The jazz guitarist/electronic collagist/Darkside member Dave Harrington put two separate skills to work in the crafting of his upcoming EP, Before This There Was One Heart But a Thousand Thoughts. In keeping with his preferred method of making music, he began recording improvised pieces of music, realizing at some point during the process that he was working toward something concrete. He then used the engineering prowess and electronic know-how that he’s advanced since he began working with Nicolas Jaar to shape the music into something concrete and cinematic, reminiscent of the work of Phillip Glass and the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as more familiar Darkside touchstones like progressive rock and drone.
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We talked to Harrington at Art Bar in Manhattan last month, about the EP, its recording and its influences. He was passionate, sincere and knowledgeable when talking about the art and artists that he had absorbed during the record’s gestation period, in a way that torpedoed any hint of pretension. We were particularly struck by how unabashedly earnest he was about Jaar’s influence on his career–Harrington played in his partner’s touring band before the two formed Darkside–but also how independent and forceful he was in expressing his own ideas about music and art.
Harrington is planning on attending a show by The Knife after our conversation, so he starts off talking about them.
I’ve never seen a full show. I saw bits and pieces of them when we were at the same festivals. Pitchfork in Paris for ten minutes and then I saw them the last fifteen minutes at Coachella. So I know it’s an old show but Im stoked. They’re one of my favorite bands.
It makes sense to me that you would like them. There’s something that you two groups have in common. So are you already doing a lot of press for the EP?
This is the second interview I’ve done. I’ve barely talked about it. I have no sound bytes and I’m still figuring out. You’ll have to cut me off if I start rambling because I’m talking about it out loud for the first time.
So what made you decide to make an EP? To do your own thing?
Starting around the time we finished the Darkside record, I just started going through stuff I had lying around and recorded some more stuff when I was at home. At some point when we were on one of our little tours, I played for Nico in a hotel room or backstage some of the stuff I was working on. And he was like ‘you should turn this into an EP.’ And I was like ‘that’s an interesting idea.’ And that got me thinking about collecting some of these ideas and honing the thing.
I know when you work with [Nicolas Jaar] directly, you guys improvise together towards a recorded record.
Yeah, it hadn’t really occurred to me until I started talking about it but pretty much everything, all of the playing on the EP was improvised. So its all improvisations then I then went back and edited and processed and overdubbed. All of the playing is basically first takes that I went back and started doctoring and sculpting.
Why is someone like you, who is so interested in improvisation and performed music, making an album in the first place? What’s the point if that’s your preferred mode?
You’re on to something with that. I’m 28 and this is the first thing I’ve ever put out under my own name. Everything I’ve done has been something that I’ve been leading, with the exception of Darkside, which is a total 50-50, and I haven’t made any records. I have bands that just improvise and never rehearse. And I’ve spent years and years playing in other peoples’ bands, so I’ve ended up on EP’s and an album here and there.
It wasn’t until Nico said ‘You should follow this on this idea’ that I said ‘ok, I’m interested in doing this.’ Because I got more interested in the electronic side of production. I used to be a press-record-and-let’s-get-three-guys-in-a-room-and-hope-something-good-happens kind of guy. I still like doing that but as I get more interested in the production side, from doing remixes and DJing and working with friends and producing other people, then circling back into my own stuff, I thought about trying to make things neat. The EP is kind of a result of my improvisational spirit and a new interest in production.
That second being a separate editing process that’s almost entirely different from the initial creation of the music.
Yeah, and its not always obvious which is which. There are things on the EP that might sound produced that are actually more improvised and vice versa. It’s a very fluid thing. Stuff that sounds almost beat-based is actually less edited and more improvised on hardware, and some of the guitar pieces are hacked to bits in production.
What’s amazing to me then, is that this EP is so narrative, there’s so much tension and release, the whole thing makes so much cohesive sense. So it’s surprising to me that there’s so much improvisational spirit. Do you think of it as narrative, is there a narrative involved?
I think of it as narrative, but not as a narrative, if that makes sense. I think of it as being a journey, or somewhat cinematic though that’s kind of a buzzy signifier, and now doesn’t mean that much.
Yeah, I wish everyone hadn’t used it to death, just because it makes such particular sense for this project. It sounds like Space Odyssey, Koyaanisqatsi.
Interesting, yeah, those are total touchstones . They weren’t things that I was directly thinking about when I was making the music. But I studied film when I was in college and I sound that particular way because it’s interesting to me. One of the reasons I watch so much narrative television is because I watch shows where the music is really good.
What shows do you like the music on?
One of my favorite new shows and one that I think the music is really excellent on is Hannibal. I like horror movies and suspense and thrillers and stuff. It’s a good show. I also like Nathan Barr [True Blood, The Americans].
