Nicolas Jaar and David Harrington on combining improvised electronic music with the ideals of jazz


Nicolas Jaar’s rise and rise of the last few years owes a lot to a creativity and focus that pushes beyond his 23 years. They’re qualities that helped make 2011’s ‘Space is Only Noise’ such a cinematically experimental success, and those drip-feed beats and fastidious dedication to sonic exploration also run deep with DARKSIDE.

It’s undeniably a project moulded by Jaar’s intense identity but there’s also clear emphasis on the collaborative; the influence of guitarist Dave Harrington (pictured right) colouring the lines between the dead space. It’s a Diff’rent Strokes approach, with Jaar’s ruminative production colliding with Harrington’s impressive guitar work, and collision, exploration and excitement are running themes throughout their debut album, ‘Psychic’, and indeed this interview. They don’t feel like buzzwords, though, more the triumvirate that’s come to define DARKSIDE and underpin how Jaar and Harrington view the band.

RY: You had worked and played together previously but was there a point where the shift in dynamic became more definitively collaborative?

DH: It just kind of happened very naturally. That was partly because the first time I met Nico was when I was playing in his band three years ago and that was already a collaborative endeavour. It wasn’t like I came in and he gave me a stack of sheet music and demo tapes and said, ‘go learn this stuff’; it was more developing a way of playing together, putting the band together with an identity in mind, so from the very beginning, even though it was Nico’s band, I was welcomed into it to do this thing together. Everything grew from there.

RY: So did giving the work a name help crystallise everything for you?

NJ: I think it definitely helped to have a name, it made it very real for us. But honestly, it’s just a title and it could have been any combination of numbers or letters. It doesn’t really matter as long as it focuses the intent of the music and that’s really what Darkside did for us. We were interested in the hidden things, the underside. We don’t know what that means, and whatever that means musically, we’re just trying to explore that. That really helped us and gave us that focus and sometimes you need something very simple like a name to jumpstart something.

RY: Has it always been a case of you two sitting in a room and improvising or has it become more structured than that?

NJ: I’m not sure how it can get any more structured than that [laughs]. We’re not trying to say anything specific with us, it was more the idea that we’d combine the place that I come from, and the place that Dave comes from, and see where it could go. It surprised us, and took us to a place that was exciting and we feel like we’re exploring new things.

RY: How did that impact the way the album was written. Was that more of a sporadic process?

NJ: Ah, well my answer is then it wasn’t organised at all. It was completely impulse driven and it was about Dave and I realising that making the [‘Darkside’] EP (2011) was fun so why not make another song? We did that, had fun, and by the second or third song, it becomes obvious that you’re really enjoying it, so why stop it? It wasn’t like we were trying to finish a record, perhaps until the very end when you realise you’ve got a record, but in the beginning it was a fun project that became like having a band, going to the studio and just recording a load of ideas. In that way, it was just like a friendship.

DH: I agree. If it’s not fun then why even do it? It’s like a rule of life and I try to follow that as much as I can. Things get to be work at a certain point but there’s nothing wrong with that and having craftsmanship, but when we go into a studio, it’s liberating and like a playground for us. We have no problem bouncing and running ideas, we do that for as long as we can until it becomes something we like, or a song, or just something we discard. The way we work has a lot do with just looking at what’s directly in front of us.

RY: Moving on from that, do you think one of the strengths of DARKSIDE is that you each bring something different or unique to the duo?

NJ: Unique is a complicated word because it’s up to you and the rest of the world to decide. For me, we both have our own particular tastes and we were both excited to see what would happen when they collided.

RY: The dominating backdrop to ‘Psychic’ was obviously this collision of styles. Did you have any doubts about it working out?

NJ: We still don’t know if it works and I’m sure a bunch of people think it doesn’t work at all. It’s all subjective, but what’s exciting is that it’s an exploration and it’s questions being asked. In music you hardly ever get answers but asking a question is exciting and whether this is a pertinent question, I don’t know. Does this work? Does it not work? It’s just a question and one we have a lot of fun asking.

DH: Very simply, it’s the two of us working together and I think collision is a great word. It’s not too brutal but I think it’s two different ideas about sound colliding and seeing what dynamic is produced from that interaction.

RY: Having asked the question and creating the album, once you finish it and put it out into the world, do you have expectations for it? Do you think or question yourselves beyond that point?

