It’s Alive with Dave Harrington

Dave Harrington is on his way to a musical appointment when I call him up. His breath is measured, but accelerated; like he’s walking with purpose and in his greeting I hear cheerful humility in his voice. I hear the faint distant echo of birds twittering and the hum of many voices rhythmically pull in and out of the sonic tapestry of the background noises. It sounds like Dave is walking through a park and I imagine for a moment I can feel the heat of summer’s day in New York radiating through the receiver. “It’s hot, but it’s nice out”, he says between deep breaths. He sounds urgent, but not rushed as he tells me that he is on his way to do a show on Lot Radio, an online community station run by friends. I find it an apt opportunity to ask about his current musical indulgences and he says he’s “veered mostly away from Techno” recently, but amongst the records in his bag of ”70’s ECM records, and early 2000’s downtown New York like John Zorn, Steve Bernstein and Medeski, Martin & Wood” he’s also packed an Ellen Alien and Field record. “I just play whatever I want.” Just this tiny inconsequential factoid speaks volumes of the character of the artist most of us were introduced to as one half of Darkside, where he shared the production chair and stage with Nicholas Jaar, and in the down-to-earth American manner he speaks it’s hard to remember that he was an integral half one of the biggest live- and recorded acts from the last three years. Perhaps this is because Dave is on a brand new musical journey today, one that has seen the humble guitarist, organist, bassist, producer and DJ embark from a new fulcrum point in his career, taking centre stage on this occassion, and that’s why were talking. I’m not calling him up to talk about his latent Jaar-collaboration which has gone into a permanent hiatus, because in the vestiges of Darkside today comes the Dave Harrington Group, and the reason for our interview; the debut album, Become Alive and the live tour that will be making a stop at Jæger.

The album cover features a young Dave Harrington at the base of a waterslide and when asked in past interviews about this project, he claimed that it offered him the opportunity to unpack his musical training, which starts with that boy frolicking in a pool, or perhaps more accurately the youngster in his home surrounded by his father’s Jazz records. “My farther had an incredible vinyl collection that was all Jazz, but no Almond Brothers, or the Doors. (laughs) I picked up the guitar when I was really young and was listening to the same alt-rock that was on the radio that everyone liked. REM, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. At some stage I picked up the bass, and that’s when I got serious about Jazz.“ From there, a career as a multi-instrumentalist session musician unfolded organically and thanks to a mutual friend named Will Epstein, a fortuitous introduction led to Dave being inducted into Nicholas Jaar’s touring band in 2011 for that artist’s first album. “I kind of auditioned, I guess”, he says while chuckling, making light of the serendipitous encounter that would eventually lead to Dave Harrington forming Darkside with Jaar. Although a compressed version of the Dave Harrington biography, it’s exactly these different elements that conspired in Dave “unpacking” his musical training for The Dave Harrington Group. “It’s been an evolution through touring so much with Nico in tandem with working on remixes, but also while doing live performances in the electronic context”, says Dave about the groundwork that was laid for the Dave Harrington Group. It’s a project that came together when Dave invited some of his friends together for a three-day recording session guided by the impulses of pure improvisation in between touring with Darkside. When I asked whether there was a pre-empted theme to the recording session, Dave remarks that the “musicians themselves were the theme.” These were all people he worked with closely in the past through different periods of his career, and found that these different characters highlight different aspects of his own musical personality. “Everyone who came to play with me, were people I knew. I was just trying to bring together people I wanted to spend time with.” There were no expectations, no limits, and only “loose direction” from Dave himself and the end result was hours of recorded music. “We just wanted to record as much as possible and see what happens.” Then came the hard part, to “turn this improvised music and turning it into something else, something more considered than jamming.” Alongside co-producer and close friend, Samer Ghadry (who also plays in the live band) Dave went to work “manipulating and editing” the raw material to turn the record into what he wanted through electronic post-production processes. “I was seriously influenced by the Tony Hancock records and ECM records, where they use a lot of post-production but it’s still live improvised music. That was the one thing I knew going in I wanted to explore.” Dave soon realised there was “more than two hours that were interesting” in the raw material, which then saw him call on his experiences to bring it all together as an album. “It’s been an evolution through touring so much with Nico in tandem with working on remixes, but also while doing live performances in the electronic context” says Dave of all the elements that influenced Become Alive. From the different musicians that brought out different elements of Dave’s own musical biography, right up to his time on stage as Darkside, everything Dave Harrington seeped into the project. A big part of it was also in “finding unconventional ways to make the guitar fit into the electronic context that was more meaningful” for Dave. “Part of the post production on the record is mostly influenced by the way I’ve come to treat my guitar with electronics while I’m playing live. I think of my guitar as the first point of a modular synthesiser. Considering the same for the big structures and the individual instruments on the structure. A saxophone can be saxophone and be purely solo, or can be re-constituted and chopped up and turned into something that is texture, but that isn’t necessarily related to the saxophone, but starts from jumping off point that’s dealing with the inconsistency of improvised playing and meshing worlds.“