The names for the tracks on the EP are really compelling, very metaphysical. At one point in recording music do you decide upon a title?
I’ll do the first hack at something, the first improvisation that’ll end up being the core of the piece and I’ll have an idea. And I’ll kind of name it after recording that.
It wasn’t like I recomposed the thing when I put it together. I would have these pieces and start locking them together, and I would see the arc. The names are mostly pulled from this little book that I had on my studio table which the title is also pulled from. It’s a 17th or 18th century mystical Islamic text. I liked those titles and I like that origin, not because of any narrative or religious connection but I like the feeling of open-ended complexity of those kind of mystical ideas. Things that are small and large at the same time.
The most important part of the title is to throw some ideas up in the air with the music and not be too specific. Have it be something that as people listen to it, they can draw the lines as they see fit. I just want to make these suggestions.
Have you always titled songs like that?
I don’t mind being referential in what I do.Some of the songs from my psychedelic dad-rock band are just named after Steve McQueen movies or Dario Argento films.
That’s your band El Topo, or Bladerunner?
That’s El Topo. Blaerunner trio is a break-off band of El Topo.
How many different kinds of groups do you play with like that?
It’s kind of a set of people. A community of us. El Topo is the most coordinated band but now it’s whoever’s around. Bladerunner is me and some of the guys from El Topo, a sax trio. Will Epstein [of High Water] is in both of those bands, we do Bladerunner with a drummer. And I play in High Water sometimes.
And [Nicolas Jaar] doesn’t seem as involved in those groups.
In those groups, no. Mostly because those projects date back before I knew Nico. We’ve talked about, I’m in the process of finishing an El Topo album as well and I think Nico will collaborate with me on that in a post-production kind of way.
So you’ve really kind of been drawn into albums.
I will say that I’ve made three El Topo records and thrown them away and not released them.
I just got to a certain point and felt it wasn’t what it needed to be. Either I had changed or I felt like we hadn’t done a good enough job. I just stubbornly keep trying to make this El Topo record. I made it with Will when we were still in college. I just kept throwing it away.
But with time, sometimes you go back and some of the old stuff from El Topo record version #2 from 2010, I think sounds really cool. And I bring it back and put it with stuff we were recording six months ago.
Obviously, Nico is this kind of monolith in your career. In that he’s come in and he’s changed your trajectory and the way people perceive you.
Is that difficult? Particularly now that you’re doing your own thing? Is it something you think about?
No, not at all. It something I’m thankful for. Our lives wouldn’t be so intertwined at this point if we didn’t enjoy working together. From the beginning, being in his band was like a return to form. I grew up as a jazz musician. And then I spent a bunch of years in New York, having a really great time, playing in indie rock circles. That was my social life, that was what my friends were into so those were the bands I was in. Not that I didn’t enjoy being in these rock bands but when I started playing with Nico, it was like jazz and groove and experimentation and drone, in an electronic context sure, but all these things that were really true to my heart. I didn’t anticipate that we would start a band together or anything like that.
Just the work itself was really gratifying.
Yeah! And I feel like everything I’ve done, even this EP, is a collaborative effort. Nico helped me–I gave him an executive producer credit. He was like ‘Really?’ I said ‘Yeah, you helped me curate it.’ He helped me go through the material, saying ‘I don’t know about this,’ or ‘This stuff we should push it further.’ I mixed it, I made it but I’m working with him all the time. It’s there, it’s an influence.
Samer [Ghadry], who I’m playing with in Bladerunner, is the only other person on the Darkside record playing percussion and is also on the EP playing percussion. I found some thing we made in 2011 and I put it in there and I built it into the fabric of something else.
It’s amazing to me about these songs, that you are willing combine the new and the old, and make a collage.
It all comes back to what I was saying before about trying to be fluid in the spectrum of improvisation and production.
The people I look up to as producers are like that. Like Daniel Lanois, who produces very tactile records. I like thinking about those kinds of things as not binary.
Is there any pressure with this record, to please the fannbase that you’ve built with Darkside?
In a very simple way, you can only ask people to listen to your music. You can’t ask them to like it. I mean that very genuinely. If people will listen, the fact that so many people listened to Darkside, that’s all you can ask. What people think of it is up to them. I feel lucky and honored that because of what Nico and I have done and because of Darkside, hopefully more people will listen to this. Who will latch onto it and who it’s made for, I’m not really sure. For me, I try to make what I like to hear, regardless of whether it’s in the band I’m in, working for someone else or working alone.
