Darkstar, in a New Space
Listening to the latest album from Darkstar, you wouldn’t be blamed for wondering what on earth went down to provoke such a dramatic shift in musical outlook. While 2010’s North took listeners on a synth-heavy journey through melancholy chord progressions and bruised vocals, News From Nowhere is a trippy spiral through the spokes of a more optimistic—and analogue—sound.
Several changes are at play here: original Darkstar duo Aiden Whalley and James Young initiated singer James Buttery as an official band member before writing the new album, which was formed not in their regular London digs but amongst the green moors of the West Yorkshire countryside. Working with a producer for the first time, the band there experimented with old tapes and field recording to achieve an intricate layering of organic samples throughout. According to Whalley, the beauty of space and silence can inspire an entirely new perspective on sound.
TEMPE NAKISKA: The new album is so different in sound to what you’ve done before. How did you get to this point?
AIDEN WHALLEY: When we started writing the album we really struggled to get away from the melancholy ideas that had shaped North. It was a big problem, because the sound just wasn’t doing it for us. We wanted to reignite our spark with fresh ideas. So we started playing around with more chromatic sounds and focusing on these rhythmic elements. It went from there.
NAKISKA: Do you think keeping your sound that fresh is the secret to longevity as a band?
WHALLEY: It’s never impressed me when an artist changes their sound on a regular basis according to what’s popular at the time. I think while you need to keep invigorated, it’s important not to be too influenced by what’s going on around you. It’s about going on your own creative journey.
NAKISKA: Which you guys did in moving up to the country to write this album. Why did you make the move?
WHALLEY: We’d lived in London for 10 years. It’s a long time in such an intense city. We were bringing the North tour to an end and had been thinking of moving to Berlin or Portugal anyway. Moving up north to the country was an easier step, though, so we picked a spot that was close to all our parents’ houses. Funnily enough, the name of the house was North View!
NAKISKA: [laughs] Easy choice then, though a sudden change in lifestyle!
WHALLEY: Life is a lot slower there. It’s moors basically, lots of fields and hills and streams and a couple of little pubs. That’s it. The quiet starts to seep into your brain, and there’s nothing to do but work. You know how you said the album feels like waking up a bit—it’s exactly that. Those mundane, everyday moments like waking up become a lot more important. The countryside itself was inspiring, too, and the record really sounds like that place felt.
NAKISKA: It’s a very analogue sound for Darkstar.
WHALLEY: Yeah, we recorded a lot of samples like knocking on wooden objects and metallic light fittings, just sounds around the living room.
NAKISKA: What got you into recording those things?
WHALLEY: I was watching a lot of YouTube videos about how clocks work. The sounds from winding up the mechanisms inside… I’m quite into watchmaking; it’s a very refined art. I read John Ruskin’s book, On Art and Life, and he talked about this idea of going back to the craftsmanship inherent in art. It’s this organic relationship between a person and their surroundings.
NAKISKA: I think that really comes across through the layering of sounds. What was it like working with a producer for the first time?
WHALLEY: We chose Richard [Formby] because we knew he specialized in tape machines and recording live. He really got what we were trying to do. I remember him saying that the level of experimentation you get when working with an electronic band is quite unique. There’s so much room for creativity; it was really organic.
NAKISKA: Did it change your recording process?
WHALLEY: Absolutely. After about a week of working with him, we cottoned on to how far he could take our recordings by running tapes backwards or speeding them up. So then we started to write parts knowing that they could be turned into something completely different.
NAKISKA: You also initiated James Buttery as part of the band for this album. How was that experience?
WHALLEY: It’s a great feeling when you start to build up a team around you. James [Young] is very good at writing lyrics and sculpting sounds around a concept. James and I complement that with writing structures and chords. Then there’s Richard and his department, so to speak. He’s a great ideas man, actually.
NAKISKA: In a musical sense?
WHALLEY: Well, he actually came up with the title. He was thinking about what was going on within the record, and the relationship between the organic and the mechanic. He told us about the William Morris book of the same name, which is about the relationship between humans and nature. He was associated with the pre-Raphaelites, like John Morris. It was a weird coincidence!
NAKISKA: From the length of the album and the structure of the tracks, I get the feeling that traditional arrangements aren’t a huge priority for you?
WHALLEY: Definitely not. It’s about the feeling of the track, we don’t stick a double chorus in there for its own sake—it’s got to sound right. “A Day’s Pay For A Day’s Work” has quite a traditional song structure simply because that worked for that track. It has to feel a certain way.
NAKISKA: Is that why you disabled the skipping function when you put the album up for streaming in the lead-up to the release?
WHALLEY: I always used to encourage my friends to play an album from start to end. You hear so much more. My brother’s so bad, he’ll play a track for 30 seconds and get really into it and keep it on repeat. He’s the worst person to drive with!
NAKISKA: [laughs] I think skipping has its place… but it can also stop you from appreciating the less obvious tracks.
WHALLEY: Yeah. I listened to Radiohead’s In Rainbows obsessively when it came out and I was constantly like, “Shit, there’s another part there I never heard!”
NAKISKA: There’s a lot to be said for layers.
WHALLEY: Exactly, and we’ll keep on writing with that in mind.
NEWS FROM NOWHERE IS OUT TOMORROW, FEBRUARY 5. FOR MORE ON DARKSTAR, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.