Psychic Visions

New York electronicist Nicolas Jaar has turned to the Darkside with his mind-expanding new duo

Music Feature
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Taken from the November issue of Dazed & Confused:

“We shouldn’t trust you,” starts Nicolas Jaar, suspiciously. “You have a serpent around your neck.” For the record, Dazed doesn’t actually have a snake coiled around our person, only a necklace in the shape of one. Either way, electronica wonder-kid Jaar and his Darkside bandmate, Dave Harrington, have the right to be a touch worried — but more of that in a minute. 

We are talking to the duo on a crisp and sunny autumn morning on the rooftop of their rehearsal studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as they sip iced coffee in front of a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline. Though still only 23, Jaar is already an old pro in music industry terms, having founded his Clown & Sunset label back in 2009 and released his acclaimed debut solo album, Space Is Only Noise, in 2011. In August this year however, the American-Chilean musician dissolved Clown & Sunset and replaced it with a new venture, Other People. One of the label’s first releases is Darkside’s debut LP, an intense, hypnotic eight-track journey through the rockier, proggier fringes of techno and electro, with Jaar on keys, vocals and production duties and multi-instrumentalist Harrington on guitars, drums and whatever else he can lay his hands on.

The album is called Psychic, so, frankly, Darkside should really have predicted what Dazed has in store for them this afternoon — a mystical reading. They’re not overly keen. In fact, they’re shitting it. Jaar mentions the $10 psychics scattered around New York that he’s mildly infatuated with, though he admits he’s never been to see one. Why not? “I’m terrified. I’m obsessed with the future, which makes me do a lot of stupid things, but also makes me frightened if someone tells me about the future.” Harrington chips in: “And I’m obsessed with the present and I don’t want to know anything about the future.”

Darkside’s reading takes place at an occult bookstore called Catland, located incongruously in the industrial outer reaches of Bushwick. The black-walled emporium sits under an old home-improvements store sign; inside, the air is heavy with the scent of joss sticks, and penis candles and tarot decks line the shelves. But Jaar and Harrington’s fears are somewhat assuaged when they discover that Licorice Root, our psychic for the day, will be looking at their natal charts, not reading their minds. “Ah, it’s astrology!” beams Jaar when the charts are laid out in front of him on the floor. “I love astrology!” 

Harrington is up first. Root tells him he’s a Capricorn with Sagittarius rising and a bunch of planets in the first house. This makes him want to come across as cultured, well educated, well travelled, but also a hard worker. “Sounds like a musician to me,” says Jaar with a nod. Root confirms that performance is the thing he’s supposed to be doing with his life, but then chucks him a curveball. “You are supposed to be onstage performing, that’s for sure,” she says, scribbling on his chart with a biro. “But was being a visual artist ever something that occurred to you? Because it also looks like in the end, the legacy you leave is going to be one that’s also extremely visual.” “Awesome!” says Jaar. “Far out,” adds Harrington. “I’ll believe it when it happens.” 

Root then pulls out Jaar’s chart, casually mentioning that he’s going to have five kids, as well as explaining that it’s in his mid-30s that he’ll gain true happiness. “36? That’s when I’m gonna be happy?” he asks. Root replies: “It’s gonna be a really healing time for you, because having the moon in the 12th house is really hard. You’re probably going to open a new business or be an entrepreneur of some kind and maybe leave the artistic realm for a little bit.” Jaar looks mortified. 

Dave Harrington for Dazed & Confused

“Oh no, are you serious? That sounds horrible.” 

After almost an hour of delving into their charts, with Jaar every so often exclaiming “this is fucking insane!” when Root hits the nail on the head, we make our way back to Greenpoint — but not before Jaar grabs the Darkside credit card and stocks up on cat candles and astrology books from Catland. “A lot of it was pretty spot on,” says Harrington. “It was insanely spot on,” adds Jaar. “Our chart says we’re meant to perform together – I know that you make me a better musician, that’s true.” However, he’s still a wee bit miffed about Root’s predicted shift towards business in his 30s. “I guess a part of me wanted to hear more about creativity,” he comments. “You don’t read it as you’re going to create one of the most influential record labels of the 2020s,” suggests Harrington. Jaar shakes his head. “It’s gonna be one of my stupid ideas, that’s the way I saw it. I’m gonna start smoking weed when I’m 29, I’m gonna have a stupid stoned idea and it’s going to be huge. Dave’s going to be the next de Kooning, and I’m going to invent USB shoes — I’m totally pissed off!”

