David Hartley (the War on Drugs) Talks Longmont Potion Castle and the Trials of Life on the Road

The War on Drugs’ bassist explains how the Bob Dylan of prank calls leads musicians out of the emotional quagmire of the touring life.

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“It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.”
— The Band’s Robbie Robertson on being a touring musician

Well, sometimes it’s impossible — other times it’s a blissful fever dream. Most of the time, though, it’s mind-numbingly boring. I’m proud to say that I’ve survived over a decade of pretty steady (and often blistering) touring both in America and overseas, mostly with the War on Drugs, for whom I play the Fender bass. There are lots of tour survival tips out there, but here’s the big one: laugh at everything. If you can’t laugh when things get rough, you’re in the wrong business. As we’ve started saying recently, “In the darkness, there is light.” Today’s hellish reality is tomorrow’s hilarious story; get that down and you’re good.

For me, a big part of finding the proverbial bright spots in the emotional quagmire that is the touring lifestyle has been exploring the collected works of Longmont Potion Castle. If you’re not familiar, Longmont is the modern era’s undisputed master of the prank call. He’s an anonymous man who lives somewhere in Colorado and pumps out volume after volume of avant-garde, hilarious but often discomforting recordings of phone calls to various individuals and businesses. He released his twelfth collection, curiously entitled Volume 11, earlier this year.

In some ways, it’s pretty basic stuff: he calls people, often repeatedly, and messes with them. But there is virtually no aspect of the medium with which he doesn’t wildly experiment; the phone is his instrument and he pushes it far. He uses wailing feedback, outboard effects processing, sampling, pre-recorded clips, computer-generated speech and good old-fashioned persistence to confuse the unlucky person on the other end of the line and enhance the general subversiveness of his mission. He calls celebrities. He reverse-pranks telemarketers who made the mistake of dialing his number. He deletes his voice from some of the calls, leaving only a befuddled, one-sided dialogue, and forces the listener to make a hilarious cognitive leap. He uses three-way calling to engineer awkward conversations between all sorts of businesses and individuals.

The early volumes are especially experimental, to the degree that many of the tracks are full-fledged sound collages with dozens of calls bleeding into one another. If, to Neil Young, life is “all one song,” to Longmont, I suspect, it’s all one call — he obviously lives and breathes this stuff. It’s not just his inventiveness and wit that set him apart from hacks like the Jerky Boys, it’s his prolificness and dedication to the art of the prank. Longmont Potion Castle is the Bob Dylan of the telephone, transcending the boundaries of his genre while simultaneously participating in its conventions.

These recordings appeal specifically to musicians for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it’s long-form listening. Touring means a lot of hours sitting in a moving vehicle. Of course, music is key: I love to listen to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack right as the van crests the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, the Beach Boys’ “The Warmth of the Sun”  while winding down Route 1 through Big Sur, the Band’s “Tears of Rage” while passing exit 20 on I-87 in upstate New York and motorik stuff like Neu! 75 while traversing the Mojave Desert. The right soundtrack can really bring the band together and make the endless drives bearable. But it also gets tiresome after a while and can make drivers sleepy. Things like talk radio and podcasts are great; the mind processes speech in a different way from the way it processes music, obviously, and it seems to keep everyone more alert. For me, the best thing to listen to when the music stops is Longmont.

Sure it’s funny, but it really rewards repeated and lengthy listening sessions — the only thing I can think of that rivals it are The Best Show on WFMU’s calls with Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster. I considered centering this piece around a list of my favorite calls in order to initiate people into the Longmont universe, but I think that’d be selling it short. Each call is great and has hilarious moments, but what’s really funny is his cadence and delivery, the way he says things like “partner” and “whoop” and “young lady,” the way he intuitively mirrors the speech patterns, tones and vernacular of his victims. These things reveal themselves over time. After a while you find yourself laughing occasionally, sure, but more just basking in the glow of a truly ridiculous body of work. One of my all-time favorite Longmont tracks is “Vendingmachines.” It’s poorly recorded and the person on the other end of the line is barely audible; the first few times I heard it, it barely registered. But once I really leaned in and listened, the articulation and delivery blew my mind. I suppose it’s a bit like trying to explain jazz to a nonbeliever: I’m tempted to say “you’re just not hearing it right, man.” Silly, but accurate.

Longmont Potion Castle’s Volume 6 introduced the use of an outboard effects processor, specifically the Digitech RDS8000, to create some of his most instantly appealing and popular prank calls. It’s also another major reason, I’d guess, why his recordings have circulated so widely with musicians: we love gear. We love gear for its utility and the musical possibilities the technology unlocks, but we also love it simply because it’s cool. Pedals and amps and tape machines all draw an imaginary line in the sand: on this side are those of us who understand what these knobs do, on the other side is everybody else. Tracks like “Nash” and “Pleatedapproach” embody this superiority complex in the most figurative way: on one end of the line is a frustrated employee trying to find some thread of sense in the echoing and flanging, on the other end is Longmont pulling the strings and twisting the knobs. It’s all a game, of course, but he’s not playing fair so he always wins. Actually, we win because we get to listen.

I should interject that these recordings don’t appeal to everyone, in fact I’ve driven bandmates to the brink of madness with mistimed Longmont marathons — perhaps they weren’t jaded enough to find joy in the small cruelty that is a well executed prank call. It made them uncomfortable because Longmont is not afraid to push, and push hard. In fact, I think he thrives in that uncomfortable zone where a person loses their cool and the artifice of telephone etiquette falls away. The interesting thing to me is that Longmont Potion Castle’s entire discography reveals almost nothing about the man behind the madness, while each individual call almost invariably reveals a profoundly base and primary personality characteristic of the person on the receiving end. Ethical considerations notwithstanding, it’s anthropologically and psychologically important work.

Ironically, even the bandmates I’ve had who don’t find Longmont inherently funny or interesting have been infected by the sheer quotability of the calls. That’s the thing with touring, or any situation that puts individuals in close proximity to one another for extended periods: you start to talk like each other. You pick up on repeated phrases and inflections and inadvertently start mimicking them. It’s a survival mechanism, really; the shared highs and lows and collectively consumed bits of pop culture are the fuel for this lexicon development. It brings the group closer together and eases tensions. On and off the stage, I like to think the War on Drugs have a pretty great chemistry — we don’t really fight, in part because we have a rich and deeply varied personal language to help us get through the endless drives and inevitable technical difficulties. If we keep going for a while, and I think we will, it’ll be with the help of touchstones like Longmont Potion Castle — turning irritability into laughter and synthesizing all of these crazy experiences into a language that only we speak.

Bassist/multi-instrumentalist David Hartley lives in Philadelphia, performs in the War on Drugs and helms experimental pop outfit Nightlands, which released its second album on Secretly Canadian last year. In 2013 Hartley played guitar with John Cale on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performed a live original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and played bass on Sharon Van Etten’s latest album. He writes about pro basketball for Impose and The Key and is an ardent pinball enthusiast.