Darkside Dispatch

As a virtuosic duo talks in circles, a dedicated fanbase wonders what any of it means.


In one of several images quietly uploaded to DARKSIDE’s cryptic Telegram channel, vocalist-slash-producer Nicolas Jaar is aiming a shaky cell phone camera up towards a circular mirror. Circles are a core facet of the group’s curated visual mythos—either shattered, like the one featured in their logo, or semi-amorphous and reflective, like the one covering their breakthrough album Psychic. It’s a mundane motif, but one that gestures towards some sort of vague continuity, not unlike the Grateful Dead’s fondness for ouroboros, or Led Zeppelin’s infatuation with celestial objects. The band is more of an old-school, feet-on-the-ground entity than an online one—half of the LPs they have out are taken from live recordings—so for all they lack in a concrete digital footprint, the scarce, circle-obsessive ephemera they’ve left behind exists among few potential avenues towards a half-understanding of their project. This isn’t to say it’s necessarily sufficient. A month or two ago, they wiped their Instagram page of all content besides a brief bio that redirected users to a messaging app typically consulted for drug deals and half-legal exchanges. “Join the dispatch here (downward emoji),” it reads; the “dispatch” is an endless scroll of photos depicting various spheric forms. For a shape that can mean both infinity and entrapment, the band’s employment of the circle often feels like you’re stuck in the frays of an infinity they alone have mastered, doling out bits and pieces to revelers who know no better but to hope for more.

“It’s a challenge, but I think something that excites Dave and I is to have this music as open as possible, as friendly as possible, as loving and caring as possible.”

Perhaps, as is often the case for musicians who show more than they tell, imprisonment on the outskirts of understanding is what keeps DARKSIDE’s fans hooked on asymptotic freedoms—only to be earned by either listening to their music, or seeing it live. Whether by intention or accident, the band have effectively made themselves difficult to absorb beyond their direct influence. When I first learned of their existence, it was a few minutes to 6 PM on the Lower East Side, and I was eavesdropping on small talk between cultured 20-somethings in line for a small-scale post-punk concert. One of them was debriefing a recent excursion to Barcelona’s annual Primavera Sound Festival; when he got to DARKSIDE in the list of acts he’d seen, he spent a long time struggling to find the right words to describe their set. Much like the work they have out, recordings of the group’s live act pose strange intersections between well-studied musicality and messianic, almost gospel-adjacent grandstanding: fitting, perhaps, for the in-person arrival of an entity as infinite and imprisoning as its beloved rounded forms. But more or less, when the lights fade and the fog clears, the sole remnant of their dispatch seems to be the very thing that cements their shadowy myth—a wait for next time, in good faith that whatever just happened will someday happen again, and maybe make more sense.

As of the writing of this piece, the most recent DARKSIDE release is Live At Spiral House, a dense psychedelic showcase that sounds a bit like the death throes of a sentient computer-humanoid, perhaps the final boss in an early-aughts post-apocalyptic video game. Composed of Jaar, guitarist Dave Harrington, and occasional live drummer Tlacael Esparza, their music often flirts with a dystopian edge—primitive, folky pluckage duking it out, in real time, with the digital production powerhouse that in some ways represents its impending obsolescence. In the Spiral House record, the battle occurs with Jaar as a mystic commentator, not really singing, but injecting murky half-thoughts into the pockets where either the instruments roar, or feedback buzzes, like flies, over their mangled bodies. The bewitching thing about Jaar’s vocal performance is that you never really do hear what he’s saying. In the closing moments of “Golden Limit,” the fourteen-minute-long second track on the LP, it’s difficult to distinguish between semi-words and anguished, non-linguistic murmurs as the instruments torpedo into a frenzied, half-music-half-noise swirl. It sounds a bit like he’s mourning their explosive demise, or maybe ushering them into a sort of afterlife. Whatever this afterlife may entail, for the audience, is entirely a matter of conjecture: much like their work, their Telegram channel, and their minimal digital footprint, the only people who can access the fullness of their mythic terrain are the masterminds themselves. “It’s a challenge, but I think something that excites Dave and I is to have this music as open as possible, as friendly as possible, as loving and caring as possible,” Jaar told Stereogum in an interview two years ago. “You know, it’s psychedelic music so it has to lend its hand and say, ‘Would you like to come in?’” Listening to DARKSIDE, you get the sense that you’re always invited, but somehow always a minute late.

