Dave Harrington: The Music Making Continuum

Dave Harrington’s interest in improvisational music began at an archival wall of jazz LPs. His father, a noted “jazz-head,” amassed a vast personal collection that Harrington affectionately refers to as the “Wall of Records.” Growing up, Harrington fell in love with the music he found on that wall, and when his father passed away, he inherited the veritable trove of vinyl. Today he’s still transporting the records to his Brooklyn apartment.

Harrington cites Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way—one of The Wall’s “newest” albums and one of its only jazz-fusion offerings—as “hugely influential.” The record marked the beginning of Davis’ electric period, a profound departure from the trumpeter’s more traditional ’50s and ’60s repertoire. In a Silent Way is also remembered for its atypical editing processes, which divided individual recordings into separate tracks and thus, according to The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), “seemed near heretical by jazz standards.” That impulse for experimentalism sits near and dear to Harrington’s heart, too.

It began in high school, when the budding musician took classes at the Harlem School of the Arts—an experience he called especially formative to his musical development. During that time he also heard keyboardist John Medeski play with bass player Dave Zinno in an electro- acoustic jazz ensemble at a now defunct, Lower East Side experimental jazz club called Tonic. The night was memorable for Harrington, and he would eventually study bass under Zinno’s tutelage at Brown.

 

It was Harrington’s intention, then, to become an upright jazz bassist, and he studied with Zinno for three years. The multi-instrumentalist joined several college bands while at school, too, playing in everything from Stevie Wonder cover groups to proto versions of the music he does today—in his words: “psych-jazz freakouts and basement house parties.” Brown is also where Harrington met Nicolas Jaar. In 2011 the duo became the celebrated electronic outfit, Darkside, and they continue to collaborate in various projects today.

I met Harrington at Dynaco, a barely identified, cabin-like bar in Bedstuy that he fondly calls his “office.” We sat down at a table in the quieter back room. Vintage folk rock music filled the space. Over cocktails we discussed his penchant for improvisation, his love of the remix (I particularly enjoy his edit of Nils Frahm’s “Familiar”), and the creation of Become Alive—the excellent, largely improvisational record by The Dave Harrington Group. Along with 11 of his musician friends—including Jaar and fellow Frontrunner interviewee Andrew Fox (Visuals)—Harrington pieced together a record that is as spontaneous as it is prepared. It falls somewhere within the indeterminate continuum of composition and improvisation. We discussed that spectrum, as well as the record’s place within it, at length.

 

Was there anything right off the bat that you saw in [Nicolas Jaar] that made you say, ‘Wow I’m really excited to play music with him”?

D. Yeah, I have a lot of respect for the way that Nico works as a musician, and now we’re much closer, so I’m trying to telegraph back to five years ago. Now we have our whole own world and own language and all different types of collaboration. I think what clicked for me right off the bat was that I could tell he was trying to synthesize a lot of interests and influences and modes of artistic expression into his universe. By being a member of his band in the early days—that makes it sound like it was 1975 [laughs]; you know, way back in 2011—I had spent a lot of time up until that point in New York playing in my friends’ bands, but most of those were bands that had their identity. They wrote songs, so I was doing my own experimental thing, but most of my gigs was playing keyboards in a pop band, or bass in a post-Velvet Underground garage-y blues thing.

When I started playing with Nico, it was more about the things that had always been closer to my heart in terms of collaborating and making music together with a group of people. Nico has a vision of how he wanted the band to interpret his music and what he wanted to do with a live show, but that vision was contingent upon everyone else in the band bringing a piece of themselves—there were no parts. When I was learning Nico’s set for the first time, there were no guitar parts. There was like one part of one song where I had to learn this thing, but everything else was just: respond, improvise, come up with something new and then remember it and do it next time. I think that, because that’s where we started working—even though I was a sideman at the beginning—it was always a collaborative thing. I couldn’t even tell you if there was a moment when the band became Darkside, when one thing changed into another. It was a fluid evolution because there was always a collaboration. At some point it went from being Nico’s music to us waking up and being like, “Oh we’ve written a bunch of music together—I guess we should start a band.”

 

It seems like improvisation has become an integral part of the way you make music now. [I’ve listened] to a couple tracks from the new record, and it’s basically all improvised, right? You said for that piece there was one guitar part—is this kind of the same situation, where there’s one nugget of an idea and then you just go with that?

D. Yeah, that’s definitely how me and the guys made 90% of this new record. There’s one piece on the record where I had come up with most of the structure beforehand. But a lot of this record was made by composition in the moment. [I’m lucky] enough to have had people around me that knew what I like and what I’m in to. Some of this stuff happened from: 1, 2, 3 go, red button. But also, playing with people that I have history with that can feel how to respond to what I’m doing—you know? Playing with drummers who know me well enough to know what a look means at a certain moment in time. Whether I mean like, ‘yeah, let’s do some more of that’ or ‘eject, time for a change’ [laughs]. Which is to say that there are a lot of different levels to improvisation: moving forward with the band as a live unit, thinking of more records, thinking of how to re- contextualize this record in a live setting with different or smaller groups of people.

