Getting to the heart of the instinctive, improvisational collaboration between Dave Harrington and Nicolas Jaar.
Darkside, the collaboration between Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington, released their debut album ‘Psychic’ through Other People last week, an ambitious record that married Harrington’s smoky, Angelo Badalamenti-vibe blues guitar with Jaar’s slow motion house rhythms and production know-how.
Jaar and Harrington have a history together – Harrington played guitar in Nicolas Jaar’s touring band, and they released the first, three-track Darkside EP together in 2011 via Jaar’s own Clown & Sunset label (that’s without even mentioning their rather audacious, headline-grabbing remix of Daft Punk’s entire ‘Random Access Memories’ – naturally, they adopted the name “Daftside” for that project).
Two years on, Clown & Sunset has folded, mainly because (by his own admission) Jaar didn’t really understand the logistics of running a label when he first set it up. In its place is his new imprint/collective Other People, who released ‘Psychic’. The name “Other People”, and the collaborative nature of the Darkside project, might suggest that Jaar is either receding from the spotlight, or using his privileged position to showcase some of the talents of his friends that might otherwise go undiscovered – or both.
Here, Jaar and Harrington discuss the literally explosive genesis of the project, how Darkside is the “third thing in the room”, and why Jaar is “a Miles Davis figure”.
How long have you known each other?
Harrington: “We met each other almost three years ago, when Nico was putting together a live touring band for his last record. [Me and] Will Epstein, who played in that band and who Nico has known for a long time, used to play in a house party band that I had in college. When Nico [was] looking for a guitar player, Will recommended me. I’d never met Nico, but I showed up to a rehearsal space in the Lower East Side of New York for a jam/informal kind of audition. We played for maybe an hour or so, and Nico was like, ‘That’s cool, why don’t you do more of this, or less of this; let’s try this, let’s focus on that…’ We played for another hour or so, went around the corner and had a beer, then Nico was like, ‘You wanna come on tour in a month or two?’”
So you’d only really met each other doing the live band. What sort of things did you first realise you were connecting over?
Harrington: “I think really the most important thing, and maybe the throughline that goes from that first rehearsal up until now, is improvising. My background as a musician was not in electronic music, it was really in improvising. I love improvising, and translating ‘Space Is Only Noise’ into a live band context was really using Nico’s songs and ideas about structure and vibe and texture and groove as vehicles for improvisation. So I was in a new context musically, but the ideas I could immediately connect to.”
At what point did you decide that you were really interested in making music together, outside of improvising and outside of Nico’s live band?
Harrington: “Towards the end of the first summer of touring. We had done a handful of shows in the spring that year, and then we went off on a pretty lengthy tour of Europe over the summer, doing club shows and festivals, and we got to a point where we’d been playing shows so much that our adrenaline, our vibe, was consistently in ‘show mode’. We were basically living in Berlin, popping in and out to do shows, and we had an off day and didn’t want to just relax, because we weren’t relaxed, we were up. We didn’t want to go out and hang out at a bar or go to a club, because we had this creative energy. So Nico said to me ‘Do you wanna go make some music?’ We had Nico’s laptop and some little speakers and my guitar, and we set this up in our hotel room in Berlin, and plugged my guitar straight into this tiny little interface in this computer. I started playing and Nico was like ‘that’s cool, keep doing that!’ We recorded it, started looping, and I added some slide guitar, and two or three hours later, we had the bulk of this song.
“And at that point, the speakers blew up. The room filled with smoke, and there were sparks, because we’d been using some kind of shitty travel adapter because we were stupid. So that kind of put brakes on our moment – but basically we had our first song together, which turned into A1, the first track on our EP.”
"Most of my best friends are musicians, and you can tell when you meet someone if you’re gonna make good music with them. You don’t even need to hear them play, within the first five minutes of talking to them you’ll know whether or not you’d have something to say to each other, musically." - Dave Harrington
At what point did you decide to bring it beyond that jam session and EP?
Jaar: “It was pretty obvious once we made the EP. We realised that we enjoyed making music together, so we decided to book ourselves a show in New York. I actually don’t remember why we booked a show, because there was really nothing to play, just 15 minutes of music. I don’t know what we were thinking at the time. But we made 45 more minutes of music in order to be able to play, and out of those, two or three minutes ended up on the album.”
When did you realise you clicked together, personality-wise?
Harrington: “Being on tour is the easiest way to find out if you love or hate someone. Being on tour is an intense environment, because you’re with the same people every day, working and living and travelling together. We ended up having so much fun playing all the time, it just worked on every level – it was the same thing with when we made our first song, it just worked. Most of my best friends are musicians, and you can tell when you meet someone if you’re gonna make good music with them. You don’t even need to hear them play, you meet someone and find out they’re a musician and within the first five minutes of talking to them you’ll know whether or not you’d have something to say to each other, musically. And if it works musically, then everything else just follows suit. I mean, what are you gonna argue about if you can make good music together, you know?”
I wanted to talk really briefly about that Daft Punk remix album. I know you’d already released an EP together, but that was what really introduced you to a lot of people. What was the impetus do that – was it to deliberately make a splash?
