Darkside: The Question Is to See It All
Following a seven-year break from the project that turned a pair of journeymen musicians to an indie-approved buzz-band, Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington regroup for another trip to the Darkside.
“I felt a sense of finality with it,” Nicolás Jaar says, surveying the peaceful death of Darkside. He’s looking back on August 2014, when he and bandmate Dave Harrington announced that their project was “coming to an end, for now”—less than a year after releasing Psychic, the debut LP that changed both of their lives.
They pulled that plug, in part, because of the pressures generated by the band’s mysterious life force. But they couldn’t halt its intense energy, as they prove on their hookier and more song-centric follow-up, Spiral. They could only pause it temporarily.
From the outside, the hiatus looked like self-sabotage. Despite happily operating in their own niche world—Jaar in left-field electronica, Harrington in experimental jazz and rock—the musicians found a rare symbiosis together, writing songs that felt simultaneously bigger and more escapist than anything they’d ever done alone.
“It’s more pleasurable,” Jaar says, comparing Darkside to his solo work. “It’s ultimately more intuitive.”
But here’s the thing: Darkside was envisioned as a comma, not a period. It was just a mutual rest stop on their winding career highways.
Jaar first recruited Harrington—through the recommendation of saxophonist Will Epstein, a fellow student at Providence, R.I.’s Brown University—to play guitar on a tour supporting his 2011 solo LP, Space Is Only Noise. (It didn’t matter that Harrington, a multi-instrumentalist, primarily cut his teeth on the bass.) Realizing they had a unique chemistry, the duo started working on new music—resulting in a self-titled EP that same year, the critically worshipped Psychic in 2013 and a whirlwind tour that boasted mid-tier slots at festivals like Bonnaroo, Primavera Sound and Lollapalooza.
They were both swept up in that surreal wave—in ways both spectacular and startling.
“Darkside had this immediate momentum, and I was blown away by that,” Jaar says. “It wasn’t Dave and me—it was this other thing. But on the other side of that, I felt a lot of pressure to go with this path. [It felt like,] ‘We need to go make another record and put it out and tour it.’ The ball was rolling. And I really, really was not in that place. It felt sad. On one hand, I could feel that there was real movement. On the other hand, I looked at my life and said, ‘I couldn’t be further from the place where I could do that.’ There was a paradox.”
Jaar wanted to regroup only when they felt a “boyish” spark. “I didn’t want to see it as this thing that needed to happen. I wanted both of us to come to it at a moment where it felt right,” he adds. “We were like, ‘It can be in 20 years. It doesn’t matter. It needs to not matter.’ He and I were both fine with that idea.”
For Harrington, Psychic—a band-produced tangle of ambient soundscapes and psychedelic funk grooves— accomplished what they “set out to do” at the time. Inspired by the record, they felt energized to take on new challenges, agreeing to reconvene if and when the stars realigned.
“I’ve been in a lot of bands over the years, but I never really thought of myself as a ‘guy in a band,’” he says. “I grew up in New York, idolizing the downtown jazz and jam scenes of the early 2000s, which were both about collaborating and comingling. I’d think, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to see Steve Bernstein, and he’s sticking around for a second set with Seamus Blake’ or ‘I’m seeing Medeski Martin & Wood and, holy shit, there’s a horn section sitting in!’ Those were my early musical role models. Neither of us saw it as, ‘This is my job now.’ It was exciting and fun, and I felt so lucky to do everything that we were able to do: travel and play so many wild shows. But it felt like a perfect time to take a break and see what else was out there.”
Harrington threw himself into a mix of collaborations—including a pair of jazzy, psychedelic, freewheeling records under the moniker Dave Harrington Group. He became a fixture on the reenergized Downtown New York experimental music circuit, made inroads into the modern jamband world—especially through his regular collaborations with Joe Russo and the members of Antibalas—and hosted an annual holiday revue that nodded to eclectic interests.
Jaar, meanwhile, released a handful of solo LPs that burrowed even deeper down the strange wormhole that has always housed his solo career.
“It’s a very painful process,” Jaar says of his own material. “I’m trying to create new sounds and new combinations of things. It’s a whole big mess and, in some ways, it’s very ambitious. It actually loses a lot from that ambition, and I’m very aware of that, but that’s just me—what am I gonna do? [Laughs.] I’m way too neurotic, and I am constantly overthinking things.”
Darkside always provided Jaar with what he refers to as pure “musical pleasure.” He never has to stress or attempt to reinvent the wheel—it’s just a “sense of release.” And just as they predicted, after spending several years exploring on their own, the pair’s paths organically crossed in early 2018.
“There was no conversation [about making an album],” Jaar explains. “We hadn’t talked in a really long time. Dave was playing a lot of gigs in New York, and I was living in Turin. I think Dave and I had only talked on the phone, like, once. But, I had to go to New York in August, so I called Dave and was like, ‘Should we hang out for a week somewhere and bring some gear and see what happens? No pressure.’ It wasn’t a conceptual thing like, ‘Let’s make a record.’ We just rented a little house in New Jersey, and we spent seven days there, hanging out, cooking for each other, filling each other in on what had happened since 2014. We hadn’t had much time to get deep together for a while.”
“It had a quality of inevitably to it,” Harrington adds, detailing their “modest mobile rig”: a couple microphones, a couple of synths, a bass, a guitar and a “box of pedals” stashed in the back of a car. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but I started to have this feeling that we were about to make music together again. Something was on the horizon. I don’t even remember whose idea it was or whose text went out. I just remember it feeling right—being like, ‘This is gonna be a great way to spend a week.’ Going into it with that attitude helped too. There wasn’t any pressure there. We didn’t talk to anyone about it. No one knew we were doing it. It was just for us.”
