For Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington, DARKSIDE remain a shared language
When DARKSIDE ended in 2014, Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington never dismissed the possibility of a return. Seven years later, they’re back with their second full-length, ‘Spiral.’July 19, 2021
When asked about his warm-up routine, Harrington jumps out of his seat to grab his guitar, explaining how he took it upon himself to learn “a particularly hard” Grateful Dead cut in preparation for a benefit concert at Brooklyn Bowl in 2017. The tricky part is the turnaround from “Help On The Way” into “Slipknot!” off 1975’s Blues For Allah.
“It’s this insane sequence of arpeggios,” he elaborates. “And I know that I’m warmed up if I can play it correctly at the right speed.”
Much like how you don’t need to be versed in the Grateful Dead’s vast number of bootlegs to appreciate their approach to live music, you don’t have to unravel every meticulous layer behind DARKSIDE—the collaborative project between Harrington and electronic producer Nicolás Jaar—to sit back and enjoy the journey, but it’s more fun if you try. Their fusion of rock and techno calls to mind the murky unpredictability of Davis’ electric period, the rhythmic jamming of Can and the expansive nature of Pink Floyd—a split between immediacy and alienness. Lean in closer, though, and it’s the byproduct of two perceptive listeners making music together, bizarrely in sync.
When DARKSIDE disbanded after one album (if you don’t count their intrepid reimagining of Random Access Memories as DAFTSIDE), Jaar and Harrington never dismissed the possibility of a return. In their world, everything is possible—or at least worth trying. So come 2018, they rented a house in Flemington, New Jersey, creating six songs within a week. By December 2019, Spiral, their long-awaited second album due out July 23 via Matador Records, was complete.
The most forward-thinking music affords a certain experience, whether that’s Meddle or Music Has The Right To Children. Spiral offers that in spades, each track exploring moments of eeriness and groove that make their bond palpable. There’s the ghostly opener “Narrow Road” and the warped funk of “The Limit.” On “Inside Is Out There,” the album’s longest song, the duo’s interconnectedness conjures images of Can during their live shows—stretches when the band would become so locked in that you could stand there for 20 minutes nodding your head to one song. With Spiral, Jaar and Harrington are once again seated in front of a crystal ball, but they’re not giving away the answers for free.
I wanted to start with how DARKSIDE left off when you released “Gone Too Soon” and announced the hiatus in 2014. That song almost felt like a eulogy because it coincided with the band’s break. I think a lot of people believed that DARKSIDE were going to be a one-album project. Was there always a plan to reconvene for another record?
DAVE HARRINGTON: I think we had always left the door [open], left the possibility open. I think we’ve always operated with a mix of planning and improvising, musically and in our decision-making processes. And so I think leaving ourselves open in that way was the intention at the time. And when we got back together to start recording again, we weren’t necessarily like, “OK, here we go. We’re working on the album.” We were like, “Let’s spend some time together. Let’s make some music. Let’s see how it feels.” And then the album started emerging. So I think that’s our modus operandi, as it were.
Did you have any aspirations or expectations for yourself going into it? It feels like you guys never make the same album twice, and it’s just magic.
I think because there were no expectations from our first sessions, that informed the process. I think there were new things we wanted to experiment with and try. But we also didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s make a song that sounds like this [one] that we’ve already made, or we have to do our sound or something.” I think our sound is the two of us getting excited about making music together. And I think there are a lot of musical ideas and touchstones that we share, but I don’t think there are any rules.
What I love about listening to DARKSIDE is the balance between the two of you. It feels 50/50, and you can always cut through what Nico’s doing and really establish a presence. What do you think you bring to DARKSIDE that you can’t accomplish solo?
I think Nico and I have a shared and idiosyncratic love of a certain type of groove and certain ideas about songwriting. Songwriting is just not a part of my solo world. I play a lot of things, but I don’t sing. And left to my own devices, I tend toward a certain kind of abstraction that I think feels different even when I’m operating in that mode. With Nico, immediately, my guitar approach changes.
But I think that there are things that I do and ideas I like to explore with the guitar—from a textural perspective, from a melodic perspective, from a use of electronics integrated with the guitar. Those are fundamental things. When Nico’s in the room, they come out differently. And I find myself dropping into zones. And just today I’m thinking about certain kinds of groove that I don’t feel I can really get to on my own.
