude. I have been playing and recording there for a decade now and am still discovering amazing new bands all the time. It’s also relatively cheap, which translates to less working, which translates to more time, which translates to more freedom, which translates to more creativity and better recordings.

On this album, you gave a reinterpretation of Brian Wilson’s “Til I Die.” Are there any other songs that you might be inspired to reinvent?

Well, I don’t think I’ll put any more covers on records, but I just finished a couple covers (Trouble by Lindsey Buckingham and Big Louise by Scott Walker) that I did for fun and to experiment with some new vocal tape treatments. They came out really well so I’m sure I’ll do something with them. Maybe just rent a PA and a generator and drive around North Philly blasting them on speakers.

Are each of these songs necessarily “about” something or do some of them exist as just expressions of your creative muse?

The songs on the first side of the LP are definitely “about” something, in that they are meditations on specific ideas and/or subjects that are inspiring and interesting to me. On the second side things get more abstract. I built the songs very organically on my tape machine with fragments of tapes from my family archives, samples from old recording projects from years ago, and whatever instrument felt aesthetically pleasing in my hands. I tried to match various sounds and feelings with one another. In that way the entire record was built from the bottom up; written intuitively and via a series of actions and reactions.

I love dreaming. I remember dreams for years and I was excited to hear that some of your music is inspired by your dreams. Can you elaborate on that part of the creative process?

A few years ago I started keeping a little tape recorder by my bedside as an experiment: every time I woke from a dream I’d speak or sing into it. It took some discipline but eventually got into the habit of doing it so much so that a lot of what I captured I had no recollection of. The purpose of this was to capture my creative moments at their most unfiltered. I can sit down and “write” a song, but to catch those moments when your brain is just sort of spitting out gobbley goop at the end of the day is to catch something that is truly just floating around in there. It’s really sad to think of all the potentially interesting moments that we don’t even remember and have no way of recreating.

I was thinking that it must take quite a bit of mental solitude to create music like this – do you meditate or have any personal regimen that helps with that?

I have meditated quite a bit but sort of fell off the wagon lately, so to speak. Right now I’m reading Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, who is a big inspiration to me, and I think I’ll get back into it when I start recording again in earnest. That being said, the way I record is a lot like meditation itself. I do endless takes, not to achieve some level of perfection, but to get in the zone where I am completely focused and in the moment. My body or voice gets exhausted but I keep layering and doing more takes, pushing the limits of my concentration. You can really reach a higher plane of consciousness doing that. I don’t know if it improves the recordings at all, but it’s a very therapeutic exercise and I think I’m happier for it.

Any plans for additional tour dates, perhaps further afield?

Definitely. The first run of shows was really enlightening and a fun experience. I have some plans for this summer after some tours with other bands.

Are there any mantras in particular you would strongly advise to forget?

Forget all paradoxical mantras.

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