Jaar: “It was really a very funny two weeks for us. It all started with Get Lucky being played absolutely everywhere, and us just messing around with it in the studio and having fun – almost in a perverse way, trying to see what we could do with it. [It was] mainly just to put it in our DJ sets, it wasn’t really meant for anyone – I make edits all the time and never put them out. The next day, Dave sent me a remix of another track, and as an answer to that email, I sent him another remix. After we had done three each, we were like – ‘oh wow, how hilarious would it be if we made the entire record?’ When I think about it, Dave would have never done that by himself, and I would have certainly never done that by myself, either. When it’s two people, you can make trouble and have fun.”
So what do you feel you achieve together, as two people, that you can’t individually?
Jaar: “For me, the most important thing is that Dave has taught me a lot about certain tropes in music that I completely did not know about. There’s a lot of darker areas in music, like noise and drone, and some types of experimental rock and experimental jazz, and more psychedelic music, [that] I wasn’t as aware of and versed in as Dave was. By playing with him, I realised that these things, when meshed with the things that I’m interested in, created a new thing. For me that was really important, because it felt like an entirely new colour palette to work with that I had never, ever, been able to work with before.”
Harrington: “I think the thing that’s most exciting between the two of us, as a two person band, is that we can occupy a lot of roles. When I’m working with Nico I can be like ‘what if we did this thing?’, or ‘could we do that?’ Between the two of us, we can find a way to do whatever that idea is and chase something, whether it’s Nico helping me execute something guitar-wise which I wouldn’t really think to do, or be able to do, on my own, or Nico having the chops to do something with keyboards that I can imagine, but can’t get to. I think we have this balance where we can work without restrictions.”
"I would say that night is Darkside, and day is me. When I make music by myself, it’s just me, alone, trying to give my friends and family something that they might enjoy. But when I make music with Dave, I’m not thinking of these people anymore, I’m thinking about the music itself, the story that the music is telling." - Nicolas Jaar
Do you prefer working collaboratively or individually?
Jaar: “It’s such a different thing for me because the process is truly light and day. And honestly, I would say that night is Darkside, and day is me, in some ways. When I make music by myself, it’s just me, alone, trying to give my friends and family and loved ones something that they might enjoy. But when I make music with Dave, I’m not thinking of these people anymore, I’m thinking about the music itself, the story that the music is telling.”
Dave, you’ve obviously worked with Nico before, but that was taking more of a supporting role to his music as part of his band. Can you talk about the dynamic shift now that you’re being given equal billing?
Harrington: “In a way, I don’t really feel the shift. This makes it sound like a bit of a lofty analogy, but contextually, my experience of being in Nico's band [makes me] think of him as a Miles Davis figure. Miles could really put a band together. Creating a sound in a moment is about saying ‘who do I want to play with, what do they do, and how will that make a sound that I’m excited about?’
“When we toured, there were maybe five pieces of music I learnt off of the album. It was more about creating a language for improvisation, figuring out the structures that would translate Nico's music into a band context in an exciting and focused way. It was about harnessing the voices of the individual musicians in this context. Being in Nico’s band was like being on equal footing, because I was an instrumentalist with a voice, not just playing the parts that somebody else had already written. So the transition from that to what we do now has been seamless. When we got on stage to play Nico’s music, I felt like I was always on the line and in the moment, the way you feel when you’re improvising.”
Jaar: “Yeah, and I would never have it any other way. For me, it was not interesting to have people just learn some parts and play them. A lot of people would have that, and that’s fine, it’s not weird – in fact, the weirder thing is to pick people based on their emotions and feeling and intuition, but for me, that was much more exciting. I was always trying to create a sense of equality, I guess, in the way that people were relating to my music, and the important thing was that I wanted everyone to understand that we were improvising. They were not just getting a Nicolas Jaar show, they were getting a very context-specific improvisation by three musicians.”
You said it was a seamless shift from that improvisational role into a new band, but do you find that you have to get into a different mindset or mental space when you’re doing things as Darkside?
Jaar: “For me, the Darkside mindset is automatically changed when Dave gets put into the fold. Once Dave is there, it’s really the combination of me doing me, and Dave doing Dave. We’re doing us, to each other, in a way [laughs]. Darkside is more of a third thing in the room that gets created out of both of us – it’s not us trying to go into a place.”
Nico, this is a collaborative album, and it’s coming out on Other People, which as the name suggests is casting a spotlight on other people. Are you receding from the spotlight and casting more light on your friends and collaborators?
Jaar: “Well, the first three years when I was making music, I just put [it] out without thinking. At the time I thought I was making very weird music – I never thought I’d be under any spotlight whatsoever. My ambition was never to be under any spotlight – there wasn’t really an ambition, I was just making music! I’m so grateful for what happened, and I am very humbled that people are listening to the music that I made, but I guess right now what I’m excited about is focusing on my role as a producer, and as someone who makes records, not necessarily as some big DJ. For me, Darkside is just where I’m at right now.
“I guess if you look deeper into it, and you see the collaborative nature of Darkside, and the community nature of Other People, I am focusing on other people – I’m focusing on the human qualities of music, which is something I find central for listening. We listen to music with our friends, with our family, with our lovers, it’s a very social thing and it’s very much about communication. That’s the place I’m in right now – sharing.”
Other People/Matador released 'Psychic' on October 8th 2013.