Darkstar talk about the civic spaces that fed into Civic Jams; the youth clubs and nightclubs they grew up in; their new show on south London’s Reprezent Radio – and the work they've been doing with community groups in Liverpool and Huddersfield.
Darkstar are sitting in a Vauxhall community garden. Parakeets are making their presence felt, the trees are rustling hard and there’s a background rumble of lorries wrapping around the picnic bench where they’re sitting.
It’s a suitably communal location for James Young and Aiden Whalley who have just released their fifth album, ‘Civic Jams’. It's a sparse and soulful nine track elegy to grassroots space and the personal and collective evolution that happens within them. It’s built around emotive organ samples, crunchy chords and the wraparound bass that would sound even more wraparound if we could hear it through outsize speakers – but that’ll have to wait ’til a post-Pandemic world emerges.
The pair talk about the civic spaces that fed into the record; the youth clubs and nightclubs they grew up in; their new show on south London’s Reprezent Radio – and the work they've been doing with community groups in Liverpool and Huddersfield.
‘An Ecstasy Misplaced (Transcript)’
Can you tell us where we are?
Aiden Whalley: We're in Vauxhall and we're in a place called Bonnington Square. There’s a co-operative group that manage the area. They look after two parks and a cafe and a space where people can put workshops on and things like that.
Can we talk about some of the civic spaces that informed the record?
AW: I'm going to go way back [to a place that gave me] the chance to do something musical: Kettlethorpe community centre youth club. It was a place where everybody used to hang out on week nights, play pool. There was a woman called Sue Saw who used to do a National AIDS Day charity function with local bands. One time she turned around to me and said 'right so in two weeks we've got this thing. Are your band ready?' I was like ‘we're not even really a band you know’, but she said to get four songs together and we got four songs together, Nirvana covers and shit like that. There was a hall with a little stage and a system – and this spot gave me the first experience of performing music. I think it might have turned out a lot differently, if I hadn't had that opportunity.
James Young: I want to touch on the work we did with a youth centre in Liverpool. Liverpool is somewhere that I've a strong association with because my family are Scouse. I thought I knew Liverpool. I thought I knew the landscape, I thought I knew the areas really well. Then when we got invited to do this project at Harthill in Wavertree [south east Liverpool] and I came across this Czech-Romany-Scouse community. I was blown away. Not only was I blown away, I was like these people are out on a limb, you know in the North West. Liverpool’s a socialist city but it's still got pockets where it’s rough and ready and Wavetree is one of those pockets. I remember going to Harthill most days that summer and being like, this is vital. These people need this. And the talent was just insane.
Can you tell me about somewhere that was foundational for you when you were growing up?
JY: So my week was divided, like everyone else's when we were kids. Monday night was a disco at the Civic Hall in Winsford. That was cool, that was kinda chart music all night, three tracks for a slow dance at the end. And you'd go there till you were like 14. On a Friday night we'd go to this place called Mounty and they had a youthie there and we’d play pool.
A youth club?
JY: Yeah, or we'd go to New Images and that was another youthie on a different estate. Mount Pleasant. The Grange, that's another estate, where my nan and grandad and everyone lived. Then the weekend was the weekend, do you know what I mean? Then you'd have footie in between.
AW: Listening to music in people's bedrooms. Record shopping around Leeds town centre, going down to a place called Dark Arches where there'd be a music shop called Knock On Wood. It would sell all your different wooden percussion instruments. Hours would be spent in these odd little shops in and around like Leeds and Corn Exchange as well.
Do you think independent shops can be civic spaces as well?
AW: I think the areas that they occupy and the community of the shops, and the people that run them 100%. Yeah they were the places on the weekend I spent most of my time growing up. Even the steps that we'd chill on outside the places, they're all hotspots of people who were into a certain type of music or a certain type of scene.
What would be your steps then?
AW: Going back to Wakefield actually, you'd always meet outside HMV. The cathedral steps would be where all the goths would be - religiously - that would be the goth spot. We'd go to the Triangle pool hall, and we'd have a little routine where we'd go to HMV, we'd go to the Triangle, then we'd go get a chip butty in Market House.
