How Darkside made one of the year’s best albums

Overnight, Pitchfork unveiled their verdict of Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s debut album together as Darkside. Psychic – the first LP to come out of years of the pair playing and touring alongside each other – didn’t underwhelm. Slapped with a round 9.0 and the site’s “best new music tag”, the record had certainly won the ever-discerning website over.

To anyone who’s followed Nicolas Jaar’s career, the high appraisal won’t come as any surprise. From his early EPs to his 2011 solo album Space Is Only Noise and, more recently, his “bold, brave and timeless” year-topping Essential Mix, the 23-year-old Brown graduate’s output has been consistently excellent. Darkside’s debut LP, on the now-defunct Clown & Sunset, was equally as assured. Then there’s Jaar and co’s left-of-centre pursuits: the five hour MoMA performance inside a geodesic dome, the music playing prism and the launch of subscription-based imprint Other People in July (“just like a magazine, we deliver new content each week,” the website explains).

The Other People site is where you can, as of Friday, get your hands on Psychic – if you can successfully navigate the maze-like website and sign up as a subscriber. So, yes: it might not be music aimed at the masses, but just as Pitchfork called it, Darkside’s record is easily one of the year’s best. In the days leading up to Psychic’s release, inthemix got both Dave and Nicolas (or Nico, as his collaborator calls him) on the phone. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a base-level chat.

In the press release info about Psychic, it says: “I thought I was making a dance record. I thought I was making a rock record. We both failed”. What kind of record is it, then?

Dave: Well I think it’s a psychedelic record. It is like an open door to walk through.

Nico: I think it’s whatever you want it to be, honestly. That might be a boring answer, but it’s truly – we don’t see the music that we make as a very concrete statement. We see it as an open statement.

Do you hate it when journalists ask you to label your sound?

Dave: I don’t hate it, it’s just hard. It’s just not somewhere I come from. I didn’t get into music to do this specific thing over there. You absorb a lot of music, you absorb every genre and then something comes out that’s honest and that’s you and that is whatever it is. In a way, it’s not our job to tell people what is. It’s like, that’s where the fun is. They get to decide.

So were there any specific themes you explored themes you explored with this record?

Nico: Beyond theme what’s more important is the fact that this is the first time Dave and I were in an actual studio making music. That was very new for us. We were really felt like we were a band, we were a band in a studio making an album. That’s not something either of us had experienced before.

Yes because I was going to ask – did you deliberately set out to make this record together or did it come about somewhat unintentionally after years of working together?

Nico: About a year ago, it felt very right. It felt it was in the air that we had to write this thing. It became very obvious to both of us. I don’t know why, but it became very obvious.

I saw your set at Sydney Festival earlier this year which you might remember was delayed due to sound issues. So I wanted to ask – how important is having the sound perfect to what you do with your live shows?

Dave: I mean, we care about sound. For us, putting on a good show is about the sound. There are some bands where there are lots of elements that go into a good show, but for us, it’s all about sound. So unfortunately, we hope people will be patient, but sometimes that happens. Sometimes you’ll get somewhere and think you’ll have an hour to plug everything in and sometimes it takes five hours. There’s a few things we’re very perfectionist about, but this and one of them and that’s because we want to give people our best.

Nico: But beyond that, I remember the specifics of that show was that there was a circus show right before in that same venue and we had to strike everything and put up our own stuff and there were a lot of miscommunications – we got there thirty minutes before we were due to start and nothing was set up. So that wasn’t really a sound issue, that was more of a logistical thing that no one should really know about. It was just logistical.

Fair enough. Because I was looking at your upcoming tour dates and I saw you have shows booked at Berghain and Fabric, both clubs which are renowned for having really excellent sound systems. Do the venues you’ll be able to play at influence your decision to tour at all? Do you only want to play at venues that can deliver the right sound?

Nico: Yeah, after touring for a long time you start knowing what you want and the type of experience you want to give to people. So we know that Berghain and Fabric will be able to give people what we are working very hard to achieve. We know that we can have a chance – whether we’ll be able to do it is another question. But we’ll have the best chance we can, because they are a blank canvas where the sound you’re putting out through them is exactly the sound that’s being made.

So are you planning to tour the Darkside record in Australia? Are there any venues here that you’re interested in playing at?

Nico: Yeah we will be playing in Australia, we can’t say where yet.

Dave: For the record, we have had some of our best shows and some amazing times playing in Australia. In a very sincere way, it’s always been good vibes for us playing there.

So you mentioned sound being one of the things you’re perfectionists about. Is there anything else you’re inflexible on, anywhere in the music making process?

Dave: Not really. The flipside of us being perfectionist about some things, like making sure the bass is just right and the highs are nice and sparkly, is that we also like the extreme opposite which is chaos, accident, mistake. These kind of things – whether you’re making a record or playing live – are just as important. That’s a bit of an extreme point of view to take, but accidents, thing happening in the moment and being wrong and running with it, that’s important to us.