NJ: I take my job as a musician to be that I do everything until I give it to you, and once it goes out to the world, none of that belongs to me, or about me, the band or the music. It becomes other. The expectations you have for any record or piece of music is that someone out there understands it like you do. You can believe the good critics or the bad critics but it’s completely irrelevant to get hung up on that.

DH: It’s like having a mind like water where you centre yourself. Everything else is just noise, it’s really just about how much you let filter in.

NJ: The idea of critical reception is complicated. I care about the record being understood by certain people around me, like friends’ reception or my family’s reception, and that Dave and I can be proud of it. So those perceptions are more important than someone whose job it is to criticise or laud music because in a way what we do is very personal to us. Obviously music criticism is very important for people to discover new music but it’s not something we look for as part of our job. I know it sounds idealistic but if you were to make music for a particular website or magazine, I think it would sound pretty horrible.

RY: Are you proud of the record?

NJ: Absolutely. If the beginning of creating the record was exciting and fun, the end was more difficult because we want to create a record we can be proud of in 20 years. I hope I look back and think that was an interesting thing we did at that moment in time, but at least for right now, I’m proud of Dave and I’m happy we were able to do something together that makes sense to at least a couple of people.

RY: Playing iconic club venues like Fabric in London and Berghain in Berlin, did you always view the record as one that can be played out in these places?

NJ: The way the record sounds and the way we play live is very, very different.  When we started thinking about how we wanted to play it live, the first consideration was sound. It’s why we played places like The Roxy in LA because it has wonderful sound; it’s why we played at Fabric, Berghain, the AB Club in Brussels. We don’t necessarily play these places because they’re iconic; we play them because they have great sound.

RY: Thinking about the transition from the record to live, sound quality aside, is it a case of not wanting to replicate the experience?

DH: The thing for us when we play live, more than anything, we believe in improvising and taking risks. Taking the album as a block of raw material that can be broken up and rebuilt on that night, on that stage. There’s something amazing about seeing a band and thinking, wow, that sounds just like the record, because that’s its own thing, but for us, what’s exciting about playing live is taking it on a structural level and taking it down to that night, that energy, and trying to tap into that.

NJ: We feel like music is so easily available these days, the actual songs you make, whether it’s Youtube, Facebook or iTunes, the actual experience of seeing something that can’t be replicated is heightened. Everything’s so easily duplicated, so easily recorded, it’s why I see a live show, not just the Darkside live show, but a concert, as an important, unique moment. That’s why some of the best stuff to see is jazz because there’s so much improvisation, and something that happens one night will probably never happen again. To me, in this day and age, that’s much more exciting than just going to see someone play music the same way I can hear it on all those devices.

RY: Do you think the essence of a live show is changing? Is it more about structured sets and high choreography over spontaneity?

NJ: I think it’s going both ways. In electronic music there are a lot of people recreating all their entire music live using analogue, and that’s an interesting way to make it super live. On the other hand, the bigger acts who have a lot to lose get stuck on creating a crazy choreography that cannot live if anyone’s improvising. Sadly you end up watching a click track or watching a non-unique show but that’s what you get when you’re a big act and playing for a lot of people and need to provide something perfect every night.

RY: So there’s still a healthy factor for you? The idea that everything could collapse…

NJ: Well we usually don’t plan what we’re about to do, or necessarily know how to get from one place to the next, but we know that we like to change how we do it because it’s more exciting to change. It just depends on the type of people and what you’re trying to say with your music…

DH: I think you run that risk whenever you improvise and that’s part of the excitement. So that means when you make the choice to not have your show not be your show, then every night you’re choosing to roll the dice and you know that not everything’s going to work. The point is to open up for that moment of magic and be ready for it, because at the same time, it could go horribly wrong. That’s exciting.

Finally, looking ahead to the New Year, it looks like a pretty punishing schedule…

DH: I’d have said celebratory more than punishing (laughs).

NJ: We just want to play to as many people who want to see us play. We make this music, and we’ve made this music for the past two years to take it on the road and give it to people, and I think that’s where the music lives. It’s just as important for us to give the live experience to as many people as possible, even though it does look punishing at times. It’s cool to be on the road but I’m much more of a studio person, I like going to the studio every day and spending 10 hours there and not really thinking about anything else. But playing live is really the other half and it’s really beautiful to have the chance to play the music to other people.

DH: I love a good gig, that’s the best feeling. Period.


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