How Darkside's Dave Harrington Improvised a New Solo Career
We spoke with the prolific guitarist about making his debut LP 'Become Alive' and playing Hall & Oates in the club.
Miles Davis once said, “If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change.” Dave Harrington knows. For the last six years, the Brooklyn-based guitarist has been a part of several bands: Drunken Forest, El Topo, Bladerunner, and, of course, Darkside. Though the latter group is on an indefinite hiatus, their impression on contemporary live performance endures. The mystical aesthetics and luminous scenography of the duo's shows were trumped only by the improvisation therein, with Harrington and Nicolas Jaar combining the electronic and the organic to wrestle new sounds from the bluesy, psychedelic sojourns of 2013’s acclaimed Psychic.
Harrington’s newest project, Dave Harrington Group, is an attempt to take that improvisation a step further. Become Alive, Harrington’s first proper solo LP—out today via Jaar’s Other People label—serves as his mission statement. Recorded over the course of three days with roughly a dozen musicians, the eight songs that appear on Become Alive are an amalgam of in-studio jam sessions and Harrington’s post-production manipulation. Expansive and meditative, the songs expound upon the electric jazz framework ushered in by albums like Davis’ Bitches Brew. Guitar, saxophone, and B-3 organ bleed into and on top of one another, creating an ever-evolving listening experience. Jazz, rock, electronic—attempting to distinguish genres is far less important than the following the changes.
We spoke with Harrington earlier this week, just after he’d arrived to visit his family’s home in the Hudson Valley. The property features a barn that Harrington converted into a studio, which you can see in the video for “White Heat.” As his bandmates set up for rehearsal, the amiable and upbeat Harrington discussed Become Alive, jazz, improvisation, blurring the boundaries between organic and electronic sounds, and playing Hall & Oates in the club. If one thing was clear by the end of our conversation, it’s that he’ll never stop creating.
NOISEY: What’s the biggest challenge in constructing an entirely improvised album in the studio? How do you know when you’re done? How long were your longest recording sessions?
Dave Harrington: You’re bringing together people that you like that are interesting musicians and you hope for the best.
I had just booked out three days in the studio. That was it. I wasn’t even sure what the record was going to be like. There was no way to know until we got in there and I got into it. I had set that as the basic deadline, “We’re going to have three days.” I wanted to make it count, so from the minute we walked in the door to the minute we turned off the amps, the red button was on and everything was getting recorded. In the end, the process of making it into a record was what came later, going through all of that. I wasn’t on a deadline. I didn’t have a record deal. I was making this record and listening to the music and trying to get it to tell me what it wanted to be. If it didn’t feel like there was enough stuff that really spoke to me, I would’ve figured out another way to keep recording or make a different record. Really, it was just getting lucky enough to get all of these people together in the same place at the same time and, over the course of three days, have enough moments that really landed.
Do feel this album falls into one genre category more than another? Where would someone look for this album if they were walking around Amoeba?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m the right guy to answer it. I’m not really sure. I would be happy if this record was in the electronic bin or the jazz bin or wherever they put the Medeski Martin & Wood records. Honestly, one of the things that is very inspiring to me about our contemporary moment in music is that audiences, I think, are not interested in those kinds of delineations. They kind of come to mean less and less.
How did your work with Darkside affect the composition of the album?
A lot of what Nico and I did in the studio was definitely an influence on me thinking about how to work in the studio. I learned a lot. We also found new ways to approach improvising and turning it into structures, and vice versa.
The actual recording sessions for Become Alive actually started two weeks before Darkside started touring. Having this kind of yin-yang of playing a ton of shows with Nico, and always improvising those shows, and then coming home periodically and returning to this record material or listening to it in a tour bus or an airport after a show—I’m not sure I can say how exactly the Darkside experience influenced it, but it’s in there. I was definitely learning so much from playing all of those shows and playing guitar every night and being really zoned in on my instrument and communicating musically with Nico in real time. I think that that must’ve had some impact on how I was listening to the music and deciding what to use from the sessions as I was manipulating it.
You’ve been experimenting with remixing/editing records for some time, both with Darkside's Random Access Memories Memories Daft Punk remix project, and with your 12 Days of Remixes series. What do you find compelling about reworking other people’s music?
A few years ago I started DJing. Around the time that I started working with Nico I was living in that culture, and I became a DJ. All of those remixes I put out around the holidays last year were all remixes or edits that I’d made because I wanted to play them in my DJ sets. Doing DJ sets allows for a different kind of contextualization for ideas about music. I like the idea of recontextualizing music that isn’t necessarily club oriented by making it work on the dancefloor. Whether that’s taking a Michael Jackson or Hall & Oates song and speeding it up, adding a nice kick, cranking up the bass so that mid set I can drop “She’s Gone.” Something about being in a club and being able to hear Hall & Oates in the middle of a techno heavy set is exciting to me.
