Darkside's Dave Harrington: We threw a lot against the wall while making the record


Dave Harrington got to know Nicolas Jaar while playing in his touring band, but the duo gradually began writing experimental electronic material together as Darkside. Following a well-received debut EP, some singles, and a complete reworking of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories as Daftside, Darkside's have released their debut full-length, Psychic. It arrived like a hushed sonic whisper.

In the midst of what Dave referred to as a "Minneapolis-style deep freeze" in Harrington's Bushwick, Brooklyn home, we were able to chat with one-half of Darkside before their highly anticipated live tour kicked off -- which includes a show at First Avenue on Saturday. Harrington shared with us the inspiration and origins of Darkside, as well as their striking live show, and the impetus behind their Daftside project.

Gimme Noise: What was the transition like going from being in the live iteration of Nicholas' solo project to forming Darkside?

Dave Harrington: It happened very naturally and organically. The thing that has to be said first, being in Nico's band for a number of years, it was never a case of, "Here's the CD, here's the songs, here's the sheet music, these are the chords" -- there was almost none of that. I think there were about three riffs from the combined EPs and albums that we drew from when we did those shows that I ever had to learn and play. So mostly, it was kind of like a jazz gig. Playing in Nico's band that way, was very much about bringing my voice, figuring out a way to integrate the guitar into this electronic environment, improvising -- all of the things make up Darkside, just with a different set of music. Being that Darkside was born in a live way, and playing shows before we should have, probably, and always improvising -- it was kind of this thing that developed right alongside playing in Nico's band.

Was there a specific moment of inspiration or a motivating creative factor for the two of you to make that stylistic shift to Darkside?

Towards the end of our first summer of touring -- the first real intense long tour -- we started getting into these parts of the show where it was just me and Nico doing this exploration inside of his sets. So we had this idea of something new, and we just decided on a whim to make a song together on an off day in Berlin in our hotel room. And that song ended up being the first track on our EP, and it felt good so we decided, 'Let's make another one.' It was like this thing that was right in front of us, and we would just do it.

That sounds like one hell of an off day in Berlin, that's for sure.

[Laughs] Yeah, it sure was.

You spent the better part of two years, off-and-on, recording Psychic. What was that process like for you?

It was always this thing that was, at once, in the front and the back of my mind the whole time. More than anything, I'd say, it was fun. Things like that are work, sometimes, but only if you think of them that way. It was an exploration. It was a chance to try out any idea that came our way. We threw a lot against the wall in the course of making the record. Something that I really enjoy about working with Nico is that I could just bring in bits and pieces of anything, any kind of idea and we would explore it. It was a very open, exploratory, improvisatory -- not in a jamming sense, necessarily, but in more of a structural approach to writing music together -- process.

You recorded the album at three different locations [Jarr's New York City home, Harrington's family home in Upstate New York, and Paris]. Did the change in scenery and environment affect the tone or tenor of the material at all?

Some of these songs passed through these different environments, so maybe they took on different sheens as they went through Paris or the Hudson Valley. It's hard for me to say. But for me, while I've become more of an electronic producer-type over the last couple of years, I'm still very much a hands-on gear kind of person when it comes to music making. Whether it's turning knobs on effects boxes or playing the acoustic guitar, I really respond to what the thing is that I'm touching when I'm composing.

When you're working in someone else's professional studio and setting up camp there, you have one set of tools. And when we were working at my studio in the Hudson Valley, I have the drum set there that I grew up playing -- it was given to me for my birthday or Christmas when I was eight years old. I have the first guitars that I ever bought there. For me, it's feeling the energy of these objects -- that's what changes, not so much the environment, though that can impact me, but what is in each environment. I don't know if that sounds weirdly esoteric, but that's how I see it.

Nico credits you with having more experimental musical tastes, while he admits that his are a bit more mainstream. How do you think that your disparate styles and influences are able to mesh so well with Darkside?

I think we both have experimental and mainstream leanings, but they are in different directions. But to get right down to it, improvisation is what unites me and Nico. Whether it's noise music, electronic music, dance music, or jazz -- improvisation is what we both grew up doing. Neither of us grew up really playing in rock bands or garage bands or anything like that, we both grew up learning to play music through improvisation and that is what we do when we play live. And improvisation really is, in many ways, our fundamental connection and approach for both of us.

You and Nico clearly poured over every last sonic detail of Psychic, and the results are studied and frequently quite stunning. On an album like that, where you pay such close attention to every detail and small sonic flourish -- how did you both eventually come to the conclusion that it was finally finished?

