Someone Like the Moon
by: Katie Chow
photography by: Michael Beauplet
January 28, 2014
It’s a sweltering day in August, and about a hundred people are packed into a former industrial building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the high ceiling doesn’t make up for the lack of ventilation. In one corner, two men say a few words and press play on the record only properly announced that morning. For the next 45 minutes, the room falls into a daze. Nearly everyone stands up to dance, though the languid rhythms don’t inspire any conventional moves. Cigarette smoke mixes with the humid air. Few people speak, hypnotized by the heatwave, the sinister beats, and the bluesy guitar licks. This is how Darkside works.
Nicolas Jaar has been electronic music’s boy wonder for several years now, the steadfast minimalist in an increasingly bombastic world. Following a series of well-received singles and EPs, his 2011 debut album Space Is Only Noise was widely acclaimed for its downtempo subversion of dance music, influenced by jazz as much as house. While studying comparative literature at Brown University, the Chilean-American producer toured around the world between semesters and ran his own label, Clown & Sunset.
Since graduating last year, Jaar has moved back to his native New York City, turning his attention to new projects. After closing Clown & Sunset, he launched a second label, Other People. The 23-year-old is also readying Psychic, the first record from his Darkside project with Dave Harrington, a fellow Brown alum and Jaar’s touring guitarist.
Darkside started impulsively, beginning with one spontaneous writing session while on the road in Berlin. “We were in this hotel room and using these two American speakers which we didn’t realize needed an actual [voltage] converter, we just plugged them in with an [outlet] adaptor,” Jaar recalls. “They had some kind of security thing, so they allowed us to play music for like four hours, but after they kind of exploded.” As the fire was contained, the duo finished what would become “A1,” the first of three songs on their self-titled 2011 debut EP.
“It just came very naturally after working together, writing and playing,” Harrington says. “One thing kind of led to another and we booked a gig at [Brooklyn’s] Music Hall of Williamsburg, and we didn’t have enough music.” Thanks to the self-imposed pressure, they managed to put together an hour-long set—a gamble that paid off. “We had such a good reaction—the best crowd we’ve ever had in New York, honestly,” he remembers. “All of that added to the feeling that this was something we needed to do, that we had to keep on going.”
The two clearly complement each other. Jaar takes a few minutes to warm up, but Harrington is immediately affable and quick to identify his bandmate as the classy one. Jaar speaks as slowly and deliberately as his songs, while Harrington talks at a more animated clip. Visually, they’re more apparent foils for another. Jaar is dark-haired and cozy in a black sweater for the photoshoot; Harrington, blond and sporting a pale blue oxford. At 27, the guitarist almost looks more boyish than his younger, more angular co-conspirator.
Both say they’ve never thought about their age difference, though Harrington has a few more years to look back on when he reminisces about college, saying, “One of my absolute favorite things about when I was in school in Providence was house parties.”
Later on, Jaar was refining his craft on the same circuits. “That’s something I miss every day,” he says. “I was DJing at Brown twice a week, or three times. The fact that it’s the same people all the time makes it very contextual. The community is nice.”
Even Ivy League wunderkind types aren’t immune to post-graduate malaise. “Graduating from college is graduating from education, right?” Jaar says. “It’s graduating [from] the idea that you’re inside an institution…I didn’t really think about this when I was in high school, but, you know, you’re in an institution, which means there are power dynamics and things that happen. Like the headmaster, you can see him. Here, in life, you don’t see the headmaster, right? That changes shit.”
Jaar began producing at the age of 14, but had to balance music with homework until now. “I feel like the stage of being a musician has just begun for me. Before, I was a student and a musician,” he says. “Then I was a college student and a musician. And now it feels like what I do for a living.”
He’s only a year out of school, but he carries himself with striking maturity. (Then again, most recent post-grads don’t have established careers well before getting their diplomas.) It would be easy to assume that Jaar permanently resides in the highbrow/ brilliant quadrant of New York magazine’s “Approval Matrix,” but his easygoing rapport with Harrington lowers the pedestal—the two trade quips like any other 20-something dudes. Their work together feels just as organic, though guided by a distinct precision that cuts through the smoky haze hanging over their record.
Darkside doesn’t immediately read as dance rock, but it feels closer than any of Jaar’s previous material. While Space Is Only Noise always sounded intimate, Psychic is a full-on nocturnal prowl, going in for the kill on “Paper Trails” as Jaar lowers his voice to a husky whisper. This record aims for the hips as much as the head—they previously remixed the entirety of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories—though there’s still plenty that challenges what a dancefloor banger can be. “Heart” is satisfyingly full- bodied, but the album’s centerpiece, “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen,” is a clattering, slow motion trance clocking in at nearly eight minutes. Back in 2010, Jaar hinted at his funkier predilections with his remix EP 6 Edits. Now, Harrington expands on those ideas, his guitar work bringing them to raw, searing life on Psychic.
Longtime Jaar fans will recognize how spacious and cinematic these songs are. But this is the next step for a young artist who’s on track to have a long and diverse career, with a little help from his friends. When it comes to Darkside, two heads are better than one.
“People are thinking of this as a side project of mine,” Jaar says. “But what they don’t understand is that this is a real band, and that it’s going to be a band for a long time.”