Darkside Is a Jam Band?
Nicolas Jaar (left) and Dave Harrington
Darkside is music's critical darling of the moment. The duo's recently released debut LP, Psychic, landed on many a best of 2013 list. An extension of the jam-band-in-space psychedelic sound first heard on their 2011 Darkside EP, Psychic is a darkly funky album that incorporates elements of electronic music and live instrumentation. It's makeout music that sounds like the future.
The New York-based duo - producer Nicolas Jaar and guitarist and bassist Dave Harrington - is currently driving around the United States on Darkside's first headlining North American tour. Ahead of their show tomorrow at the Fonda, Harrington called us from Seattle to talk about the band.
How has it been touring by bus?
Harrington: It's been great. We just had three days to get from Minneapolis to Vancouver wherein we killed it by stopping in Rapid City and going to Mt. Rushmore and then stopping in Missoula, Montana, which is David Lynch's hometown. It was David Lynch's birthday and we went to the local movie theater and watched an episode of Twin Peaks. It felt like kismet off days.
In an interview you guys did with author Daniel Pinchbeck in Electronic Beats magazine, Nicolas said that talking about music is boring to you both. That being said, what's the most interesting thing to you about Darkside and what you guys are doing at the moment?
I'm sure that was said in the context of something. Maybe I meant that music is such an esoteric thing that talking about it in a concrete way is nearly impossible. I could talk about music for days and days, although maybe that would be boring for everyone else. But it's hard for me to answer your question and talk about Darkside without talking about music so I'll go ahead and contradict that.
Let's do it.
So, the most exciting this right now is doing this tour and playing shows live in front of people. The transition for us from making this record to playing it live is huge. Once we finished Psychic, we had the record to use as raw material and a blueprint to create a whole new roadmap of what we're going to play live.
In some ways we're more like a jazz band or a jam band because what we do every night is so steeped in improvisation, and that's what is exciting for us. There's no obvious answer on how to do it, and it's been different every night. We're still working it out.
Do you subscribe to a jam band ethos?
Stuff happens differently every night. We have a language and a series of cues and we know things are going to happen and that we're going to play songs and parts of songs. Once we get through the two or three minutes that we planned, that song will probably go on for another ten or fifteen, and then we take it in whatever direction we see fit at the moment.
Since we first started playing together, Nico and I, improvisation has been our common bond, and when you have that, it doesn't matter what kind of music you play, because approaching music as an improviser is a particular mindset. And so for us it's scary in all good ways.
How much of that improvisation is determined by the audience and the feeling in the room?
A lot of it. The kind of improvising we do and the kind of music that we play works best when everyone in the room, audience included, is contributing. We talk about what day of the week it is, what city we're in, is it cold outside, is it hot outside? What's the vibe here? You have to start asking questions about if we can feel the vibe in the room from the guy who played before us and how his set went and if we want to go with that vibe or hijack the vibe and take it somewhere else.
Let's talk about hijacking the vibe.
If you're playing a festival or a show with someone before you that you don't know, hijacking the vibe could be like, "Okay, for the last hour everyone has been dancing and it's been great and they're ready, so let's just do noise for five minutes and reboot the room and take it to ten and then zero and then scrap everthing so we can start where we want." And that's not always the answer. Sometimes there's just a great vibe in the room so we go for it and groove from minute one and keep that vibe happening. Those are the kinds of choices we get to make inside of this improvisation system we built for ourselves.
The words "improvisation system" seem antithetical.
They are and they aren't. Jazz has its own improvisational vernacular that you have to conform to. With the exception of free improv or noise improv where anything goes at any moment - which we do some of - improvisational music usually has it's own language depending on the genre and the players and the time period. Improvisers have a system, and over the last few years of playing together we've been developing our own system like that.
Thanks for clarifying.
Sorry, was that a deeply esoteric and weird diatribe on improvisation systems?
It was a very musician for musicians answer. Obviously you incorporate live instruments in your work, but in the spectrum of electronic music, where is Darkside and what does Darkside represent?
I don't even know what that spectrum is it changes so quickly and has so many layers and tangents and angles on it. It's up to you and critics and journalists to decide where we are on that spectrum. We do what we like, play the instruments we like and make the sounds that we're attracted to. We work in the structures and grooves and vibes we're into. We kind of just do us.
How does it feel, or does it feel any way at all, to be a "critical darling", with all this buzz?
Honestly, for me, you make music so people will listen to it, and if people are listening to it and investing their time, then that's all you can ask for. You can't ask people to like your music, you just hope that they give it the time of day, and I'm genuinely humbled that people have been giving their time to our music.
I've heard people say that Psychic should be listened to in the car, or in the desert, or the mountains. Do you think the album has an ideal setting?
To me, it's really awesome that people are saying different things about it. A lot of my favorite albums that I go back to and listen to over and over again are albums I could somehow make mine and were integrated into my life in a particular way.
There's this Tom Waits album I love called Alice, and I only listen to it late at night or if I can't sleep or if I've had a really long day and want to come home and sit down and have one drink. I really wove it into the fabric of my life. I don't know what Tom, Dr. Waits, intended for us to do with it when he made it, but I made it mine, so it's exciting to me that people are saying about our album "You should do it this way or this way", because that means people are connecting with it in a subjective way.
That seems like the highest compliment, when someone has an emotional connection to something you've made.
Yeah, it's incredibly humbling.
How do you find audiences in L.A.?
I haven't spent that much time in L.A. I've played in L.A. a couple of times, and it's always been a blast, to be honest. To me the vibe is not dissimilar from Brooklyn, where I play all the time. The audience is always game to go on a sonic adventure. We played at FYF in 2012, and it was one of the best festivals we've ever played.
You said in that same interview that listing to live music can be a "ritualistic, shamanistic experience." What does that mean to you, and do you think you achieve that in your shows?
I don't know if we achieve that. That's another one of those subjective things. You decide when you come to the gig, and sometimes that's not the point of the show. You can't do that every night. That requires and dynamic exchnage with the crowd and the vibe and all these different emotions in a room.
Getting there is an unpredictable calculus. Whether it's an eight piece jazz band doing a free jazz cover of Stevie Wonder, or the Allman Brothers 20 minutes into "Mountain Jam," the potential for that experience, for me at least, is always there. I know that's an esoteric answer, but it's an esoteric thing.
What does it feel like when you get there?
Some nights you nail things and some nights you miss things. There was a moment when we played in Minneapolis about a week ago, where I was sure Nico was going to go to this place, so I went and exploded this riff I had prepared to take us there, and he did a complete left turn, and he pulled everything out and did the opposite.
My heart skipped a beat and I was like, "Oh I just blew this moment" but I looked over at him and he was looking at me and smiling. He was right there. He had anticipated what I was going to do. I thought I had made a mistake, but he had this whole other thing planned. That was a really exciting moment. For me, stuff like that is why you play live.
It doesn't sound like you're ever bored onstage.
Darkside plays the Fonda tomorrow, Saturday January 25.
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