There are two things that music making is, ostensibly: improvisation and composition. They’re not binary; I think it’s one point and then the other on a spectrum. As soon as we depart from improvisation toward composition and you have any mix of the two… sometimes that meant that we’d do something and I’d say, ‘Eh, yeah, but let’s do it again and more of this and less of that. You who wasn’t on this one, you should come in now. I like you, but maybe you need to leave’ [laughs].

Whether or not that is composing, per se, I don’t really care because that’s not really the point. It’s not notes on a page, but it’s some version of that. And for me, that continuum: in some ways composition is in the middle and production is on the other end of that spectrum. A lot of the composing of the album happened in post-production…

That’s kind of the long way around of saying all this stuff becomes a swirl, where eventually—if you get lucky and you work hard enough—you get a song out of it. Sometimes it happens right in the room, right in the moment. Sometimes the final product sounds nothing like where the first idea started.

So how did you pick the people that you were going to be a part of the record? A couple weeks ago I talked to Andrew Fox—I know you guys have known each other for a long time. These are all people that are friends or people that you’ve least worked with. Was that a prerequisite for wanting them to be part of this project?

D. Totally. I think you can make good music with people that you don’t get along with— sometimes that has to happen. But my experience has been, if you’re friends with someone and you can hang out, the music will be good—whatever it is. And more to the point: when I did the initial recording sessions, when I started this project, I didn’t know what it was going to turn into. More than anything, those three days in the studio were a great excuse to get all my best friends in the same place! So I knew that I wanted to make a record. I didn’t know what it was going to sound like necessarily. I didn’t know what shape it was going to take in the end. I knew I had a lot of different ideas and concerns and I knew that, if I tried it with my friends, they would be there and they would support me. And I’m also lucky that I come from this wide circle of friends that come from all different walks of music.

Andrew’s on a bunch of the record, but Andrew was also there hanging out the whole time. And that’s part of it, too; having all these people around that you trust is a deep privilege as a bandleader.

Do you want to bring this project live? And how are you going to do that?

D. We are definitely going to bring this project live. ‘Live’ and ‘studio’ are two sides of the same coin, for me, because the fundamental method of this music is improvisation, interaction. Improvisation is the core of it, so 100% we’re going to do it live because that’s the raw moment. It was really important for me that the record be something that felt like an EP, like something that had been thought about and touched and wasn’t just ‘here’s some guys in a room.’ I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the records that are like that—a lot of my favorites records are that. But what I was after was something a little bit more psychedelic. A little bit more involved. And a little bit more time-travel-y.

But none of the record would have been possible without banging it out with the guys in the moment. So I’m super excited to do it live.

…I’m excited to go out there and play because, ultimately, that’s my favorite thing to do. Making records I’ve learned to do and I love to do now, but what comes naturally to me and what’s right in my wheelhouse is, ‘let’s just get up there and 1, 2, 3 GO.’

I’m really excited for that, and I hope people get on-board with the ride—there’s no single [laughs], so god bless anyone who’s crazy enough to come to the show and get on board with us, because it’s just gonna be a thing that happens that night. It’s gonna be different the next night. To me that’s not an ego thing. It’s not a political thing. It’s not me saying this is the way music should be. It’s very simply that, to me, growing up and going to shows, what was most exciting was seeing things I hadn’t seen or heard before. That was my formative musical experience, going to a show and being like ‘whoa there’s a guest! That guy’s here now’ or like that weird jazz band playing a cover, you know? The moments that only happen at a show are my favorite things. That’s what I want to be a part of, so I’m hoping that’s where the band can get to. Hopefully you can come see us and know kind of the vibe, and then everything else will maybe be kind of exciting because it’s new.

Andrew and I also talked about performing live. He was living in Berlin and he was comparing the European music scene to the New York music scene at large, saying that New York is in this weird stage where it’s not quite where Europe is; there’s not really a space for these nebulous, in-between areas of music. Like your music and his music—it’s not club music and it’s not rock show music, either. It exists somewhere else, and most venues are defined by one of those things…

D. I believe that even if the venue—I’m an optimist because I have to be, and because I am—but I believe that whether or not the venues are ready, or are defined by those kinds of classic delineations between subcultures and musics, I think that people that buy records and see shows do represent those nooks and crannies and those in-betweens. You like Nils Frahm and you were interviewing Andrew the other day. I don’t know whether you like Andrew’s music or not…

I do.

D. [laughs] I’m just hoping you do for the sake of the example—I certainly do. What do they have in common? They only have you in common. So, that’s what I choose to believe in.

That was one of favorite things about seeing crowds at Darkside gigs. In unpredictable place, the makeup of the crowd would be unpredictable, and this isn’t a pat on the back for us, this is just what happened. There are a lot of different kinds of people into some different kinds of music right now. I’m not preaching anything that’s brand new— everyone knows this—but I’m choosing to embrace that and I definitely believe in it.

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