Decoding Darkside's Psych-Flavored Electronica
In 2011, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington were on tour in Berlin when, on an off-day, they were too restless to relax. Stationed in a hotel room, Jaar asked Harrington, who was playing guitar in Jaar's touring band, if he wanted to make some music. Harrington said yes. The duo cobbled together a makeshift recording system out of Jaar's laptop, Harrington's guitar, and some small speakers and spent a few hours recording, looping, and warping a track built on a Harrington guitar part. Then, as Harrington recalled to Dummy magazine last year, the speakers went ballistic. "The room filled with smoke, and there were sparks because we'd been using some kind of shitty travel adapter, because we were stupid." The electrical mishap axed the session, but by then, they already had pieced together the bulk of "A1," the inaugural track they would release as experimental electronic music duo Darkside.
Both members of the New York-based outfit regarded those smoking speakers as a good omen. "If you're open to it, you can't help but believe in the meaning of some things like that," Harrington, 28, says. "For me, [the significance was] the shock and intensity of nearly setting a hotel on fire but also the way we made that song and worked for the two or three hours before then. [It] was so unplanned. I don't even really remember doing it. It was so easy and so fortuitous that the other guys from the band disappeared, and suddenly it was just me and Nico. The way that three or four hours just kind of happened without any planning did feel cosmic in its own way."
Pulling back, Harrington also attributes key credit to how symbiotic his relationship with Jaar was from the get-go. In Darkside, Jaar — a young, cutting-edge, Pitchfork-friendly producer whose critical reputation skyrocketed with 2011's Space Is Only Noise — handles vocals and most of the electronic percussion while Harrington oversees string instruments.
Their working relationship long has focused on emphasizing off-the-cuff suggestions, odd structural concepts, and the goal of whisking the listener away to some other place. "Growing up as a jazz musician, really what I do is make improvisation. Immediately, that was what was fun and exciting and collaborative about working with Nico and playing in his band," he says. "It was really about these different people using their own voice to try to make something together. It wasn't so much about 'Play these riffs, play these chords, play these things.' It was more about, 'What do you think should happen here? How should we do this? Let's make something together.'"
Aside from being immersed in jazz as a musician and listener from a young age, Harrington also has spent time in indie rock acts, a metal band, and even a biweekly country gig playing lap steel guitar. Until his work with Jaar's ensemble, he chiefly had been a bassist and keyboardist his entire life, never really playing guitar in a band onstage. "A lot of the things that I do on the bass and the electric bass are guitar-istic. For me, at the time, I was in a place musically where I was feeling very open and experimenting with a lot of different stuff," Harrington says. "I'm not a particularly technically gifted keyboard player, but I really enjoyed playing keyboards in an indie pop band. When I got the call to play guitar in an electronic band, I was like, 'Well, that sounds interesting. Let me just give it a try.'"
Darkside launched in November 2011 with a self-titled EP. In June 2013, the pair remixed Daft Punk's latest album, dispersing their take as Random Access Memories Memories by Daftside.
They spent two weeks on the project. By contrast, last October's Psychic, their full-length debut, took them two years to assemble. The result is a record populated with rising post-rock-style passages, spare and funky guitar lines, stern drum beats, dulcet piano portions, lyrics that are unintelligible on first listen, and the sense that anything — or, more jarringly, nothing — can happen next.
"We see it as body music — hopefully very, very friendly human music," Jaar said last October in an interview for The Fly magazine, but Darkside's output is far more ominous and desolate than it is warm. Harrington is generally cagey when asked about detailing Darkside's idiosyncrasies or relating the group's aesthetic to anyone else, but he does mention identifying with psychedelic music. "Whether it's Yusef Lateef and Alice Coltrane or Allman Brothers Band, which are all psychedelic in their own way, [this kind of music is about] the relevance of improvisation and the interest in telling a long narrative, telling a story through music in a longform way," the guitarist says. "[It's about] looking at form and structure and improvisation as things that are malleable and can be used to transport the listener rather than necessarily needing to conform to this or that structure."
To get a grasp of Darkside's line of thought, consider the strange path the duo took to Psychic's "Freak, Go Home," a slippery, hypnotizing tune that should score black-and-white footage of overanxious office equipment in the throes of mental collapse.
"In the DNA of the track, there is a song I had made with a friend a number of years ago in my studio that was kind of a demo, kind of a tape experiment that was cut up and manipulated and had us playing drums through guitar amps and yelling and lap steel with this tape-collage approach," Harrington says. "Nico and I started using that, pulling that song apart. It became woven into the new mutated genetics of what 'Freak, Go Home' became." Harrington had no qualms with his old work — specifically, a product of his project El Topo — being re-purposed this way because, to him, "everything is raw material."
There's also a profound sense of hollowness at play in Darkside's terrain. Psychic opener "Golden Arrow" is 11 minutes long but practically barren until five minutes in. There's nothing arrow-like about the song's design. It's a formless, free-flowing, frosted-over track that lets Jaar's distant vocals, creepy organ lines, and sky-gazing guitars wander wherever they'd like. Harrington discusses the importance of all this empty space in terms of another medium.
"In a film, you enter, and there's the opening credits, and then you see something and you don't know what it is. Then, somebody says their name, and this character has this relationship to that person, and things develop like that," he says. "Not to say that our music is cinematic, but I think the psychedelic and the cinematic share a kinship in the way that they take their time."
Speaking of time, Darkside should have more music out this year. While Harrington is noncommital with specifics on new material, he's pointedly all in on the idea of the band extending its impromptu existence. "We like working together, and what more do you want?" he says. "It's not easy to find people that you really, really feel like you can work with and really enjoy and speak the same language [as]."
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