The Return Of Darkside, The World’s Weirdest Jam Band
Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington on their long-awaited sophomore album Spiral, premiering today in a "collective listening event"
Remember Psychic, Darkside’s absolute banger of a debut album? Arriving in fall 2013, on the heels of a summer that was kicked off by massively popular, unabashedly nostalgic Daft Punk and Disclosure albums, Psychic offered that same big-tent vibe, but in a more mercurial, genre-bending fashion. Darkside synthesized the eclectic interests of electronic wunderkind Nicolás Jaar and virtuosic jazz guitarist Dave Harrington in ways that felt almost wholly new, despite the obvious influence of adventurous spiritual heirs like Can, electric-period Miles Davis, the Orb, and even Pink Floyd. It wasn’t rock music, it definitely wasn’t EDM, but Psychic sounded just as good in headphones as it did on dancefloors, just as good stoned or drunk or sober, just as good when focusing on its every intricate detail or when forgetting everything you know about music and just feeling it.
Darkside toured relentlessly over the next 12 months and then, after an electrifying show at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in September 2014, went on an indefinite hiatus. Despite how resonant Psychic still sounds, and despite how active Jaar and Harrington have remained in their respective solo careers, Darkside’s seven-year drought makes reminiscing about the band’s brief heyday feel like “remembering some guys,” in the parlance of the pervasive Twitter joke about men sitting around and naming their favorite old athletes for fun.
Spiral — officially out this Friday, and premiering in a “collective listening event” on YouTube today at 1PM ET — is Darkside’s first release since Psychic, aside from a live album recorded during that aforementioned 2014 tour. Again, it finds Jaar and Harrington arriving with considerable toolkits of their own and pushing each other into no-man’s-land genres, but if you’re tuning in with the hopes of restoring the feeling that Psychic gave you, you’d be better off cracking open a can of whatever your preferred beverage was in 2013.
Spiral is a much more methodical affair, more at home with acoustic guitar noodling than the slinky disco beats of Psychic tracks like “Golden Arrow,” “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen,” and “Freak, Go Home.” There are moments that border on glitch (“Narrow Road”), heavy pysch (“I’m The Echo”), late-’60s British folk (the title track), and dub (“Only Young”), and despite an overarching feeling of dark mysticism, the album hones in on a much wider variety of vibes than its predecessor.
One of the few similarities between the albums is an uncharacteristically catchy single involving a memorable, uncharacteristically rootsy guitar lick. Like the unforgettable “Paper Trails” before it, “Liberty Bell” hooks you instantly with Harrington’s swaggering, gothy cowboy riff and an intricately groovy beat. But that’s merely the entry point. Much like Psychic may have needed to be heard on an appropriately thumping sound system to be fully appreciated, Spiral might not fully connect until you don headphones and spend some time with it, preferably in nature.
For its recording, Jaar and Harrington reconvened in a rental house in rural New Jersey in 2018, arriving with very little existing material and letting the music flow out of them in improvised sessions, many of them beginning in the yard with little more than an acoustic guitar and the Voice Memos app. With an aggressively “no rules” mentality and an inspiration to embrace the concept of constant flux, the duo ended up with the bulk of the album in little over a week. Over various intermittent sessions, they completed the album in late 2019, still grasping the threads that leapt up during that fertile week in Jersey.
On separate Zoom calls, Jaar and Harrington explained their “mind meld” connection and their commitment to keep Spiral fresh and not sounding too “Darkside-y.” Below, stream the new album starting at 1PM ET and read selections from our conversations.
When you met up to start work on the new album around three years ago, how long had it been since you had played together?
DAVE HARRINGTON: We did one or two improv things in between, but for all intents and purposes it was basically since we played our last show at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn [in September 2014].
Was the decision to go on hiatus mostly based on being burnt out from touring? Because you guys had been on the road pretty constantly since what, the tour behind Nico’s Space Is Only Noise in 2011?
HARRINGTON: It wasn’t so much that. It was really that we had kind of set out to do something and we did it. I mean, I was tired, ready for a little bit of a break. But it was more like we had closed that chapter, in a way where we almost didn’t talk about it, it just felt like the decision made itself between the two of us, knowing that we didn’t set out to be like, “This is our band. This is our life. This is the one thing we’re gonna do.” Because, you know, we’re both pretty omnivorous musicians. So this was one stretch of the story, and that chapter kind of came to a close. And then we both went off and did a bunch of other things, as we kind of always intended to do.
When you guys met back up again, what was that initial music making process like? Did you take some time to get back in sync, or did you snap right back in?
NICOLÁS JAAR: For me, it’s very, very pleasurable to make music with Dave because I feel like we get to play to our teenage selves together. That’s not really the place I’m in when I make my own music — it’s just not what happens when I’m by myself. But with Dave we have a very silly band name and it really brings us back to being 14-year-olds.