I like that because when I was looking at this. I looked at the definition of civic space, and actually it does include the steps of places. The front areas of judicial buildings, or townhalls are technically civic spaces. You're kind of moved on from those places now aren't you, especially if you're young. And that whole kind of thing of discouraging loitering – loitering is actually really good and important. Why are we moving people on?
JY: Yeah totally.
Maybe it's to do with the privatisation of some of these spaces.
JY: It's basically what the Tories have been trying to do isn’t it. Protect what you've got. Move these kids on, blah blah blah. It's like a culture now.
What’s another place that fed into the record? Somewhere that’s in the undercurrents of the record.
JY: I used to go to a place called The Void in Stoke-on-Trent. I think a lot of what we've tried to do with this record, was to reminisce: chords, progressions and the limited palette. A lot of the tracks, if you break them down, are like Masters At Work. Blocky chords, grooves. They used to play Masters at Work in the little room at The Void and that pretty much changed my life, that place. That’s when I first really bought into this idea – this is probably not going to go away. I’m in. It hooked me. They used to do trancy stuff in the main room, then this guy called Lee Burridge used to take over late at night. There was this thing called Tyrant Sound System with Craig Richards – but this was late 90s, before Craig Richards was doing anything at Fabric. That was like a precursor to the FWD>> sound. I always thought breaks were crap, but then I heard them messing about with the sonics and frequencies over breaks, I thought that was interesting. Then when I got to London, I ended up at FWD>> and that was like a rawer version of what I was accustomed to. That was 2002.
OK, so early days?
JY: Yeah very early. When I used to go it was 40 lads from Croydon, with 20 people on the dancefloor, just interesting stuff. And then I remember going to Blackmarket Records before FWD>> buying East Connection Devil Mix, Wiley, and I didnt know who Youngsta was. And then went into FWD>> and I was like ‘this is mental’. And he was DJ'ing, and I was like– it’s him that guy that sold me that track.
What was the energy like in the room at that point?
JY: Like they were working it out. Yeah they were all working it out and trying stuff. Like Slaughter Mob was still big. They were the best then. Vicious and Dangerous were like a real thing. Mala was just getting going, Kode was just getting going, you could see it. Skream was Skream but early. He was kinda making them work, I thought. His tunes were just a bit better than everyones back then. Which was interesting. And then every now and again Sarah (Souljah)would put on Heartless Crew or someone. Or Jammer, then Skepta and everyone started coming. It was interesting. I think everyone was kinda working the camp out. And then after that the prominence of Digital Mystikz started to really shine through. Everytime they did something, or let a tune go, it was like oh this is standout.
I feel like this is one of the reasons why the youth work and the youth clubs and that part of it is really important because it lets people develop a lot of skills, so by the time they’re in their early 20s they have a lot of experience. They’re not just starting from scratch. What did you get to do young that allowed you to gather up experience?
JY: I've got a good answer for this.
AW: Go on..
JY: Remember [late ‘90s version of Job Seeker’s Allowance] New Deal? I got that. I’d just got a sequencer, I’d got Logic on my PC at home and they sent me to a place in Warrington called Tuff Gong. It was hilarious. It was these two guys called Latch and Andre, kinda cowboyish, but told me loads of interesting stuff that I carry with me now. Andre was like – bring your PC in tomorrow. And I'm like alright, put my PC in a bin bag, take it on the bus to Warrington and he'd just load it with cracked software. He showed me how to use everything and that was key. Without that I'd have never made a beat. He'd be like ‘what's your favourite tune’, and I'd tell him. Do you remember a label called Bush from Manchester, a techno label? I used to like this track called ‘When I Rock’ by Thomas Schumacher. He got me to cut it up and he was like ‘this is how you do it’. Just cut it up. That’s how I learnt to make beats.
Let’s talk about the source material for the record. I know there’s some stuff from Union Chapel...
AW: I think a lot of it was informed by the back end of the tour from Foam Island, when we played in Germany. By some sort of happy accident while we were playing live James dropped four kicks into a tune called Through The Motions and it just started rolling out and this sense of bassline, beat, chords and vocals on top really connected with the audience. After that tour finished, we went back into the studio. But this time there was a restrictive idea to strip back the elements.
JY: We had an Altern-8 sample pack from their kind of hard drive that they sell for a tenner online. We had an organ sample and I remember sometimes Aiden would send me demos, and it would not be the palette and I’d be like that’s not it, that’s what we're using.. only that!