That sentence reminds me of that Ellen Alien record sitting next to John Zorn in his bag and I imagine for a moment that I can hear these elements conspire on Become Alive more than ever now. Subtly orchestrated guitars sitting next to Rhodes chords and dotted with feedback and synthesised noise in which ghostly melodies seem to appear out of a fog of ambient textures. The saxophone is there right in the front of a track like “Slides” too, while processed beats also lie in wait just around the corner in “Cities of the Red night”. It’s often difficult to remind oneself that these tracks are improvised sessions, as they come together in these very acutely composed events throughout the album. “Musicians will bring out a lot of intensity while people from the electronic- or indie world will bring out a structure”, remarks Dave on the composed nature of the record. “I was trying to let these different characters influence the proceedings.“ Dave also puts a lot of emphasis on Samer’s involvement who he says was “indispensible in helping” the album come together during that second vital post-production stage. It was in this refining stage that everything came together and achieved that finalised construction, which honed those raw improvised moments into these “considered” compositions. It’s exactly because of this phase that it deserves a place amongst some of the greatest improvised moments in recorded history, because like those moments it almost never merely ended with the initial stroke of a key or pluck of a string. Become Alive has been associated in the press with Bitches Brew since its release and mentioned in the same breath as Mingus or Hancock. It’s all there and Dave wears all these influences on his sleeve for the album, but it’s hard not to forget that it all conspires around a group with the individual merely the catalyst in allowing for an environment for this music to exist and this seems to come apparent in the live show.

“I like to connections between the individual players” says Dave of some of the best live performances he’s witnessed, and this is something he likes to bring to the stage through the Dave Harrington Group. “It benefits from the possibility of change” with some musicians interchangeable throughout the line-up. As soon as a new player comes into the mix everything is going the change and it will be a completely different vibe.” Even when a member of the band’s role changes within the group, it can lead to some interesting new developments, like when Andrew Fox, who did some abstract vocals on the recording and co-produced the record turned to manipulating electronics on stage. “Rather than having a bass player he’s bringing all these interesting electronic moves into the set, like arpeggiated synth-bass that we all free-improvise around.“ The live show takes the recording process of Become Alive and finds a way back to its origins through the compositional framework that was applied during the second post-production stage of the album. “We are relearning these improvisations as compositions, and using them as touchstones for new improvisations.” The result is a unique show every time with the only fully composed track on the album, “All I can do” staying as close to the album version as possible. “Yes you can still hear the songs from the album”, says Dave when I ask about how far they move away from the album when they take to the stage. “Usually brand new things happen by accident, and usually one of them we really like and keep and add into the next show, but if you go to two shows you’ll notice some similar moments.”

This process of revisiting the material; re-contextualising it for the live show; and inventing new compositions from them, is already influencing Dave’s next album. “From playing live I’m thinking about what I want my next record to sound like.“ I ask him what we can expect then from the live show, and he offers three words, “live, free, intensity” – words that all do very well to describe the debut album too. The Dave Harrington group is thus a very multi-dimensional construct, which comes together under the name Dave Harrington, but is a result of something far greater than its leading man. It’s something that stems from Dave’s childhood and education listening to ECM records and extends to work as Darkside. It’s a sum of its parts however with the various musicians involved in the project conspiring to execute a record in the studio, and taking it to new conclusions on the stage. It’s Samer Ghadry and Alex Fox in the production chair and Dave Harrington orchestrating it all as the central figure. It’s much like those two records in Dave Harrington’s bag occupying the same context. The Dave Harrington Group exists on various different levels but conspire on an album and a live show that is uniquely theirs. We end our conversation as Dave almost reaches the door to the radio studio from which he’s about to broadcast his show. The faint distant echo of a Brooklyn landscape in summer is the last thing I hear intersecting Dave’s hearty farewell.