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Photography Hendrik Schneider

Dark0 on making nostalgic tracks for imagined futures

The London producer’s debut builds on the narrative power of video games to conjure brave new worlds that loop endlessly in your mind’s eye

Dark0 (Davor Bokhari) builds rich and atmospheric soundscapes that propel the listener into imagined worlds. Blending the builds and drops of EDM with trap and trance and murky club textures, his music pulls on a snag in time, conjuring a sort of nostalgia that’s both immediate and far away, euphoric and profound.

On Eternity, the London producer’s long-awaited debut, Dark0 borrows from the narrative thrust of video game soundtracks to take listeners on an emotionally-charged journey through cinematic soundscapes and enrapturing vocals that pang with distant longing. Opening track “Eternity” braces the listener for sudden impact. Blown-out basslines collide against crystalline sound design, evoking the intensity and drama of a boss fight, while “infinite edge”, a frenetic club track, launches into a forward momentum, as if gliding across the pixelated vistas of a vast, open map.

There’s palate cleansers too: the piano-driven “Nova Bridge” feels straight out of a JRPG, its delicate, sweeping melodies are reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi, and act as moments of pathos in between the intensity. There’s even hints of composer and Nintendo’s in-house MVP Koji Kondo: Bokhari’s use of repetition, the seemingly endless loops of melodies, bury themselves into your brain like earworms that run circles for hours or days at a time. A standout track is the album’s single “Shining Star”, a trance-inflected tune sung by close friend and collaborator Malibu. Set against shimmering ARPs, the song swells with a sense of euphoria, plunging into a stomping bass, before ebbing into silence.

When speaking on his debut, Bokhari describes wanting to explore themes of “hero archetypes and bonds of eternal friendship”, “ideas of evocation, destiny, and fate”. While these are weighty themes, the delicate balance of light and darkness means the magic isn’t lost.

You’ve been making music for years now. What was the inspiration for your debut album, Eternity, and why now?

Dark0: I’ve been wanting to make this album for years, even before I connected with Year0001. I wanted to make a project with an art booklet that would accompany a CD, similar to a classic PS1 game, where you open up the CD case and read through it and just absorb as much information about the world of the game.

(With PS1 games), by the time you finished, there would be all this imagery and lore that you’re wrapped up in and you want it to last forever. But you couldn’t because it was such a limited medium at the time. I wanted to explore that feeling of wanderlust and yearning for more.

Also, I wanted to see how I could translate that sense of adventure into a musical project, because obviously, I can’t make a game, I’m not a game developer. But there’s something about playing a game, and all the sort of intangible feelings that come with it – of exploration, learning about yourself, kinship and allies – and how that translates into real life with friendships and exploring who you are as a person.

There’s a strong feeling of nostalgia that runs through the album, was this what you were going for? 

Dark0: There’s that fine line of something that’s done tastefully with nostalgia or doing something that’s corny and kitsch. I really wanted to avoid seeming like the latter. I wanted to make something original with a unified frame of reference that everyone understands. Everyone grew up with games and PS1 – that era of hypercolours and stories and just learning about yourself through that. It was pre-internet, like games were everything to us back then. 

What’s your earliest memory of playing video games?

Dark0: Oh, man. I must have been like three or four years-old. This was pre-Sega Mega Drive. It was Windows Three. I’m going to sound really old, I’m not even. But my dad was an early adopter of technology. He got this PC with Windows 3.1 and he’d get these games called 18 Mega Hits, which would be pirated games he got from Pakistan, from relatives out there. We’d just load them up and so my earliest memories were playing Doom and Doom 2, Heratic and Hexen.

That got me onto Tyrian by Epic MegaGames who are now just Epic Games, the guys who make Fortnite. But yeah, they had this game called Tyrian and it had an insane soundtrack by Alexander Brandon. He also did the soundtrack for Jazz Jackrabbit. An insane video game composer, probably one of my biggest inspirations.

I feel that, especially with those early video games, composers had such limited tools, limited technology, that they had to be especially creative to get the results they wanted.

Dark0: Exactly! I feel like that’s how I go about my creative process as well. And how that sort of period was so influential to me, because obviously with their limited resources, they relied on loops and the power of repetition. You take the Mario theme, for example, it’s not the most complex song. There’s a lot of repetition in the themes to make it almost seem like an earworm. You play it enough times and the melodies are so simple you can just hear the melody in your head.

