4:12 pm Dec. 5, 20111
“Can we buy your ticket?”
A good-looking blonde with the not-quite-placeable European accent was offering people on line at Music Hall of Williamsburg last Thursday $100 apiece to get in with her friends. Early December is not typically a hot show-going time, but the live debut of Darkside, the new duo featuring red-hot New York dance producer Nicolas Jaar, was sold out.
A year ago, few people outside the international techno underground—the “Easyjet Set,” per German author Tobias Rapp, flying all over Europe to see their favorite D.J.s, presumably with as much money to burn as the blonde—even knew who Nicolas Jaar was.
At Music Hall, everyone from bro-down jam-band types to thirtysomething ex-indie kids grooved down alongside a healthy number of Easyjet-setters to Jaar, playing a laptop alongside guitarist Dave Harrington’s thick, spacy, largely instrumental grooves. The duo felt like they were interacting in real time—not always the case at dance-music shows, even those with live instruments.
Darkside sounds exactly the way you expect a band with such a name to sound—they even finished up with a run through Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” But this wasn’t a dude-ruled goth mope-fest. Plenty of fans, mainly women, cheered whenever Jaar moaned into his Shure 55 (an old-fashioned ribbon microphone he adopted while recording the Darkside material and kept for stage use).
Although Harrington was by far the more striking of the two onstage—bushy, blown-out Brillo curls like his always catch the eye, especially under the pulsating spotlights—at 22, Jaar is young and good looking, on the verge, and full of potential.
He’s also something of an overachiever. Rather than sticking around after the show to savor his Williamsburg triumph, Jaar retreated for a couple nights at his mom’s place in Soho, where he grew up, then headed back to Providence on Saturday to continue classes at Brown University.
Oh. So he took a year off to release and promote Space Is Only Noise, then?
“Nope,” said Jaar. “No year off. I've been doing school and music at the same time forever. It’s more exciting that way.”
Jaar likes to slip between radars in other ways. His solo debut, Space Is Only Noise, was released in February by Circus Company, a French label that generally specializes in house music, albeit of a very bent variety. (One of Circus Company’s signature acts is Nôze, whose 2008 album Songs on the Rocks sounds very much like everyone making it was drunk.)
But Jaar was quick to point out: “I don't necessarily do only dance music.” As the “Lugosi” encore attests, much of his formative listening focused more on rock.
“I went on tour in January alone and I realized that I need a band with me with real musicians,” he said. One of those musicians was Harrington, with whom Jaar began crafting more windswept music to fit the group’s increasingly lavish playing spaces—the collaboration that led to Darkside.
“We started collaborating on tour, going festival to festival. Having the live experience be the main component of our lives for two months, it makes a lot of sense that playing live, it felt like we were at home, completely.”
Nevertheless, Jaar was surprised by his drawing power. He couldn’t quite account for the crowd at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
“Last night there was an intensity. There was a fuzziness. When people were telling me it sold out and there are 250 people outside waiting to get in, I just looked at someone and said, ‘Who the fuck are these people? What is this?’ I don’t know. In Europe it’s a part of the radio or whatever but here, no way. I don’t know who’s listening. I have absolutely no clue.”
Neither do a lot of people. If Music Biz 2011 seems even more like a free-for-all than it has increasingly been for the past decade, that’s even more the case within electronic dance music. Suddenly, the post-rave diaspora, which had largely been left for dead in America, commercially speaking, doesn’t just have a new audience, but a bigger one than it’s had in a generation. Jaar has spent the year learning just how big.
“I've been thinking of dance music as kind of the new fad of America, which is kind of exciting and kind of crazy in some ways,” he said. “Dance music is huge in Europe. And people that are not doing necessarily only dance music—doing hybrids with other stuff—are all very big in Europe. With the band, I did a big tour of Europe where we played [the] 2,000-person venue, Paradiso, in Amsterdam. We had a lot of wonderful times, sold out shows. Having this happen in the U.S. is absolutely surprising to me.”
