The Stolen Breath of Things: Daedelus on 'Drown Out'
Alfred 'Daedelus' Darlington tells us how grief inspired his new album, examines the dangers of 'press-play' electronic music and gives some insights into the roots of the LA beat scene
Alfred Darlington is a mercurial chap – whether you know him from the twelve albums he has put out, beginning on Californian labels like Plug Research and Mush, and eventually finding a home on UK label Ninja Tune, or whether you first encountered him as one of the impressive brain trust of producers and beat-makers behind the Flying Lotus-helmed, staggeringly talented Brainfeeder roster, the flagship label for the thriving LA beat scene, he has undeniably become a key influence in the US and international electronic music.
The past year has seen him touring the world with the Archimedes, a robotically-controlled mirror array which he comissioned to be built as an alternative to the “shock and awe” tactics of video-mapped live visuals, lasers, strobes and dry ice. Archimedes cleverly links sonic sculpture and cutting-edge electronica, which he performs using a Monome MIDI controller, described by Darlington as more of “an instrument” than a simple device. Two years on from the elegant, stately album Bespoke, Daedelus has signed to a new label – another California-based operation, Anticon, home to a wealth of underground hip-hop, and more recently, to artists who are “very much playing around with emotional tropes,” as he puts it, like Baths, Deej and WHY?
Having that scope to explore emotional electronic music was essential for the release of his new album, Drown Out, and that is what makes this an Anticon record as opposed to a Ninja Tune one. “Not to put anyone into a box, but Ninja Tune is known for a certain kind of dance music,” says Darlington. “They definitely like their guests, and they have certain interests. I always feel like I am making music for myself, but also for the container... inevitably you make things that fit into that bowl. There is probably a more elegant way of saying it, but it's just a very specific interest that they have.”
“Every kick and snare and melodic fall has to come from somewhere” – Alfred 'Daedelus' Darlington
Returning to a Californian label felt like the right move, and on Drown Out, various musical themes and feelings from his previous work have been allowed to come to the fore. “I can easily see why this record might start to sound like Denies The Days Demise or other earlier material, because it's closer to that world,” Darlington explains. “People who know the catalogue tend to be fans of it.” But there are other reasons why this record allows him to revisit previously-mapped territories: “This is such an emotionally-driven record, it kind of transcends the current musical zeitgeist, at least for me,” says Darlington. “Not to say that I'm 'on-trend' but it pulled me to places I didn't expect, and some of those were older places.”
The emotional turmoil he alludes to was the fallout from the death not just of a family member, his grandmother, but also the untimely death of his friend, collaborator and fellow Brainfeeder alum Austin Peralta. Drown Out is, at least in some ways, an attempt to process and transcend the grieving process. This had specific results in terms of Darlington's approach – for a start, he felt unable to bring in guest rappers or singers, apart from his wife Laura, who features on the sublime Tiptoes.
Darlington was “very tempted” to enlist the help of his new-found Anticon label-mates, “but the record had its own plot. It's so strange to think of it in that way, so outside of oneself. I mean obviously every kick and snare and melodic fall has to come from somewhere, and it has to go through me at some level. But as much as I wanted to involve more voices than are on the record, nothing ended up speaking in very clear tones. Everything is kind of obscured. The words themselves, the language used, the lack of samples in general – with a few notable exceptions – means that as soon as you add a voice, that would add clarity to something that doesn't deserve it. It would add a responsibility to that other person's words that would be undue. It would have been too hard for me to take what is a bunch of hurt, and sadness, and conflict, and make someone else responsible for it. I don't think I can necessarily ask someone for that.”
For a record which has its roots in grief and sadness, Drown Out is by turns uplifting and sublimely melancholic. It convincingly conveys every stage of the grieving process, from anger to acceptance. “I would love to think that on some level, it gets there,” says Darlington. “The truth is, what I take away from the process is that we have to accept the limitations, rather than try to transcend them. A lot of that is to do with the stolen breath of things – that we can have this ongoing conversation with someone and then that is something which ends; with death, or loss, or disease of any kind. People sometimes fundamentally lose that option, and music is kind of the same.”
