"It Fits, But It Doesn't Fit" Exploring Darkstar's 'Civic Jams'

Darkstar’s slim, almost spartan, discography represents one of most cohesive creative statements in UK electronic music over the past decade or so. 2015’s ‘Foam Island’ is a case in point – a stunning, highly prescient examination of the damage austerity politics is doing to this country, it doubled as a fascinating, probing re-contextualisation of club tropes.

Since then, though, material has been thin on the ground. A live show here, a remix there; Darkstar never quite faded into the inky night, but equally that supernova flash represented by a full length project seemed a long way off.

Earlier this year, though, Darkstar exploded tantalisingly back into life. Out now, ‘Civic Jams’ is a gripping return, burrowing into the future-fixated rhythmic possibilities of what Simon Reynolds once termed the hardcore continuum while merging this with the blurred tonalities of dream pop and shoegaze.

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Speaking to the duo – James Young and Aiden Whalley – from their respective homes, it’s immediately clear that Darkstar, although perhaps quiet, never quite subsumed into silence. “We’ve been going,” laughs Aiden. “There’s been a few things that… not so much got in the way, but life moves alongside it. A couple of kids!”

One thing Darkstar wanted to do following the critical success that adorned ‘Foam Island’ was remove themselves from the traditional album cycle. “A lot of that lateral project approach we have going on is for our own sake as well,” insists James. “It’s quite tricky to write, record, promo, and tour a record, and then move immediately on to doing another record. That cycle isn’t conducive to your best work if you’re writing music. If you can somehow harness other projects… we tend to get more out of ourselves.”

The lengthy tendrils that emanate from Darkstar’s new album connect neatly to these extra-curricular projects. During our conversation, the pair reminisce about sampling their own live shows, utilising guitar pedals, and scavenging back material from a proposed tampon commercial. Creativity – despite the boundaries placed in their way – is continual.

James explains: “Those projects feed into our creative cycle, and how we arrived at this record was – in some ways – informed by the commissions we’d been booked to do, the collaborations, the pieces we’d been experimenting with. Little experiences and experiments, chip off at those, and accumulate, and then we arrive at what we felt naturally was the new direction. New sounds.”

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‘Civic Jams’ is largely shorn of the explicit political statements which peppered its predecessor – in some ways, the pair point out, it was guided by a process of stripping things back to their essence. “We were only using a very limited amount of sounds,” says Aiden. “I think you can hear it across the record. We became more comfortable in our composition and production and songwriting. We let things evolve, and allowed the music to breathe a little bit. The production is super fuzzy and warm, and almost distorted at moments. We had a very distinct palette we liked the sound of fairly early on, and then it was getting used to keeping that limitation on writing.”

Sonically, the duo drew on their experience of playing live to gain this sense of immediacy, a kind of overwhelming minimalism in which each part was allowed to occupy its role to full capacity. “I think we just got really comfortable understanding what Darkstar was and is meant to be,” adds James.

“I think in the past we’ve been almost criticised for sitting in a peripheral space, and not being bang on with lead vocals, and so forth. I think for us, it was doubling down on why it is we take up that space. That space resonates with us.”

Take those much-vaunted shoegaze elements. Tracks such as ‘Blurred’ and ‘Loom’ certainly exhibit this, with Darkstar incorporating samples from the actual organ in Union Chapel alongside choir effects, all filtered through an array of pedals. Aiden adds: “I suppose conceptually it is nostalgic, but the sound is… smudged. It fits, but it doesn’t fit. We wanted to really amplify that kind of approach with this record.”

Born of a period of experimentation, ‘Civic Jams’ leaves nothing to chance. In conversation, it’s clear just how fastidious Darkstar are about their sound; countless hours, days, or even weeks are spent on a single sample, developing bank after bank of noise to help define each ideas.

James muses on this. “It’s more coming across the sounds, tweaking them, and then shelving them,” he states. “And having a distinct palette in mind. You can hear it – the chords on ‘Wolf’ are pretty much the chords on ‘1001’ or ‘Tuesday’. There’s a distinct, saturated organ sound – half-synth and half-organ. And it was key to getting the record to where we wanted to get it. We would isolate frequencies that we liked.”

“We’ll have a palette of sounds, and it’s about how we warm them up and what we do in a production sense, like our out-board, reverbs, distortion, delay pedals… lots of guitar pedals! We amp everything, and go through a recording process, rather than everything being in the box. There’s always an element of air in there.”

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This endless purification can’t be a barrier in itself, though. The pair had been working on ‘Civic Jams’ for around three years, when they took the tapes into Warp Records for a play through just before Christmas. To their horror, they quickly realised it just wasn’t finished – something, some element, was out of sync. “It wasn’t the record… but it was a record!” Aiden exclaims. “We do seem to have simultaneous albums in play at any one time, and then it’s literally about getting to the point of real stress, and being over it all, coming back to it, assessing it, and then taking bits from each project until we’ve got something. That’s what happened this time.”

The record was brought to a conclusion during a spell working in Soho. Invited to pitch for a sanitary towel advert to be directed by Daniel Wolfe, the money underpinned another burst of sessions, which finally brought the album to its conclusion. This leads to another aspect of ‘Civic Jams’ – the hidden politics of the title, the endless encroachment of commerce on to what is ostensibly public space. It’s something that James and Aiden have discussed at length, as they move from studio to studio, dodging the endless gentrification of London and the sky-high rents that follow.

James picks up the conversation: “If you look at what’s going on today – apart from the pandemic, which is out of nowhere – the climate, generally, has been testing for a while.”

“I think London is a particularly good example of communities being stripped, or reduced, and space being recycled to fit whatever purpose redevelopment might have for it,” he says. “So, I think living in London recently has been eye-opening. We’re flitting about from studio space to studio space, as we can’t afford what we used to have and rates are going up. You start to really value that tangible space that you are afforded. I think it’s just been leading up to fever pitch for the last few years, and I think 2020 is that thing… we’re talking about personal space, and what we hold dear. But I do think London is a rapidly changing landscape.”

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It’s something that informs their work in a completely natural way. The path Darkstar took in getting their music heard has essentially been erased, with countless club closures essentially leaving underground culture in the capital to atrophy.

“We’ve got locals that have shut, or we’ve been part of projects that have no sustainability due to funding cuts,” James continues. “We’ve seen iconic places in London like Plastic People get pushed out. There’s a multitude of other spaces that have no real shelf life any more. When you experience the London we have – we’ve been here since 2002 – it is bittersweet knowing what it was once… and now we’re here. And it is becoming more and more of a difficult obstacle to navigate, in order to get anything of sustainable worth. It really is a sticky place to get going now.”

But still they try. ‘Civic Jams’ is a note of defiance, an exploration of space both internal and external. It’s a push back and a push forwards, with Darkstar struggling – and succeeding – to once another assert themselves on a landscape increasingly dominated by capital over creativity.

“There are great things springing from all this, don’t get me wrong,” James closes. “There’s a vigour that I’ve not witnessed in a while, there’s the potential of mobilisation that I have never witnessed before, and I think that can only galvanise a new approach. I think that will be interesting. It’s one we’re seeing constantly. From bad there will always come good. It’s now about finding a different approach, and I think you are starting to see that.”

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‘Civic Jams’ is out now.

Photo Credit: Cieron Magat