The original plan was for a Philadelphia date to be the first Nightlands show that Dave Hartley was going to play on tour in support of I Can Feel the Night Around Me, his third album using his nocturnal stage name. Instead, when he leads his five-piece band into Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, it will be the final stop.
“It’s like a traditional booking-agent thing,” Hartley says, on the phone last weekend while being driven by his wife, Lindsey, to a gig in New York. “We’ll kick off the tour in your hometown.’ But that would have been my first show in four years. I don’t want to shake the cobwebs off in front of my friends.”
Instead, Hartley and his band will have had a few weeks to sharpen their act before playing the Fishtown club a few blocks from his house. “I think it’ll be really good,” he says, with a laugh. “Or, at the very least, I won’t embarrass myself.”
There’s nothing embarrassing about the smooth, seductive, beautifully sung I Can Feel the Night Around Me — unless you blush at the album cover of a silhouette of a naked Hartley Photoshopped into a dramatic Big Sur landscape.
The album is Nightlands’ first since 2013’s Oak Island, not because Hartley has been slacking off. He has been occupied with his other job: playing bass with the War On Drugs, the band led by his friend Adam Granduciel that is expected to return in the next few months with a follow-up album to 2014’s Lost in the Dream.
Working from the original concept of “loose and experimental instrumentals, with tight compositional vocals over the top,” Hartley has been making Nightlands records between War On Drugs projects since Forget the Mantra in 2010. Layering multiple tracks of his own voice, his love for close-interval old-school harmony singing is evident, both on his own songs such as “Fear of Flying,” and his cover of “Only You Know,” from Dion DiMucci’s 1975 Born to Be With You. (He also covered the Beach Boys’ “ ’Til I Die” on Mantra.)
Hartley typically records between War On Drugs projects.
“It’s pretty separate,” he says. “When the Drugs machine starts rolling” — the band will kick off its world tour Sept. 21 at the Dell Music Center, a benefit for former Eagle Connor Barwin’s #MTWB Foundation — “I switch into ‘bass player and team player’ mode. I don’t sit in the back of the tour bus with a guitar spitballing ideas. All three of my albums have happened in between the last three Drugs albums, when I’ve had a lot of time. So idle hands make albums, I guess.”
Hartley grew up in Maryland, and has lived in Philadelphia for 15 years, Fishtown for 11. He’s a key member of the indie scene: He produced acts such as the coming album by French Philadelphian songwriting duo the Dove & the Wolf. He plays with occasionally convening acts such as the Lindsey Buckingham Appreciation Society and men’s indie-rock chorale the Silver Ages, in which he goes by the name Tilt Chamberlain, reflecting his interests in pinball and basketball. He and his wife were married in Big Sur and honeymooned on California’s remote Lost Coast.
The longing for immersion in the natural world that suffuses Feel the Night is a reaction to living amid Philly grit. He recorded the album in his unheated Fishtown basement studio. “Where I live, it’s really densely populated,” he says. “The traditional row houses are narrow and small. I love Philly, but it’s a dirty city. It’s grimy. In my mind, I’m always whisking myself away to the opposite of that. If there’s a story of this record, it’s that it was recorded in Philly and conceived in California in the wilderness.”
Hartley has an abiding interest in science fiction: In 2012, he and Jeff Ziegler performed an original score he wrote for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“But I don’t sing about aliens,“ he says. “I sing about my life, my relationships, my anxieties. Even though I might be worrying about the president, or answering emails, I’m not going to write songs about those things. I’m trying to boil them down to something that might make sense in a hundred years.”