He remains hopeful that Drown Out can communicate these themes, even without words. “I have often thought of music as being this process where you sculpt, you work on, you add to, you subtract from, and then when it is out in the world, it actually becomes the conversation that you were hoping it would. It's like you are crafting these paragraphs, but they really aren't finished until they meet ears. Then they become something more. They become people's memories and experiences, and all these wonderful things. This record was tough because, as much as I was working like that, I knew that there was more finality in the mix than ever before, not only with the loss I was feeling, but also, even more so, just the music itself. I had this feeling that it was almost like a Jackson Pollock artwork – you're throwing stuff against a wall, and it may be scattershot, it may end in pretty shapes and lines, but in some way it's not meeting it's intention. It continues to be a difficult piece for me even now that it's out.”
One aspect of Drown Out that powerfully communicates a narrative, and its themes, is the cover art. “I gave Ghostshrimp an earlier version of the record – it didn't have all of its polish, but it was largely complete. I told him to go with the title I had in mind, and see where he got. I tried to fill him in, but not too much. I feel like he came up with something which is on the edge of loss, and adventure, and discovery, and treasure. He mines all of it so well, in ways I never could have told him to. The lonely light in an impossible room. The knives-out hobo, or adventurer, or gentleman – it's hard to put him in a box. That falling, maybe drowning figure. These visual metaphors are great.”
Returning to the subject of Anticon, Darlington speaks of the label in reverential terms: “They are a very storied label. They've been around for fifteen years and they've had a lot of moments. I would say the current moment they are in is not so much the underground hip-hop they were associated with – with things like Themselves and cLOUDDEAD, these groups they had their hands in. I would say that at this moment in time... [they] have artists who are willing to explore places which don't get that much breath, necessarily. Especially with Baths, I think – he is a very complex emotional character, and you see him being able to explore certain spaces [on Anticon], whereas I think other labels would be happier to just see him making pretty pop songs.”
The connection to California is also important to him: “There's something to be said for knowing my contemporaries, and having played many, many shows with Baths, and knowing him since before he was Baths, actually. The same is true for a whole variety of artists that they're dealing with now. I'm feeling very lucky in that regard.” He is also full of praise for Anticon's newer signings, such as Edinburgh's Young Fathers, who he says are “tremendous... their live show is so insane.”
The title of his new album may lead you to expect a sonic assault, an increase in volume. But for Darlington, its ambiguity in that regard is its appeal. “I like the dual purpose of it, I like the fact it's a metaphor for audio of course, and then even more powerfully it is this thing that is ocean sized, that we are all connected with, which is the medium which we swim through, which is constantly drowning us out. It ends up being this mixture of heavy and light things, by which we all pass.” Titles are important to Darlington: “I don't like castaway titles. They play in people's imaginations when they hear the piece. The title maybe raises an expectation for loudness, and I think that's reasonable – there are songs on the record that go there. A song like Frisson is meant to be listened to at whatever is the highest volume you can stand. That was my intention. As a title goes, it's supposed to raise expectations, but also let them sink in a bit.”
In recent years, there has been a rising tide of more emotionally complex electronic music, in particular coming from labels like Brooklyn-based Tri-Angle. For Darlington, some of this music has drawbacks, in terms of its presentation. “There is a battle going on between anonymity and obviousness,” he believes, going on to talk about the limited range of emotions dance music has traditionally sought to access: “You can have the party uplift, you can have the desire for drunken carousing, and getting drunk and loud. And that's kinda it, for most things.” He describes trance as being made of “highly-charged emotional chords that are relegated to doing only a few things,” and speaks of the fact that “generally you only have one 'face' you are afforded per genre. Screwface for jungle, bass face for dubstep, the eyes blank thing for gabba.” He is a fan of the “more modern movement, that's more nuanced.”
