Will Dave Hartley Let Darren Jessee in Nightlands?

The friends catch up about pinball, their latest records, and more.

Darren Jessee is a singer-songwriter and drummer, and a founding member of Ben Folds Five; Dave Hartley performs as Nightlands and plays bass in The War on Drugs. Darren’s record Central Bridge was just released last week on Bar/None, so to celebrate, the two friends got on the phone to catch up about pinball, analog recording and more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Darren Jessee: You’re in Asheville right now, right?

Dave Hartley: Yep, I’m in my little carriage house studio here in Asheville. Happy to be here, on my third cup of coffee.

Darren: Oh, man. Perfect. Is it in your house or is it a separate building?

Dave: It’s sort of separate, but it’s connected by a roof breezeway thing. It’s a really old house, and I guess this literally was a carriage house when it was built for horses. 

Darren: Oh, that sounds perfect. 

Dave: It is. I’m honestly so grateful and lucky — we lucked out on, like, a hundred levels to get this house and to be in this neighborhood, in this city.

Darren: Yeah, it seems like you guys got there at a good time, even though there was already an influx of people headed to Asheville. You were just right ahead of the curve, it seemed like.

Dave: Yeah, we got here right before the pandemic. It’s just a great place. There’s such a vibrant music scene here — we’re always joking [about] what the Pitchfork headline is going to be, like “America’s Newest Music City: Indie rock’s hottest artists are flocking to the mountains.” Because I can’t tell you how many people text me and they’re just like, “Hey, I just rented a place in Asheville.” And I’m like, “Why?” And they’re like, “I don’t know, we just wanted to live here.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the same reason I ended up here.”

Darren: Well, it’s beautiful. I haven’t had a chance to swing through and see your studio yet, but I have seen a couple of photos online just reading a little about Nightlands. It looks just really dreamy and really nice.

Dave: It’s real dreamy. I mean, it’s not fancy or anything. It’s perfectly suited to my needs. It’s just a little lab for me, and I can do drums or piano or whatever in here, and sometimes I’m in here late at night sp I don’t have to worry about waking the kids up. Next time you’re here, you’ll have to come by. 

Darren: Yeah, I would love that.

I was trying to think of when we first met, and I think we first hung out in Europe on tour. It was one of these venues that had two or three performance spaces.

Dave: That was in Belgium. I think it’s called Le Botanique.

Darren: Yeah, that was it. So that was probably in 2014 or ‘15. 

Dave: And you were with Sharon [Van Etten], right? 

Darren: Yeah, I was playing with Sharon. And that was also the first time I had seen you guys [The War on Drugs]. It was great show, and I was instantly excited about what y’all were doing. You know, I’m sure you’ve talked about Philly a lot in previous interviews, but I do feel like Philly has a sort of a history with with bass players. I don’t know if you’d agree, but there’s a real sort of sexy bass playing presence in Philly. 

Dave: Interesting.

Darren: The first person that comes to mind was the late, great [Leonard “Hub”] Hubbard.

Dave: Oh, yeah, from the Roots. Great player, obviously.

Darren: But I think you’re also an incredible player and just such a well-rounded musician. And the first time I saw you play, for some reason, Chris Hillman popped into my mind. I don’t know how you would react to that, but he was also a talented multi-instrumentalist. Were you into those early Byrds records, or Gram Parsons? 

Dave: Yeah, or the Burrito Brothers. For sure. Actually, probably the Burrito Brothers the most, just because of something about the dreaminess of those recordings, you know? I mean, I do love The Byrds as well, and the harmonies are a big influence on my music. Probably more indirectly, though. But I do remember hearing the Burritos and I just loved how their music was kind of like… it wasn’t country, it was like a memory of country or something. You know what I mean? I just loved that. So, yeah, Hillman’s incredible. He’s probably one of the more underrated players. 

Darren: Yeah, he really is. He’s surrounded himself with such talented people, such big personalities. But that was also the other thing: your playing is really special and unique to you, but you had this feeling about Chris Hillman when I saw you the first time, just your presence. 

