Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington are Darkside
The collaboration between Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington has taken their prodigious levels of creativity and musicianship to an entirely new level. Crack traversed the Atlantic to witness an intimate New York Show.
Nicolas Jaar makes all of his music in his Lower Manhattan apartment, and if you had the daily joy of the skyline that floods his six-window view, complete with fluctuating light gradient, your creative juices would be flowing too.
Crack is in New York. Jaar and his long-term collaborative cohort Dave Harrington are sat in the aforementioned apartment in stark anticipation of their first gig in New York for two years. The previous evening Crack witnessed Jaar play a hybrid half-live, half on-the-fly re-edit ‘DJ’ set in trendy Williamsburg nightspot Cameo. Having deprived his hometown of live performances of late, we can’t help but feel we’ve arrived at the apex of Jaar’s reintroduction to his adopted city.
“I haven’t played my own personal show in New York for two years, because I just never find time, even though it’s my home” Jaar tells us. “I just want to come home and play piano, I don’t think about playing shows. But now, three or four months into the label [the newly birthed Other People], I’m starting to feel more and more like New York is a place to do these sorts of things. The more I like New York, the more I hate it, and the more I want to play to it.”
Later that evening, Brooklyn’s immense juxtaposition of dereliction and renovation is our stomping ground, with the unassuming brickwork and wooden doors of gig spot Glasslands the chosen haunt for DARKSIDE’s intimate fan-only show, tickets for which sold out in a breathless 10 minutes. 300 die-hards pack into the Brooklyn sweatbox with the sound of DFA badman Justin Miller on warm-up duty, before Jaar’s multi- effect, multi-paced, multi-layered narrative slowly unfolds with Harrington’s guitar tethering the whole affair and adding a distinctive air of melodrama to the undulating atmospherics. Added satisfaction comes from the knowledge the duo are unlikely to inhabit similarly intimate surroundings in the foreseeable future – their 2014 European tour, spanning the entirety of March, takes in a range of illustrious, hefty but creatively-inclined venues, from Berlin’s Astra to Glasgow’s Art School, and The Ritz in Manchester as part of the hugely esteemed multimedia music/arts festival FutureEverything.
Yet we’d already experienced the duo as up- close as you could ever hope to get, that day in Jaar’s apartment, with him and Harrington jamming absent-mindedly on the laptop and piano respectively. “Do your Neil Young impression,” Jaar asks Harrington, who dutifully obliges. There’s a trust between them, a musical respect forged on tour whilst Harrington performed guitar duties for the live band incarnation of Jaar’s first album. And for those unversed with Nicolas Jaar, selectivity is the primary imperative, which makes being allowed into his inner sanctum as much of a scoping out exercise as it is a free-flowing interview. We’re asked to remove our shoes at the door and the atmosphere is congenial, but formal, with an itinerary formulated and in-jokes exchanged between both DARKSIDE members and their manager. Harrington sits to the left of Jaar (with his shoes on) taking in Crack’s opening questions, while Jaar casually flicks through a book, seemingly disconnected. It’s almost as if the microscope has swivelled, though this does allow time to familiarise ourselves with the somewhat less familiar half of DARKSIDE.
“It started two or three years ago when Nico was putting a band together to tour after Space Is Only Noise”, Harrington relays. “Our mutual friend is this great musician named Will Epstein, whose project is called High Water and who was playing in the band. Nico went to Will and said, “I’m looking for a guitar player”. This is when we were all in Brown University, and at the time I was mostly a bass player, as that was what I’d grown up doing and that’s how Will knew me. So Will was like, “Dave’s a pretty good bass player”, so we had a jam session on the Lower East side, went round the corner to have a beer and then Nico was like, “do you want to go on tour?”
"It's not an offshoot. It's the next step, and it's just better" - Nicolas Jaar
“I think it would be wrong to underestimate and undervalue the intensity and honesty of playing Nico’s music in the first generation of the band”, he continues. “Having that gig, it wasn’t like Nico just gave me a bunch of sheet music and I learned the songs. It was much more like a jazz gig or this experimental thing. It was me trying to bring the best thing I could.”
It’s in the success of this improvisational, experimentalist environment that a deep understanding has been forged. Like a classic musical odd couple, Jaar is direct, straight-talking with deep-set eyes and freshly shaven buzz cut, in contrast to Harrington’s higher-pitched tones and curly mop of strawberry blonde hair. And it’s Harrington’s New York upbringing and love of avant-garde jazz that collides and melds so effectively with Jaar’s prodigious take on 21st century electronic music in the form of DARKSIDE’s debut full-length, the consistently engrossing Psychic.