This more nuanced electronica allows itself to “flit around with different BPMs,” and “there are a variety of expressions and things that are happening.” However, he does have reservations about the anonymity prized by some Tri-Angle artists, and others like Burial: “It's cool that they are plumbing those emotional depths, but I feel a little bit like the chance to interact with these artists has disappeared, because they hide behind masks or anonymity... I feel like it has somewhat stolen the chance of having a real dialogue with them as real people, and for people to know that they can be Burial. Which I know is a funny thing to say, given the campaign earlier this year... but still, he's a real person. As a music-maker and an emotional being, you are able to express and have these feelings as well, and connect truly with this individual, rather than having this gigantic, formless, faceless thing. I don't mean to single out Burial, there are lots of artists in that same camp, it's just a moment in time in electronics that we're dealing with.”
In contrast, he says, “a lot of people from Los Angeles, people from the beat scene and other people you could put under that umbrella, it's wonderful that they are face forward... With Flying Lotus, his face has become so well known that he has become almost kind of a pop icon. He's a beat maker, but he also lives in this other realm. I love the fact that he is willing to put his face out there, and for him to be able to wear his emotional heart on his sleeve... same with Nosaj Thing, Samiyam, Baths. There are so many wonderful artists out there. And I do think that this is something that separates the LA scene from others, is that willingness.”
It is a willingness not only to be recognised, and to connect with an audience in a direct, human way, but also “to go to weird ends; to weird places.” He speaks of the rich seam of “plundering” in the beat scene as “a lot of musical sources that have been either happened upon, or purposefully chosen because of our shared history in the city.... you have these disparate sources all pooling in the same vicinity at this point. That willingness to take widely and bring in is important.” He namechecks Madlib, Prefuse 73 and Dabrye as “people who easily could have fit, and who could have cloaked themselves in the scene,” but says “there is a reason they're not part of the conversation, which I find so strange sometimes, but it's true. They're not part of the conversation because they were a little more prescribed. They came from a different moment in time.”
Thinking back to the origins of the beat scene, he laughs: “One of the first tracks that really felt like the beat scene, to me, was by Mr Oizo – his track Stunt. It's a crazy electro banger. Kutmah, at one of these sketchbook sessions ages ago, would put that track on at 33 rather than 45rpm. By slowing it down, it took on this new aspect, and the funk and the groove and the feel of it completely changed. That's the most beat scene track there is, and it's by a French producer who was trying to make a banger. And that's kind of the spirit around here. Everything has been flipped, from jazz, to old hip-hop, to modern variants, and everything goes through these crazy lenses and becomes this new thing.”
Another important factor in the LA scene is that “the people who seem to be doing well all live very honestly. There's a lot of being true to themselves and telling their stories in these ways that make them individuals, and that gives them voice.” He is excited about the generation of up-and-coming producers in and around the scene, like Team Supreme, and says: “Soon enough, they're going to be the next crazy wave of amazement. You can see it all percolating, especially from the ground floor.”
He is also enthused by the prospect of working with recent Brainfeeder signings The Underachievers, who he describes as “exceptionally talented musicians... willing to tell the weirdest stories ever,” and making beats for the likes of Jeremiah Jae and Jonwayne. Even the fact that FlyLo's rap alter-ego Captain Murphy has been embraced by the likes of Odd Future excites him, and he can see a time where “it's just gonna get really weird. I wouldn't be surprised if very soon – and this could dirty the water a little, but I'm not scared of it – you have people like Bieber, or Miley Cyrus, who are only two steps away from FlyLo, if they're not already meeting. And I'm not saying this is what I wanna see happen – the commodification, or the commercialisation, or even the payment for someone in that position – but I do think that when these weird things rub together it creates this friction that is sometimes very special.”
Using the Archimedes on tour has transformed the way he interacts with his audience. “I've always been aware of mirrors, but until you are sat in front of one, seeing the way people look at themselves, and look at others through them...” He trails off, clearly awed by the possibilities the device opens up. “It's just so funny when you see someone witness themselves at the show, you can see them pause, and stop their flailing, because, maybe, of how ridiculous they looked, but then you also see how much it heightens the situation. Noticing themselves didn't seem to ruin it for them, at least for most of the kids I've been able to keep my eyes on... it's like they are willing to go that much further, to realise themselves in that moment because of how much they witness the fun of it. The carnival funhouse mirror means something. It's wonderful that it allows people, instead of losing themselves in a night, with all the lasers and fog in the world, to be more present, I would hope."
