On Darkstar‘s second album, the band sounds completely different. But you probably knew that already.
The follow-up to 2010’s bleak North – an album preceded by several years of suffocating computer-funk singles for Hyperdub – News from Nowhere finds Darkstar sounding breezy in comparison. More Animal Collective than Alien, founding members James Young and Aiden Whalley and vocalist James Buttery have settled into life as an alternative pop act with ease.
It’s a process that’s been aided by Richard Formby, a veteran producer whose CV sports work for Wild Beasts, Creation and 4AD, and whose armoury of tape machines shaped News from Nowehere almost as much as the Yorkshire cottage that the band wrote it in. FACT’s Tom Lea got Formby and Darkstar back together in London to find out more.
First off, tell us how you two ended up working together.
JY: “It was a weird one for us, because we’d met a few producers before Richard. Richard wasn’t really in any of our thoughts or conversations – we were close to doing [News from Nowhere] with Tim Goldsworthy, but that fell through. At that point we decided to do it on our own, and then at the last minute Paddy our manager told us we should listen to the Wild Beasts record [that Formby produced]. Richard came over to the house, and it was pretty clear that we both wanted to work from each other.”
R: “I wasn’t aware of the band before, but that’s not unusual. There’s an awful lot of stuff I miss out on. I listen to demos without researching the band, so I can go into it with no preconceptions. And when I went to their studios, and they had Pro Tools open, and I could see what have gone into the demos… well, they were more like early versions of album songs at that point. They ended up quite different though, didn’t they?”
JY: “It was nowhere near as textured as the record that we [eventually] came out with. I think those textures are quite a big part of what the record now is.”
R: “I’d never heard North, but thought I didn’t really want to hear it. I got the impression that they’d moved on. I’m sure the band were aware enough of what they’ve done before and how people might react to those changes, so I didn’t need to share any of those concerns. I tend to not think about what’s gone before anyway, though it depends on the band.”
How much material did you end up recording together?
R: “There was an album’s worth of songs that went by the wayside.”
JY: “When we got in there we started with what we thought was the strongest material, and we finished about four songs in four days. We had the luxury of Richard’s equipment, and it was like hearing it in a whole different light.”
R: “Just hearing it in the studio made a massive difference, didn’t it? They’ve got a home studio of course, but once we had it in mine with different channels on the desk and so forth, it’s completely different. There was some really good material that got left out though, even in the closing stages.”
JB: “We started writing a new song on the second-to-last day.”
JY: “We tried to be as ruthless as possible though. If one of us wasn’t too keen on something, then it went.”
R: “I like that. There are a lot of bands who are too precious with what they make, and you’ve got to learn to let go of things at some point. You can always take a good idea and use it somewhere else, if it’s relevant. With the opening track of the album, I think we cut two minutes off of it. I think I came out the room, and came back and you’d removed half of it [laughs]. It’s really nice when a band can do that, usually it’s me that has to tell them and it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Having a separate pair of ears around must have made you look at the early album tracks differently.
JB: “When you play something to somebody for the first time you always hear it differently, you hear all the flaws – like argh, I should’ve done that differently.”
JY: “You pick up on an atmosphere in the room if something doesn’t sound that good. Having an extra pair of ears though – it’s interesting going that route, compared to everything we’ve done in the past. It’s better. Richard facilitated certain things that we don’t like doing, and it gave us more direction, rather than doing random things around the house and being distracted. With Richard’s studio, we were there to work – we were there for 10 hours a day, we were paying for [the time], and you just kind of juice everything out of it. It’s a different mentality to what we’re used to.”
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Which is funny, because that’s not what the album sounds like. It’s quite airy and free, and sounds pretty relaxed.
JY: “It wasn’t strict deadlines or anything. It was fun – you’re exposed to so many things that you’ve never used before, and you can process sound in ways that you’ve never done in the past. It becomes way more expansive, from where you thought it was going to go to what the track actually sounds like. I came out very surprised, we’d added a definition that I didn’t see being on the record.”
R: “I didn’t wanna get stuck on anything – I wanted to keep cycling the songs around, sometimes we’d do five or six songs in a day, just doing little bits to them, or even just listening to them. I never wanted it to get to that point where you haven’t heard one of the tracks in a week and a half.
A: “It was nice with the analogue desk as well, because every time we’d bring it up we’d end up mixing it slightly different.”
Given that all your past records were home-recorded, were there any memorable moments where you got in Richard’s studio and were like ‘shit, so this is how it’s meant to be done’?
JY: “I think that happened the minute we got in [to the studio] and started mixing with tape. Straight away, you think ‘oh no, I’ve been on a laptop all the time with a few synths.’ We learnt so much in that first month.”
A: “And you cotton on, quite quickly, with what you’re learning from Richard’s equipment, that if certain sections in a track needed a certain something, I could write something that’s quite simple at first, but with all Richard’s tape delays and so forth, you can build it up and fill the track in.”
Yeah, there are a lot of effects on the album but they never seem to dominate. It’s quite subtle.
R: “It’s still got the character of the original part, and then it gets processed to something else. The original character hopefully remains – they’re not supposed to be extraneous things, even if the original part eventually gets removed. The tape machine becomes an instrument in itself, really.”
Richard, do Darkstar remind you have any acts that you’ve worked with in the past?
R: “I think it’s different to anything I’ve ever done before. From the early tracks, I could hear an identity – which is still there now. There’s that mechanical [sound]… clack-y, I think we called it?”
R: “That was it. Seems like a good word to describe it.”
JY: “We were quite into chromatic samples, and trying to be as intricate as possible, not so much with the beats but with the rhythms. Having more of a subtle percussion element, so that everything’s interchanged.”
What memories of recording News from Nowhere still stick out now?
JB: “The smell of fresh bread.”
R: “[laughs] there’s a baking factory next door. For me, it’d be you [JY] at the back of the room, taking notes, you [JB] in the middle, and Aiden ready at the front, waiting for that eureka moment on the keyboard.”
A: “Because there’s someone facilitating it and saying ‘why not try this?’, with all the equipment there, you can just walk about and…”
JY: “You can pick stuff up and just do something. There’s some real random things Aiden did that ended up on the record, even if it’s just textures and tones. We tried to incorporate as much of that as possible – hopefully people will [listen to it and] think ‘ah, I didn’t notice that before.’