Darkstar’s James Young: “If it’s good enough it will last the course. If not, scrap it”

One half of Warp-signed duo Darkstar on new albums, Brexit techno and club style

If you went looking for James Young and Aiden Whalley in the late ‘00s, you’d probably find them in Plastic People. The London club was home to FWD>>, the night where producers like Skream and Mala tested tunes and created novel genres seemingly every week.

It was also where Young and Whalley, as Darkstar, melded dubstep with garage and grime, to create strange but compelling new sonic alloys. Their tunes caught the ear of regular attendee, Kode9, who released their first tracks on his fledgling label, Hyperdub.

Like too many London clubs, Plastic People is now closed. And Darkstar have moved on from those experiments in sub bass. For the transition from 12-inches to their first LP, North, they discarded an entire album of tracks and instead enlisted vocals James Buttery, layering his voice through abstract, electronic pop that was shot through with a now signature melancholy. It was the air of dubstep without its weight, a morning-after album that seemed to recline in the imprint of a subwoofer.

Their two albums since, both for Warp, have explored space and place. For the first, News From Nowhere, the trio decamped to rural Yorkshire, where their music found flight, the pensive suddenly uplifted. Its follow-up was recorded in London, after Buttery had left the band. It seemed the return to their original lineup, and their original locale, had tightened Darkstar’s sound. Though Foam Island wasn’t a club record, it was more urgent, kicks and snares that rattled around interviews they’d recorded with people from Huddersfield, who had been affected by the recently re-elected Conservative government.

The political shifts since have only reinforced the album’s message, of disaffected regions and the personal impact of austerity. We caught up with Young after the pair played Stone Island Presents, in Glasgow, to discuss their reaction to Brexit, the big society, and how close they are to a new album.

Your LPs have always been built around strong themes. Are you looking at the next album from the same stance?
We always approach an LP as an LP. Although I’m not sure whether it’s paying any dividends to do that right now. The format of things is changing. When we get into writing mode in the next few months we’ll get a better idea of what direction we want to go next. I think there’s not an emphasis to put out big single tunes and don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

You’ve said that when you were part of the FWD>> scene at Plastic People, the 12-inches were “very competitive”. Who could make the biggest track. Have you moved away from that?
I haven’t felt it for a while because, since FWD>>, I haven’t felt like we’ve been part of a scene. You have to go into your own bubble and evolve as an artist and I think that’s what we did when we went into the farmhouse. From a conceptual point of view, Foam Island was very political. We needed to tick some boxes and try a few things and the onus is on us now to stand out again. Not saying that our past few albums haven’t, but they have been very much their own thing. We are in the mood to do something a bit special production wise. We just need to get in a room together and get cracking.

You’ve also said you would never do a record with guests. But there’s big collabs on the Made To Measure EP, you worked with Zomby on a track for his new album. Are you looking to do more of that collaborative work?
Our albums are only our own stuff but in the space between it is interesting to collaborate. It’s like trying new stuff and writing for other people is easier than writing for ourselves. We can sit on beats and let them go. On our own records, I don’t know if they feel too important not to be just us. Not to discredit or sly anyone else, it’s just more personal.

With the most recent EP, how did the Gaika collaboration come about?
I was listening to [Gaika mixtape] Security. I just inboxed him and had a beat left over from Foam Island, we couldn’t get a vocal on it and became apparent that it wasn’t suited to what we were trying to do. But once he heard it he was into it. We went into the studio, went away, recorded it arranged it and we’ve performed it a couple of times, which has been interesting.

How has that been?
Good. He has a lot of presence. He’s interesting to work with and I like the way he works. It suits the way we do it because I don’t like precious people. I prefer things would be things back and forth and quite casual and if it’s good enough it will last the course. If not, scrap it.

Electronic music tends to be political in quite indirect ways, but Foam Island dealt with the last general election in a very immediate sense. When you look at how the world has changed in the 18 months since then, what’s your response?
People kind of gravitate towards music, a lot of the time, to switch off and enjoy it. What we learnt from being so overtly political in our last record is that it’s quite a difficult thing to engage people in, because you’re not ramming a concept down anyone’s throat, but you’re asking them to be patient. It’s a narrative that you’re asking people to stick with.

I think from an artist’s perspective, it’s a fine line. How do you approach that? The message of Foam Island seems to carry the message through Brexit, but I don’t know how we’ll engage with it. Perhaps we’ll be more visceral and just show something sonically. In terms of how other artists do it, and how they tend to engage with it, the one that really stands out is Death Grips. I don’t really know what he’s singing and rapping about, but it feels like they’ve got a mobility and they’ve got something there and that they can change something.

Are you in touch with the people you recorded for the last people on the album?
Yeah. Bits and bobs. In hindsight, it was an album campaign, but outreach programs like those [used to be] government funded. If there wasn’t continual funding there wouldn’t be an end product if it weren’t for those. I think that’s something that was quite naïve about what we did.

Although with the best possible interests at heart involving the people included, it also came from a recording campaign, an album campaign, so there’s only so much you can go back. It would be nice to revisit in some way shape or form properly again, but all these things if it were a community project or funded by some sort of body, it would need single funding for that.

For all the talk of the ‘big society’ and the community stepping in to do what the government won’t, you don’t get that long-term support. It becomes hard to sustain for the people involved.
Exactly. There are some interesting conversations and narratives about social mobility and entrepreneurial shifts and how you can actually engage a community now. And I think that is where a difference will be made in something like Brexit. Still, there was not enough engagement and I think you can start to create things at grassroots levels.

In terms of new music and new album, what’s on the horizon?
We’re sitting on about a dozen demos that we’re on the fence with. We were formerly based in Konk studios in North London, but we’ve just left there. We’re in the middle of deciding on where we’re going to work next. We have a few commissions coming up, like culture festivals; the Hull City of Culture has been announced. We’re doing something for that.

We scored a film [Sarah Dunlop’s Dreamlands] that was nominated for a short film award in Cannes. We’re looking a bit more laterally, instead of going back in for the album cycle. I think it’s important we maintain a freshness. Releasing album upon album upon album isn’t very healthy.

It must be like being on a merry-go-round.
People’s appetites for an album as a whole are diminishing a little. You may spend a year on an album that will be online for a week. We just need to be clever.

You played for Stone Island Presents in Glasgow. It’s a brand that’s always had a big role in club culture. What’s your relationship with it?
When I first started going to a club called the Void in Stoke, it was a house club and Stoke are quite renowned for their football fans – terrace kind of fashion. That’s when I saw Stone Island in the clubs for the first time and was fairly impressed by it and it definitely of stuck with me. And then Aiden, when we came to London, started going into their store and getting to know the guys and buying stuff, dropping beats off to them.

He’s kind of tight with a lot of the guys in the shop. It’s very organic in terms of branding. It was Zomby’s idea to get us involved in this thing and we’re not going to say no. They make nice coats and that. Everyone we met through them was really cool and the videos were fun to do. If there was one brand I am alright to do things with, it’s definitely them.

Darkstar played at Stone Island Presents, at SWG3 in Glasgow, alongside Zomby, Trevor Jackson, Covco, Elliott Power and Sega Bodega