Following news this morning that they'll be playing the Drowned In Sound stage at this year's Great Escape, Rob Leedham talks to the electronic trio about recording News From Nowhere, writing songs for Kate Bush and The Sopranos...
The last time Drowned In Sound witnessed Darkstar live was at the Cardiff Arts Institute. Memories of the evening are hazy. The words 'ketamine', 'shopping' and 'ASDA' are all thrust forward in vague recollection but it remains a mystery.
Tonight, minds are more focused among the electronic trio. They're about to unveil their brand new album, News From Nowhere, at Rough Trade East in London.
It's the first time they've done a show like this in the UK. New songs like 'Amplified Ease' and 'A Day's Work For A Day's Pay' are mixed with reworked versions of older tracks. 'Gold' is a particular highlight from the brief five-song set which is all the more impressive given the band are lacking their usual wall of mood-setting visuals.
After the show, we huddle round a stairwell at the side of the stage for a chat. Tiny cans of Asahi are consumed, News From Nowhere is deconstructed and the eternal debate about whether The Wire is better than The Sopranos is settled. Read on to find out more...
So when did you guys start writing News From Nowhere?
James Buttery: Just after the riots...
Aiden Whalley: We played Field Day the night of the Tottenham riots and we'd just moved out of Clapton the week before that. It was all going on where we used to live. I remember watching it on the news and being, 'Fuckin' hell man'.
What was the first song you wrote for the album?
AW: 'Young Hearts' was one of the first ideas that we all actually agreed on.
JB: 'A Day's Pay...' We had the verse of that for ages but we couldn't crack the chorus for it. We did that literally at the last minute. We almost didn't put it on the record.
That's one of the best songs...
James Young: We had a lot of mismatched choruses and I was trying to say to James and Aiden, 'I'm not a musician so, I come at it from a different way.' I was trying to tell them what I wanted on the chorus and it was strange...
It took me a year to try and point them in the right direction and then one morning I came down and those two had put the chorus on. I was like, 'This is it!'
You recorded the album in a countryside studio in Yorkshire. Is that where its cover art came from?
AW: We gave free reign to Ed Quarmby who was the art director for the album, so it was just based on the sound really. Funnily enough, one of his suggestions was flowers and we thought it was a strong image, so we went down that route. It's just a nice coincidence based upon what he imagined.
JY: My perspective on North was that it has to be concise and we're going to control it. I like the record, I'm proud of it. At the same time, I knew we were ready to experiment a bit more. It felt we should get a producer and a bit more of an outside influence. James [Buttery] came in on the writing too.
Because North came out around the time of James Blake, Mount Kimbie and a fair few others. What's your perspective on that scene now?
JY: I really like James Blake's music and he's even better live. I like Mount Kimbie too but I don't really see that many similarities.
JB: It's probably more of an ideology that we share.
This record is moving away from that especially...
AW: Well we never really bracketed ourselves into a certain type of scene.
JY:It's the Hyperdub thing [record label that released North and is also home to Burial]... We really just wanted this album to exist independently from anything we'd done in the past and I think that's what we achieved.
So I've heard the decision to work with a producer was spurred on by advice from the Pet Shop Boys..
JY: Well, kind of. We bumped into them, they came to one of our shows and said we should get a producer. It wasn't like they took us under their wing.
AW: Also Graham [Lewis] from a band called Wire. He recommended Gareth Jones [Depeche Mode, These New Puritans, Grizzly Bear] to us as well.
JY: We did actually meet Gareth Jones but Richard [Formby] was ideal for us.
Why was that? Had you heard Wild Beasts' Smother?
JY: Again, it was the connection but it wasn't the contact. We met Richard, he came to our house and made a real effort in letting us know that he wanted to do the record. We were like, 'We like him. We're not that familiar with his work but we want to work with him because he's a good guy.'
JB: He was a bit of wildcard but we just got a good feeling for it. You know?
Well you said you wanted to change how you did things. That must have helped?
JB: It's kind of weird. It's all been coincidental a lot of things that have happened to us. It's all just fallen into place.
JY: What we found with this record is that we'd meet someone we'd want to work with and it would fall through. It happened with a designer, a producer and a video director. I'm not devaluing what the other people gave us, it's just we didn't expect to meet them and we're quite happy that we did.
You guys are producers in general. Is there anything particular you picked up from Richard?
JY: More technical things like being able to work with reel-to-reel tape and stuff like that.
JB: I think we share quite similar ideas as well. He likes weird interesting things which are progressive. He'd encourage us to play around and cause happy accidents, so we ran all our stuff through his gear and fucked around for a few weeks. We had quite a lot of fun really, didn't we?
