DARKSIDE’s Serendipitous Masterpiece

Read the Listening Notes for This Month’s Essentials Release

On April 27th 2021 » By Arielle Gordon

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DARKSIDE started with a bang, not a whimper. More literally, the joint musical project between Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington began with a small electrical fire in a hotel room. Jaar had just released Space Is Only Noise, his intricate, minimalist debut following a series of crackling, widely lauded singles, and was spending the summer of 2011 in Europe touring the record. On a day off in Berlin, Jaar and Harrington — a member of his live band at the time — decided to channel their excess creative energy into early sketches of a DARKSIDE song. Harrington plugged his guitar directly into a computer interface connected to some small external speakers. After a few hours of jamming, they had almost completed what would become DARKSIDE’s first song, “A1,” when their speakers exploded. Released two years after that initial spark, DARKSIDE’s debut album, Psychic, is a fitting manifestation of that smoke-filled room, a record that simmers with the hazy, slow-building textures of blues, psychedelic rock and dub-heavy electronica.

But in a broader sense, the first inklings of DARKSIDE can be traced back to Providence, Rhode Island. Despite his newfound global recognition — media outlets had dubbed him an “electronic alchemist,” his music a “complete singularity” — Jaar was still a full-time student at Brown University, returning from touring to complete his studies in comparative literature. When it came time to build out his live band, he reached out to Will Epstein, a college classmate and longtime friend. Epstein had already joined as a keyboardist, but envisioning an even broader, more ambitious live sound, Jaar asked him to recommend “the best musician you know at Brown.” Harrington, a few years older and already living in New York post-grad, came up immediately.

“Will called me one day and said, ‘My friend Nico is putting a band together to go on tour in Europe this summer,’” Harrington recalled over the phone from L.A. “At the time, I didn’t know Nico’s music. I mostly came from an improv, jam band, free jazz, downtown New York world, and I wasn’t really well-versed in the electronic world.” Epstein had also recommended that he play guitar, even though Harrington was primarily a bassist. But that instrumental incompatibility subsided quickly; a few hours after their first jam session on the Lower East Side, Harrington signed on as Jaar’s touring guitarist.

As a live act, Jaar and his band leaned heavily into improvisation, taking his album tracks as sketches and building extended jams out of them. “There’s only one guitar part on Space Is Only Noise,” Harrington elaborated. “There was nothing to learn; we just developed a way of playing together. We took the way that we were improvising using his solo music as a framework and then started to write our own music, knowing what that framework for playing was.” Their 2011 European gigs gave them the chance to explore as a live duo as well, playing off-the-cuff, experimental afterparties as DARKSIDE, which Harrington called “little laboratory environments” for the band’s sound. Within a few months of the tour’s completion, DARKSIDE put out their first, self-titled EP.

Inflected with the arpeggiated funk of Harrington’s guitar and the sputtering static of Jaar’s synths, the Darkside EP synthesized their disparate backgrounds into winding, hypnotic rhythms. Its opening track also introduced their striking vocal dualities — Harrington’s slippery falsetto and Jaar’s deep croon — that carved out spine-tingling, octave-jumping harmonies. The two booked their first official DARKSIDE show at Music Hall of Williamsburg that December, only a month after the EP’s release. Fittingly, the initial inspiration for the music that would become Psychic was live performance: they needed enough material to fill a headlining set, despite only having three songs to their name. “I actually don’t remember why we booked a show, because there was really nothing to play, just 15 minutes of music,” Jaar recalled in a 2013 interview with U.K. outlet The Skinny. “I don’t know what we were thinking at the time. But we made 45 more minutes of music in order to be able to play, and out of those, two or three minutes ended up on the album.”

Those early DARKSIDE performances shaped the prevailing mood of Psychic — a patient, elastic groove that grew organically from the interplay of taut techno and sprawling guitar progressions. But the follow-up to their debut, the cheekily titled Daft Punk remix album Random Access Memories Memories, clarified their approach. Released as Daftside, the album took the elaborate, pristine rhythms of the French house legends and reimagined them as hollow, skeletal, imperfect. For a group ostensibly treading similar ground — a refined take on disco, jazz, house and techno — it was a moment of differentiation. Jaar and Harrington didn’t make music for the bright-lit centers of the dance floor; they patiently pieced together deceptively sparse rhythms that looped and expanded, snaking into its dampest, dimly lit corners.

Jaar has explored his deep fascination with film scores throughout his career, tracking down a precise orchestral sample from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western and composing original soundtracks to everything from experimental Soviet cinema to harrowing contemporary Chilean dramas. It’s easy to frame Psychic’s opener, “Golden Arrow,” as a sort of cinematic introduction to the band’s worldview.

The song flickers to life with a single, echoing pulse, like a computer booting up in an empty warehouse. The eerie silence is broken by an organ-like synth and a few errant samples — Jaar’s unmistakably low and gravely register enters the mix, groaning wordlessly, while clicks that recall footsteps echo without an apparent beat or groove to ground them. It isn’t until nearly two minutes in that DARKSIDE reclaims those ambient tones, Jaar’s thumping bass guiding the song toward a rhythm like a homing beacon in a storm. “Golden Arrow” patiently builds its layers — first a smattering of static, then Harrington’s syncopated arpeggios and warbling falsetto — giving room for each to stretch and bend to its core groove. Like a good film trailer, it establishes the album’s core motifs and hints at broader themes without revealing its cards, teasing out their dynamic without the expectation of climax or resolution.

