Changes of location and personnel have informed Darkstar’s intoxicating journey in sound.
Space – not the final frontier variety, but the mundane physicality of the place where you are – matters a massive amount in music, whether created or consumed. But increasingly (and we blame The Internet), scenes have lost their locality. People are still from somewhere, they still live, work and breathe in a particular town or city. But for every blunted beatsmith who is physically a part of the LA scene, there are a hundred who make similar sounds from the other side of the world. Dubstep may have begun its life in Croydon, but where does it live now? Everywhere, or nowhere?
If you believe everything Nicolas Jaar says (and why shouldn’t we?), space is only noise anyway. And the relationship between space and noise – between sound and place, between creating sounds and being somewhere – is critical for understanding not only where Darkstar currently are, but where they’ve come from.
Darkstar started their life as a production duo, house sharing in North London, studying at University and hanging out at FWD>>, the seminal Plastic People club night generally credited with being a key ingredient in dubstep’s primordial soup, asifyoudontknowalready. It’s impossible to say, in retrospect, just how important their proximity to the FWD>> melting pot was for the genesis of Darkstar. But before long, Aiden Whalley and James Young (the group’s two founding members) were passing beats back and forth, and releasing tracks on their own fledgling label, named 2010.
These first releases were enough to attract the ear of Hyperdub label boss Kode 9 – no mean feat considering the tsunami of electronic production talent that was emerging circa 2008, with James Blake, Joy Orbison, and the Hessle Audio stable all breaking through around that point. Two Hyperdub 12s followed, one of which (the digital lullaby Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer) topped dozens of 2009 end of year charts. A cover of Radiohead’s Videotape for a Mary Anne Hobbes compilation then marked the debut of a third Darkstar member, vocalist James Buttery.
Their first album, North, was perplexing in the best possible way, eschewing the fidgety two-step of their previous singles for a gloomy but glorious synth-led set, including a version of the Human League’s You Remind Me of Gold. While touring North, the band switched – as you do – from Hyperdub to Warp, signing a four album deal in the process. Their new album News From Nowhere is yet another nimble change in direction, underlining the fact that they are an endearingly difficult act to pin down. When Crack caught up with all three Darkstar members they were in a rehearsal studio in Leeds, refining their live sound for dates around Europe, and reflecting on the impact that a change of scene (physically, as well as musically) has had on their music.
“We moved to West Yorkshire to write the second album, and the three of us wrote it”, says James Young. “We had a year recording – just as the riots started in August 2011 we were moving up. It was quite an intense year and we didn’t really have a break from it. It dawns on you quite quickly in West Yorkshire that you haven’t really got a social life, and then you start to really wonder: what the fuck are you going to do for the next year?!
“We stopped touring as well, we just wanted to get the album done. James and Aiden would have maybe a top line, just a set of chords or a bass line or something, and then they’d pass it to me and I’d mess about with it and give it back. Then if we liked it, we’d keep passing it back and forth and see what stuck.”
Listening to News From Nowhere in this context makes complete sense. A great deal of the album’s melodies sound as if they could have sprung from a half-finished guitar line. But if some of the tracks on the album began life on six strings, the bold, concrete features of the guitar lines have been eviscerated by Young’s otherworldly production, lending the whole album an eerie but gentle aesthetic. The fact that Darkstar now craft their songs not from a killer beat but from a shattered, splintered melody speaks volumes about their progression and willingness to explore new ground.
“I think [the new album] is very different”, continues James. “I mean, we set out to capture something that represented the time and space we spent up in West Yorkshire. I think being in that environment for a year, you notice big changes in your everyday life, subtle changes in the studio, the space outside just sort of seeps into the way you record and your creativity.”
One of the things that seeped into the record was the influence – musical but also personal – of producer Richard Formby, with whom News From Nowhere was recorded.
“In all honesty, it wasn’t like we were attracted to the idea of working with him, because we didn’t know him. But we’d given up getting a producer because we’d met a few and for one reason or another it had fallen through. We were going to work with Tim Goldsworthy in the Massive Attack studio in Bristol, but that didn’t happen. When that fell through, we were pretty low because we loved that studio. So we were like – alright, let’s get on with it ourselves.
