February 13, 2013

With the release of their second full-length album, News from Nowhere, UK synth-pop outfit Darkstar has some critics scratching their heads. That’s not to say anyone is disappointed: while News from Nowhere moves in a decidedly different direction than 2010’s North—which accrued critical acclaim for its thoughtful, off-kilter interpretation of dubstep—the trio’s updated sound is just as intriguing; rather than propelling forward, tracks like “Hold Me Down” and “Amplified Ease” whizz and whirr their way around in dreamy circles. Members Aiden Whalley, James Buttery, and James Young recently moved to Warp Records from UK dubstep label Hyperdon, a switch that gave them the financial means to seek inspiration in the English countryside, where they wrote and produced News from Nowhere. The remote, cinematic landscape of their West Yorkshire studio—incidentally, one valley away from the home of the Brontë sisters—has everything to do with Darkstar’s shift in sound, which, although emphatically electronic, retains something organic and primal at its core. “It’s like a place in time,” Whalley explains. “It stands for a year in the countryside, and it sounds like it.” We caught up with Whalley and vocalist James Buttery over Skype, who spoke about their Yorkshire inspiration, Darkstar’s evolution, and the relationship between music and drugs.

Tell me about your evolution as a band.
AIDEN: We were all at university together, and James Young and I were making tunes into a lot of underground garage stuff. Shortly after university we got together and released “Need You” and “Aidy’s Girl’s a Computer” on Hyperdon. We started making the demos for the album North, and right around that time we were living in East London,and James Buttery, who we knew from university, was in another band around the area. And me and James Young had started playing around with a few vocals and things, and had this idea to cover a Radiohead track for one of Mary Anne Hobbs’ CDs, and we got James involved to sing “Videotape.” So that was the first time we worked together, and we got the idea to write more songs. James ended up on almost every track on North, and it was a natural progression—we started touring the album, and he became a full member of the band when we signed with Warp.

Has switching labels changed anything?
AIDEN: Well, we had a recording budget, so we were able to go up north and live and work and just focus entirely on the music. So it gave us that opportunity; after the North tour finished there would’ve been little income if hadn’t done anything else. So signing with Warp enabled us to go into the countryside and get our heads into the music. Musically and stylistically it didn’t affect anything; we didn’t approach it in any other way, we just went out there and tried to come up with some fresh ideas and write a new album.

You’ve mentioned the effect that the Yorkshire countryside had on your creative process. Are there particular tracks that evoke that sense of space more than others?
JAMES: Moving away from London is quite clear in the sound of the record. We’ve said this before in interviews, but the environment is a huge part of it. It’s difficult to not be influenced by your surroundings. I think the last track, “Hold Me Down,” reminds me a lot of being in that house where we did the album. It’s quite difficult to explain; it’s kind of expansive, cinematic in some ways. It’s quite a dramatic landscape.

What was it like, writing and arranging this album as a trio?
AIDEN: Writing an album is a very engrossing, intense situation to put yourself in. It’s really good, as well, but there are times where it’s hard work, and if you analyze the music as much as myself and James did on the first album, you really only want your best ideas to come to the top. And James [Buttery] has got the same approach to music, so having someone else involved in that is really good, because you’ve got someone else to bounce off, and someone else to come up with ideas and add to your existing ones. And we worked with a producer for the first time, so after the demos were complete, we had another outside perspective, with a whole other list of skills that he brought into the equation. We were in an intense period, writing the album, because we lived and worked in the same place, but looking back on it and listening to the record, it’s like a place in time. It stands for a year in the countryside, and it sounds like it.

JAMES: Where we lived in Yorkshire is the next valley from where the Brontë sisters lived and worked. There is definitely something in the water around there, you know? A lot of people don’t really associate Yorkshire as a place that’s got any cultural significance, but I think it really does. And after being so London-centric, it’s really nice to get out and be in proper England.

AIDEN: After living in a flat in East London, where it was very busy outside, you could hear rumbling from the buses—there’s all sorts going on around you, and you’re just contained in this little flat. And then with News from Nowhere, up north in Yorkshire, there were not really any sounds besides the birds and the wind. Just lots of time on your hands and no other outside influences. The countryside seeped into the record, without a doubt. A lot of people are describing it as having a psychedelic feel to it, but I don’t think we really discussed anything psychedelic between us while we were writing it, I think it’s just the environment we were in…

JAMES: Or those mushrooms we were on. [laughs]

AIDEN: Could’ve been, yeah.