[Laughs] It's funny, I don't even remember that moment. I don't remember us having a 'Wow Moment' when we knew we were done. But, there's this thing about improvisation that somebody taught me once -- 'When you improvise, you have to say yes.' And then you can kind of figure out what's next. You can't really say no when you are improvising -- even not playing is a form of saying yes, it's saying I don't want to interrupt what's happening around me. So, in terms of the way we work on music and the way that we compose, it's kind of a game of saying yes. That means we try any idea -- anybody has an idea, we try it. And eventually the idea is done, and we try that idea on to see if it fits. So, the game of saying yes eventually leads to someone saying, 'Yes, this is done.'


You had a few festival appearances near the end of 2013. How did those live shows go, and what are some of the challenges you've found in recreating these songs live?

The fun part about playing live is that there are always challenges. But when we play, we don't necessarily try to recreate the album. We do the songs, but they are different every night. They are longer, or shorter, or faster, or slower -- new things happen, things get improvised on the spot, and then maybe they become part of the song. Playing live is really the other half of the whole Darkside thing. Nothing against bands who do just nail their album when they play live -- I've been to tons of great concerts like that. But that's just not what we do. With the two of us playing live and improvising, tearing it apart and then putting it back together is what is fun for us, and hopefully translates into a unique live show. Unique in the sense of singular, not special -- each show will be simply, by dint of reality, different.

One of the most impressive aspects of Psychic, for me, it the amount of emotion and poignancy that you're able to convey through these rather minimalistic songs. How were you able to inject so much sentiment into these spacious, expansive numbers?

I'm glad that you're feeling something when you listen to these songs, but I'm not sure I can answer that. All I can say is that Nico and I aren't naturally songwriters in the conventional sense. What we do is what we like, and is honest. We're not calculating. These are sounds and ideas that we like, and personally I want to make the type of record that I want to listen to. Maybe that sounds simple, but there are certain things about certain records that bring me back again, and again, and again. That is what I strive for. You want to make something that you go back to.

So, do you re-listen to Psychic then? Or have you put that behind you?

[Laughs] Because we're rehearsing and getting ready to play these shows, I live in this strange infinite remix of Psychic. It's kind of my life. I haven't listened to it in a few weeks, but seeing as we are going to start playing some shows in about a week, I'll probably give it a couple of spins before we hit the road.

You are touring with Will Epstein [High Water]. What is your musical history with him, and how excited are you to tour with him?

I couldn't be more excited, and I couldn't share a better musical history. The guy is just the best. When I was in my last year of University and then living in Providence, a friend of mine who was a grad student at the time was teaching an improvisation class that Will was in. Will was a freshman at the time, and I should have been graduated by then [laughs]. My friend said to me, 'You've got to meet this kid. He's a great sax player. He's plays really crazy. You're going to love him.' And me and my buddies just immediately drafted him into our party band. We use to play queer, kind of Krauty spacerock dance music in basements, and we didn't really need a sax player, but we made him join our band. And I've played with him on or off ever since.

He was the one who introduced me to Nico, and was the one who suggested that I join Nico's band. He and Nico go way way back. His new stuff is so great, and he's just one of me and Nico's best friends in the world. So, I'm excited on just a personal level that he is doing this tour with us, but I'm also really excited that people are going to hear the High Water music, because I think he's into some really singular territory with his new stuff.

You recently came to St. Paul for a cool in-studio performance at the Current. Did you get introduced a bit to our Minnesota winter that day?

[Laughs] I did just a little bit. But unfortunately, we weren't around long enough to do much other than just the session. But man, what an absolutely beautiful radio station, and such sweet people who work there. It was like being at the BBC, it was just so nice. They've got great gear, a really beautiful sounding room -- it was such a blast.

What led you guys to do the Daftside remix project? Was that just a way for you to bring some levity and welcome distraction during the long writing and recording process of the album?

In a way. When "Get Lucky" was totally ubiquitous, Nico and I were hanging out and we had just finished up the album, actually. Nico was like, 'Dave, what do you make of this? Why is this song so popular? What's going on here?' And I was like, 'I think it's really all about the Nile Rodgers riff in this song.' There's a subliminal, mystical power that just comes from Nile Rodgers' fingers on guitar strings. He's the hit machine. So, we took a chunk of it and made a loop of four bars of it, and slowed it down where it had a Darkside-like groove to it. Then we ended up just making a full remix of "Get Lucky" together -- we had a DJ gig that we were doing together, and we were like, 'Great, now we have something new to play at our next gig.'

Maybe a week or two later, the album [Daft Punk's Random Access Memories] came out. And the day that it came out, I woke up and Nico had already sent me over a remix of one of the other songs on the album. And before we knew it, we had done remixes for like half the album, and we were like, 'OK, we've got to do the whole thing now. This is too crazy.' It was a chance to try out some ideas that didn't quite make it into our record, in a way. It was a vehicle to try out some things and get some ideas out of our system that were still lingering. It was also so fun, and quick and easy -- just us blowing off some steam from having this extra energy after finishing the record.

Darkside and High Water play First Avenue on Saturday, January 18.