That’s how I go about my music. I find an earworm, like a melody that I hold onto, and I just fucking spam it with uppercuts. Because you know that you love it so much and you just want to be able to play it over and over again. So I’ll find a melody that I really love. I just build on it. I guess it’s also because I have a fucking addictive personality that I just like doing stuff constantly. So I find something I love, I just keep doing it. So yeah, that’s my creative process. If I make a melody that I like, I’ll just loop, loop, loop until it’s stuck in your head for fucking ever.

“That’s my creative process. If I make a melody that I like, I’ll just loop, loop, loop until it’s stuck in your head for fucking ever” – Dark0

I definitely had that with “Shining Star”, that melody was running laps in my head.

Dark0: And it’s just like the same line! It’s the same line over and over again. It’s just a nice line. It’s nice words and it’s a cute melody. And why not, you know?

Have you seen that Red Bull documentary on video game music from a while back? I remember Flying Lotus speaking on it and saying how, for most of us, playing video games was our first real experience of music.

Dark0: That’s what I’m trying to look at, like, why was it so compelling? Why is it our generation’s formative thing, and not film or radio? It was such a big introduction to all of us and it was across the board. Like, it wasn’t just one scene. Where I grew up, I had friends who were heavy in the grime scene, like I went to school with a lot of emcees who are like massive now. But, at the same time, I had kids in my school who were like scene kids, MySpace kids. And I was that guy in the middle who was friends with both sides – and the common thread for everyone was video games.

What were some of the challenges when making the album?

Dark0: One of the main challenges for me was it being so narrative driven. And I was using a lot of voice work with Malibu, I needed to find a way that I could frame music around a lot of narration. One of my personal challenges – because obviously I use a lot of repetition – was story building in my music. I had to explore something that wasn’t an endless loop, something that didn’t have a defined style and a defined end, which is my comfort zone.

Again, it’s just addictive personality. I like to know how it’s going to end and just have control of the situation. But this was like, ‘I don’t know where this is going to go’. So that’s why you have a lot of free-flowing piano in the project, because it’s just sort of freestyling and just playing along to voice and seeing where that goes. Almost like an adventure, right?

Listening to Eternity, there’s real strong narrative elements, it conjures really strong images in my head. Did you have a particular world in mind when creating the album?

Dark0: Initially, when we were going through ideas of the story, we had our reference points. But I think the main, most important thing for me was letting the listener have their own story. Because I think, it’s not a game, you don’t want to give someone a story without any room for interpretation. I think music should always have room for interpretation and it should mean different things to different people.

The press release mentions that the album is about eternal friendship, could you elaborate on that?

Dark0: It’s like collaborating with a lot of close friends, which has been a unique experience for me. I’ve never really had the chance to do that. I’ve always been working by myself and I’ve been very reclusive as well. Like, relative to the whole scene, I don’t know too many other artists and I don’t know that much shit in music. But I do have my friends and they’re my source of strength when it comes to creativity. If they like my music then I know it’s ready to be heard by the world.

I had the opportunity to work with my friends, who are also amazing creative people, on a project that’s super close to me and that was really important. Also, a lot of the final ideas from this project came about in the last year, where everyone was also relying on the strength of their friendships and family, feeling close to people to get them through. And in a way, that catalysed a lot of the process towards the end of the album. The songs are almost a testament to the theme of the album. And I hope that can be felt through the music.

The collaborative process was with Conor, who is one of my best friends from secondary school since 11 years old. He did all the artwork, he’s an amazing illustrator. Also Sybil is someone who I’ve worked with really closely in the past for the “Forever” music video and some other live visual stuff. So, in a way, this was the first time I was able to collaborate. Oh, and also with Malibu, of course, who’s also a really good friend.

Would you ever soundtrack a video game?

Dark0: I mean, yeah. But it depends on the game as well. I want to do more piano and string work type stuff. It would be fucking sick to do a racing game. Like a super fast hardcore trance vibe kind of thing. At the same time, it would be really nice to do a soft RPG Metroidvania style game with lots of ambience, like Ori and the Blind Forest.

Eternity is out now via YEAR0001