Who were some of the musicians you recruited for this album? Had you worked with any of them prior?
Everyone who is on the record is someone who is a friend of mine. They’re all people who I played with in some capacity or another. One of the guys who played Fender Rhodes organ on it is one of my oldest friends, who I’ve known and played music with for 20 years. Then there are friends of mine that I’ve met in the last few years from being on tour with other bands. I wasn’t making phone calls to strangers because I wanted the best “this” or the best “that.” I’m lucky that after playing music long enough, I have a lot of real friends who are real musicians. Everyone who was there was someone I have a real friendship with. For me, without being overly sentimental about it, that’s really important.
Is there someone in the mix with solo work that people should know about or check out?
My friend Andrew Fox is on the record. He and I were roommates in college. He has a project called Visuals, and I’ve been working on his stuff with him. My great friend Will Epstein, who used to play in Nico’s touring band with me, he plays sax and keyboard all over the record, and he has a great project called High Water. There are other guys in there like Morgan Z, who has a band called Chrome Canyon that’s incredible. They make kind of proggy synth rock struff. Then there’s the guy that I mentioned that I’ve known for twenty years, Nate, who is finishing his dissertation right now and is about to be a doctor of historical musicology.
You’re a big proponent of improvisation. Who are your favorite jam bands?
Having been lucky enough to be a kid loving music who grew up in New York, I got the opportunity to see a lot of music. I did go to a lot of jam shows, but in the early 2000s there was a lot of music that was running the blurry line between downtown groove-based jazz, and jam bands. That was something that was really exciting to me when I was 16, 17, and e8. It still is. Growing up I went to see Medeski Martin & Wood more times than I can count. By the same token, I could go see John Zorn or Sex Mob, more New York kind of jazz leaning, not jammy but improvised, bands. But also, every year that the Allman Brothers came to the Beacon Theatre I’d go see the Allman Brothers.
When you perform Become Alive on tour, will you have a set list or will you, for lack of a better word, jam?
Honestly, that’s kind of what I’m figuring out tonight [Laughs]. That’s what we’re rehearsing for Friday. I like the approach of using some of the ideas and some of the structures from the record as jumping off points for the show. There are definitely parts of the record that I want to return to and find new ways to play them with both the same and different groups of musicians.
Simply put, it’s not a record with singles [Laughs]. There are no choruses. What I’m most interested in sharing when I get the opportunity to play shows is the spirit of the thing. I’m by no means feeling beholden to recreating [the album]. That was never the point of the music. If people come to the show and they really like the record, they’ll get the touchstones, moments where they’re like, “Oh, this is that song.” But beyond that, I’m working on new music and I have a lot of new ideas. I want to use the shows to experiment and explore those things, too.
Should there be a resurgence of live albums? It seems like something that’s tapered off in recent years.
I hadn’t really thought about that. I personally really enjoy live records. Some of my favorite records by my favorite bands are often live albums, like he Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East. That’s a mind-blowing record. Or Miles Davis’ Live-Evil—incredible. Not a priori, there should be more live albums, but if a band is working out its ideas live, it should be shared as widely as possible. It should make sense for the music. If the foundation of the music is built on people interacting in real time, then that’s something that should get recorded and shared.
Is that something you would consider recording and releasing with Dave Harrington Group?
Yeah. If we’re somewhere and someone hits the red button, and we get a copy of it, and it was happening, I would love to be able to share stuff like that.
I’m thinking about other live things, and I’m a huge fan of bootlegs. I found this old iPod that had been hiding in a drawer and had all of this music on it that had been lost to various computers. One of the things that I was listening to today was a bootleg of Marc Ribot with John Medeski, Chris Wood, and Kenny Wollesen from some benefit concert in 2003 or something, and it was incredible. I found this bootleg because I loved that show so much, and I totally time traveled back to that moment. It’s cool to think about the idea that a live record could take you to a place. I feel that way sometimes when I listen to the Dick’s Picks Grateful Dead records. You perceive it differently. It’s kind of a piece of what it was like to be at the Oakland Coliseum when The Dead were there in 1975 or whatever.
Were there any particular jazz records that you were listening to around the recording of the album?
I wouldn't say there was anything I was listening to right around the recording of the album, necessarily. There wasn’t an exact vibe I was trying to track when I went in to do the sessions. But the short answer is, yes. Leading up to recording, and as I was doing the post production and the mixing of the record, there were some things I’d been interested in for a long time and had become deeply analytical of and started to actively think about and unpack. Definitely all of the Miles [Davis] stuff from the electric period, especially Bitches Brew; people like John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal, and, of course, John Zorn. I think those are some of the first things that come to mind.