AW: Yeah but it's very, very difficult. Especially when you're trying to be creative and restrict yourself and it's a hard discipline to master that.
That's why it fits isn't it? Because we're living in constrained times. It would be weird to have excess at a time of the opposite.
JY: Yeah I find it quite interesting as well, you see people in plush studios and stuff like that and in my head I'm like it's nice, you've got a lovely set up but like, you know, is it what it’s about?
Another constraint is the album length: nine tracks, that's a classic Aretha Franklin, soul album length. Why?
JY: We probably had half that again. I feel like Warp are close enough to us to see that we've poured over it that much, that when we handed the nine [tracks] in they're like ‘alright, that's the record, but let's talk about sequencing’. So it's just more to do with what we felt encapsulated that period.
You know what, we have less civic spaces so nine makes more sense than a double album...although I suppose if this was being genuinely reflective, one of the tracks would have disappeared by the time the record came out.
JY: It nearly did in a way, because 'Tuesday' initially had a bassline, a vocal, a full three verses…
AW: ...and then James got in the studio one day and was like ‘OK I'm going to strip the bassline out, get rid of the vocals and then just fade the chords in over about a minute and a half.’ Sounds sick man, let's go with that. But I got to thinking, fucking hell, I wonder what else we're gonna lose before we hand this in...
It's good though because the record is reflecting the state of play, isn't it? Like the disappearance of things. Tell me about Union Chapel, about Organ Reframed, and where that fits into the record.
AW: That was a really, really sick experience. We were commissioned to do a composition for 20 minutes with organ, electronics and a string trio with Jamie McVinnie and the London Contemporary Orchestra. So we got there with a couple of bits, because since we'd already worked with Jamie and we'd already done electronics and organ for a PRS Hull City of Culture performance the year before, in fact he recommended us to [Organ ReFramed founder] Claire Singer to get us involved. I'd knocked up some MIDI strings, and we were like ‘these sound pretty dry but let's see what the performers can do with it’. And it was really just the articulation of the music we'd given them by the players of the instruments, along with the organ and the sound of the Union Chapel, that meant it all just came together really beautifully. You just became aware of just how far the music could go.
Did you use that material directly into the recordings? What kind of process did they go through between the recording of the gig and what's on the record?
AW: Well it was more the recording of the rehearsals and playing around with that. So it was more isolated - close mic'd organ recordings and ambient recordings. We then went on to sample it and used it as an instrument embedded in the sounds that we'd also recreated through a plugin called iZotope Iris, mixed with some sample pack which we'd already worked with. It was that layering which gave us that little bit more warmth in the sound.
Was there any other source material? You’ve got that testing out of sounds with audiences on your tour, the sessions from the Union Chapel. Anything else?
JY: I can't stress enough how pivotal that Altern8 sample pack was. It was just heaven to me. Because everything was in there: immediately you've got the organ bass and all their stabs, so as soon as we got that we were just making basslines. So that was cool.
This leads us nicely back to The Void which you mentioned before being a place you went to in Stoke, and which appears in the video that you made with to go with 'Blurred'.
JY: We were talking about photos at first – have we got any family photos or things like that? The video for [first single] Text touches on a few little moments. Basically my uncle passed away, and on the day of his wake, Liverpool had to play Barcelona and all my family are Liverpool fanatics – we will get to Blurred through this story. So Liverpool were 3-0 down to Barcelona but on the second leg we were all at the pub distraught, because, like.. you know, it's a funeral, and we've got a very tight-knit family. But Liverpool started to score goals and I've never felt anything like it. When the fourth goal went in and we'd abolished this aggregate scoreline and humiliated the great Barcelona... honestly, it was crazy. I got my phone out, because it was a funeral but it was bedlam, and I sent it to Alex, the guy who made that track, and we halved that fourth goal and my Uncle’s funeral.
So, when we were talking about [the video for] ‘Blurred’, Leah at Warp was like what about places that are close to us? She said she'd get Warp to contribute and collect pubs, social clubs, photos, families and stuff. That then kind of just progressed. Let's see what people have to say about their favourite venues and stuff. Then the Google Images idea came into play, and as soon as that happened we were like ‘ah yeah this is perfect!’ There's a guy called Caspar at Warp. He needs a shout out for that.