Smile Politely

“It’s in my blood and part of my fiber”

Musicians are busy. They have lives filled with gigs, rehearsals, recording sessions, family, dying vans, loading and unloading equipment, writing music, paying bills, eating shitty road food, hiring managers, firing promoters, and trying to maintain friendships. But sometimes, if I’m lucky and annoying, they make time to talk to me. I had the opportunity to chat with David Hartley of The War on Drugs and Nightlands, and I even had the chance to fall in love with a few songs.

Smile Politely: How did you get your start in music?

Dave Hartley: I’ve always played/listened [to]/loved music. I started on the trumpet as a kid, switched to bass in early high school and never looked back. I keep adding little wrinkles as I get older… drums/keys/guitar, etc. My first cassette was Born in the USA; my first CD [was] Cooleyhighharmony; my first MP3, probably a Bob Marley song or something, in college. It’s in my blood and part of my fiber.   

SP: Gotta love Boyz II Men…

What are your major musical influences? What draws you to them?

Hartley: There aren’t many current musicians who I find inspiring… not that there aren’t great talents right now, but I just try to ignore my contemporaries for fear of being influenced by them. However, I’d say John Maus is probably my favorite current artist. The things that influence my music are objects: instruments that have ended up in my possession by chance. A house organ that I found in a friend’s apartment has been a profound influence on me, the way its parameters interact; the way its drum machines sound. It was an accidental inspiration, like most things.

SP: Art springs come all corners. 

If you could have a jam session with anyone—no limits on time, instruments, etc- who would it be?

Hartley: I’d go with Levon Helm on drums, Brian Eno on synth, Harald Groskopf on synth, Sly Stone on electric piano, Robert Fripp on frippertronics and guitar, Lonnie Holley on Nord Electro, and an Allen Toussaint-led horn section that contains Jim Price and Bobby Keys. I’ll play precision bass. 

SP: So, you’ve got your fantasy band. Where do you go? What are some of your favorite places to perform?

Hartley: The 9:30 Club in Washington, DC; Great American Music Hall in San Francisco; The Bowery Ballroom in NYC; Vera in Gronigen… the list goes on.

SP: Is it the venue, staff, patrons, food? What makes those special?

Hartley: These are all places that offer a total experience. They make music feel essential and create an atmosphere of harmony.

SP: I love that. Art is not a luxury and it shouldn’t express one point of view.

Are you fortunate enough to make your living from music? I’m fascinated by artists’ professional and creative lives -whether they intersect or not.

Hartley: I do make my living from music, although at this point it’s sporadic and I have to live within my means during the harvest times in order to make it through the financial winters. Translation: Sometimes I get paid enough, sometimes I don’t. I used to be employed in property management full time, and it was great to have a livable wage coming in at all times. And it was actually flexible enough to be compatible with being a busy musician, but when I started touring heavily, something had to give. It’s the constant battle for any musician: how to make ends meet and not feel like a “weekend warrior.” There’s really no right answer.

SP: Any interesting tour stories?

Hartley: Of course. I’ve been robbed and attacked, stranded in blizzards, had flat tires and broken hitches and seen the entire undercarriage of a car fall off. Shows have been cancelled, tours have been cancelled, people have gotten sick, angry, quit, joined… it’s all happened and it’s a blur.


Dave is playing a rare solo show at The Velvet Elvis this weekend. You should check it out because good music is not a luxury.

Top photo by Catharine Maloney.

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