Dave: Oh, I probably had a lot of curly hair at that time. 

Darren: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Dave: Most of that is now gone. So now if I’m Chris Hillman-esque, it’s only in spirit.

Darren: Yeah, when you were younger, you just seemed like the quiet guy who was always on point. Chris kind of resonated that way around all the crazy people he was with. 

Dave: That’s true. I’m very flattered for sure. And it’s so funny that you brought up that La Botanique hang, because I didn’t remember it till you mentioned it. I feel like we crossed paths quite a few times on that album cycle, because Sharon and you guys did a ton of shows and we did a ton of shows. It was like simultaneous heavy album cycles and a lot of festivals. 

Darren: Yep, absolutely. So I just wanted to say that I really loved the last Nightlands record. I’ve had some stuff happen in my life recently, and I rediscovered your record and it really hits a spot that is unique and I think kind of essential. The way you opened the record is so beautiful. I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of stuff enough, so I won’t go on with it.

Dave: No, I love this kind of thing. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding. I’m honestly very touched.

Darren: [Laughs.] It’s a really beautiful project. I just love how [the record] starts — it almost seems like your vocal [was] on mute and then you quickly unmuted.

Dave: Oh, interesting.

Darren: The way the vocal enters is really beautiful and unexpected, because they kind of pop right in there. Was it just your vocal hitting the effect that gives it that?

Dave: Probably. I mean, that song went through a fucking wild journey. I originally wrote it kind of as like a strummer, almost like a Byrds-y thing. It was a very kind of pastoral strummer with a big wall of three-part harmonies, and it kind of had this loping groove with the drums. I’ll send it to you actually, because I think you’ll be like, “What the fuck?” It’s like completely unrecognizable. 

I was like, Oh, there’s something here in the lyrics are hitting me, but it’s just not working. And I absolutely put it on the operating table and took everything apart. Everything. To say I deconstructed it would be a big understatement. But that vocal that starts it was the last thing I did, and I just kind of was free forming it. I don’t know how you write your lyrics — and I have a lot of praise for you, as well, on your new singles, which I was thoroughly enjoying last night. And were recorded here in Asheville, right?

Darren: Well, yes, some of the stuff. We did a lot of work at my house, and then when we needed to go into the studio — you were the guy that hooked me up with the studio in Asheville, so thank you for that. 

Dave: Yeah, of course. 

Darren: The other question I had was, when you sing the vocal, do you have the effect on your vocal as you’re tracking it, so that you are kind of reacting to the effect as you’re singing?

Dave: Yeah, that’s this vocoder that I have. We were doing the last Drugs record in LA, and we had a lot of downtime on that record.The studio, which is gone now, called Vox, just had an outrageous gear collection even by LA standards. We were all just hanging out, and instead of looking at our phones, we were like, “What if we started playing with this gear?” We would start rummaging through all this, I mean, endless synthesizers and drum machines. And they had this old Roland vocoder. We set it up, and it ended up getting a lot of cool use on that Drugs record, and I just fell in love with it. It’s weird, because you think of vocoders or Auto-Tune as being these sort of rigid sterilizers, but I find it really reactive and sort of expressive, personally.

Darren: I mean, I think it’s all in who’s using it, you know? But I would agree. That’s what it sounded like to me — like you sang with the vocoder on. I don’t use a lot of vocal effects, generally, but when I do, I like to have them on when I’m tracking because you sort of get into it and it affects the way you deliver stuff.

Dave: Absolutely. 

Darren: Well, regardless of the frustration of how that track developed, I think it ended up being a home run. It really sets up the whole new chapter of your life in Asheville — that line about “take your family to the mountains” is really devastatingly beautiful.

Dave: I appreciate that. That’s so kind of you.

Darren: So, have you found a pinball machine in Asheville yet?

Dave: You know, there are some good pinball spots here. Although it’s sort of ironic: I’m just at this stage in my life where it’s a pretty rare thing. I mean, there was a time in Philadelphia when I was a bachelor and younger, and there was a pinball machine at this bar down the street from my house, and I swear, like, 20% of my earnings went into this machine. And funny enough, when we were back in in Philly recently for these Drugcember shows, I went back to the bar and the machine was gone. I’m fairly sure they took it away because it wasn’t making any money anymore once I moved. [Laughs.] 

