Darkstar: “We work better when it’s black and pretty active.”

23.11.09 Words by: Charlie Jones

We’ve developed a ritual in the Dummy office in the two months since hearing Darkstar’s Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer. Whenever the grind of running this little corner of the internet gets to us , we’ll listen to the record and pretend to be cyborgs for a few minutes, after which troubles disappear like tears in the rain (and it is usually raining).

Darkstar are only a few 12“s old, but they’re one of the most exciting and important bands in the country. James Young and Aiden Whalley met at university, studying Sound Engineering in West London in 2002. After passing each other ideas back and forth, they put out a 12”, Dead 2 Me on their own label, 2010 in 2007. Their second single, Lilylever, had the real masterstroke on its B side, a track called Out Of Touch. Steve Goodman of Hyperdub got in touch, and they’ve put out two tracks on his label – Need You, which was used by Radiohead to open their shows, and October’s Aidy’s Girl… . An album is on the way next year.

Hyperdub are a great home for them, because like most of Hyperdub’s releases, they explore the potentials of dubstep rather than its constraining form. Darkstar’s music comes from the whole garage continuum, but it stretches wide and high. Like most of the year’s best dance records, their music harks back to the supposed innocence of the past, but rather than asset stripping the late 90s underground, it’s closer, in spirit, to the pop dance of that decade, or even the one before. They are also profoundly influenced by the orchestral synths of OMD, the sweeping emotion of advert music. The naivety of sci fi movies is a key touchstone – wonderfully, their label was not named after their postcode or some rubbish, but Arthur C Clarke’s sequel to 2001, and the name Darkstar is a reference to John Carpenter’s movie. But it’s more than an intriguing palate of influences or an academic exercise on the hardcore continuum. It’s concise, melancholic and revolutionary music that aims and deserves to to be sung by every milkman in the land.

So, how did you start making music?

Aiden: I started getting into music when I was 10, a lot of indie rock and new wave. Then started playing in bands, but getting into the whole music technology side of things when I was around 16.

UK garage must have been starting up around then. Were you into it the first time round?

Yeah, it was the first type of dance music I liked first time round. By the time I actually got to go to the garage clubs in Leeds, they’d all been closed down, so I only got to hear it at house parties and raves. That’s the first thing that got me into dance music.

James: I grew up in a place between Liverpool and Manchester, and studied in both cities, and went to places like Bugged Out!, and got into the more house, techno side of things. THen I moved down to London in 2001, 2002, and literally as soon as I moved got taken to FWD and was just blown away by that sonically.

2002? I suppose that that was way before there was even a word for the music.

Yeah, it was before “dubstep.” It was just 20 lads smoking draw next to a massive sound system. But you could just tell that there was just so much potential there.

Were there any records that stand out from that era?

Artwork was doing some really cool stuff, Menta …

Aiden: Sounds of da Future from Menta, that was really important.

James: But it’s interesting, I have the same background as Aiden, then got more into house, then moved to London and just got into that scene there. I used to work at the Lock Tavern, and no one there had ever even heard of FWD. I just came to London and stumbled across this thing.

What were your first impressions of the music?

Lot’s of low-end, lots of square wave. I always thought of it as building blocks, about placement rathe than music. It moved rather than played. It was really shocking to hear then.

Your records have such affection for the past, with synthpop and incidental music even. What things from your past influenced your music?

I’m a massive fan of synths, OMD and the Human League. The album will look to that much much more. That has actually influenced our songwriting.

Any incidental music that you’re a fan of? There’s loads of adverts on your myspace blog.

Yeah. We’ve composed for adverts, actually. We did stuff for Nokia, Dunhill and Toshiba. You just get a brief and compose it.

Amazing. It’s interesting, because adverts are obviously about forging that instant emotional connection, which is a pretty decent description of work work. How do you write with as much as emotion as you do?

Aiden: We just play around with harmonies and chord sequences until something rings true and invokes emotion. It is exactly what we try to do.

James: It’s so important. It’s how we keep interested. Cause if there’s an emotion involved in the track you can relate to it more, even through the creation process.

Is that somewhere where you differ from your peers, who may be thinking about other things?

Aiden: Yeah, it’s just to keep our interest, we’re not really aiming for the dancefloor. It’s about telling a story, listening at home. I suppose Need You was created for the dancefloor, but Aidy’s Girl definitely wasn’t. There’s a lot of people around us where doing really well making those Big Tunes, but Burial did amazingly by steering away from that as well.

There’s been almost a year between every release. Was that intentional, not to just rush into the studio and push stuff out?

James: Yeah, it was. It came from not being that impressed with what was around, and seeing what happens to producers whose material isn’t seminal – they just struggle. I’d rather just drop a couple of 12s a year and have those reviewed well and sell out than sticking out 6 records and 5 of them not being strong at all. I think that Aidy’s Girl has put us in a good position.