Harrington says that they often improvised together in a room, constructing ideas on the fly with the aid of a computer: “me playing, Nico looping me, grabbing sounds, kind of working in three dimensions and building bits of ideas to see what would stick.” (“I’m such a fan,” Jaar says of his bandmate. “It’s literally a concert for me when he starts playing something.”)
Their biggest curveball was Jaar’s idea for Harrington to compose more “traditionally” with an acoustic guitar, hoping that they’d side-step leaning on their go-to creative moves.
“There was time spent with an acoustic guitar and notepad, like Songwriting 101, classic style,” Harrington says, pointing out how he utilized alternate tunings in the vein of heroes like Richard Thompson and Nick Drake. “It felt really good. It allowed us to get out of anything that might feel like a pattern. There was an impetus of, ‘We’re both talking about and thinking about songs in a different way and trying to get to that.’ It was a new experience for us. I found myself thinking about playing guitar differently, too.”
That initial trip was, let’s say, productive. They wound up with the bones of six new songs: spacey soul ballad “Only Young” on the first day, acoustic guitar meditation “Spiral” on the second, psych-trance track “Lawmaker” on the third, clanging art-folk daydream “The Question Is to See It All” on the fourth, noisy electro dirge “Narrow Road” on the fifth and vinyl bonus cut “Exodus” on the sixth. They spent some time finishing up “Only Young” on the seventh day and then they drove back to New York, armed with a pile of stems and a jolt of confidence from reentering each other’s orbit.
“I think [the music] was percolating in those four years,” Jaar reflects of their creative boom. “It was too weird how it came together. Without that session, this record would not exist. To feel that again, it was like, ‘Oh, right! [Laughs.] This is why I did this.’ We were like, ‘Wow, we’re a band. It’s alive!’”
That week-getaway format became their go-to model—they completed three more writing retreats and even challenged each other to write one weekly track during a lull in-between. “The song was due at the end of the week on Saturday and, on Sunday, we’d listen and talk about it,” Harrington says. “We did that for a while. I forget how many weeks there were, but I have a bunch of [these songs] on my hard drive. ‘Liberty Bell’ came out of that process. We kind of had a song club.”
Curiously, Harrington also ended up joining a “song a day” group during the COVID-19 quarantine, with 20 or 30 people challenged—and expected—to contribute one song a week to a group thread. Those who didn’t meet the cutoff were “kicked out,” whether they were an indie act or a famous recording artist. “As the weeks went on, the numbers would drop,” he says with a laugh. “But people were surprisingly committed. It was good for me because I can be a real tinkerer, and I have been known to not finish things if I’m not careful. There was a hilarious, multi-generational mix of people involved: experimental weirdos like me, amazing singer-songwriters, a couple of famous people. I’m super into that kind of community-building, and it was cool that Nico and I built our own little community.”
Though they knocked out so many of their songs early on, Spiral went through a natural mutation, with tracks often evolving and undergoing numerous arrangement changes along the way. (Harrington calls his alternately tuned acoustics on “The Question” “the little engine that could” since they survived the whole process and wound up on the final cut.) Some of the instrumentation turned out to be disorienting, like the numerous guitar tracks that “don’t sound like a guitar.” Other moments are more signature Harrington, like his booming, fuzzy bass riff on “I’m the Echo.” (“That’s the ‘75 Fender jazz bass I’ve been playing since I was in college—my high-school graduation gift, I think,” he says. “I’ve used it since my days as a funky bass player who learned all of Jaco [Pastorius’] tunes. I was really on the Oteil Burbridge tip, on the Jaco tip, back then. So some of that comes out when I pick up that bass. It’s baked into my musical DNA now.”)
Looking at Spiral Darkside struggle to articulate a description for it—and they both seem to find that idea absurd. Harrington, who’s spent the bulk of his career trying to escape the idea of genre delineations altogether, is happy to let critics define the indefinable: “Not to make it too heady but, a couple months ago, I read this long and interesting book on Derek Bailey. He’s one of my favorite free-improvising guitarists—and one of the most influential for me. I was listening to a lot of his stuff, and his book really stayed with me. His concept is a form of free improvisation that is non-idiomatic, meaning ‘of no genre.’ For him, when you’re in the space, wherever it is—recording studio, pub, club, beautiful theater—you’re playing in the space, in the moment and you’re reacting. He’s very specific in his thinking about no genre. I’ve always connected to that way of thinking. The minute you have a reference and you point to it, you’ve kinda already locked yourself in to a set of restrictions, a set of things you can and can’t do. The idea of working in a place of ‘be here now,’ an improviser’s mindset, is more interesting to me. Even if I’m working on a film score or a pop record or a jazz record—I want to go to the place of no idiom, no reference. That’s the most inspiring place to live, and that’s something Nico and I very much share.”
Jaar remains in awe of Darkside— not only the music, but also the band as a shared construct. Whatever their slippery magic may be, he’s happy to have recaptured it.
“The thing that was really different about working with Dave [originally] was the creation of this third entity—that’s something I wasn’t used to,” Jaar says. “It was the band entity, but it’s also just what Darkside meant for people. There was something in the air that had nothing to do with Dave and I. We were all tapping into it equally—the people watching the shows, Dave and I, everyone. I’ve never really felt that thing, whatever that is. There’s a meaning collaboratively created between the fans, the musicians, the people working the record, the label.
“We’re all in the room, but none of us built that room,” he adds, summing up Darkside’s ethos. “It was created by the network of feelings.”