This [EP] is not for everyone but it’s not supposed to be. I’ve always enjoyed being able to do lots of different things and have different identities and this is one of them. I can’t predict if it will define me or not, but I don’t intend it to, I intend it to define this moment in time. And it’s true to the moment for me, it’s true of the last year, what I was interested in and the detritus of ideas that didn’t get into the Darkside record but were still floating around in my head, or the art I went to go see, or the TV shows I watched.
Can you point to some of that stuff specifically?
Sure, I think it’s a certain approach, and a certain era of ECM records, run by Manfred Eicher. It’s a German label that put out a lot of interesting experimental jazz, started in the early ’70’s and also contemporary classical music and started to create a bridge between the two worlds. People like Pat Metheny were putting out records there, the original recording of “Music for 18 Musicians” by Steve Reich was on there. They’re known for having a certain sound, lush, open and reverbing and warm. So these records I was listening to. Minimalism stuff. Metheny, Bill Frisell, David Torn, all the guitar players on that label.
Then also, right after we finished the Darkside record experience, I had a little bit of time to start putting these ideas together. I went up to the Dia: Beacon. It’s a museum an hour north of the city. You have to go. It’s all of the stuff I love about contemporary art, conceptual art, all in this giant beautiful converted warehouse museum by the Hudson river. So looking at sculptures by Richard Serra, light installations by Dan Flavin, it’s a lot of seventies and eighties minimalist sculpture. Those were the biggest things I was thinking about.
And these ideas of mysticism. Lush, reverby jazz, how that could be mystical. This approach to sculpture that was basically about these gigantic forms that were very simple but unleashed these complexities as you went a lot deeper into them. These are the things that went into the album.
So much about really vast structure and incredibly small details.
And how those two ideas can be on a spectrum, and how you look at a Dan Flavin sculpture that is three neon lightbulbs arranged in a pattern and it can feel enormous. Or how you walk around inside this truly enormous bronze Richard Serra sculpture that you go into and get lost in and it is huge but it feels intimate in a way. Those kinds of juxtapositions, I guess. I happened to go through this museum in a crucial moment and rediscover this art I haven’t thought about in a number of years.
I wanted to ask you about specific songs about the record. Tell me where “Multiple and Mirror” came from.
It’s an acoustic guitar piece, and it started because one of my best friends Andrew Fox, who works as Visuals. Before he went to Berlin he left a bunch of gear at my house. I had his acoustic guitar and I’ve never had an acoustic guitar around, I don’t even own one. I was pretty knee deep into the EP at that point. I woke up one morning and looked at the acoustic guitar and I was like ‘huh. Well, what about that?’ And then, ‘how?’ I just kind of started interrogating it.
Fox had left me some other gear so I started making something on Fox’s four track tape machine on top of a tape he had left in there with his acoustic guitar. It started that way. In a weird way, it’s a collaborative track. Before Fox left, he called me and said ‘You should take this gear, you’ll know what to do with it.’ And then it started kind of speaking to me. It started from one improvisation I did, just microphone and guitar onto the tape. And then me improvising, trying to recreate that improvisation on top of itself.
What about “Flash?” That track sounds to me like a war zone.
That was the piece I was telling you about before, where I found the recording harvested from the archive, that my friend Samer and I had made. And it felt like, I listened to it and I couldn’t find anything else that sounded anything like. It punctured everything else that I had been working on. It’s one of the final pieces I made for the EP. Taking an improvisation that Samer had done and cutting it up and reorganizing it. I felt the whole architecture of the thing needed to be shaken up.
It’s interesting to me because it runs into that transcendent section at the end, [“All-One”]. How did that part come to be?
I have this almost compulsion about last tracks on album. It’s one of my favorite things on the world. Even if it’s a 20 minute EP, the last bit, its gotta be something. My favorite albums are not my favorite albums unless they have that thing, whether it’s the last track on Dark Side of the Moon, or the last track on the last Bon Iver record. I love a good closer. When I play solo I usually like to play a good cover at the end of my set, something beautiful.
“Metatron” was from me on the Darkside record, that was the one that I was like, ‘This is the last track.’ It’s a compulsion, it’s a necessity, in music.
When youre about to start to have the play this stuff live, how do you transition from making something concrete to something viscous again?
I’m not sure that I’m gonna play it live. I was at home today, thinking about it a bit. A few friends of mine who are bookers at my favorite places are asking about release shows, and I said maybe not until June, because I’m not sure how I want to do it and I want to do. I may ask some of my drummer friends to play with me, maybe Samer. In a couple weeks, I’m opening for Will as High Water, who is opening for Visuals. So we’re going to have family night.
I can’t recreate. The EP started as improvisation and ended in production: I can’t recreate it. I don’t have any desire to. I’m gonna think about the ideas in it and try to collaborate with a friend or two and play a few instruments and put on a jazz gig. In what that means to me.