Harrington explains: “I was living in New York, playing mostly jazz and experimental music – or whatever you can do with experimental music when you’re 15. I grew up taking jazz lessons. I never had a rock band in my garage or anything like that. I grew up taking lessons from these jazz guys in New York who are like sidemen with jazz legends. I was learning from these guys and having the opportunity to go to places like Tonic and the original Knitting Factory, because my teachers told me to come and see their gigs. It would be mind-blowingly weird and at like, 14 or 15, that had a huge impact. So that has carried on with me. I mean – going to see John Zorn. I got a fake I.D when I was younger, so I’d leave the party I was at and sneak into Tonic and go and see Steve Bernstein at midnight on a Friday. By the time I was out of high school, my I.D said I was 25. That was my fun when I was growing up. It’s in my pores.”
These credentials fit snugly with Jaar’s multi- instrumentalist, organic attitude to recording – an approach which resulted in Crack’s album of 2011, Space Is Only Noise. One of the most startling electronic debuts of its era, it was all the more refreshing being, as it was, wonderfully at odds with the swathe of ten-a-penny house music producers which sat alongside it. Its natural samples, warped vocals, grainy noise and slow-paced, throbbing beats bore a loose relationship to the house music canon, but in other ways entirely eschewed it. His Clown & Sunset label followed, with a distinct identity married to this astounding debut, featuring artists and friends such as Acid Pauli and Valentin Stip. But like any true artist, the need for re-invention and the changing of musical lanes became paramount. Enter Other People, Jaar’s new label, whose scope is much broader than his previous imprint.
"I got a fake I.D when I was younger, so I’d leave the party I was at and sneak Into jazz bars. by the tIme I was out of hIgh school, my I.D saID I was 25” - Dave Harrington
“In the most simple sense, the sound I was really excited about five or six years ago that was a little slower and a little more moody and had vocals, and was inherently very electronic, but also organic – I got bored of that” reveals Jaar about his motivations for the sudden reset. “That sound ended up encapsulating what Clown & Sunset was. There were 60 songs on there and it was my first curatorial statement. I’m fine with it, but it’s over. I’m not excited by it any more.
“I changed. Just as I got excited about making noise and rock ‘n’ roll with Dave, I stopped being excited by making funny piano house tunes. Most of the music I put out on Clown & Sunset, at least most of my stuff, is very old. Half of it was done before I was 20. This is what I was into a long time ago and it took a while for me to put it down and try a new thing. I’m very happy with Other People the label. I feel like it’s a blank slate and I’m not curatorially tied any more to any particular sound. This is also a sign of where I am now as a producer. I love going into DARKSIDE world and producing DARKSIDE stuff and I love beinghere[inhisapartment]andmakingmusicfor me, or producing another artist, or doing A&R. Before it was very much me in my studio making one type of specific ‘me’ music, so now it’s expanded.”
One of the major characteristics giving Other People definition is the subscription service that sees members receive music every Sunday as part of their fee. It also provided the forum to acquire tickets for the much sought after Brooklyn show. In these days of free music at every turn, it’s testament to Jaar’s standing that his audience are prepared to spend money on his output. So with this constant supply of music, has there been a conscious decision to give Other People space for diversity?
Nico explains: “I’m taking risks and going out of my way to make sure that happens. And it’s all cool because we still have more and more subscribers every month, so it’s like no matter what we throw at people, they remain interested.
“Dave and I joked that one day I’m going to try and invent USB shoes or something, because I woke up and said “why don’t we give people some music every Sunday?” And then we were like, ‘we should probably charge people for that because it’s a lot of work.’ That’s all it is.”
So what about take-up, has it been a success? “Yeah it’s been good. It’s satisfying to know there’s a big audience that I can fulfil.” Jaar laughs nervously. “I mean ‘fulfil’ in the business term; I’m not fulfilling them in any other way!”
As our conversation moves on, the two noticeably settle. They’re happy to divulge that the name DARKSIDE bears no relation to either Star Wars, or The Dark Side Of The Moon, and confirm that their remix album of Random Access Memories under the name Daftside was every bit as spontaneous and light-hearted as the title suggested. “We did Get Lucky in like an hour: done. It was really cool and fun and hip-hop, but still us. The next day I was like ‘I can’t wait to do the whole album, I want to do another one.’ So when Random Access Memories came out I went straight to Dave and said ‘let’s keep on doing this’.”
But despite his lofty stature and, as a result, more recognisable face, our conversation hits a stern moment when we question whether the nature of DARKSIDE could be defined as an offshoot of Jaar’s solo work. He’s emphatic in stressing the project’s parity.