Darren: [Laughs.] I knew you liked pinball, and I think it’s great. There was a pinball machine at the beach that I used to go to when I was growing up in North Carolina, and I remember it had a really loose, like, tipping point— 

Dave: Oh, yeah, a loose tilt. 

Darren: Yeah, a real loose tilt. You probably know how these things are calibrated — do they set those things differently? 

Dave: Yeah. It’s actually kind of fascinating how a tilt works on a pinball machine, because it’s an old technology. But I love a loose tilt. I love just slamming that thing around. That’s kind of my favorite part of it.

Darren: It really is. Leaning into it is half the fun. It’s what separates it from just your standard video game.

Dave: 100%. It’s very physical and every machine is different. I could go on and on, but I love it.

Darren: Well, we should talk strictly about pinball machines someday. The physical part of a pinball machine and having fun that way [kind of leads me to]: when I was growing up and me and my friends were first getting into music, we had a 4-track Tascam. Obviously there was no digital recording or ProTools when I was a kid, but the physical aspect of recording on a 4-track or learning what it feels like to push things too loud on to tape, and even to hear that kind of compression on a cassette recorder, that was kind of exciting when I was younger. 

A lot of times I think how I got to where I am now is because it wasn’t just about learning music and wanting to be as good as I can at the performative stuff, but that the whole time there was always a Tascam cassette or a Fostex 6-track, or I had one of those Tascam 388 reels. But it was always these small physical things that I enjoyed the most that I could sort of lean into and hit. The buttons were worn down. There was just something in that that I felt was really musical. I just like to record and hear stuff back, basically.

Dave:  Do you still use tape?

Darren: I don’t have a cassette Tascam anymore, but I wouldn’t mind having one just out on my kitchen table in the morning. You seem like someone who also may have started recording as soon as you were good enough at playing, which is kind of what I did. When did you get into recording?

Dave: You know, I gotta be honest: I did start recording at a young age, but I feel like my original forays into 4-tracks and stuff were pretty frustrating for me. I think I had a lot of self-doubt to overcome over time. And I’m sort of a late bloomer in life in a lot of ways — I didn’t write my first song until I was probably 30. I had the, the Tascam PortaStudio and I would mess with it, but I think I was mostly frustrated.

The turning point for me was when Adam [Granduciel] and I, from the War on Drugs, were working together. That’s how we met — we were co-workers at this property management firm in Philly. But we both got laid off actually simultaneously, and at first we were sort of devastated. And I remember the first unemployment check was a was a major revelation for both of us. We were like, “Wait, what’s going on? We’re still getting paid and we don’t have to work anymore?” I think Adam was already clearly an inspiring artist. It was just obvious to anybody who met him that he was an artist of a high caliber. But for me, that was the first time that I had a little bit of money coming in — I mean, a very little bit — and some time. That was the first time that I started digging past the surface. And I bought about a Tascam 388, one of those beautiful 8-track quarter-inch reels, which I sold before I moved here. Major regret. But I fell in love with that machine. 

I think that the relationship we have as musicians with gear is such an interesting thing, because it’s a deep relationship, and it’s not always a good one. I have a lot of friends, and this can happen to me too, where you become kind of enslaved by your gear. You feel like you can’t make something until you get these other things. It’s like, “I can’t actually make anything because I gotta buy this mic,” or “I gotta buy this compressor.” It’s like, No, it doesn’t matter. That’s just all pretend

Darren: I hear you. It’s kind of like getting a new pair of shoes — you have a spring in your step. 

Dave: Yep. 

Darren: You get that new plug-in and you’re just like, Oh!

Dave: Yeah, Now I’m a genius. But for me, that 388 was very inspiring. It was kind of the opposite — I was inspired by this piece of gear. And that’s when I started writing.

Darren: That’s so great, man. Yeah, I feel the same way. I had the 388 and they’re really buttery sounding. They just have a really musical, easy flow about them. 

