Darkstar capture the energy of pre-lockdown life with new track Jam
Emerging in the mid-00s amid the post-dubstep explosion in the UK, Darkstar quickly moved away from their early dancefloor-focused efforts towards something harder to pin down. Initial 12”s caught the attention of Hyperdub, where they developed the stepping cyborg funk of Aidy’s Girl is a Computer and then changed tack almost immediately with their debut album North.
James Buttery has since joined and departed as lead singer, while their last full-length, Foam Island, was built around interviews they conducted with young people in Huddersfield not long before the 2015 general election, an arresting snapshot away from the media’s fixation with London.
Five years on and they’ve arrived somewhere near the beginning. Today we’re premiering the track Jam, which, with its typewriter 2-step shuffle and aquatic chords, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on their early releases. The pair’s forthcoming album Civic Jams is full of these sounds: broad brushes of melancholic warmth often underpinned by metronomic propulsion. Thematically it’s closer to the club too, examining parties and the public spaces which allow us to breathe living in the knotty claustrophobia of modern Britain, something that feels especially pertinent while we’re all stuck inside.
Listen to Jam below and read on as we ask one half the duo, James Young, about their new music and what led them to this point.
Could you start by telling us a bit about the track Jam which premieres today?
It’s [about] all the overspill goodness you’re exposed to when you’re going about your day. Cars that fly by blasting tunes, pubs spilling out into the sun, getting a waft of bud in the park – it’s all the sensory things that you cram in depicted through a lovely two-stepper.
It comes from your new album, your first since 2015. How has the way you make music changed in that time?
Music-making has changed, but London changed too, we had to jump around a bit to find the time and space to make this record. Studio space got closed down or too expensive, we had to manoeuvre to get going.
We [also] stripped the record back. We had a clear idea of the things we wanted to have space and be prominent and just honed that idea of giving those elements room to breathe. In the past, we’d probably have looked to have written more or added a change but we wanted this album to be comfortable sitting in its own linear space.
The album is billed as a more personal offering than past works. What compelled you to show more of yourselves than before?
I think we’re probably over a lot of what Darkstar first was or became, we’re not ticking any boxes or appeasing a particular idea of where we want it to be. With this record, we very much let our life into it and enjoyed that. We both spend a lot of time with our families and it really put perspective on what we wanted this record to be. It is personal but it’s really comfy being personal.
Vauxhall. Photos by Darkstar
Parties have always been touchpoints in your music, though you wouldn’t consider your music to be dancefloor records really. Is the club an important place for you still, pandemic notwithstanding?
You can view parties and raves and clubs retrospectively and understand the lasting impression they have on you. Our sound is very much peripheral to what those things are. It’s always off centre and in a space we honed, more so with this record, but that influence can’t not shine through. Our records are dancefloor records but there’s always that blurred edge to them, I hope.
You’ve talked about public space being a key concept with regard to Civic Jams. Can you expand on this a little? What’s brought your focus to these places?
You see the things that inspire you being squeezed and squeezed. Another closure and redevelopment. We made this record in London. Aiden has a young family here. It is home but it’s changed to the point of it being a completely different city to what it was. So when you stumble across something that still holds on in spite of the fuckery it’s faced with – it rings out loud.
That ‘thing’ is open to interpretation. It could be a mates party, or a pub with an actual identity, It could be a local cafe, a record shop, the park or [something] more personal like your girlfriends or boyfriends, tea with your folks or whatever else. It’s that space you most value in contrast to a very changing landscape and culture that wants something different than you. So articulating the moments you hold dear is what the record is about, it’s holding on when you’re trying to make sense of why things are changing.
"It’s [about] that space you most value in contrast to a very changing landscape and culture that wants something different than you."
Have these places commanded extra significance for you now that we’re unable to visit them?
We both live in Vauxhall and we’re in this little community that was a squatting community and it’s got communal gardens and a co-op organisation for the neighbours. It’s not what you’d think Vauxhall would be, just a stone’s throw away you have probably the most aggressive redevelopment in London. Add to that the consistency with which clubs, shops and independent businesses are being squeezed out and it’s hard not to be aware of your space.
And now this pandemic and what was tough is now fucking hardcore. So regardless of my interest to see if this is a reset or if I miss anything, I think survival is more prevalent for these places. Their significance to me isn’t really what I’m thinking about anymore, it was a novel first thought, but then the sobering reality of this situation shook that out of me. It’s about helping now.
Your music often seems to be fixated about this idea of home, and often the north of England, something bittersweet and somehow left behind. Do these things play into this new record? If so, how?
I’m practically there half of the time so it’s less of a fixation and more a constant presence and something that has to be included or even dictate when we’re making music. It’s like a tonic to all the distraction that we navigate when putting something together, an anchor. I read back on a few interviews where this was touched on and I think we’ve always been careful in looking at the north as a more abstract presence. Our north is very personal and almost make-believe, it rolls out to wide-open warmth and it glows.
How are you holding up during lockdown? We’ve been interested to ask people whether or not they’ve found the extra time to be a stimulus or a hindrance for their creative endeavours.
We’re making tunes and staring out the window a lot like everyone else. I wouldn’t say it’s a hindrance, we’re in a position of having new material and a record ready to go which is madness for us. But to be honest the overriding feeling from both of us is ‘wtf.’ You check in on the news and it’s deeply affecting, you hear the most heartbreaking accounts of loss and the outpouring of grief and the stats are grim. What does all that mean? How do you process that? We’re lucky to have this to focus on and lucky to have people that believe in the record but that is the very real situation of what’s going on so trying to balance it is honestly a long way off.
Given that a lot of the methods of comforting oneself this album addresses are unavailable to us now, what other ways have you tried to achieve this?
Sitting in the sun with my mum and dad.
Civic Jams is out 19 June on Warp Records.