INTERVIEW: NICOLAS JAAR & DAVE HARRINGTON, DARKSIDE
Darkside is the collaborative project of electronic musician Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington. Based out of New York City, the duo just hit the road in support of their first full-length record, Psychic, released a few months ago on Jaar’s own record label Other People. Despite their different and eclectic backgrounds, they managed to create a compelling sound unto themselves — a unique mix of psychedelic rock, electro, and jazz founded on a shared vocabulary of improvisation. While they are now just reaching the West Coast — they play at the Doug Fir in Portland tonight, making their way South — right before leaving, Nicolas and Dave were kind enough to enlighten us on their creative process, the organic birth of a project and the need for space in artistic expression.
In a few days, you are going to embark on a world tour. How are you feeling about it, how are you preparing for it? I’m sure you have been rehearsing technically — practicing — and it’s all good. What about mentally?
Dave: Our friend Will Epstein, who is opening for us on the American leg of the tour — his project is called High Water — started referring to it as The Great Journey, and I think it has really opened my mind. Touring and playing shows is the best thing, it is what I love doing and what I want to be good at. So, I’m always excited and a little bit nervous but Will has been calling it The Great Journey and I really like that way of thinking about it. Great in terms of important but, maybe there is something cosmic around the edges if we set off that way.
Nicolas: I wasn’t aware of that, but it’s funny. So it’s The Great Journey. How am I getting prepared for that? I’m not getting ready for it. I’m not ready for it. I’ll be ready for it when we pop the champagne bottle in front of our tour bus in Greenpoint and everyone waves goodbye as if we are leaving on a boat in the 1920s. I’m leaving for five months, because I’m also playing [solo shows] in between the Darkside tour, so I’m leaving for a long time.
Maybe that implies suffering as well. At least to me, “The Great Journey” sounds like going through rough times.
Dave: Well I think there always is some of that in any kind of travel, and certainly touring. You get into modes of problem solving, you always encounter a little bit of anger and challenges and going through that can be exciting. If it was all easy, it would be considerably less interesting.
It would definitely not be exciting anymore after five months, that is true. Besides Darkside, you both have your own projects and you also tour with them. Do you think this first tour experience with Darkside is going to impact your own work or is it something completely detached?
Nicolas: Yes, it always has. Playing with Dave influences me a lot because of his way of thinking. To me, the most exciting thing is to explore and continue to explore. That’s what Darkside is all about: see what things we can come up with.
Dave: These songs are going to sound different from night to night, and from the beginning of the tour to the end of the tour, they’re going to evolve, because that’s how we play live. We improvise.
You’re going to travel a lot, you’ve already traveled a lot in the past. Nicolas, you were raised between Chile and New York, the record was recorded between New York and Paris. Do places matter on your creative process or is it more “whatever happens happens?”
Nicolas: I think so. I’m very lucky that I get to travel and that I get to do what I do. I try to take advantage of it as much as possible. We’re going to have a studio in the bus. I was talking about it to a friend and his reaction was “wow you’re going to be driving through all these different energies, and the ghosts of those energies are going to go into your music”. Going through little energy tunnels in the middle of America, without even being aware of it, that would be amazing.
Is that how you both have been composing, without being aware of it? Without forcing things? From an outside perspective, it seems like you have been experimenting a lot and decided to settle down on particular sounds to make the record. What are the rules of improvisation, if there are any?
Dave: The esoteric idea of what the rules of improvisation are is kind of the infinite question of playing improvised music. In terms of how we compose, how we were working on the record and how we work on playing live, I would say that we write through an improvisational mindset, and sometimes that means jamming, in the way that a band jams — the conventional 4-5 persons band jams. I think that improvisation is something that is crucial to both of us. It requires a certain openness and a certain freedom to explore ideas. On our best days, we take that into a studio where it is just the two of us so we can try any idea.
When you are experimenting, when do you stop on an idea, how do you keep on experimenting when something works?
Dave: Well, I think at a certain point, if improvising is about sensing out the moment, and what it needs, contributing to it, sometimes even in a live context, sometimes that means not doing anything and it means that your contribution has to be silence. And at a certain point, the song presents itself or the piece of music presents itself as complete. It sounds very rudimentary but in a way, while it’s very simple to say that part of improvising is knowing when not to play, it is actually incredibly hard.
When listening to the record, one can feel a symbiosis between the both of you. There is a responsive relationship in the songs and I certainly think this comes from improvising and not planning everything in advance. How did you get to that relationship where still improvising, you know how to listen to each other?
Dave: Part of the reason why we do what we do and the way we do it is because we first met improvising in a room. It is literally the first thing we did: I got recommended to Nico to be the guitarist for his live show, we booked a studio, I went with my guitar and pedals and we jammed. And then we played together touring for a year. The first time we did a Darkside thing, it was the same process. We didn’t even know it was called Darkside, we just started by making a song together.