Man, I could talk to you forever because I have so many questions, but I want to ask you a few more before you go here. How did you come up with the name Nightlands? Do you remember?

Dave: It was a term I saw in two books back-to-back that I was reading. This was probably 2010 or something. I was reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy — which is probably the most influential book in my life. 

Darren: It’s a great book. 

Dave: Yeah, I’ve gone back to it a stupid amount of times. I was really into it at that time, and there is a phrase somewhere in there where he talks about “the night lands.” He had it in two words, not not a single word. And then the next book I read was the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is another thing that looms extremely large in my personal story. It’s my favorite film, and in the novelization, Arthur C. Clarke refers to the dark side of a planet as “the nightlands.” Having seen that in back-to-back books, I was just like, boom. It hit me. 

I also at that time had such genetic writer’s block, where I had just been trying to write songs for years and never could do it. And the way I kind of broke out of that was I started recording things right as I woke up — I had a little tape recorder right by my bed and I would hear a melody or have a phrase in my head in a dream, and I would wake up and not even open my eyes just hit record. It helped me so much. It was like I just needed to dig further into my subconscious in order to kind of get to the real shit. So then thinking about this dream space that I was starting to find my first songs in, Nightlands just seemed so natural.

Darren: Man, it’s a perfect name for the music you’re creating right now. It’s very poetic. Would you ever be open to playing — I think this should be the title of this interview, “Will Dave Hartley let Darren Jessee in Nightlands?”

Dave: [Laughs.] Of course. 

Darren: Now that you’re in North Carolina and we’re not so far away, would you ever want to grab a couple people and try to see what happens and play a Nightlands show? Or is this strictly a studio thing for you?

Dave: That’s a good question. Well, first of all, I’d love to make music with you; there’s various ways that I’d love to do that, including with songs that you write and in Nightlands as well. Second thing is, as of now I have a “no shows” policy. I get requests once in a while, “Hey, do you want to do this show or that show?” And it actually just feels good to say no to something, because I say yes to a lot of stuff. And that’s because I like to do everything and I love to play on other people’s records and I love to do shows and all that stuff. But it’s just painful for me. I spend years on these recordings, and probably at least half of the time is layering vocals to try to create a vocal blend that I hear in my head. Then to try to go out and approximate that is just very frustrating for me. 

Having said that, I have pulled it off a couple of times. There’s a couple shows I can look back at and be like, Wow, we got it that time. But there’s a lot of the other ones where I was like, Oh, we didn’t have enough people. Because I always wanted literally 10-plus vocalists on stage, and I didn’t want to use backing tracks or anything like that. So maybe someday I would try it if I had the resources to really pull it off. And that would mean calling a lot of people and being like, “Let’s do something huge here.”

Darren: That’s cool. I love how ambitious you are about it. I would have guessed that maybe there would be a series of pedals and various sequencers that you could begin to approximate your records. And it would be different but… 

Dave: Yeah, I’ve definitely tried that, and with mixed results. But then you start getting the frustration technologically, which I think everybody can relate to that. I’m sure you can relate to that, when you feel like technology is failing you or it’s not doing what you want it to do. It should be a tool and not a barrier, and often when I was trying to do these live shows and have these harmonizer pedals or loopers, it felt like more of a barrier than a bridge.

Darren: Oh, yeah, I get that for sure. Well, it’s empowering to know what you want and to say if it doesn’t feel right. 

Dave: Yeah. And I’m in a good place, too, with the record label who puts my records out now? They’re just like, “Cool, don’t do shows. It’s fine.” Maybe when the kids are older, I don’t know. 

Darren: OK, well, you have my number. [Laughs.]  

Dave: Well, we’ll make music in other capacities. We’ll record together!

Darren: That would be great. 

(Photo Credit: left, Dustin Condren)

Darren Jessee was the founding drummer for Ben Folds Five, and has played with the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Hiss Golden Messenger. His latest solo record, Central Bridge, is out now on Bar/None.

(Photo Credit: Dustin Condren)