Warp Records Darkstar grew out of London’s fertile dubstep raves to become a fully-fledged electronic act par excellence. We find out how they married their love of bass with songwriting nous…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 18 Feb 2014
  • min read
If you were to step into the Tate Britain on a Friday night last December, you’d find there was more going on than just art gathering dust.

Indeed many of the exhibits were rattling due to the live performances taking place in the gallery’s great hall as part of the Warp Records and Jeremy Deller acid brass takeover. Darkstar, signed to Warp, were among the artists painting the walls of the Tate with shuddering electronic sounds rather than tangible paintings or installations.

Not every band gets to play in the Tate, but since the early releases on Hyperdub such as Aidy’s Girl is A Computer, Need You and Squeeze My Lime, Darkstar have stood out due to the strong songwriting prowess driving their take on underground sonics.

Following the addition of vocalist James Buttery to the line up, the group's two albums to date - debut North and follow up News from Nowhere - show off a complex, ever-evolving sound. They've constantly sought to push themselves into new creative pastures while their third album has received backing from the PRS for Music Foundation’s Momentum Music Fund. We quizzed Darkstar's James Young on the evolution of the band...

Can you remember the first songs which inspired you to want to write music?

The Daft Punk album Homework was important in me wanting to try something. The beauty of that record is that it sounds like they had a lot of fun making it. It's varied, impulsive, the vocoders used are exciting and the interludes make the record a personal favourite. I love the artwork too.

How did you first start making music?

For me it was just getting hold of a copy of Logic and then using the sampler within that, ripping various tracks and building them back up with the sounds I'd chosen to sample.

How have your songwriting methods evolved over the course of your two albums? James is now a full time member as a vocalist of the group. Does songwriting now come easier?

It's fairly unorthodox with us I think. It's not like we just write a song then produce it. It's more a case of passing it back and forth until it's sitting right with everyone then moving forward until we feel it's time to take it to a bigger studio to treat.

You recorded the latest album - News from Nowhere - in Yorkshire but the first in Clapton - what did the change in environment do for your sound?

Huge amounts. It was the biggest influence on the sound of that record. From being in London to literally moving to a village in West Yorkshire is a huge change in lifestyle. We were there for over a year too, so as we developed the record the sound became its own thing. We allowed that progression and are proud of being able to be so committed to something to move away from our lives in London. Although we’re glad to be back now.

You’re reported to have scrapped an entire album of songs before releasing your debut LP – was the build up to the release of North a tumultuous time for the band? 

Yes, it was a time where we had a good long look at what it is we wanted to do as Darkstar. We've said it before but it would of been too easy to make those tunes and stay enthused by what we do as a group.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Everywhere. Books, films, our environment, the things that happen around us on a daily basis. For this new record we have been doing lot's of field recording which has been really interesting.

How did the link up with Warp Records happen?

They came to see us live after the first album was released and made an offer. It was a big decision for us as things with Hyperdub had gone amazingly well. It was just something we felt was the right thing to do.

Did you enjoy the performance at the Jeremy Deller/Warp vs Tate gig? How was it playing in that space?

It was great. I met Jeremy Deller and we spoke about nerves and the calm before the storm when performing, although he doesn't really perform but you could tell it was a special occasion for him. The space was incredible and Adrian Shaw from the Tate, who started Late at the Tate ten years ago and still curates the events, said our performance was what he had always wanted to achieve with the concept. How the performance, audience and space felt like one living organism. That was a massive complement.

Congratulations on being awarded the Momentum Music Funding - can you explain the importance of this backing to the group?

The importance of this fund for Darkstar is vital and allows us to make the record we want to make and in all honesty allows us to carry on as Darkstar. The thing with record deals is if you don't recoup the advance the label paid out like us (shock horror) there's various clauses and details that might not go in your favour for the next record.

Warp didn't give us a production budget for this record as they want us to be within a recoupable figure after it comes out. So we would of had to pay for the record out of our advance which isn't possible as we have to live on something.

The fund is basically being used to make the record the way we want to make it. We don't just crack on in a bedroom. The importance to us is being in a studio that accommodates our ideas and is now something we feel is a necessary process to go through to get the record we want.

What’s next for the group?

We're currently a good way through our next album, it's shaping up nicely, we're hoping it can be out this year. We are now in Konk studios in north London writing and recording. We mixed our last record there with Lexx, he told us about a room and we moved in. It's a great place to be.

Have you any advice for aspiring musicians?

Try and understand what makes you comfortable and clear mentally when making music. It sounds cliched but trying something when you have other things distracting you can, in my case at least, usually lead to frustration. That's the best I can come up with!