“When we talked the first time [Crack interviewed Jaar in 2011], we’d just started the first incarnation of the band performing my music. Two years later it’s no longer me writing the songs and performing them with three musicians I respect. It’s me and Dave making songs together and performing them to a level that is much higher than the level at which we’d be able to play my music. So now, when Dave takes his guitar and plays the actual riff he played in the recording, it’s live in a different way than if Dave was just grooving along to the things I’m doing. There’s a component there that’s very emotional – he’s tied to things he’s playing because he wrote them. So it’s not an offshoot. It’s the next step, and it’s just better.”
Harrington is also keen to emphasise this separation: “On a musical level what Nico had done was curate a band of people to interpret his ideas. It was very different to being hired to play another songwriter’s songs in the sense of ‘it goes G, it goes C, it goes A’. It was never like that. Now we have something that is shared in a different way.”
So with music that’s almost defined by its unpredictability, not least from Jaar’s seemingly spontaneous ability to find an effect, the most traditional sound running through the music of DARKSIDE is Harrington’s guitar. From the Mark Knopfleresque, musically conversational tones of Paper Trails, to the 80s riffage of Heart, among this most modern of acts therein lies guitar work to add a rich, almost retro modus-operandi to the DARKSIDE sound – one most closely associate with blues.
“There is a gravitational pull towards the blues when you plug in a guitar”, Harrington says. “Unless you’re Fred Frith in Henry Cow, who does, like, weird noise prepared guitar. where he used to have the guitar in his lap and drop a chain on it or bow it while the chain is on it, I really think if you just start playing notes, you just either submit to the blues or you fight it as hard as you can. I tend to submit. If it comes out that way I tend to submit to it.”
Jaar is typically forthright on the subject. “Also, we fucking love blues. It’s like, ‘do you like music? Yeah? ‘Cause you’ll like blues. ‘You like pop music? You’ll like blues.’ To me it’s an easy thing to talk about. But it’s kind of a truth.”
Another truth that’s hard to ignore is that Nicolas Jaar has retained the kind of self-control and musical independence that, in these days of playing gigs for mobile phone companies, has become increasingly scarce. Another truth is that retaining this kind of autonomy can be perceived as arrogance. During our time together, Jaar refuses to be photographed outdoors or filmed despite the presence of prepared film equipment. But it’s this seeming intolerance of what he perceives to be sub-standard ideas, conjecture, venues or people; this obsessive desire to be in control of his presentation at every level, that have brought him to the position he now inhabits. This comes into sharp focus when discussing his gig the previous night at Cameo.
“I was sound-checking all day. I went there before the show, had a look, put on a couple of my tracks and I thought it sounded good. Then I got there yesterday and I put it 10db louder and that 10db changed how the entire room sounded.” He’s visibly irked. “So we were sound checking for five or six hours changing certain things, putting certain things through a computer, and I was about to cancel the show. I was furious, I wanted to fucking shoot someone, because the sound was just going to be a disaster. So we were thinking about how we could remedy the sound problem and I had this idea that we turn the monitors, these two big QSCs, up to the level for the audience and see if that changes something and it changed everything. The room was so small that the two QSCs sounded incredible for the room. They happened to be the perfect complimentary sound to the shitty sound of the big speakers. We ended up having a really, really good sound and a really good show. You have to do your best to get the place looking and feeling exactly how you want.”
The obsessive attention to detail is paramount, and the results are astounding. Not least when this process was applied at Simple Things festival in October when he headlined Crack’s first foray into festivaldom. Photographs of the venue were sourced in order for Jaar to approve our choice. The performance was an unmitigated success.
And now here we are, sitting in his apartment, a setting which defines Jaar in all his facets. Books on comparative literature (the degree which he studied throughout his meteoric rise) adorn his bookshelves, while Nietzche sits alongside a French-language obituary to Lou Reed as coffee table reading. Having achieved the kind of adoration in dance music those at the upper echelons usually achieve at nearer double his age, 23-year-old Jaar is a total anomaly.
A character of deadpan brilliance, blessed with a confidence not just in his musical ability, but his place amongst the cultural variables that underpin the wider musical world. His Essential Mix, RA podcast and XLR8R mix were musical excavations on a higher level, incorporating thorough deviations into jazz and classical. Put simply, very few DJs could accomplish that, and reclining in our seat in his inner sanctum, it’s clear exactly why an individual who has bathed themselves in their own worldliness can. With Dave Harrington’s avant-garde jazz expertise adding yet more weight to the already lofty musical palette, DARKSIDE was always going to find a home in New York and far, far further afield.