A few weeks back I got a chance to talk with Jaar and Harrington about their grand collaboration, the spontaneity of creative process, and the pleasure of performance.
Can you tell me about the beginnings of Darkside—how did you two come together?
Nicolas Jaar: Right after I put out my first record, I was trying to find a band to play those songs. So I asked my friend who the best musician he knew was, and he said this guy called Dave but he plays bass only. So I thought, okay, maybe he can play guitar as well. I did an informal audition where we just jammed for a while, and I really enjoyed playing with him. I liked the fact that he was a bassist and thought like a bassist and that fit with my music at the time. Four months later we were bored in a hotel in Berlin and we were using these two tiny speakers with a really shitty converter, and for two hours we made this song and then the speakers totally exploded on us. The whole room filled with smoke and the electricity cut out, but we had this first song made. So we were like, wow, this is a total omen, we love playing in the dark.
Well, that certainly seems fitting for you two.
NJ: Yeah, and this happens the first time we tried to make this song. So that was A1, and we finished that in the hallway—people were like opening the windows and trying to fix our room. Two or three months later we made a couple more songs because we were in the mood and had such a good time with the first one, and that turned into an EP of three songs. That was around 15 minutes of music, but for some reason we decided to book ourselves a show at Williamsburg Hall of Music. But then we were like oh, why did we book ourselves a show when we only have fifteen minutes of music? That was kind of a weird, stupid mess up on our part. So then we said fuck it, let’s just make 45 more minutes of music and see what we can do. We played that show and ended up selling it out. I don’t know how that happened, since there was one EP and three songs to our name, but we had a really amazing time. We felt like people were reacting as if they knew the songs, but obviously they didn’t because we’d just written 3/4ths of them. So it was really nice and that sparked, in both of us, this thing of like, damn, we should keep on doing this and see where this goes. For most people they start off in their band and then go solo, but I really feel like for me, I started solo and now this is my band. We’re going to have have plenty more years of making records, and it’s going to be my main focus.
What I love about your music—Darkside and solo alike—is how visceral it is. Your songs feel like wading through the thickness of a mood and have an experimental quality that just hits you and isn’t something you want to analyze too heavily.
NJ: Yeah, although sometimes people say the music is heady or whatever. But really honestly, the only thing I want is for it to hit bodies and make people feel things. But I don’t consider music to be a hyper-conceptual art form. The beauty of it is the fact that it is so sexual and so body-driven and physical, and that’s what makes it so exciting to me. Dave and I really enjoy performing together because we feel we both can really bring that out.
You both have vast and layered influences that clearly find their way through in your music, so how do you go about amalgamating your different musical sensibilities to form something cohesive?
Dave Harrington: We’re lucky to have just enough overlap in terms of what we’re interested. Anything that might seem dissperate that Nico or I would bring to the central place of where we think the music should be—which is something we’re still figuring out—it can kind of work its way in. There’s a shared field where we’ve found, through working together, of the things that we both like. But in a way, maybe it’s different from a lot of bands that come together because they’re grew up as friends listening to the same records and playing all the same covers in high school. Nico and I have only known each other for a few years, so we’re still doing this discovery work about each other’s past and musical history as we’re making things and searching for what our sound is going to be. In a way you can hear it coming out through the songs.
When you’re going about making an album, do you begin with a certain theme you want to explore or a particular mood you want to live inside? Was there anything in particular that sparked Psychic?
DH: We’re not very calculated. Not to be evasive about the question, but it’s really just the sound of me and Nico in a room together. The album is the sound of the two of us making this third thing together, so the sounds that are on it, are the sounds we’re interested in. And very simply, the things that we like. What that means sometimes, because we both like lots of different things and we both like things that are dissperate and maybe shouldn’t have anything to do with one another, sometimes we get these lucky collisions and ideas that come out of the two of us in a room.
There’s something about your music that feels like the moments in between and what’s lurking between the notes. I suppose that comes from the un-calculated moments of what’s floating around between you two. Is there a certain headspace you two find yourself in when you go into a room and create this third presence?
NJ: It’s a domino effect of like, there are things that Dave can do that I can’t do—he can play guitar, he can play bass, he can play drums in a different way than I play drums—and I just enjoy hearing him and listening to him do those things. And those things spark ideas in me, which then spark ideas in him. At its healthiest, that’s what happens; at its unhealthiest, it’s both of us just being super chaotic and jamming and seeing if out of three hours of stupid things we can loop one little thing. But 90% of the time Dave plugs himself in and I start recording instantly, because I know that usually Dave has this tiny nugget of truth somewhere inside of him that always comes out first for some reason. Usually—three or four songs we made this way—he was just tuning and something happens. I always record him because it’s always so good, and we’ve always started so many songs that way—with just a little chord progression that he did at nine in the morning to see if his guitar was working. So we really believe in this thing of: first idea, best idea. What’s lying around in the first layer of your subconscious is going to be the first thing.