That song was praised by Pitchfork and the Guardian as the contenders for single of the year. It ma be very strange to think about this as artists, but what justification do you have for the reception of Aidy’s Girl?

James: It’s more to do with the format of the song and the structure. People probably see more longevity in it than a five minute instrumental banger. Maybe that did it, though the Pitchfork thing took us off guard.

A lot of the big singles of the year have been really looking back towards 2Step or house. How do you thin you fit in there?

I think that Need You and Aidy’s Girl could definitely been seen as looking back towards garage, but that’s not the case with the album at all. In fact, I don’t think there’s one 2Step song on the album.

Do you want to tell us a bit about the album?

Yeah, it’s getting there. It’s much more song-orientated. Just putting it together and see what fits. It’s been really intense actually, it’s been a really horrible, horrible process. Anyone who says that they enjoy making an album is lying because it’s too big, you can’t escape it. I can’t think off a happier time than when a you get a result with music, but there’s a lot of banging your head against a brick wall. When you get there, it makes it all worth it, but getting there is really time-consuming. It’s hard to get it so consise, but we’re getting better.

It’s that conciseness that I love about Aidy’s Girl – like three minutes, there it is, a wonderful song, bang.

That’s exactly what we’re going for, mastering that art of the three minute pop song. They’re the most satisfying to do. Once we got into that notion of working, it became really addictive. Rather than knocking out a 2step rhythm, getting into that verse-chorus-bridge, it’s so rewarding. A lot of people, especially from the scene we’re from, try and hide it, but that whole dubplate culture just means nothing to us.

What other music are you listening to a lot of? What is the album influenced by?

We’re listening to a lot of Radiohead. We’ve always been fans, and then we heard that they were playing Need You before they went on stage, and we were listening that album [‘In Rainbows’] a lot, so we decided to cover Videotape , which ended up on Mary Ann Hobbs’s compilation Wild Angels.

Aiden: We were listen a lot to “Angelo Badalamenti*, who composes for David Lynch. The Twin Peaks theme tune especially. And you know Vangelis?

Yeah.

The way that he uses synths and traditional instruments, that’s how we start writing the songs, starting out with piano and guitar. Also, a lot of Bernard Herrmann, who did the Psycho soundtrack, but the one I like is Vertigo one, it’s really, really good. So we’re using a lot of strings and synths. Been listening to a lot of that stuff. We’ve been using a lot more of that cinematic approach.

James: From an engineering point of view, how you mould both a three minute pop song with a beginning, middle, and an end into an epic string section is quite interesting. We try to evoke that melancholia.

Aiden: Even if it’s pop, we want that dark side.

It’s interesting. Almost all the best dance songs have that melancholic edge.

James: That’s exactly what we’re interested in.

How did the Hyperdub thing come about, and can you tell me something about the working environment there?

It’s really, really hands off. We never feel pushed in any direction, we’re just left to get on with it. He got in touch out of the blue when he heard Out Of Touch , which was the b-side to Dead To Me. He just said he loved vocoders.

Awesome.

Yeah, he was pretty shameless about his love of vocoders.

Aiden: So we’d already finished Need You, we sent it over, and he said he wanted to put it out.

One of the things about you which I find interesting is that it’s very familiar with London dance music, but you both came here from outside. Though that experience is far from unusual, what are your thoughts on “London music”, making music in London and so on? Do you think of yourselves as making “London music”?

James: Yeah, I do now, mainly because we’ve come on so far since moving here and getting into the music of the city – dubstep grime, a few bands. It’s quite a cold city, a very lonely place. You can live on your own in London, and it’s very singleminded. Which I think comes across in the songs.

Aiden: It’s very different to up North.

James: It’s nocturnal as well, and we work better at night, when it’s black and pretty active. London comes alive at night, there’s always something going on, and that’s the soundtrack. Burial is the perfect soundtrack for the night bus, and there’s something buzzing.

[In the background, Aiden starts playing a cover of the Human League’s You Remind Me Of Gold. Predictably, it’s wonderful.]

There’s loads of like “retro-futurism” with Darkstar, isn’t there? Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer could be the title of some longlost Mute Records single.

James: Yeah, I love that stuff. how you could make music that could transport you… It’s also less precious. Our aim is to fun, whatever comes after, that’s a bonus.

So it’s not tongue-in-cheek, but it is funny…

Yeah. It’s like those clunky 80s sci-fi where the intention is there but the execution is bit clumsy. It’s where the name of the record label, 2010, came from, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s all very early 80s wonky. When I was growing up, I’d want music that evoked that spacey feel. I used to listen to J Dilla and just think about space.

Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer is out now on Hyperdub, Discogs is your best bet. A new album is out next year.

Darkstar’s myspace

Also read this piece on TERROR DANJAH