Jaar isn’t just chasing the festival-crossover dollar, though it was nice to hear him acknowledge the possibility. He also talked about his listening habits in a post-genre kind of way:
“I see different types of intensity. There's the noise intensity that usually can happen with rock and roll. Then there's the groove intensity, and then there's the tempo intensity. I see music in those types of rubrics, as opposed to, like, dance music or rock and roll or rap. I guess the way I see dance music is, a Beatles song can be just as dancey as the La Fiesta song, you know? But it doesn't matter. All music is dance music in some way.”
Jaar’s own education in dance music came during his early teens. He was a habitué of the “tiny dance parties” thrown by Brooklyn promoters Wolf + Lamb at the Marcy Hotel that he described as “amazing, warm, you know, druggy but in kind of a nice way”—he laughed—“not in a horrible way.”
His references are steeped in dance music’s subcultural mores. For example, Jaar claimed, “I don’t have singles”—he puts out E.P.s, he said. To someone older and brought up on rock, like me, the difference is that singles have two songs (A and B sides), E.P.s three or more. To younger dance people, “E.P.” means a 12-inch (of however many tracks). Singles are what you hear on the radio.
Whatever your nomenclature, Jaar’s label, Clown and Sunset, recently released two non-L.P. songs online for free: “Don't Break My Love” and “Why Didn't You Save Me.”
“[They] got almost as much press as my album,” said Jaar. “Only two tracks. And that's crazy. I don't know how that happened.”
Clearly, there’s momentum. And that reflects as well on Clown and Sunset. Every electronic producer has a label, and Jaar started his when he turned 19, initially with “a couple of connections with Beatport and iTunes and a couple of P.R. people”—pretty much all it takes to begin any digital label. A few months ago, an old friend, Noah Kraft, came aboard full-time to help steer the ship.
“My background is in film,” said Kraft. “I learned a lot of the managerial elements … how to, if anything, bridge the gap between art and commerce.… We’re not really interested in starting a traditional record label. We’re evolving something different, and much more comprehensive.”
Similar things are going on with indie labels all over. Take DFA Records, which has recently been working on promoting nightlife events and expanding its line of merchandise, in addition to releasing records.
A big indicator of this sort of activity was the success of the Independent Label Market, which began as a benefit event for labels losing stock during the London riots (during which Sony’s warehouse was set ablaze). It’s since traveled to several other cities—among them Brooklyn, on Saturday, Oct. 8, where a number of indies with local offices (among them DFA, Sacred Bones, Secretly Canadian, and XL) sold all manner of label merch. Clown and Sunset was on its way to the same sort of multiplatform setup even before Kraft’s involvement was formalized: The label’s November 2010 compilation Ines was, Kraft noted, initially released as a memory stick imprinted with the C&S logo.
“It was sold to individual shops in a very boutique, ad hoc, but very curated level,” said Kraft. “That’s one of the things we really go for. Each release we take seriously. It’s not just another release.”
But it’s more than just releases the label is thinking about.
“Nowadays, especially, most of the people we’re talking to aren’t just making music,” said Kraft. “They’re also making films on the side.”
The Internet has sired a generation of overachievers. Now, we see something of a James Franco Effect all over the culture. Jaar is an example: Full-time student at Brown, international electronic-culture star on the rise (and maybe more), businessman with expanding portfolio—and just old enough to drink.
There’s something about this that reflects the increasingly normal sight of young artists with few media boundaries. It used to be relatively unique for someone like, say, Captain Beefheart to paint, sculpt, and lead an avant-garde rock band. (And eventually Beefheart left music behind.) Now, to be an artist, or label owner, is to be a dozen things at once. Yet Jaar, blindsided as he was by the frenzy over last week’s Brooklyn show, seems hesitant to expand too far too fast.
“We actually try to keep vinyl in limited capacity,” he said of Clown and Sunset. “For my last E.P., which was just 600 [copies printed], we sold it out in a day. I like that idea that not a lot of people get to have the vinyl. Just, you know, the real fans get to enjoy the beautiful sound of vinyl. We are going to push for the physicality of music forever. Music should be physical, period.”