“But then Richard phoned us and asked if he could come over to the house and chat. He made a real effort – like he was going for a job interview or something. He was very courteous and he obviously knew his shit.”
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to believe that Darkstar’s journey has been anything other than one juicy opportunity after another. Kode9 comes knocking, then Warp swoop in for the kill, while the musical output stays several steps ahead of the curve. But the gestation process for their first album North, while hardly the new Chinese Democracy, involved taking several steps backwards before moving fully forward. And finding a producer who could turn up on time and keep their promises for their second album wasn’t straightforward either.
“I think that we’re choosing people on a character basis. We make sure we know someone before we go forward with them. Richard’s approach is quite unorthodox. He’s an interesting guy, very talented and very different I imagine to most producers.”
“He took mushrooms quite a lot” chimes in Aiden, “… but not when we working in the studio …”
“… Once Richard got hold of it he’d just give it another dimension, more definition, you know what I mean?” Young adds. “Because of the shift in surroundings we were never going to go and write a continuation of North. We wanted to progress as musicians. I was reading quite a bit of stuff by [noted and notorious Victorian art critic] John Ruskin when we were writing the album: He observed the craftsmanship in art, from paintings to architecture, the way that people worked hard when they were proud of what they were making. We wanted to push ourselves, and write something musically that was more advanced than North. And I think we did that.”
“I think a lot of the lyrics are a bit more self-assured” says Buttery, “whereas on North they centred around a type of relationship with someone else. There’s a couple of tunes that reference someone else, but it’s more about a headspace that we were in up there. There’s not as much room for doubt, I think, in these songs, although listening back there is still quite a bit of reflection in the lyrics. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness.”
In Darkstar’s early days, there was not only a more easily definable musical scene – one with names and labels that could be relied on to produce recognisable styles of music – but a physical scene too. Artists actually congregated together at places like FWD>>. It existed in a geographical location as well as conceptually. But cooped up in a house in Yorkshire, these supports – or perhaps constraints – are whipped away.
One interesting consequence of refusing to make the same record more than once is that it’s now difficult to know where – if anywhere – Darkstar fit in. Crack saw their live show (or, at least its incarnation circa-North) at the Green Man festival in 2011, hardly the epicentre of electronic music. Their FX-heavy, back-lit, heads-down performance felt like the right set at the wrong time, an assessment with which the band seem to agree:
“It felt a bit weird … it was more of a performance thing that night, I don’t think we quite did what we were capable of. We had a few issues with sound and we played after Squarepusher which wasn’t easy, so it wasn’t one of the most enjoyable festival experiences I can remember from that period. I think we got banned from that festival as well. Aiden stole a golf buggy, one of those ones that security roll around in!”
“It was a slow-speed chase with the security guards”, says Aiden. “We had about 15 or 20 people hanging off it.”
“But I think as references go, and where we fit in”, says James Young, “we’re really trying not to think too much about it at the moment. And we didn’t think about live shows that much while making this record and I like that approach because you don’t limit yourselves. So what will be will be.”
And, excitingly, Darkstar are only just getting going.
“I think we’re only just about to get into our stride in terms of recording”, says Young. “We’ve got some pretty clear ideas about where we can go, what we’re capable of, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. It’s a weird one as well, you know, of having a home for the tunes all that time ago in London, it’s something that I do miss in a way. But I’m not sure that place exists now, even. If we were making those tunes today, and going in that way, I’m not sure there’d be room for them, or the patience to see it grow.
“We’ll stay with Warp for the next three albums after this, so it’ll be the best part of a decade if all goes well. The only thing is getting used to having a routine, it’s something we have struggled with in the past, I mean, how do you go about having a normal life when you’ve got to invest so much of yourself in recording an album? We’re all getting a little bit older, we need to find a balance. But I feel like working with Warp has been eye-opening. The amount of possibilities that opened and the number of people we met who we could work with after making News From Nowhere is astonishing.”
Darkstar have refused to sit still. As a consequence, they don’t easily slot in anywhere. But their nomadic approach has opened pathways that too many bands prematurely close off. Coming from nowhere, anywhere is possible.
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News From Nowhere is released on February 3rd/4th via Warp Records. Catch Darkstar at XOYO, London on February 25th.
Words: Adam Corner