On a more visual side, I was wondering if there are any images that your music makes in your brain? Or if you picture anything when you are playing?
Nicolas: No — I get asked that question a lot, and weirdly, I surprise everyone by saying that for me my music is music. It is sound and that’s the way I see it. I am glad and happy that people see images. All I see is colors, for sure, but there are no shapes, no people, no landscapes. There are only colors.
It’s really interesting to see how you feel about it. When I listen to your music, it is very enchanting and engaging, also on a visual level. Therefore, I started thinking of the Darkside project as its own world, its own concept, very defined. The name Darkside, the title Psychic, the artwork and the sounds evoke magic, mysticism and even religion, in a way. But this world might have not been created on purpose. I was wondering if it was something you had thought about together, or if it was something that had come up naturally, that just happened.
Nicolas: Yes it is. Mysticism and religion, these are things that can be seen as very powerful but also clumsy and very kind of ridiculous at the same time. And I guess that was the most exciting thing for me about Darkside. It was a music that could maybe feel religious but at the same time could completely be lost and seen as something purely musical and purely weak. In New York City, there are a lot of psychic shops where they give you a palm reading. To me, that was what I thought of Darkside as. In our world today, we are going back and forth between things that are very real and things that are very cheap.
Dave: The concept, what has developed as the idea of Darkside started from us just using the word “darkside” on tour as kind of an adjective or like an adverb. This is a “darkside moment, song, or thing”. It was this feeling that had to do with intensity, noise and mysticism and it has developed gradually. In terms of the visual elements and the lyrics, Nicolas is the lyricist — I have input from now and then but he is singing so he is writing and I think that’s how it should be — but in terms of the visual element and the way you can paint those pictures, whether it is literal or in people’s minds, I like room. I like music and performances that create room for the spectator to explore on their own, not something that necessarily gives you all the information you need. I like things that have space inside of them. One of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life I just saw a couple of weeks ago. It was Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović that they did at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, with Antony and Willem Dafoe. It was this majestic piece of performance art where there was so much space. Even when Willem Dafoe was down stage, yelling at the audience in a German accent, covered in scary make-up. He was this tiny little speck on a giant black stage. There were these tableaux, where I felt like I needed to engage, to contribute, in order to realize what the piece was. And for the same reasons, I feel something weird when I look at Dan Flavin’s light bulbs, I feel something deeply mystical when I stand in a gallery and I look at those light bulbs. The same light bulbs that you have at a doctor’s office, and that’s very exciting to me. The reason why I bring it up is because it has something to do with the fact that it requires a spectator to become something. And it is different from a classical painting, to me. If you look at a beautiful landscape from the 1800s, it is all right there. And it is not a qualitative difference, it is just a difference of experience. It is right there on a canvas and you can look at it or not look at it. And then there are these other ways of working, and they require the object, whether it is the sound or something else, it needs a force to be activated, a body basically.
And so how are you able to do that in your music?
Dave: I didn’t say we did that, because that would make me sound incredibly pretentious. The goal is creating space that let people figure out what they want to do. My favorite records, to bring it back to music, are records that I listen to over and over again. They are the ones that I have integrated into my life, beyond the fact that I just like listening to them. I have this one Tom Waits record that I love. I only want to listen to it, kind of late at night, maybe alone. I never put it on as background music. I want to have one drink and listen to side A of this record. It’s a very specific ritual. It has been integrated into my life. The idea is that in that record there is just enough space for me to walk around it. I made it this thing and it now is this very particular thing to me. I don’t know if that this is what we have been able to make with our record, but I have definitely heard people say that they hear different things when they listen to it. To me that’s very cool. Some people hear it as this, some people hear it as that.
Speaking of leading people to different musical experiences, I believe Nicolas you said that you wanted to take dance music to another level, the chore of it being to create a space where people are happy because outside of that space, people are not as happy. And that was the reason why you wanted to make music initially. What is the thought behind that? Is the real world not a happy place, not satisfying enough to you?
Nicolas: I don’t know. I guess, like everyone, I go through times where I think that the world is a pretty dark place and then sometimes I think there is some hope for us. So when I feel like the world is a dark place, I go inside a club and I try to make a pact with everyone to say “ok guys, let’s try to forget about it, because that’s the best we can do.” But when I am more idealistic, and I feel like the world is a place where we can see progress, then I go into a club and I say “guys, lets try to get to this new place — lets try to progress together.”
So if it wasn’t for music, how do you think you would do that?
Nicolas: I would not do it. I would probably eat all day.
Thats a good solution, eat birthday cake all day.
Full tour schedule.
Photo credits: Isolde Woudstra, Pascal Montary and Antony Crook.