Darkstar interviewed by kode9

Darkstar in 2010 are an upgraded model of the Darkstar which released the much loved single ‘Aidy’s Girl is A Computer’ at the end of 2009. That song and previous singles ‘Need you’ and ‘Squeeze my lime’ hinted at a nascent song writing talent and a mastery of oozing synth drones.

The synths remain, but since then, the band have adjusted their focus, and added a lead singer James Buttery to the production and writing team of James Young and Aiden Whalley. The result is a brave, low-key pop masterpiece, which discards with the cheap thrills and treadmill ideas that many deploy to access success. Instead, 'North' will creep up on you with each listen, seducing you with achingly gorgeous, synthesized song writing.

From the intro track ‘In The Wings’, right through to the closing song, a lush new version of 'Squeeze My Lime' now called 'When It's Gone', the album blends their crunchy, citric synths, baroque strings, piano and tender guitar with vocal harmonies, gently laced with glitches and noise. Vocally here, Darkstar have subtly found the beauty in distortion.

The first single from the album, the catchy ‘Gold’, is a cover of a little known Human League song ‘You remind me of Gold’ inspired by hearing the original slowed to 33rpm. Insectoid drum machine rhythms carry the song along accompanied by a chilly piano. 'Deadness', 'Dear Heartbeat', 'Two Chords' and 'North' impress with their icy radiance, the rich, wafting strings, dreamy guitar and keys bury the otherwise snowy-white sonics, the crunch of the drums and the translucent vocals sounding as if they’re sung by a hologram. Some tracks, like 'Ostkreuz' and aspects of 'Under One Roof' conjure up a soundtrack to Twin Peaks if it was set in the North of England. Mini-anthem of 2009,'Aidy's Girl is a Computer' also earns a slot among the new material.

As their first long player, Darkstar have produced an album many bands with many more releases and experience under their belt can only dream of. Elegant, downbeat, breezy, sometimes melancholy and bleak, sometimes optimistic, 'North' will surprise many, a classic record for short days and long nights.

Darkstar - 'North'
01 In The Wings
02 Gold
03 Deadness
04 Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer
05 Under One Roof
06 2 Chords
07 North
08 Ostkreuz
09 Dear Heartbeat
10 When It’s Gone

Kode9 interviews James from Darkstar

9: So, apart from 'Aidy's Girl', you've been keeping a low profile over the last couple of years. What have you been up to?

D: Learning how to write things we'd like to write. Once Aidy's was finished we had a choice of going one of two ways. We could of carried on in that vein and made some great tunes or we could of gone the way we did and developed in a different way. In the long run I think the way we went will be the more fruitful for us personally.

9: On the album, 'North', you depart a little bit from that vocoder sound that I love so much from 'Out of Touch', 'Need You' and 'Squeeze My Lime' opting instead for a real, male vocalist. But it seems like whenever you do vocals, they are always synthetic. You seem to like mangling vocals. The vocals on North are all heavily processed in a way that I love and that people won't have heard in your music before. Can you say something about working with a real vocalist, and why you guys love synthetic vocals.

D: Working with James has been a pleasure because his voice sounds so neutral on our material. Once we process it the way we do it becomes a layer in the track... It's part of the grain, interwoven with the synths, distortion and all the other things we like fucking with. I think we worked James pretty hard, we would have over 100 takes of every line because we needed to make sure it'd fit with our vision of the song. Synthetic and effected vocals just sound better on our tracks I think. We're in a place where we will probably lean towards a more natural take and recording on our next group of tracks, it stared completely synthetic and it's getting more human as we develop.

9: The first single from the album is a cover of rarely discussed Human League track 'Gold'. What kind of affinity do you guys have with the Human League?

D: The Human League track was given to me by a friend, he used to play the dub at 33rpm instead of 45 so the break would be real slow and crunchy, he lent me the tune and i put the flip on 33rpm too, the vocal line was how you hear it in the single, the original is much quicker and it's a pretty obscure one from the Mirror Man ep. The Human League are great. We paid more attention to them after making the track, throughout the album we listened to four or five albums regularly and Travelogue was one of them. I'm not sure if we are real fans to be honest, I listen to some of it and think that it's brave but sometimes they get it so right. They've obviously got a strong vision to create a sound so uncompromising. Even though they were consistently in the charts it's a very particular way of writing, mixing and arranging. I don't think I've heard anything like it before or since. I don't neccesarily enjoy listening to it a lot of the time. It interests me though.

9: I know that making this album has involved a lot of blood, sweat and tears. What else have you been listening too during the production process to soothe those frayed nerves?

D: I like listening to house, I like putting my headphones on and turning the volume up to listen. We wrote quite a few slower spacious tracks, some in different time signatures and some with no beat's at all so before I started in the studio I'd have a daily fix of something repetitive and big. Once I'd leveled out and had some breakfast I'd be ready to get back into the cycle of the album. But for about an hour a day I'd get into anything by Romanthony or Cajmere, people like that.

Later on in the evening I'd usually listen to full albums stuff from Tin Drum by Japan to Actress.

We'd also got into writing full blown ambient pieces, there's three beatless tracks on the album, I watched a shit load of films over the time we recorded the last 5-6 tracks and so Aiden was constantly re-working certain scores to see how they were structured and constantly playing with chords to see if we could get anything.

We listened to so many things, so many albums in a critical way, comparing and listening to how artists structure a group of tracks is interesting. The lull's and peaks of a group of tracks.

9: You've been fine tuning an audiovisual live set for a while now and its almost ready to go public. Can you say something about what you are aiming at with that, and what gigs you've got lined up.