Did you toss around ideas for material at all before you met up in Jersey? Or did you just let it flow as soon as you got there?
JAAR: Dave had done one thing a few months prior and we started with that, just to get into it. It’s actually the last song on the record, “Only Young.” Dave had actually written the music for that. We started with that, we had fun, we wrote the lyrics for it, and then played a bunch of stuff and produced it. The next [few] days, we just played around, jammed until we found things that we liked, and then we repeated those things over and over and over again until we had skeletons of songs.
HARRINGTON: We just rented a house, filled up a rental car with gear, and went in with pretty low expectations — or not even low, really just no expectations, other than we were going to be able to spend a week and change together, cook food, catch up, hang out, and see about making music and see where it took us. It wasn’t like, “OK, here we go, we’re starting the process to make a record.” There was no external pressure, there was no internal pressure. It was really just like, let’s show up. And let’s see if the music is there. And then if it is there, see where it takes us.
By the end of that week in Jersey, were you still like, “If this is an album, great. If not, whatever?” Or by that point did you realize, “We’ve got something here.”
HARRINGTON: Speaking for myself, I was like, “One: That was super fun. I want to do it again. Two: I’m into what’s happening in this music. It’s not quite like anything I’ve done before. And I guess it’s our band, but I want to see where it goes.” So at that point, I was ready to take the ride.
JAAR: We thought it would be great to do that like, five or six or seven more times. We thought that we could be as productive as the first time, so we tried again and we made no songs. So it turns out that that first session actually had a lot in it. There was something beautiful happening in that moment, we felt very connected and we were able to really make whole songs, as opposed to the session after where we tried making things for five, six days, and literally not a single thing came out of it.
What do you think led to that first session being so special?
JAAR: It has to do with the fact that we hadn’t hung out in such a long time, and we had become different people, we had grown, we went through different life things. We had so much to catch up on. There was just a foundation in that first session, which is us remembering why we love making music together in the first place. The second time, it felt more like, “Well, now let’s try to make music for this album we started.” And that didn’t work.
What were some of the new or intriguing threads that you guys tapped into when you first started to play music together again?
HARRINGTON: I could go into the nuts and bolts of it, but some of the new threads that came out were an emphasis on trying different approaches to writing than we’ve done before. We did some things the “classic way” — like, acoustic guitar, notebook, that kind of thing. We sat at the piano. We did things in and out of the box in and in a production mindset in a way that we hadn’t really done before. And that was really exciting. We were just trying to find new ways to look at structures and what could constitute a song. I was also thinking about Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, and alternate guitar tunings. We’ve never done that together before.
JAAR: One of the first songs that we made was “Spiral,” and the guitar work on it is a bit more complex than what we’d done before. That helped us feel like we were getting closer to both of our worlds. At the same time, we’ve always wanted the foundation of Darkside music to be very, very accessible. We don’t want to put any barriers to entry to this music. It’s a challenge, but I think something that excites Dave and I is to have this music as open as possible, as friendly as possible, as loving and caring as possible. You know, it’s psychedelic music so it has to lend its hand and say, “Would you like to come in?”
Did you feel any commitment to sounding like whatever idea of Darkside you already had in your heads?
JAAR: The second day we made a groove that was very, like, Darkside-y. It was a slow BPM, there was a very prominent snare, it was this riff that just sounded like stuff that we’ve done in the past. We both looked at each other and were like, “This is not doing it for us.” So that was a moment for us to rethink how to approach making music together and that it couldn’t just be about what felt good in 2013 anymore. The music had to keep our attention from multiple different directions. And not just like, “Oh, that’s a nice rhythm,” or “That’s a nice vibe” or whatever. We were a bit more hard on ourselves after we made that. We were like, “OK, we’re gonna have to push a little more if we want to get to something that excites us now.”
HARRINGTON: I think we were conscious of not holding ourselves to an idea of what we were. Like, I don’t know who would care, but we definitely set ourselves loose from trying to be like, “OK, this is what our band sounds like.” We know that the band is the two of us, so whatever comes out is what the band sounds like.
You obviously have so many different threads in your solo careers that differ from each other, so what’s the common ground, or like the shared vocabulary, between you two?
HARRINGTON: The first thing that I ever did with Nico, like, the first day that we first played music together, was improvising. We have a language and a shared set of interests, and we have that kind of third eye, mind-meld connection that comes from some kind of cosmic luck, as well as time spent.
JAAR: I think ultimately, at heart, we’re a jam band, and we’re making these records as a really loose road guide for jamming. It’s like making the map, but the trail is yet to be made. So I think that’s our shared thing: improvisation.
