January 23, 2013: it’s the coldest day in three years, with temperatures dropping as low as ten degrees. Getting dressed is like preparing for battle, piling on protective armor to endure what’s ahead. It’s kismet that I’ll be getting out of New York and heading down to Philadelphia instead of trudging through the city for what would surely be a miserable experience. I am meeting up with Dave Hartley, the mastermind behind recording project Nightlands. His sophomore album, Oak Island, has just been released the day before. He has crafted a mesmerizing record best taken in as a whole: ten tracks that one should sit with, process, and then repeat in order to fully grasp the experience. We’ll be spending our time exploring his Philadelphia neighborhood, Fishtown. Hartley, a Maryland transplant, has called West Philadelphia his adopted home for almost twelve years. I am interested to learn what makes him tick and where his passions lie. With photographer Dominic Neitz in tow, we navigate our way out of Brooklyn and propel ourselves into the day.
We arrive at quaint coffee shop called Leotah’s a little before our 3:00 meeting time with Hartley. I am instantly comfortable; I feel as though I have walked into someone’s living room. "Boogie On" by Rob is on the stereo system, and a Maya Angelou quote on the wall catches my eye: "If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change your attitude."
Hartley arrives promptly in from the cold and is already warming his hand with a coffee. He relaxes by the window where the cool sunlight is spilling through the windows. "There was a coffee shop I use to go to," he tells me. "I use to work there actually, and at some point the music jumped the shark. So I started coming here. They always play something kind of mellow." Working various odd jobs in and around Philly, Hartley spent six years working for a housing company with several musicians from the area. Adam Granduciel, his friend and bandmate in The War on Drugs, worked alongside him. He cites getting laid off in 2008 as one of the best things to ever happen to the two of them, "You gotta make a move, you gotta make a change, because sometimes you just cruise," he says. "We collected unemployment, and Adam finished his War on Drugs record and I finished my first Nightlands record, and with the little bit of money we had we gave ourselves our own arts grant." Now, four years later, his new album has dropped, and today undoubtedly marks a touchstone moment.
Miner Street Recordings
There’s a huge sense of community at Miner Street Recordings, our next stop. Hartley frequently collaborates with owner Brian McTear and most recently mixed Oak Island at the studio. Greeted by McTear, we make our way up to the loft space. The heat has just been turned on but thankfully has begun to rise. The sunlight has shifted; it’s golden, but you can tell there’s no warmth beyond the panes. Hartley noticeably finds comfort as he glides his way around the studio among all the tools used to bring sounds to life. I am immersed in a conversation with McTear when I hear Hartley entrancingly serenading the sunset behind a guitar. Brian tells me, "A lot of energy went in by the local community development corporation into making this a place that musicians could actually move to and own. The studio has an appeal to so many New York bands. They sort of feel they can’t really work in New York because it doesn’t disrupt their daily schedules enough. In general it just kind of keeps you working"
It is still insanely cold, but in a strange way it feels kind of nice, like it’s hitting you in the face and keeping you on your toes. We make a brief stop at Pizza Brain, a restaurant funded by a Kickstarter campaign; it also serves as the world’s first pizza museum, having been listed by Guiness World Records for its extensive collection of pizza memorabilia. The walls are littered with Ninja Turtles, movie posters, and vintage photographs all relating to pizza in some fashion. The iPads bolted in the walls are open to the Pizza Brain Tumblr, which keeps patrons engulfed while they digest. Hartley devours a slice, which he tells us is arguably the best pizza in town. I gnaw on a vegan option and my taste buds are not disappointed.
Hartley will be hitting the road in March in support of Oak Island, and he’s looking forward to the coming year. “Every time you put a record out and then you tour, you just learn so much," he explains. "You want to go back to the lab. I would do that year-round if possible, but you have to promote." Hartley, like many other artists, finds showing off his work to the masses to be a daunting experience. "Touring is scary," he declares. "To go in front of people and present what you’ve done—in some ways that’s good. It’s good to be scared in that way. I am looking forward to touring but there’s a little more apprehension. Whereas, in the studio, I’m like, ‘Let me at it.’ That’s when I’m in my zone.”
Port Richmond Books
It’s now dark, and Hartley leads the way, weaving in and out of streets and intersecting roads. When we reach Port Richmond Books, he mentions it’s the best used bookstore he’s ever found. We meet the owner, Greg Gillespie, in a small room crowded with books. Three men are settled in, tossing back a few beers, and huddled around a space heater. Each has his own piles of books they are flipping through. This is where these men spend their days, conversing on a wide range of topics and quoting their favorite authors. Books are their passion. We politely decline the beers Gillespie offers us and instead set out to explore the collection. The wind outside is roaring and we are roaming through the aisles of shelves. At every corner we face an abundance of books: an endless maze containing so many lives and fantasies. It’s easy for one to get lost.
Hartley finds his way to the sci-fi section and flashes me a cassette tape he plans to purchase, “The World of Wars.” I round the corner and come across a few boxes of old tools, relics from the buildings previous embodiment (it was first a movie theater during the silent film era, then a hardware store) that Gillespie has yet to part with. The organ, I am told, is still down in the basement, as well. Hartley can kill hours here continuing to uncover stories, he tells me. "It’s crazy how many people don’t know about this place. It’s really sad.”
It all ends for Hartley at his favorite neighborhood establishment, Loco Pez, a dive bar and local taqueria around the corner from his house. It’s bustling this evening and looks like it hasn’t changed much from the previous incarnations that have surely occupied the space. Philly keeps it simple; there aren’t any eyesores in the neighborhood. It is, in many ways, untouched. Tacos at Loco Pez were at the top of Hartley’s mind all day. He gives me a pro-tip to order the mahi-mahi fish tacos. When they are unable to fill his request for a hot toddy, he changes his mind and satisfies his need to warm up with a michelada. Dave runs into an old friend from the area, the sense of community prominent again. Afterward, he tells me a story from New Year’s Eve, when The War on Drugs played their indefinite last show. “We played at Johnny Brendas," he says. "We were the first band to ever play there, and they were so sweet to us. We had been touring for, like, three years, and now we are kinda done touring for a while. It was really a full-circle moment to be the first band to play there, to tour the world for three years, and to come back and be welcomed with open arms. I woke up the next day and it was 2013; that chapter is closed for me for a little while, and I am focusing more on Nightlands.”
We head to the back of the bar, where Hartley runs into another friend playing pinball. It’s likely you’ll find Hartley back here, tucked between the bathroom and the pinball machine. His high score on this particular game is 139 million—not that he’s counting—and you can tell it’s more than just a bar pastime for him. He’s heading out in the next week to purchase a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine, his first. After spending the afternoon with Hartley, I can’t help but recall his words when he describes his adopted home town: "West Philly has a pretty distinct identity. A lot of my friends feel the same way. I like living here." His parting words are straightforward as we’ve come to get to know each other: "This is my happy spot."
Catch Nightlands February 12th at The Knitting Factory
All Photographs by Dominic Neitz.
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