ABOVE: DAVE HARRINGTON. PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLY SOMMA
With his latest full-length release Become Alive, multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington puts himself front and center for the first time. As the nucleus of the newly created Dave Harrington Group, the jazz guitarist, organist, electronic maestro, and one-half of Darkside brought together 11 friends and collaborators for a three-day jam session in 2014. He then put his electronic prowess to use, splicing, layering, and warping nearly 30 hours’ worth of improvisation, resulting in Become Alive, an impressive, engrossing instrumental opus.
Despite the electronic manipulations, Become Alive lives up to its name, as Harrington explains that the release is based in the “moment of live-ness” from the recording sessions. “The idea that this moment of becoming or aliveness would wrap around each other was what I wanted the record to feel like,” he says.
Leading up to the album’s release (this Friday via Other People, the label of Darkside’s other half Nicolas Jaar) and his two New York shows later this week, we spoke with Harrington about working with his closest friends and what excites him most about electronic music today.
BENJAMIN LINDSAY: How did this project come about? It’s a bit of a departure from what you’ve done in the past.
DAVE HARRINGTON: There was a moment where the stars kind of aligned, a little more than two years ago. After we had put out the Darkside record, before we started touring, there was this window, and I got the opportunity to work in a beautiful studio and get a few days there. Because of where it fell in the calendar year, I was able to get a bunch of my closest friends who were either working, touring musicians who were off for the holidays, or were friends of mine who I’ve known for a long time who are incredible musicians and are now academics or composers or musicologists. I convened everyone for this big, intensive, three-day session in a studio in New York. At the time, I knew I wanted to get everyone together. I knew that I wanted to improvise. I didn’t know what the end result would be.
LINDSAY: Was the end goal a full LP?
HARRINGTON: I was hoping that I would come out of it with an LP, but I wasn’t sure what it would look like or what it would sound like or what it would be called. The impetus for the recording sessions wasn’t like, “We’re gonna make a record.” There was no record deal. There was nobody knocking at my door, calling me every day being like, “Dave, when are you going to give us your electro-acoustic jazz record?” That’s not how it works.
LINDSAY: What was the editing process like? I’m sure had hours and hours of material.
HARRINGTON: Yeah, it was manic. I think it was 20 to 30 hours of music. One of the guys who was there for the whole thing [Samer Ghadry]—he’s a drummer who’s one of my closest musical partners—he and I went through the log of master tapes. There was a whole lot of stuff in the “maybe” pile. After those initial sessions, part of what I realized I wanted to do was I didn’t want to just present raw moments because I’m a guy that now lives and works in a very electronic musical context. So I wanted to bring that way of working to this improvisational way of composing. There’s stuff on the record that’s a piece of a thing that’s a tiny portion of the “maybe” pile. A piece of a long improvisation can create a whole new trajectory for something on its own that had nothing to do with the context of what it came out of. But I’m totally cool with that because the DNA of the whole thing is improvisation. If you divorce things from their original context or if you superimpose two moments on top of each other—or 10 moments on top of each other—what’s actually happening on a molecular level with the music is it’s people in a room reacting to a real moment. My hope is even when you take one piece of that and you pull it out and you use it towards a different end, it still has a particular kind of energy.
LINDSAY: This is the first full-length release where your name is front and center. Did that come with an added weight or pressure?
HARRINGTON: There’s no way it couldn’t. But I’m lucky to have these musical relationships with these people, and I think that that’s really what’s at the beating heart of the record. I was trying to strike a balance between having my own vision and literally listening to the music and having it tell me what it wanted to be. So it’s incredibly personal, beyond me putting my name on it. Without being overly sentimental, on the back of the record, there’s a photo of pretty much everyone who played on it. To me, that’s the pure joy of playing: It’s something that’s not just about music. It’s about community and relationships and history.
LINDSAY: I imagine your social circle, especially living in Brooklyn, runs pretty deep with musicians.
HARRINGTON: One of my favorite things about being a musician in New York is that you have the opportunity to bump up against a lot of different communities. So I can have friends and hang out in the underground techno world and I can also have friends who are in the jam band scene. And I can hang out with people who are real singer/songwriters, who are emotional performers. All of that, it’s the privilege of being beyond a musician, but being a New York musician. It’s something that I definitely embrace.
LINDSAY: As a member of the electronic music community, what excites you most?
HARRINGTON: It’s a very fertile and inspiring community to be a part of. I think that having been a part of an electronic band, Darkside, and then having watched how the contemporary consciousness understands and digests electronic music, what’s incredibly exciting is that the prevalence of electronic music has made people reconsider what they want, what they express, what they desire from music [and] live performance. I like that we live in a universe where people get excited to go see electronic music, when there’s no lead singer, there’s maybe no singles even. From where I stand, the recent currents in electronic music have created a new sense of openness from the audience in terms of what people will give their time and their ears and their presence to that didn’t exist five years ago.
LINDSAY: You have two live outings for Become Alive coming up in New York. What are those going to look like?
HARRINGTON: There’s no way to present the album because it’s the result of a myriad different groups of musicians improvising in different contexts and then me taking all of that and putting it through an electro-blender. In terms of the release shows and in terms of the touring life of the project and moving forward, I’m not interested in encapsulating this thing. What I’m interested in and what I’m putting forth into the world is live improvised moments mediated by musicians who embrace technology, filtered through the lens of what you could loosely call “my compositions.” I like the idea that that could take a lot of different shapes.
LINDSAY: It’s interesting, then, to look at the album closer, “All I Can Do.” It sticks out because it’s less distorted, more structured. It almost feels like an Allman Brothers jam.
HARRINGTON: That’s the only piece of the record that I had a framework for. It was the vehicle where I felt that I could best express myself with the guitar. I had kind of crafted this loose structure where I felt like it would open a space for me to really try to speak from my heart. My reasons for including it are simple: It’s honest, it’s true, it’s really me. It’s the closest I can ever come to being a lead singer. The way that I played in that track, I was really just trying to be right in the moment and say everything I could. It’s a very true reflection of things that I hold dear, not the least of which what you mentioned: the Allman Brothers. I grew up in New York going to the Beacon Theatre to see the Allman Brothers. That’s totally in there. And beyond that, I love albums where you put it on and it’s a journey from start finish. A great last track can open a door or a window to something else, and it can suggest what can come next. [“All I Can Do”] will have to tell me what the next thing is.