Dave, I remember you saying around the time of the first Darkside album that you weren’t very familiar with Nico’s electronic or house music reference points. Have you gotten more into that world since the first album?
HARRINGTON: Yeah. To be more specific about it, that was my experience up until the point I started playing with Nico. So from the minute that I was in his band and we were doing tours around the Space Is Only Noise record I was in it and living in that scene. That first year or two was an education. A lot of that Space Is Only Noise touring was playing festivals or open airs in Europe and I would be the only guy with a guitar within a 20 mile radius. We were going in and out of a deeply electronic scene and so I got to see and hear and meet and hang out with some incredible DJs and electronic artists. I really got an amazing education in music that I was super curious about, but never been really exposed to in my jazz and New York City upbringing, and now it’s totally part of my life.
Did those added years of experience with electronic music change your approach to this Darkside album? Were you able to meet Nico more at his level in terms of electronic composition?
HARRINGTON: I was already on that trajectory with my approach to the guitar — using electronics and trying to meld the two to create a language. That’s a thing that I do every day. I played hundreds of improv gigs in the intervening years, and those aren’t electronic production moments, but they’re all me being interested in trying to develop a guitar language that’s in union with the use of electronics — not like using pedals to make a crazy sound, but trying to find a voice through them. And also, I just adopted a lot of the production methods that I learned from Nico when we were working on the first Darkside record, and then took those tools and have used them to create my own production approach that I’ve applied to all of the jazz records and improvisation records and all of the collaborative stuff that I’ve done in the years since.
With all of the improvising, do you end up with a lot more material than ends up making the album? I remember Dave saying that one of his Dave Harrington Group albums was culled from 20 or 30 hours of material. Darkside’s songs seem a bit more self-contained.
HARRINGTON: Especially with this album we were focusing on writing in a different way, like the improvisation happened in compositional ways, and inside of songs, and in generative ways. When I’m doing a Dave Harrington Group record or [a record with jazz drummer Kenny Wallace], I’m using the Teo Macero Bitches Brew method — throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and then liberally edit, chop, manipulate. With me and Nico, that whole process happens just between the two of us and much faster. It’s not like, jam and let’s hope it’s good. It’s more like improvise, change, do a new thing, put this over here, come back to it later, improvise some more, do this thing — oh, I have an idea. We’re going to do this now. OK, go outside, sit down. Try to write with the acoustic guitar. It’s all these different things happening on top of each other. Part of the fun is saying it’s done because there’s an element of like, it can never be done. If you have a rock band, like four folks in a room, playing the instruments, singing the hook, doing the thing, you’re like, “OK, this is a song.” But I don’t really do a lot of music like that. So part of the challenge is waiting for the moment to look around and be like, “Stop!”
This album is definitely more lyric-heavy than the first one. Do you think that’s more of a product of the music lending itself to lyrics or rather a desire on your part to incorporate more lyrics?
JAAR: Everyone knows I’m not a vocalist. I’m a producer. A lot of the times when I finish a record, there’s more singing than I expect there to be, because it’s not really what I spend my time doing. But in this case, the songs were actually built around the stories that we were telling lyrically, and in a weird way, the text and the singing was a roadmap for the music and it really helped guide it. So this time, it just happens to be that in our process, the guitar and voice came first.
Are there any overarching themes that you think ended up — consciously or unconsciously — in Spiral’s lyrics?
JAAR: I think the song “Spiral” holds a bit of the key to the album. It talks about this person receiving letters addressed to someone who has recently passed away, and these letters are just piling up on the counter. And they all say the same thing: “To whom it may concern.” Then there’s another little image in that song, which is these fake candles that that person bought before their death. It’s [an object] that hearkens to something that was alive, that had fire, but now it’s just a letter on the counter, it’s just a fake candle. To me, this process of mourning, and the cycles of mourning, are part of the overarching theme. Mourning is like a spiral, in the sense that objects inside and outside seem different each time around. In the process of mourning, I think it can help to be in the present with how the object might be changing instead of clinging to what we wish the object still was. This sense of being OK with the flux of the spiral was very important to us as a theme, just to be in the present and to be OK with flux, and to be OK with plurality inherent in all things, and to celebrate change and welcome it.
So the lyrics for “Spiral” came early on in the process and kind of unlocked the theme for the rest of the album?
JAAR: 100%, because then it gave us a character, which is kind of the nemesis of that idea, which is the “He” that comes up a few times, the lawmaker. At one point, we say, “He trades truths for answers, so they call him for the answers he brings.” He’s the nemesis of flux, he demands answers instead of questions and he demands solidity. He demands to see objects only from one perspective and cannot allow for plurality both inside and outside him. Throughout the record, we’re trying to deal with this character, to break down and fragment this character and also try to see how we can get rid of or transform this character within us.
Spiral is out 7/23 on Matador.