“MAYBE IT’S JUST ME BEING SELFISH,” DAVE HARTLEY QUIPS, “BUT IN THE last ten years or so, bass has become more of a frequency and less of an instrument. You can have a record that has a lot of bass on it in terms of low end, but there’s no definition whatsoever.” For the antidote, he points to Lost in the Dream, the latest LP by his band the War On Drugs, and Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There, which features Hartley on bass, as two recent throwbacks to a classic, band-driven sound. “You can hear the instruments, and it’s just more wide open. I feel lucky to have been involved with two records that I would have been a big fan of, had I not even played on them.”
But for anyone who knows Hartley’s rock-solid technique, intuitive sense of pocket, and reliably wide-ranging P-Bass sound, it’s hard work—not luck—that has put him in the right place at the right time. After nearly ten years in the trenches with Philly-based War on Drugs frontman and guitarist Adam Granduciel, Hartley has helped to galvanize a Philly–Brooklyn connection on the indie rock scene, with Sharon Van Etten, the National, the Hold Steady, and more in his immediate circle of friends.
The journey started with his trusty ’56 Precision reissue, bought off the rack in 2004. “It’s funny, because I played an actual ’56 when I worked on Sharon’s new record, and I prefer my reissue,” Hartley says. “The thing that attracts me most about that bass is the feel of it in my hands. It just sits great. I love the weight, the balance, the neck, and especially the resonance around the 12th fret.”
In the early days of the band, Hartley gradually found himself drawn more to the low-mids on the P-Bass; now when he goes low on the neck, the change feels more dramatic (take, for example, Lost in the Dream’s wistful ballad “Suffering,” where the bass mirrors the song’s dark, depth-charged mood). “Honestly, I play between the 5th and 12th fret quite a bit with the Drugs,” he says. “I came from the conventional wisdom that you wanna stay down below the 5th fret. I think there’s something to be said for that, but in doing the last few records, Adam was just like, ‘Think Darkness on the Edge of Town. Play up high around the 7th fret.’ And I got comfortable playing that way.”
Hartley took a similar comfort level into the studio with Sharon Van Etten, whose latest album spills gut-wrenching emotion over a dialed-in rock rhythm section (with drummer Zeke Hutchins). On the trippy ballad “Break Me,” Hartley uses a pick to play a serpentine, nearly rootless bass melody, achieving a clicky emulation of Carol Kaye that stands out in the mix. “It was kind of an outlandish bass idea but everyone dug it, so we used it. My ‘Carol Kaye for Dummies’ trick is to use my SansAmp with the treble all the way up, presence all the way down and the bass at 12 o’clock, with a little bit of drive. Roll the tone on the bass off a bit and add some amp reverb [from an Ampeg B-15], and you’re on your way.”
Back on the road with the War On Drugs, it’s business as usual for Hartley. He and Granduciel have forged a symbiosis over the years where the live experience becomes almost a test of wills—and a celebration of getting loud. “I’m not one of those players that’s like, ‘I’ve got my bass and I’ve got my rig, and I’m all good,’” Hartley says. “We’re going on a huge European headline tour this fall, and I’m probably gonna get a whole new rig for that. I’ve got a Trace Elliot V6 that I love, but it doesn’t have quite enough headroom for me. Adam is the loudest guitar player in the world, and I need the loudest bass amp in the world—that’s just all there is to it, so I think I need to go with at least one SVT.”
As Hartley sees it, being open to change is the key to be a successful rock band, so his rig and effects (among them a Wren and Cuff Pickle Pie “B” Hella Bass Fuzztortion he stomps on during the epic solo section of the Drugs’ Autobahn-fueled “An Ocean in Between the Waves”) are almost constantly in flux. Even for his next solo project, which he’ll record under his Night-lands moniker, Hartley finds himself leaning on a fretless bass he picked up in Toronto and a Riyaz tabla drum machine for inspiration (“Diet Jaco,” he calls it).
“It’s fun to play along with these tabla patterns because they really push your brain. It’s not unlike finding a new open tuning for guitar. Everything you knew is a little different now, and suddenly you feel it’s expanding your mind. I’m still in the exploratory phase of the new Nightlands record, but right now I’ve been spending a lot of time with my fretless and my tabla machine, just expanding my palette. So we’ll see where that leads.”
The War On Drugs, Lost in the Dream [Secretly Canadian, 2014]
Basses Fender Precision ’56 reissue, Teisco EB200, Lakland Skyline fretless, custom fretless
Rig SansAmp Bass Driver DI (clean) through EL8 Distressor and TubeTech CL-1 compressor, Ampeg B-15 1x15 combo
Strings La Bella Deep Talkin’ Quarter Rounds (medium), D’Addario ENR72 Half Rounds
Effects Wren and Cuff Pickle Pie “B” Hella Bass Fuzztortion, Boss PS-3 Pitch Shifter