There are drawbacks: “Perhaps it reflects a little too much on the balding that's happening to me... but that's okay too, it keeps the honesty on high,” he says. “I really feel like Archimedes is an idea which has wonderful legs, and soon somebody with much deeper pockets could probably throw a lot of money at it, and do extraordinary things with their own version of it. I have such wonderfully clever people who helped me build it and indeed put the thought into it, and I don't know if someone could do it without oodles of resources. I'm so proud of my guys in that regard, they were so inventive and creative, in terms of design. They're so smart – this guy David Leonard, and Emmanuel Baird. They just finished a piece for the Warehouse project in Manchester – that's a new visual device that the venue will use for the entire season. It's really amazing to see someone like the Warehouse Project – who are famous for their innovation – be willing to step up and do something like this. I think other people will come up with robotic-assisted shows soon – we're just a little ahead of the curve, I guess.”
Another area where Darlington is ahead of the curve is in railing against the culture of 'press play' in electronic music. “It's extremely dangerous to me, because we are culturing a group of audiences, and we shouldn't lie to ourselves,” he believes. “As our shows get bigger, with more shock and awe, it becomes a wonderfully immersive visual environment, but if nothing is happening on stage, and that curtain is pulled back..." He leaves this prospect hanging. "As people become more and more technologically sophisticated, they understand how little is going on. As a very young person with no understanding of the push and pull of records, I was just led to believe that the DJ was playing all of that fantastic music, like strange, early Aphex Twin... Learning that wasn't the case did disenfranchise me a little bit. As a young musician playing instruments, I became disinterested in the electronic scene for a minute, until I discovered more ins.”
He is wary of this effect being magnified by the technology used in electronic music shows: “You have these kids who are witnessing these 'movies' that they are paying lots of money for, in uncomfortable settings. The question is, at what point are they unwilling to do that? At what point does the movie lose its shine, the performer become un-necessary, the hologram lack its lustre? The musicianship, the camaraderie that brought them there, is lost to video-mapped machination. We're in for that – that could be one of the main collapses of this industry. People losing sight of why people come to shows. If you had a show and didn't announce any of the DJs, people might come for the drinking, or the possibility of grinding or twerking. But what would make that more than some night at a bar? What makes it something people are willing to invest time, effort and energy into? Because that is worth more than any amount of money – the young kid who goes to the show and wants to be an electronic musician, or a promoter, who wants to be involved. That stuff pays way more dividends to this scene than any single punter in a room spending money on lager and losing it. We're close to people just disengaging. How many times can you go and see a video-mapped show? You don't go more than once. Why would you?”
One of Drown Out's highlights is Tiptoes, with his wife Laura Darlington, who also featured on the latest Flying Lotus album, singing some beautiful harmonies. “I know to most traditional electronic fans, the idea of plainsong, or Gregorian chants - or early music, whatever box you want to put it in - is a bit unusual,” Darlington says. “But I feel like having that amount of harmony is important.” Their collaborative project, the folk-oriented The Long Lost, is in the midst of assembling its second album, but they are in no rush: “It is very special,” says Darlington. “An unhurried thing is a wonderful thing.”
After twelve years, does he still get as much joy as he used to out of creating music? “That's the craziest thing,” he laughs, “I get more joy out of it than ever.” He has his frustrations: “Over time, the highs and lows of it – the good reviews, the bad reviews... when people weigh in on your value to the commercial world in very easy to add up dollar signs, it's hard. It's a really difficult thing.” Nevertheless, he says,“the thing it comes back to again and again is how much joy I get from the creation process.” Joy and grief, frustration and celebration – these are the themes of Daedelus' new record. Complex, nuanced, and heart-stoppingly beautiful, it is a record you could happily drown in.