I’m curious to hear about your arranging process, since your songs are structured a bit differently than the typical verse-chorus format.
JAMES: I think with arranging things on the computer, you can quite quickly try different arrangements out. A lot of these tracks did actually have quite standard arrangements to begin with, and then we worked with them to try and do something different. We didn’t want them to sound like typical song structures, but at the same time, there is a reason why that works well.

AIDEN: But we did try and push it with the arrangements, and sometimes kind of by messing around and experimenting a little bit, the track tells you where it’s gonna go. I think they write themselves sometimes, songs, in a way. There are moments on News from Nowhere where there are quite traditional song structures, like for example “A Day’s Pay for a Day’s Work,” but then “You Don’t Need a Weatherman” just had it’s own kind of direction.

JAMES: A lot of it is a happy accident; you just kind of play around with it and see what’s cool. As much as we are, you know, obviously genius, [laughs] it happens a lot by accident!

Do you think your music is particularly English?
AIDEN: Definitely. We are English!

JAMES: One thing we chatted about was this kind of golden era in British pop music  in the sixties, and the way that bands were sort of going to-and-fro with what people in America were doing. I don’t know if it’s something that just happened subconsciously, but I think there is a bit of a westward-looking kind of thing in this album, as much as it is very English. Especially because we listened to a lot of American music around that time, didn’t we?

AIDEN: Yeah, definitely. Grizzly Bear, Battles, bands like that. We also listened to Science of the Sea by Jürgen Müller quite a bit while we were doing the album. 

When you streamed the album, you disabled the click-through capability. Do you always listen to music in the context of a full album?
AIDEN: A lot of the time I do, yes. It’s something I’ve always done, since I was a kid. I think you get the most out of a record when you listen to it that way. Your favorite songs can change over time; you can hear different elements in certain tracks the more you listen to them. It had a really good effect when we did that; it shocked me how much of a response it got.

Yeah, I think everyone wants to listen to music that way, ideally, but people are lazy. So it’s kind of cool to be forced into it.
JAMES: Yeah, I mean, you wouldn’t pick up a book and skip to chapter 7.

AIDEN: Well, some people do! It’s personal. I’m just different, I prefer to listen to something from start to finish and see where it takes me, because if you’ve thought about the arrangement of the songs and the actual album as a whole thing, a complete journey, sometimes just dipping into it you don’t get the full effect. There’s something about the entire album, they’re like slices of something; they’re best when they’re put together.

JAMES: I think it’s kind of a reaction to the way that life has become so disposable, as well. There’s something special about putting on a vinyl record and listening to it all the way through.

What role did repetition play in the writing of this album?
AIDEN: Musically and vocally, melodically and rhythmically, a cyclic theme ran through about being self-assured, it was about being comfortable within oneself. And then the repetition within the music and the rhythm—the direction of the tune as we were writing it was more about getting into a trance. It kind of rolls out as if you were repeating a mantra.

This seems like an album that a lot of people are going to listen to on drugs. Do you think that heightens or cheapens the live experience?
AIDEN: I think it’s something that we’ve just got to accept, because for some reason, everybody likes to get stoned to our music! I don’t know if it’s because we’re stoned, as well…[laughter] In my personal opinion, smoking a bit of weed before listening to music has generally been a good thing for me; it’s not essential. But it’s not going to disappoint me if people do that before our shows.

JAMES: We’ve done a lot of shows where people are on things way stronger than weed, too. That just seems to be what’s done in most parts of the world nowadays, which is a whole other conversation.

Could you talk a little bit about the concept behind the Timeaway 12-inch, with the twelve locked grooves?
AIDEN: It’s a thing that we’d not really seen for a long time. James Young has been a DJ since he was 15, and it appealed to him because it’s like what you would find on old records and things like that. It’s just a nice little insight to the album in a brief, subtle way. So we did a tiny locked groove from each track, just to give away a little bit of an idea of which direction the album would be in, and also to offer something unique with the vinyl.

JAMES: Yeah, we like to give something a bit extra if people decided to part with that money to buy our record.

Who came up with the album title?
JAMES: Well, we had a few working titles, and we were chatting about them a lot when we were in the studio with [producer] Richard Formby. He came in one day and said, “I had an idea last night from your record, what about ‘News from Nowhere’?” And we were all just like, wow, that’s a really good title! Wish we’d thought of that! It’s a book by William Morris about utopian idealism, so there are vague parallels between that and what we were doing, but I think we really just liked the name.

Your sound has obviously evolved since North, and it will probably continue to change. Where do you see it going next?
JAMES: We’re definitely not short of ideas; I think sometimes the hard part is trying to make things more concise. As much as you don’t want to limit your creativity, it’d be nice to go about making things in a more direct way…but that’s quite a vague way of saying it. Who knows what the future will hold for Darkstar! [laughter]

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