And this record is coming out on Other People which as I understand it has replaced Clown & Sunset. Nicolas, you’ve said before that you shut down Clown & Sunset because you didn’t feel it – or Space is Only Noise – represented your sound anymore. Does that mean you want to distance yourself from that album?

Nico: No, not necessarily. That’s where it started. You can hear, if you listen to Darkside, where the sound has gone and what it has mutated into. It’s become more collaborative, a little more live. It’s just the idea that music must evolve, you’re kind of boring people doing the same thing all the time. I feel like I’m excited about Other People because Other People is a very, very open label, we can have anyone we want on it but with Clown & Sunset, it very quickly grew into having a very specific sound palate.

So what instruments did you use for this album?

Dave: We used everything we could get our hands on. The cool thing about us working as a band is that between the two of us we can kind of do whatever we want. There’s a lot of stuff we both do in terms of instruments and things we do differently but anything I can’t do, I can go to Nico and say “I’ve got an idea, can we do this thing?’ And he can be like “yeah, I think we can do that”. Or Nico can come to me like “Dave, I think this song needs a little bit of free jazz trombone” and I can be like “oh yeah, I can do free jazz trombone.” We have this very open-ended working dynamic where between the two of us we can reach out to sky and go what does this song need now?, if that makes sense.

So is it hard for you guys to know when a track is finished?

Dave: A lot of what we do in the way that write, the way that we play live and the way that we think about music has to do with improvisation. And in improvisation, there’s a saying that in order to really do improvisation well, you have to say yes to every idea. Once you’ve said yes to every idea, something new can happen. That’s kind of the way that we’re working. One of us will have an idea, and we’ll try it, we’ll say yes to that. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right idea, but it’s taken us a step further towards something, so we do that. And eventually if you keep saying yes, you find something you like and the yes idea is like “Hey Nico, I think it’s done now.” Then Nico’s like “Yeah, it is done.” And then we’ll sit with it for a minute. And maybe I’m right. Or maybe not. But really it’s the same kind of evolution where we go back and forth and we say yes, yes, yes and eventually the idea is “it’s done.”

So I was listening to the album last night and a lot of the individual track lengths were quite long. Was the intention for each track to be an immersive experience on its own or do you really intend for this album to be listened to only as a whole?

Dave: We both love albums that are full ideas, that are full statements. Not in any retro-fetishistic kind of way, but in my musical life there’s really almost nothing better for me than putting on an album and being like “I want to listen to this record, and I want to listen to the whole fucking thing.” So that’s the thing I think we both strive for.

In the scheme of things, 50 minutes, that’s not the biggest length of time. We like big ideas and we like big chunks of information. It’s not about asking too much or not asking enough, it’s about making the statement. And 50 minutes is one third of how long any good action movie is! So I think that’s a reasonable about of time to invest in a set of ideas and allow a set of ideas to percolate over a longer statement, rather than just a three minute pop song.

Yeah because I guess listening to the album, it’s a really brilliant and immersive experience but it doesn’t really feel like there’s any singles. Was that intentional?

Dave: I mean, if we could write big top 40 radio singles then we’d have a different kind of life. That’s just not what we do. I love – there’s an anecdote about when Syd Barrett kind of lost his mind, and couldn’t be in Pink Floyd anymore they were like “oh man, what are we gonna do, we lost our frontman.” And they spent a year jamming and eventually figured out how to write songs together. And those songs, they were like “this is the best we can do”. And these songs, it’s like, we tried our best. It’s not like we’ve gone out of our way to not make singles, we want people to come in and enjoy it and live with it. We tried our best.

Is there an incorrect way to listen to the album? Would it upset you to think of people listening to it on crappy laptop speakers, for instance?

Nico: No. In this day and age, we make music in order for people to completely annihilate it in every way possible and hope it can still stand up in some way or another. If you’re a musician in this day and age, you have to know that your music is going to be heard in the worst sound quality ever in the history in music. It’s something you have to take into consideration when you’re making it.

And you both remixed the whole of Random Access Memories. Was tackling something of that size, and something that’s so well loved, daunting?

Dave: No, I mean we only did it because it was fun. It wasn’t like they asked us to do it, It wasn’t like anyone told us “guys, you really have to go out and remix the whole Daft Punk record and you gotta do it now, you’re on a deadline.” We did that because we –

Nico: – because we were having a really good time doing it.

Dave: We remixed one of the tracks together, we bought the whole fucking thing on iTunes and then we were like “well, that was fun”. Then Nico did another one and sent it to me and I was “oh shit, this sounds pretty nice”. Then I did a joke one and sent it to him and it kind of snowballed out of control. We made it right when we had finished our record and when you finish a record, it’s very heart-wrenching to go through those final phases and be like “it’s done, it’s done”. So we came out of it and had all this extra energy, creative energy that we hadn’t put into making music, and we kind of threw it against the wall of the Daft Punk album.