Jaar and Harrington were set up on a musician date a few years back when Jaar decided he wanted to play his music live. He asked a close friend who was the best musician in the world and the friend recommended Harrington. They met in the studio and jammed for an hour. Jaar was suitably impressed. “We were taking my music to places I never really thought my music could go,” he says. “I never thought my music could be more rock’n’roll, I never thought it could be more noisy and distorted.” The pair released their self-titled debut EP in 2011 on Clown & Sunset and worked on the album even as Jaar toured the world playing his solo music and DJing. Right now though, he’s all but shelved his other projects to focus solely on Darkside. “Very quickly I realised this is what I want to do now, I don’t want to do my own stuff. I make my own music all the time — this is more fun. I don’t want to go onstage and do my pretty little music. I want to go onstage and shred a little.” 

Darkside will continue until we die. We’re interested in rituals — it’s almost religious — Nicolas Jaar

The main mixing and arranging for Psychic took place at Jaar’s home in NYC, but the recording was done in a swanky studio in Paris and at Harrington’s box of a studio at his family house in upstate New York. There, in a cabin alongside his mum’s gardening stuff, he can make as much noise as he likes on the beat-up drumset he had when he was ten, surrounded by vintage keyboards including a tatty old Fender Rhodes. “It’s my favourite place to experiment,” says Harrington. “Time stops. Any idea can be tried.” They used a lot of that battered equipment on the album, and you can hear it, says Jaar. It’s “anything that sounds shitty, and I mean that in a really good way.” 

Those broken instruments and kiddie toys are what makes the record so special, verging on the magical. “It has the past totally printed on it,” says Jaar. “Dave has beaten the shit out of the snare, it’s got some psychic power — it’s been hit many times by a very, very angry 19-year-old Dave.” Harrington: “There’s a difference between a vintage snare and something you’ve had for 15, 20 years. There’s a lot of juju in that drum.” Which brings us to the album title. Why call your album Psychic when you’re evidently both quite unsettled by the idea of the paranormal? “‘Psychic’ is a method for us,” explains Jaar. “We needed to get to the point where we read each other’s minds in order to understand where to go with our ideas.” 

Nicolas Jaar for Dazed & Confused

When Jaar and Harrington met, Harrington had been flitting from project to project, playing in everything from metal to country bands. Immediately he could tell there was something different about Darkside. “I could feel the spine, the DNA of the music was in improvisation and texture and creating a dynamic among voices and players and people,” he says, which slotted in perfectly with his background in jazz and experimental music. They decided on the name of the band while sat in the corridor at the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin after a small incident when recording their very first song together. “Our speakers blew up and filled the room with smoke,” remembers Jaar fondly. “We were using these American speakers with a convertor plug. The only thing lighting us was a TV playing The Big Lebowski.”

Their first show together was at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in December 2011. They’d just released their EP and only had 15 minutes worth of music. They swiftly created 45 minutes more to play on the night, music they haven’t aired since. “People were reacting to those songs as if they knew them all along,” recalls Jaar. “It was crazy.” They announced the release of the album in August via Twitter, saying they’d be playing a test pressing at a warehouse space in the LES, if anyone fancied hearing it. Eight hundred people showed up at the 200-capacity venue, sitting down at the beginning of the playback, but ending up dancing as the record played on. “It was beautiful,” says Jaar. 

It isn’t just these hardcore fans who should be pleased to hear that Psychic is in no way a one-off. “Darkside is a band that will continue until we die,” states Jaar. “We’re interested in rituals. Once you have a job and you stay with that job, it’s a ritual, an eternal repetition. Us going on tour and making a song every day is the exact same thing — it’s a ritual, you can’t see it as boring. No, it’s the most sacred aspect of repetition — you are fulfilling these desires and needs every single day in the same way. It’s almost religious.” Does that feeling of ritual come through in the music of Darkside, we ask. “I don’t know, that’s up to you, serpent lady,” says Jaar, raising an eyebrow. “We want to make music where we make you feel like there’s a story behind it and that you end up creating the story. It’s more exciting for me if you create your own story than if I tell you.” 

Special thanks to Catland and Licorice Root.

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