DH: I’d also say something Nico and I talked about amongst ourselves recently, is that I used to think much more conceptually and start from an idea. When I was studying and in school, things were more starting from an idea and going towards an idea, and after a number of years of working that way, I’ve been able to let go of that a little. At a certain point you just trust that there are ideas in there somewhere and they will come out if you let them—which is more of what I’m interested in exploring from now.
What’s your relationship to playing live? Do you find it’s a totally different creative space?
NJ: Definitely. It’s a very different creative space, and being performative is, in some ways, much easier than knowing you’re actually recording something. What might work in a concert might not work in your living room, and what works in a concert is very much based around a lot of different things—the temperature of the room, the amount of people there, the type of people there, the look of the place. It’s nice because you get to be very context-specific. When you’re recording music, the context can be anything; people can be listening to it in a car or the end recording in a church, etc. So we get to change the sound to fit the spaces when you play live, and when recording, you just get one chance to make it as universal as possible.
What do you enjoy and love in terms of freeing up your mind in a non-musical way?
DH: I just love the shit out of television. I think television is the underdog masterpiece of our time, of the world that we live in. I guess I’m biased because I grew up in a house where my parents were both working in TV news and the TV was on a lot. I didn’t grow up in a house where I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or anything like that, so it’s part of my conditioning. Television is like a magical land you can wander around in if you get bored and that’s how I see it.
As people who’ve traveled all over and began working at school and now have relocated, is there an ideal space for you when you’re making music, or is more about getting to the right interior headspace?
DH: The environment, for me at least, will inevitably effect what you’re doing. Also, I work very much with gear. I have different gear in different places, and I like going to a studio and using their gear. I have my own little studio and I have certain stuff that’s there, like my childhood drum set and the fender rhodes that I brought on Craigslist in Providence, or broken keyboards or something that a friend of mine shipped to me from China. I leave that there and when I’m at home in Brooklyn, I have my records and a mixer and some rap gear and some reverb units, and that’s what I do there. Certain things, discrete places I let myself kind of do whatever that place is going to allow me to do. On a very logistical level, I think that’s inspirational for me.
I first got into your music by listening to your BBC mixes. Is that something you love doing, blending such dissperate things together and finding new ways to hear them and telling a story?
NJ: I really like telling stories—whether it’s a micro-level like a song that tells a story, or like the mid-level which is an album that tells a story, or a super-macro level which is like my label and other people which I largely curate so over the course of a year is another kind of story. I like saying: this is chapter one and this is chapter two, and making people question why a story develops in a certain way.
What do you imagine someone is doing when they’re listening to your music–ideally.
NJ: The way I try to make music is like, if you’re listening to it and not doing anything else and concentrating and listening really really hard and listening to every single thing, then hopefully you’re going to get the full picture. I’m not saying it needs concentration at all, but I was a little bummed out when I started realizing some of the songs I made were really just to do the laundry to. But it’s a good thing in a way; in the end, we’re just carpenters, we’re making little tables for people to put things on. Being a musician is a job, it’s a very utilitarian kind of nice thing, and music heals and it can help people and it can make things less boring, and that’s the reason I’m here. It’s what I do, it’s not like a grand thing, it’s just like you have some tools and you make some things and hopefully people like it.
But that’s the beauty of it, that it can sound one way when you’re doing the laundry and completely different when you’re alone in the dark suspended in its sound.
NJ: Exactly, totally. And that’s exciting to me.
Are there any people you two would love to work with?
NJ: The thing about collaboration, for me, is that the people that I really respect, I would never want to mess up their music by being a part of it in any way. If I like someone’s music, I feel like it doesn’t need me, it doesn’t need anything else. But I’m waiting for the right hip hop artist to work with; for the past five, six years I’ve been just holding off on that side of me, which is a real big side of me,—which Dave would probably tell you. I really love hip hop and I make a lot of hip hop, but I’ve been holding off and waiting for the right person.
You started making music when you were really young and in school but now you’ve graduated and don’t have that sort of structured work in which to create. Do you feel a sense of freedom as an artist now that you’re older?
NJ: It’s the strangest thing. I feel like I didn’t really realize to what an extent I was in such a little bubble in school until I got out. Now no one is giving me any structure or anything, and you have to create everything yourself. Even plans with friends, you have to like entertain yourself, it’s not like on Wednesdays there’s this thing everyone does and you have to take care of yourself in a whole new way. And for me, the first iteration of that wasn’t freedom, the first iteration of that was noise. I was realizing, truly, how dirty and how noisy everything was, and how much desire was such a part of everyone’s decision making. I guess I got kind of disgusted at first. Now I guess I agree with you, I feel like a newer kind of freedom because the change is definitely very, very strange.