AW: He's not so hung up on being quick on the technical side of thing. Takes his time... I'd forgotten about that after learning loads of shortcuts on Pro Tools. If you've got a good idea that will last, so go through it step by step.
Did that affect how the tracks were made?
JY: We had 15/16 demos to go in with, so it was just a case of what Richard could bring to those demos sonically. He played little bits and bobs on certain tracks, so he's got a few writing credits on the album. He kind of enhanced everything, even our mentality towards it from a conceptual angel. He came up with the title News From Nowhere. I think he's quite a punk at heart.
JB: He's a self-confessed anarchist...
You've described News From Nowhere as an 'optimistic record'. Why do you think that?
JY: Because when we used to make tunes before this record, we'd always look for a mood we'd like and it was usually quite...
AW: Melancholic. It was a challenge as well to write something a bit happier that's not cheesy. You do a few tracks and you start getting into thing where you'll sit down at a keyboard and play the same kind of chord sequence. That'll create a nice sad mood and you'll put some synths behind it... Once we'd done that and we got into the house and we started writing a few things, we thought we were going through ground we'd already trodden on.
But the lyrics on the record are quite isolated. Songs like 'Amplified Ease'...
JY: It's more like self-assurance. It's just being happy about where you are at the time.
JB: 'Amplified Ease' is really about being content and feeling satisfied with who you are. We wrote the lyrics in Richards studio at the last minute.
AW: We had the 'I'm on my own' bit... You're just confident in yourself.
Because you broke your back during recording James [Buttery]. You guys got 10 extra weeks to finish the album. Was that extra time important?
JY: I think we'd have a very different record. 'A Day's Pay' wasn't on the record. 'Amplified Ease' wasn't on the record. 'Armonica' wasn't on the record. 'Bed Music' wasn't on the record.
Those are some of its best tracks
JY: I think it was, in an odd way, a kick up the arse so we just rolled out quite a few tunes quick.
AW: It was like a second chance!
JB: Totally. I couldn't do anything for weeks, I was literally just laid on my back. It was like a blessing in disguise. I don't we would have been happy if we'd finished the album before I'd broken my back. It's a good way to extend your studio time.
How's the live show moved on since the first album?
JY: We went onto MPCs from a gear point of view. It's taken a long time to get to that point tonight because there are a lot of parts on the record. You have to have them in the live version because they just sound hollow without. We're ready to go on tour now.
The tracks seem like they come together in the studio and then you have to figure out how to play them live
JY: We don't think about live when we're recording because that might limit what we do. We like to keep an open mind with that and work it out afterwards which is probably foolish but...
AW: It works for us like that I think. We're not as live as every other band in the world but we're very tactile. Tonight we were shouting at each other, 'Let's try this. Let's do that.'
And you're looking forward to heading out on the road?
JY: Yeah we'll just refine it now for the next month. We've got a few festivals booked in and we'll maybe release a bit more music.
Would that be as an EP?
JY: I think we're going to throw a few things out for free. Weird little ideas we have on the road.
AW: We're thinking of having a little studio in the back of our van.
Is that something you've done before?
JB: We've never had a van before.
JY: We always take a lot of time over our songs so it would be nice to do something ad hoc to give away to people. We'll see if it actually happens. If not, no fucking way.
Seeing as we're in Rough Trade. What was the last record you all bought?
JB: Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom which I got when I moved to Yorkshire.
AW: I just got a Kanye record. I never had College Dropout so got it to listen to on tour.
JY: It was actually the anniversary edition of Blue Lines. It's my favourite record so I just bought it to keep up the trend of being a fan. You've got to sometimes haven't you?
If you had to write a song for someone else, who would it be for and what would it sound like?
JY: Kate Bush.
AW: Kate Bush is a good shout.
JY: She'd bring enough to it to make it really interesting and you'd probably be at home experimenting.
AW: She's got a producer's mind. I was listening to her records quite a lot when we were writing the album because the area we were in was a Pennine across from where Wuthering Heights was written.
JY: I wouldn't mind doing a record with Dizzee. Maybe for narrative rather than him going all-out pop.
Finally, I know you guys watched a lot of HBO shows while recording the album. What's better The Wire or The Sopranos?
JY: The Sopranos.
AW: The Sopranos. It's way better.
JB: I would say Breaking Bad but that's not HBO.
JY: I think you've got to admire the depth of the storyline in The Wire but The Sopranos edges it for comedy value.
I guess The Wire's laughs mainly come Omar wandering around with a shotgun
JB: 'Oh no you didn't...'
News From Nowhere is out now on Warp Records