D: We played our two first live shows last weekend. It was pretty hardcore getting on stage and to be honest feeling like we hadn't prepared enough. The first show was in Copenhagen and was ropey, a few mistakes, a few missed notes but passable, not great but still probably interesting enough to get by. Then we played at Lowlands on the Sunday after Mount Kimbie and it went much better. We had a good audience, great system and although we made mistakes it went smoothly and at times it was enjoyable, which at this point I wasn't expecting. We're getting better all the time and making adjustments to the sound, rehearsing and trying to get the image right on stage.

Our first London show is in September. The visual side of things still isn't quite ready but we're hopeful it'll be in place for then. It's been a very steep learning curve that will carry on for the next year I think but it's fun to play with the tunes rather than stressing about finishing them.

9: Why did you call the album North?

D: Our first working title and one that we actually had artwork for a while back was 'Check my Machine' after the Paul McCartney song. The group of tracks on that initial album was different to what you have now. It was very much what people would expect from a Darkstar album. But personally we couldn't follow through with that. It felt that we were doing something to get it over with and not learning anything in return. It was a convenient route and to be honest, boring. We scrapped nearly all the album and started again. This was around late December 09. At that point we were at our lowest as Darkstar. We came back from Christmas with our families with no clear direction and tracks we didn't rate. We literally scrapped everything apart from two tracks. At that point it felt like it could go either way for us. We had a week or so in February were the disappointment and pressure of not getting to where we were expected to get became liberating, the burden of making an album in a dingy two bed in Clapton was overwhelming and the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but sometimes it got to me so much I'd just let go and live with the feeling, like taking positives from Groundhog day. When we got to that stage we wrote around five tracks quickly, and let it fester again, and worried about how we could finish. Once it built up again to that point, we'd sit down and write a couple of songs. In the end I'd wait for that heightened anxiety to let go. It was intense. My lyrics started to reference things that happened to me in the North and the sonics and arrangements became anti-colour... we'd had enough of glowing synths. It all kept going back to things up North. Aiden and myself both lost people close to us while making the album and no matter how hard we tried to escape to focus on recording we'd always be pulled back up by something. I think since I have been in London that has always been the case. All these things culminated in us going with the title 'North'.

9: How does being from the 'North' affect you musically?"

D: I'm not sure, there's obvious bands and artists that you immediately think of when you think geographically. I was raised in a town in mid-Cheshire, my whole family are from Liverpool. I was in-between Liverpool and Manchester right through my teens. Studied in both cities and loved each one differently. Thinking back, I can't really remember having an affinity with any bands or artists from that area. It was a very laddish thing going to a live gig up there. My friends smoked skunk and the two didn't go hand in hand. A few of us had turntables and that's what we based our interests on. I used to spend about £100 a week on 12's. It was a great time in my life and one that dictated my decision to write tracks. It was probably very typical of any group of friends discovering similar things. On the weekend we'd go to a club and in the week we'd smoke and listen to records.

My father has a hi-fi that sounds like you're in a concert hall. You have to switch on the amp twenty minutes before you play anything and his turntable is an astonishing thing. When I was 15 he got me a Marrantz amp and some floor stand speakers. The quality of sound was amazing. Our home was dedicated to music. We had a room for his gear, literally his deck, amp, speakers and a couch opposite. It was a great experience to have my dad show me things on that system. My ears were influenced then, from those nights he'd play me things from David Gilmore to Led Zepplin. He's got a great record collection.

9: How do you find living in London, being from the North?

D: It's tougher I think from a day to day view. Things creep up and you almost have to become good at living if that makes sense. It's unforgiving. I think that's what I'm trying to say. Obviously there's huge differences in the cost of things like rent and travel. It all adds up quickly and it took me a while to get on top of simple tasks like paying bills and then making tunes too. It's like scrapping for a time to be creative here, it's meant to be my priority but how often i get sidetracked is frustrating.

It has a huge influence on our sound being in London. I've built my own life and my world now revolves around this city. I've been here eight years now and I'm very much into the moment here. I like how vast the whole city feels. I like the choice and being able to really get hold of anything I need. That can't happen where I'm from. Even Liverpool and Manchester, both seem so much smaller having been here. Culturally and socially London is obviously far more diverse, from an immediate point of view where I live right now is very close to an Hasidic Jewish area. Within that area on Upper Clapton Road, estates and new developments sprawl off towards Stoke Newington and then in the opposite direction towards Walthamstow it's loud and busy. I pick up things from the Turkish shop below me, eat a lahmacun, sit on the roof with a beer in the evening and wish bus's didn't exist. I get cabs from the same Pakistani guy every time and in his side door compartment he has something called a Fanta twist. It's basically a vodka orange on the job. I watch Liverpool in an Arsenal pub and wish I was at home. I go for breakfast at a cafe at the top of Kingsland road where Micheal Watson eats his breakfast. Twice a week I sit two tables away from a guy that was almost killed in a boxing ring. I know the Chinese girl and her sister in Dans' Island on the roundabout. I know the Jamaican girl in Granny's. I know the fat dry cleaner on Lower Clapton road. The Indian builders who work in the yard behind the flat tip Aiden on working out. All these uneventful things in my day are part of me now. It's light years away from the the north. The north is where my family are, my friends I grew up with, cousins, ex-girlfriends, people I had fights with. Massive amounts of personal history in one town smaller than Clapton and Dalston combined. Everyone knows one another, there's a big sense of community and the air is cleaner. There's more space, more green space. It's slow paced though, things can become predictable and it gets to me when that happens. People in all parts of the world follow on from a previous generation. It's just magnified there because the population is smaller. You are able to see the footsteps retraced right in front of you.

I have my original group of friends I never question. They exist there in time with me. We have the same conversation most days. When we meet up again it's the same and it's something I miss down here. My friends in London are relatively new even though I've known some of them for up to eight years. You still separate one group from the other. It's just here.