You took jazz bass lessons when you were young. Did you play any of the bass on this record?
I’m playing some electric bass. I have this electric upright bass that had been kind of lying dormant in my studio for a while, and I got into playing that a lot in the last couple of years, especially in the studio. I haven’t gigged with it much, but I’m starting to gig with it a little bit. I’ve been listening to a lot of Eberhard Weber lately, who is this European jazz guy who passed away relatively recently. I think he was playing kind of hybrid electric-upright, but his tone on the upright was very crisp and clean.
Was this album, in essence, a way of getting back to your roots?
I think so. My education as a musician was always in jazz. I think that’s always been a part of what I’ve done and how I’ve approached the instruments that I play. A lot of this record and what I’m working on with the band now, and what I’m translating to shows, is very much going back and unpacking some of that personal history for me.
How many instruments did you personally play?
Between what I played in the studio and doing overdubs, I played drums, the B-3—they had a beautiful B-3 in the studio we were working in, and I just love playing that—lots of guitar. During the production process, I started to teach myself pedal steel [guitar]. I’m playing a little pedal steel on the record and of course doing a lot of stuff with electronics, kind of trying to use whatever tools were at my disposal to get the idea across.
Did you always have the title Become Alive in mind during the recording process, or was there some crystallizing moment?
It was something that I started calling the song “Become Alive.” Everytime that I would work on that song and open it up, the more I saw that phrase, the more it started to feel like it was encompassing the whole thing to me, and that maybe it would be a way to imbue the whole record with that kind of spirit. To me, it’s about presence, being in the moment, and also process... It’s like trying to get across an idea that’s both very much being created in a moment through the presence that improvisation demands, but also being aware of the fact that that is a process that is constantly changing and turning in on itself.
Is that you at the bottom of the slide on the cover photo? Why did you decide to choose it for the cover?
That is a picture that my mom took of me. I was probably about eight or nine when she took that. We were on a family vacation. My dad was traveling for work and he managed to turn the work trip into a half work trip, half family vacation.
I was up here at my family house where I am now, and I was going through some old photos around the time that I was finishing the record, and I saw that and pulled it out immediately. At the end of that night I had a few photos that had said something to me, and then I woke up the next morning and looked at that stack again and was like, “This is the one.” After I decided that it was just kind of doing something for me, I noticed the date stamp on it. It was an old Kodak with the date stamp on the front, and it had been taken four years to the day before my dad passed away. That seemed deeply cosmic to me, so I took it as a sign and I wanted to make it a part of my story.
This record, much like your EP Before This There Was One Heart But a Thousand Thoughts, sounds very cinematic. Do you have visuals in your head when you’re composing?
Not really. I have friends that I work with that are kind of synesthetic, or they kind of have a visual narrative. It’s not something that I’m actively thinking about when working on the music. I’m definitely influenced in some more abstract way by visual media, by film and television. I studied some of that stuff in college, and I’ve always been fascinated by soundtrack music. Even soundtrack music for television can be really fascinating. On some level, I think some of those elements are at play when I’m sculpting things. But I like the idea of “cinematic” music insofar as I like the idea that instrumental music could create different kinds of visual narratives for different listeners. That’s one of the great possibilities with instrumental music.
You scored a BBC documentary about Pablo Escobar, and you’ve recently done live-scoring for films like No Country for Old Men. Are you hoping to score more films professionally?
If I got the opportunity and it was a good fit, I wouldn’t say no. I’ve started doing a series of these live, improvised film scores as an experiment. I’m not doing it as an angle on breaking into the soundtrack game. For me, doing the live film scores is more about finding new situations and opportunities for improvising. When you introduce film as a player, with an ensemble of musicians, then you start reacting temporally and aesthetically in terms of the pacing of your choices, and things start to change. It’s very much a restriction. When you’re scoring film, or when I’m doing it live with the guys, you have to think in a different way as an improviser. It’s getting the band to play new ways. It’s getting results that we wouldn’t get if we were purely improvising. By adding that new element you’re creating this new sense of structure. It’s still an ongoing experiment. We’re still learning things every time we do a new film.
I’m specifically interested in doing films that are narrative, too. It’s a different ball game when you’re doing something with video art or abstract visuals. You’re improvising, but you’re confined by the structures of the narrative.
Dave Harrington Group's Become Alive is out today via Other People.
Max Bell is a writer living in LA. Follow him on Twitter.