I know improv is where you thrive, too. How much of the record is improvised, or is that just how it always starts?
Improvisation is a tool that gets used a lot for me—and for us. The first time we ever played music together, we were improvising at the time. It was like 10 years ago, and we were improvising around some of his solo music [Space Is Only Noise]. It was just the baseline from the get-go. And I grew up studying jazz and being a jazz bass player until I started working with Nico, really, which is when I started playing guitar seriously. And I think that spending a decade-plus as a teenager chasing a jazz dream does things to your brain where the improvisation just gets baked in.
So I think it’s a technique and a, like I said, tool in the toolbox that gets used not in just the service of a “jam,” quote-unquote, but as a different way to think about songwriting, as a different way to approach production work, to be moving on the fly and ready for things to change and responding to change in real time. That’s really what improvising is. It’s like planning vs. responding. What was the plan vs. we were in a moment, and it felt good.
Not writing your guitar parts beforehand and then going into it.
Right, and just being in a moment where some songs start from an idea, some songs start from a chord progression, some songs start from a lyric. But also, Nico likes to work really fast. He can work very fast when he’s in producer mode. And so sometimes that leads to a song coming from a tiny slice of a guitar idea. Then suddenly, that’s an improvisational way to build a whole song.
Did you have to condense it down at all? I guess I’m thinking more of Miles Davis’ electric period when it was like jam and edit, and they just had hours of stuff.
Most of my solo records have been made using that Teo Macero electric Miles approach, which I am a huge fan of. But because of the way that Nico and I work, it’s more of a seamless thing between performance and production, like spin[ning] around each other when it’s the two of us working because the production is also an instrument versus when I’m working [on my own stuff], like [in] the Miles context, I’ll be working with a band usually and then chasing some ideas, and then I’ll go back through the pile of tape and see what I liked.
But that process, when Nico and I are working together, condenses upon itself while it’s happening. So it’s not so much of jamming and then we’ll go back and find the idea. It’s more like as the idea arrives, then we can jam on it, and then it can turn into something else, and then that can turn into something else. And then we’ve arrived at something.
I was picking up a little bit of Miles Davis with how alien some of the record sounded. The song I return to the most is “The Limit” because I love the immediate funk. And then toward the end, it gets ambient and alien. Was he someone you were thinking of?
I’m constantly thinking of Miles Davis. The electric period stuff is a huge touchstone for me. I’ve thought about it and listen to it so much. It’s just stuck in my brain and my fingers and my ears, and I went through a period, maybe it was around 2018 or 2017, where I found my dad’s old copy of his original mono pressing of Kind Of Blue. And I just listened to Kind Of Blue every day for the whole summer. I just never took it off my turntable.
When Nico and I work together, we have shared languages, but we rarely talk about references. I think that we’ve played together so much and we’ve played in enough different contexts over the years that we don’t really point at something and be like, “Let’s do it like [this artist]. Or, this would feel great if it sounded like X.” I think that we have a shared language that’s built on points of reference like everyone has, but names like that don’t come up in the room when we’re working together.
I think the track that really struck me on Spiral was the second to last one, “Inside Is Out There.” You guys felt so connected and locked in. Do you remember making that song, and could you walk me through it at all?
I remember when we were finding the bones of it for the first time and thinking that it was something really exciting. The making of it was like a combination, at various stages working on that song, of jamming and composing. I couldn’t even go back and break down what is what. I love that that one stands out to you because there were a lot of moments working on the record where, at least to me, I felt like we had found a new crayon—like a new color to draw with, a new paint in the paintbox. And that was one of those moments for me. I was like, “This is us, but it doesn’t sound like my memory of what we sound like. It sounds like something new.” And those kinds of moments were really exciting.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the album imagery. I love how the crystal ball keeps coming back—on the cover of the live record and the two studio albums. Do you think of making music as a spiritual practice?
The short answer is yes, and the longer answer is hell yes. Certainly for me. The thing that I love most about music is that it’s a community practice, whether that’s a community of two or whether that’s being involved in a scene in the city you live in. For me, I identify as a collaborator first. I thought I was a bass player [and] I still love playing bass, but now nobody calls me to play bass anymore. I became a guitar player. Then I became a DJ. What I like about it is sharing music with people in a space, in a context. It’s the community part of the whole thing. So if that’s not a spiritual practice, then what is?
You can read the full interview in issue 396, available here.