“Jaar and Harrington didn’t make music for the bright-lit centers of the dance floor; they patiently pieced together deceptively sparse rhythms that looped and expanded, snaking into its dampest, dimly lit corners.”

That meandering approach belies the ambiguous, amorphous structure of Psychic’s production, compiled from a broad patchwork of sessions and locations based around Jaar and Harrington’s grueling tour schedule (Jaar logged over 50 tour stops in 2011 alone). It also reflects their uncertainty about the record’s future at the time: “When we were making the record, we didn’t have a record deal,” Harrington explained. “We didn’t have a deadline.”

Free from a label’s demands or any defined release date, they worked on DARKSIDE off-hours, in between shows — “I would say that night is DARKSIDE, and day is me,” Jaar remarked in a 2013 interview with DUMMY. It was almost as if, free from the immense pressure of his back-to-back festival performances and endless late nights, DARKSIDE was a space for Jaar to unburden himself from the expectations established by his newfound fame. “Surprising myself helps me be creative,” Jaar said in an interview with Pitchfork around the time of Psychic’s release.

The pair would meet up in a recording space they had rented in Paris to work out a few ideas while on tour, only to continue collaborating back in New York; it wasn’t uncommon for songs to begin as rough ideas in one city and come to fruition in a different time zone. “I remember the earliest iteration of what became ‘Heart’ began at Nico’s old place in his family home in New York City,” Harrington said, crediting his then-girlfriend, now-wife for the song’s distinct, layered guitar riffs. The song, like many on the album, developed with live performance, growing between studio sessions in Paris and concerts in Brooklyn before reaching its final form, shimmering with searing blues riffs and weightless new age synths. All told, they spent nearly two years tracking the album.

“It sounds disjointed,” Harrington admitted, “But it wasn’t, because we were working together and traveling and playing shows of Nico’s music, all at the same time. Even if we weren’t working on Psychic, we were still building our language of playing.”

Despite its disparate styles, the album is unified in its philosophy, shifting seamlessly from the sultry intimacy of “Heart” to the breezy, minimalist rhythms of “Paper Trails” with a shared sense of patience and sly curiosity. Harrington described the album’s composition as a mix of improvisation and more formally composed pieces, but emphasized that the collaborative environment was, above all, a space for taking tossed-off experiments and fleeting ideas seriously. “The closest thing we had to a band rule was, ‘Let’s make sure we’re recording before I start playing anything,’” Harrington said, underscoring their shared belief in building songs intuitively.

“More important than genre is method. I think there’s a method to what Nico and I share, embracing spontaneity, trust, and improvisation. We’re gonna try anything, really. If we have an idea, we’ll chase it and see where it takes us.”

Dave Harrington

It’s not until the album’s second half, roughly beginning with the hypnotic handclaps of “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen,” that Jaar’s looping and manipulating begins to take center stage. In the hands of Jaar’s software, Harrington’s guitar shapeshifts, at first matching the taut rhythms of its first half before taking on a synth-pop sheen. From the acoustic drums on “Freak, Go Home” to the almost choir-like incantations of album closer “Metatron,” DARKSIDE calls into question the traditional expectations of “analog” and “digital” sound. As on their Daftside remixes, they create chaos with their electronic inputs, adding layers of distortion and feedback to “Greek Light.” Their non-computerized instruments, perhaps counter-intuitively, serve to impose structure and rhythm amid the digital havoc, evoking the magnetic qualities of a drum circle or a church choir.

For an album created across a slew of environments, Psychic is remarkable for its seamlessness. The spaces between the songs — the echoing piano at the end of “Sitra,” the static hiss that closes “Paper Trails” — feel just as rich as their core melodies; even its silences feel profound. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that too is an affectation reflective of Jaar’s philosophy toward live performance. “The transitions are worked,” he told Ableton about his earliest concerts. “If I ever show more than one song in a group or ensemble, I want them to fit like a DJ set.” Psychic gave Jaar the space to explore these transitions in a studio environment, filling the moments between its songs with small acoustic accents, like an endless cabinet of curiosities.

Upon its release, Psychic became notorious for its refusal to even gesture at a cohesive genre. “Psychic exists in that space beyond genre,” The Quietus proclaimed, a fact they called “both liberating and infuriating.” For Jaar, who had grown accustomed to the “genre-defying” label, Darkside was “rock and roll,” he told i-D in 2011. But even accounting for Harrington’s Les Paul, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Jaar was trying to channel a mindset as much as a sound, one that prioritized collaboration and improvisation over isolation.

Harrington agreed with this assessment. “More important than genre,” Harrington concluded, “Is method. I think there’s a method to what Nico and I share, embracing spontaneity, trust, and improvisation. We’re gonna try anything, really. If we have an idea, we’ll chase it and see where it takes us.” So how did Psychic manage to collapse decades of psychedelia, jazz, dub and electronic into one album? According to Harrington, “We got there because we weren’t thinking about it.”

Arielle Gordon

Arielle Gordon is yet another Brooklyn-based cultural critic obsessed with ambient music and craft beer. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Pitchfork, VICE, Bandcamp, Stereogum, and on her grandmother's fridge.

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