When electronic wunderkind Nicolas Jaar was looking for a guitarist for his new project, he ended up going with an unusual choice: someone who didn't really know how to play the instrument.
"I was looking to make live music that got out of the laptop idea," the 24-year-old Jaar says by phone from Montreal, in between soundchecks. "I asked my friend if he knew any guitar players, and he said one of the best musicians he knew was Dave [Harrington], but that he didn't really play guitar very much. We met in the Lower East Side and jammed a little bit and I saw that he had the right state of mind—he was totally cool improvising, playing long tracks. The more we played together, we realized we really had something."
Until recently, the concept of jamming was new for Jaar. Though he's been making music on his own since he first heard Tiga's DJ-Kicks mix as a teenager, it wasn't until he assembled a band to tour behind his revelatory 2011 solo full-length, Space Is Only Noise, that he really got out of the bedroom. Suddenly enthralled with the possibilities of playing with other musicians, Jaar began recording music with Harrington that quickly moved away from the sparse, shape-shifting electro he'd made his name on. They dubbed the project Darkside, releasing an EP in late 2011 before spending over a year honing the warped, electro psych-rock of their proper debut, 2013's Psychic.
Despite its name, Darkside's music isn't so much otherworldly as it is of this world: bluesy, rural, made by two musicians totally committed to leaving their individual comfort zones. It's dance music as contextualized through German krautrock, '80s soft rock and a playful sense of experimentation. As much as Psychic references Pink Floyd and other psychedelic touchstones, you can't really call it "spacey" like Jaar's other work. Instead, it has this weird, earthy quality, like something that has existed for 30 years and only recently been dug up, digital disintegration and all.
Psychic doesn't bust out of the gates as much as it slowly awakens from a long slumber. Amid a murky sea of barely-there electronics, a distant, ominous organ and digital thuds, opening track "Golden Arrow" finally blooms when the beat kicks in around the five-minute mark. The 11-minute song sets the tone for the rest of the record, unfolding and revealing new layers with each repeated listen: Dire Straits-inspired guitar licks (seriously), sighing violin and cello, and Jaar's quivering voice.
Though his solo work does feature some singing, Psychic is Jaar's first record that could be considered anything close to the realm of pop songwriting. "The songs are coming from two directions at once—a songwriting direction, to a certain extent, but also from something that is more improvisational," Jaar says. "We used the studio as a place to unite those two things."
Before starting Darkside, Harrington would sneak into Manhattan clubs as an underage musician, cutting his teeth playing experimental, improv-based jazz. Traces of that lineage still exist in his guitar playing, which is at once rudimentary and cosmic, relying on age-old, bluesy chord progressions and alien tones such as those on the airy album closer, "Metatron."
That same sense of boundary-pushing runs throughout Psychic. The longer tracks, like "Golden Arrow" and the almost funky "The Only Shrine I've Seen," start with a flicker and gradually add instrumentation. Album highlight "Freak, Go Home"—a dense web of house synths and head-turning polyrhythmic beats—is skewed toward music you could actually dance to. You get the sense that Darkside wasn't sure where some of these songs would go, and Jaar says the duo often started with an idea and then "improvised our way to the finish line."
As the band gears up for a lengthy tour that will take it to big clubs in Europe and a handful of festivals, Jaar can't help but wonder how music so weird will go over with the dance-music mainstream. Not that he really cares.
"You want to make something awesome so that people like it, but the other 50 percent is trying to explore," he says. "Playing music with Dave made me realize it was possible as a producer to make rock music. For us, it was like, how much can we get away with?â
SEE IT: Darkside plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with High Water, on Thursday, Jan. 23. 9 pm. $20. 21+.