One step beyond
Darkstar: 'We wanted to try something more organic and positive'
“Dubstep became the musical equivalent to painting by numbers” – James Buttery tell JIM CARROLLabout Darkstar’s move away from the electronic underground and into self-imposed isolation
There is a new addition to that list of bands who’ve embraced the tradition of going up country to get their muse in order. When it came time to make their second album, Darkstar decided to abandon London and move to Slaithwaite, outside Huddersfield in west Yorkshire.
The Darkstar trio didn’t move to the village to sample E Grange Son’s pork pies or sup at the Silent Woman pub or check out the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival or even collaborate with the Slaithwaite Brass Band. They went there to make a second album which sounds very unlike their debut.
You won’t find much reference on News From Nowhere to the dubstep and bass that informed Darkstar’s debut, North, or their future-garage Hyperdub single, Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer.
What you’ll hear instead is the sound of a trio taking chances by using structures, influences and ideas from all over the shop (George Harrison, Animal Collective, Brian Eno, Van Dyke Parks, Ultramarine, vocal chants) to forge superbly lush, memorable and effective songs. The Yorkshire air obviously suited them.
It is also the first album that James Buttery was involved in from start to finish. When the vocalist initially joined Aiden Whalley and James Young, they had the songs for North already written.
“We were living close by each other in London and had become friends,” Buttery explains. “They wanted someone to do vocals on this Radiohead cover they were doing for Mary-Anne Hobbs’s radio show. I bumped into Aiden in the shop when I was out getting milk and bread, and he asked me if I wanted to come around to do some singing. I didn’t actually compose any of North, I just literally sang the tunes they wrote.”
Buttery already had band form, having fronted an indie act called Sunburned, before Darkstar came calling. He was also an experienced studio hand, having studied music technology in university and then worked as a freelance engineer in various studios.
“I actually worked in Trevor Horn’s studio for a while after I was sacked from the Royal College of Music. People like Madonna, Justin Timberlake and Timberland were working in the studio when I was there, all that sort of pop stuff. I didn’t work on their sessions; I just brought in the tea.”
He’s responsible for a lot more than the tea with Darkstar. “This is my first full-time record with the band, so I was involved in it from start to finish. North was a break-up album and we were all looking to go somewhere else, though I don’t how we phrased it when we discussed it. We just felt that we’d done that sound already and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves.
“We wanted to try something that was a lot more organic and positive. I think it’s kind of easy to write melancholic music, but it’s much more challenging to do something optimistic without it being cheesy. We had to push ourselves to get that.”
The band also felt the challenge and expectations which came with a new record deal. “We signed with Warp after North came out and then it was ‘you have to do another record now, guys’ and we felt the weight of that task. I was very aware about how easy it is to simply fade away to nothing these days so we wanted to almost shock people with what we did. It felt like we had to prove ourselves and find out what we were worth.”
Darkstar were also keen to get away from being seen as just another underground act. “The emphasis and goal was always to move away from that electronic underground. We’ve always been interested in the avant-garde and doing things differently than anyone else and being quite progressive. I think that’s why Aiden and James latched onto dubstep in the first place – because it was perceived as being something different. As soon as dubstep became this new scene that everyone was trying to latch onto, it lost its attraction.”
Buttery feels dubstep lost its way when it moved into the mainstream. “I lived through the scene in London from 2003 to 2005 or 2006, and I remember it going mainstream. Dubstep was the soundtrack to these parties my friends threw in a warehouse in Hackney and then you’d begin to hear it on the radio. It died at that stage.
“Dubstep became the musical equivalent of painting by numbers. Loads of my mates started making tracks that sounded the same with the same drum-beat. What was all that about? Everyone’s so busy striving for the next thing, for the new thing, that they begin to forget what the point of music and art is. You want to gravitate towards something that’s original and wants to say something in a different way.”
The main reason Darkstar moved to west Yorkshire was financial, Buttery explains. “We signed a deal with Warp, which was a good deal, but we couldn’t afford to quit our day jobs and stay in London. We decided to get out and concentrate on what we were doing. I was working and the others were doing bits and bobs but we gave it all up to immerse ourselves in making this album. Aside from the cheaper costs of living outside of London, we really wanted to just concentrate on the album and nothing else.”
The move to Yorkshire, reckons Buttery, was the best thing that could have happened to them as it meant they removed themselves from any scene.
“Being so isolated worked to our advantage in terms of the sounds on the album,” he says. “When you live and go out in London, it’s so easy to get your head turned by sounds, so self-imposed isolation is a good thing when you want to write something new.
“Darkstar were definitely part of a scene in London but now we’re definitely not part of any scene anymore.
“We enjoyed being part of a scene and it helped us get so much attention, but that’s all in the past. We’ve gone out on our own little thread now.”
News From Nowhere is out now on Warp. Darkstar play Dublin’s Button Factory on February 22nd