Nicolas Jaar explores his DARKSIDE
Genre-defying prodigy Nicolas Jaar has teamed up with guitarist Dave Harrington for an ambitious project that throws elements of rock's outer limits into Jaar's potent mix of jazz, house and ambient. We discuss their venture into the DARKSIDE
At 23, Nicolas Jaar has already assembled a list of accolades that suggests a level of creative maturity far beyond his years. The Chilean-American’s 2011 debut LP Space is Only Noise was hailed by many critics as the album of the year, and in 2012 he was voted the best live act in the world by Resident Advisor readers. As if that wasn’t enough, Jaar has recently wound up one record label, Clown & Sunset, in favour of his new imprint Other People; and somewhere along the way, he’s found time to study comparative literature at Brown University. Perhaps surprisingly for a man whose music is marked by an otherworldly sense of space and timelessness, Jaar is fundamentally restless in his determination to explore new creative avenues.
The latest of these is DARKSIDE, a collaboration with his touring guitarist and fellow New Yorker, Dave Harrington. Following their debut EP in 2011, Darkside are set to release their first full-length, Psychic, this month. While the record is unmistakably a Jaar project in its rich textures, elastic sense of temporality, and seamless fusion of disparate genres, Harrington’s background in rock and blues adds a new dimension to the mix. The results have some uncanny, unexpected echoes, with certain points recalling the solemn post-rock soundscapes of Labradford, while others suggest Pink Floyd’s dreamy theatricality.
The duo’s name is not, however, a nod to that outfit’s magnum opus, as Harrington assures The Skinny when we catch up with the pair over the phone from New York. Rather, he explains, the word came into use when they first started working out material together in 2011, and discovered an intuitive musical connection – one that could sometimes be unnerving, in its sense of accessing “the other part, the dark part, the part you don’t see. The part that’s secret, maybe a little dangerous.” The word eventually “became like an adjective, something we would use when things got a little bit scary, intense, exciting, or noisy.”
That instinctive approach to composition has always been central to Jaar’s creative process. He tends to speak about his music in terms of honesty, integrity and experimentation, eschewing any sense of a prior overarching vision, and Harrington clearly shares this mindset: the way they work, he explains is “not very calculating... we respect each other, and we work together well, and we have fun. So, if there’s any vision, it’s that we trust each other.” It’s a compositional approach perfectly suited to collaboration, and this shared understanding goes some way to explaining the eerie sense of connection evident on the appropriately-titled Psychic.
“We all want to just go in this weird direction, to combine these two things that really should not work” – Nicolas Jaar
Jaar also has a sense of wider cultural currents that might relate to his own work in unexpected ways. At one point our conversation turns, somewhat surreally, to Swedish house megastar Avicii, whose recent True LP is a bizarre amalgamation of populist 4/4 dance music and country. Jaar sees this, along with Daft Punk’s recent embrace of live instruments on Random Access Memories (which was remixed in its entirety by Jaar and Harrington, under the name Daftside) as evidence of a broader cultural movement: “We all want to just go in this weird direction,” he suggests, “to combine these two things that really should not work.”
That said, both members of DARKSIDE are keen to stress the project’s serendipitous origins. Without their creative relationship, Jaar explains, “I wouldn’t be making guitar music. So whether it’s part of the zeitgeist or not, honestly, Dave and I just needed to get into a studio together two years ago, we needed to make music.” Yet he is aware of the duo’s distinctive value, declaring himself to be “very excited by what is left to be done with rock instruments, and how they can be combined with electronic instruments in maybe novel ways... There’s something there which still excites me, the idea of layering real drums with electronic drums, and layering guitars with synths – there’s still, it seems to me, things there left to be done.”
From many producers, such sentiments might sound naive, but even a cursory listen to Psychic demonstrates how assured Jaar and Harrington are in their ability to mould genuinely new, cohesive forms and textures from this combination of rock and electronica. While collaborations between artists from different generic backgrounds often feel awkward and artificial, the duo’s shared faith in the creative value of instinct and intuition allows them to avoid such pitfalls. That spirit, in fact, is wired into the band’s very reason for existence: DARKSIDE really developed as a means of pursuing improvisation and experimentation, aside from Jaar’s more high-profile solo work.
“You know, we’d be in Oslo playing a festival with Nico and we’d get asked to play an afterparty in a tiny club as DARKSIDE,” Harrington explains. “Basically all of those shows were experiments. Each one would be radically different. One would focus on playing slow, one would be focused on playing loud. It was just whatever was exciting us at the time: we could use these shows – that were mostly pretty small – as kind of workshops, experiments, little laboratory environments.” Of course, Jaar has always been known for his fearlessly unorthodox, improvisational approach to live performance as a solo artist as well; but both recognise that working as a duo has brought a new creative depth to the experience.
Despite DARKSIDE's germination in this kind of impromptu, small venue approach to live performance, both Jaar and Harrington are enthused by the prospect of touring larger venues in October, when they will play Fabric in London, Berghain in Berlin, and the AB Club in Brussels. For Harrington, “playing in larger venues can be very exciting. Sometimes DARKSIDE can be like a bulldozer if we want it to be, or a wrecking ball. What we do live is very much built around improvising, trying to do something that fits that room, that night, that moment. So if it’s a big room and a big moment, we’re gonna pull out the wrecking ball!”
Jaar concurs, dismissing the idea that large venues are necessarily impersonal. “It can feel really good to play in front of a lot of people, because DARKSIDE's music is kind of meant to fill a big space, and we feel very close to the crowd.” That represents one way in which the duo are crossing conventional boundaries between rock and electronica. “When you see those DVDs of Queen playing in the most gigantic stadiums,” Jaar explains, “guitar just does the job, you know? It’ll just fill any space, and so will huge electronic synths – with that, playing to a lot of people feels intimate.” That closeness is also maintained, Harrington stresses, by avoiding a conventional performance of recorded material. “When everything’s on the line, when anything can happen, when you open yourself up to being an improviser and an experimenter, in front of a lot of people, those people become part of what you’re doing, whether they like it or not.”
With its emphasis on slow and fluctuating BPMs, Psychic also suggests that the duo's upcoming shows will challenge typical expectations of a dancefloor-friendly set at venues like Fabric and Berghain, just as Jaar’s solo shows have. He’s keen to stress, however, that the choice of venues doesn’t reflect a deliberate intention to explore the boundary between gig and club night; rather, he explains, such decisions are guided by the club scene’s emphasis on sound quality. “I want to play a show with the best sound possible, honestly. I don’t care about much else... I want the music to go through speakers that I can trust, so that’s why we picked those venues.”
Characteristically, then, Jaar is unwilling to position himself as an artist who deliberately challenges orthodoxies, preferring to stress the instinctive approach behind his music. In Harrington, he’s clearly found a kindred spirit: through collaboration and improvisation, the project has further accentuated the sense of fluidity and possibility that has always permeated Jaar’s work. In fact, he’s so enthused by DARKSIDE that he believes the project represents a long-term future, despite his restlessly creative nature. “Most people usually start with a band and they go solo,” Jaar explains, “but I weirdly happen to have reversed that. I was solo for five years, but now this is a new phase.” As always, however, the only certainty is that whatever he goes on to do, Jaar will continue to produce music that defies expectations and conventions.