Monday, 14 January 2013

Needing some Timeaway: an interview with Darkstar

First published in Loud And Quiet

In October 2010, Darkstar emerged from the then blooming scene we used to call post-dubstep with an album of ice cold urban romance, a quintessential night bus record with a surprisingly potent seam of '80s electronic pop running through its 10 tales of mechanical heartbreak. Half Human League, half machine, North was a milestone for the entire scene, proving to be the high waterwark of a moment that has since then splintered and lost cohesion, with artists like Mount Kimbie and James Blake moving further away from their dubstep origins with each release.

Darkstar, who formed in London but are originally from Wakefield, Leeds and Cheshire, spent over a year working on the follow-up to North. It wasn't an easy journey. Itching to get away from the grind of the capital, they sequestered themselves in a country house in Yorkshire's Colne Valley – to give you an idea of the rural surroundings, it's the next valley over from where Last of the Summer Wine is filmed – and diligently worked on the new songs, until a painful twist of fate forced a dramatic rethink.

It started as a writing trip, says James Young, the man who formed Darkstar along with fellow producer Aiden Whalley, before the addition of James Buttery on vocals.

“We just got a house in the country,” he says. “It's really weird up there though. Because you've got a lot of space and time on your hands you do lose focus. It's very difficult to maintain normality.”

“It kind of took out all the outside influence from a music point of view,” adds Whalley. “It led us into more experimentation, [which] I think we wouldn't have done if we'd stayed down here, surrounded by what we were into before.”

“I think a slight change can make a big difference when you're trying to create,” says Young.

All that brisk air and isolation had a profound effect on the trio, who found themselves shaking off the narrow-eyed intensity of North for a sound that's brighter, wider, even a bit... optimistic? So, what is there to be optimistic about?

“Life! Being alive,” laughs Buttery. “It's like another chapter, because we'd lived in London for 10 years. We wanted to do something that we'd not touched upon with the last album, trying to push for that lighter hearted, breezier and a little bit more rhythm-based songwriting. With the surroundings as well, we moved up there and it was sunny and nice, great weather and new landscapes and all sorts of things to take in, quite bright and cheerful.”

“It's quite profound actually,” he continues. “I didn't realise how big an impact the surroundings had on myself personally, but they definitely do.”

As the voice of the band, Buttery has shaped those feelings into lyrics that look beyond the romance and inner turmoil of North.

“It's very personal, but I think all Darkstar music is like that,” says Buttery. “We wanted to be independent, stand on our own two feet a little bit.”

“Where North was lyrically about two people, quite intimately, this one is almost quite self-assured and singular,” adds Young. “There's a couple of references to things going on outside, like maybe a girl, but generally it's more about being quite content.”

The results are a world away from the glitchy bounce of their breakthrough single 'Aidy's Girl is a Computer', and point to the broader range of music they've been drawing on – from Arthur Russell, Robert Wyatt and Pink Floyd to Gonjasufi, A$AP Rocky and trap rap. New single 'Timeaway' is a stepping stone between the two albums, a mesmerising lullaby of treated vocals and tick-tocking drums that leads you gently into this new landscape of saturated, kaleidoscopic colour.

Despite being producers themselves, they chose to make the album with Richard Formby, whose production credits couldn't be further from the scene that Darkstar burst out from three years ago, being the man behind the desk for recent records from Wild Beasts and Spectrals. Why did they get another producer in?

“It was a soundboard really,” says Buttery.

“To learn some more as well, get new experience and also get someone who's not so involved to have a bit of an outside perspective,” says Whalley.

“He's just a true artist in his own right, honestly, he thinks in his own way. He's definitely opened our minds to things,” continues Buttery. “There's so many reasons why it's good to get a producer. You know, it's good to be sat on a sofa at the back of the room and not be sat on Pro Tools.”

“It freed us up,” agrees Young. “Rather than us whizzing round and doing edits and stuff like that, Richard would generally be in control, in a very laidback way. There's a lot of things as well that we don't know how to do, like Richard knows how to use tape machines and physical things, and we grew up with software.”

Making the leap from their laptops into the world of analogue sound, they started playing with other instruments, tape loops, vintage synths and even a harmonium (“I might not have been playing it right,” laughs Whalley).

But just a week before the album was due to be finished, and on the very day that the Warp label bosses were heading up to Leeds to hear it, disaster struck. Unloading equipment from the van, Buttery stepped backwards over a wall and fell, breaking his back.

“I only fell about six feet, but my knees weren't bent when I landed,” he says, explaining that his vertebrae were crushed, leaving him bed-ridden and an inch shorter. Perversely, it turned out to be just the lucky break they'd needed, so to speak.

“It was like an act of God, honestly – I don't believe in any of that shit, but we didn't feel totally satisfied with [the album],” he says.

“Yeah, we didn't like where it was at that point and we basically had another week to finish it,” adds Young. “I'd spoken to Richard literally hours before James broke his back about extending some time in the studio, just to iron out a few kinks. Then James broke his back and we had 10 extra weeks.”

With Buttery in a back brace but still writing music from his bed, the trio got down to work and ended up making what they reckon are some of the best tracks on the album.

“I think that was the defining point,” says Young. “We got a bit more urgency. As we were finishing the album we were at our most creative, I think.”

Buttery agrees. “I think we had gone through a major metamorphosis.”

The resulting album is News From Nowhere, nine songs that sound like an inversion of North, in many ways, recalling the emotive chords of Radiohead or Grizzly Bear (on 'A Day's Pay for a Day's Work' and the untitled fourth track) and the jarring textures of Animal Collective ('Amplified Ease'; 'You Don't Need a Weatherman'). The title comes from a utopian novel, introduced to them by Formby, written by 19th century textile designer and socialist William Morris. The phrase struck a chord with their own situation, they say, recording for months in the hills outside an industrial Northern town.

Set for release in early February 2013, the album will be Darkstar's first release for Warp, after putting out North on Hyperdub in 2010. Considering the label's more recent signings like Grizzly Bear and Battles, it places the band on a different trajectory, moving even further away from post-dubstep splinterings and towards the Pitchfork crowd.

“We're like one foot in, one foot out,” says Young. “If we've got an itch, we can make a dance 12” or something dancefloor friendly, but at the same I think we all realise the worth of an album. I think that's what we want to be known for, making good albums, first and foremost.”

They've also got a few interesting remixes up their sleeve – so interesting that they're not allowed to talk about them, sadly – along with 10 locked grooves (looping audio hidden at the end of a side of vinyl), which they hope will encourage remixes, or alternatively, “you can stick it on while you make a cup of tea.”

They'll be hitting the road too, perfecting their live set (“It's something that we want to be good at,” they note) and putting a few stamps in their passports after a year in rural seclusion.

“I'm looking forward to leaving the house,” admits Young. “It's a beautiful house, it's in a beautiful part of the country, but...”

“We exhausted everything that it had to offer, didn't we? Including each other. It was like, I like you, but I don't want to go to the pub with you,” laughs Buttery.

They nod in agreement, a hint of cabin fever passing across their eyes.

“You know it's pretty bleak when you go to the pub and your favourite barman's working,” says Young, shaking his head. And with that, they don thick coats and head out into a grey November day in east London. First stop? A pub, one where they won't recognise the barman at all.

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