DARKSIDE’s Tlacael Esparza, Nicolás Jaar, and Dave Harrington. Photo by Jake Friedman

At some point near the close of Kim Gordon’s 2015 autobiography Girl in a Band, she takes a significant break from the narrative to reflect on a concert headlined by the Johnny Rotten-fronted post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd. She’s trying to make a point about differences between internet-era consumer culture and the consumer culture of her youth; for this particular 1980-something show, the band, like Gordon often does in her solo work, experimented with unconventional means of artist-to-audience engagement. Their performance began with a larger-than-life screen upon which, first, John Lydon’s face appeared, then an unsettling film featuring a girl crawling out of a garbage can. By the time the film ended, and the audience had long grown restless in anticipation, the screen remained in place—now showcasing the band’s animated, larger-than-life shadows performing behind it. “Furious at seeing the ghostlike, ritualistic figures of the band out of reach, the audience became agitated; they couldn’t see the band in the flesh,” Gordon writes. “They started yelling. A few of them threw metal chairs. The band ran offstage and the audience proceeded to destroy the screen.”

Oddly enough, in the internet era Gordon decries, much of that screen’s inherent symbolism is literal: whereas at Public Image Ltd’s height, the barrier may have been a violation, a lot of its modern iteration either emanates from, or is enabled by its constituents. We go to shows to record proof, through barriers, that we were there; we use (and, in some cases, abuse) barrier-granted liberties to communicate with artists beyond real-life inhibitions; we foster more complete relationships with performers, perhaps, on a barrier-driven internet than at an open-air concert. When DARKSIDE performs, they’re usually shrouded in thick fog, the only discernible matter being their silhouettes and the ghastly outlines of their instruments. It’s interesting that their unreachability—and perhaps unreachability at-large, in our era—is more grounds for spectacle than tearing down the thing that makes them unreachable.

Maybe the irony of being both all-inviting and all-withholding is what makes DARKSIDE so interesting to think about. You want to understand them, and you get the sense that they want you to, too. It’s only that everything beyond the gateway is studded with a checkpoint, the same way a video-game might barrel towards its final boss with a litany of clues and caveats. Their shared gist—Are you sure you want to continue? If so, [necessary context]!—functions doubly as (1) a warning and (2) a glimpse of just how much more interesting things can get. You hear about DARKSIDE in line for the show; you look them up and you can’t find anything but music. You listen to Psychic and picture a band of computer-savvy dropouts; you follow it up with Live at Spiral House and suddenly, the music is sentient. You join the Telegram in hopes of finding something, anything concrete; now, the music is talking to you. And it’s talking in circles.

“The dispatch is moving along, and all you can do is follow the line—which may or may not be a circle.”

Harrington and Jaar’s individual resumes are far more intimidating than DARKSIDE’s open-invitation quality makes apparent. The pair met when they were both students at Brown University—an intimidating factor, in and of itself, to unmotivated SoundCloud clout-aspirants like the writer of this piece—and had each been experimenting with sonic forms long before then, more scientists in search of conclusions than musicians in search of releases. Music appeared to them, and still sort of does now, like an effortless thing they occasionally toyed with for fun, but just so happened to be extremely good at. “For listeners drawn to Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington’s intimidating CVs, Darkside seemed like a normie pursuit: a visionary electronic producer and restless guitarist making a psych-rock album that sounds really good if you’re high,” Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen wrote in a half-laudatory, half-critical review of their 2021 studio LP Spiral. For all its stuffy maximalism, the faction is more a side-project for its mad-scientist members than a standalone, end-all-be-all endeavor. Even the name-of-choice itself feels a bit laughable, almost like the work of angry middle schoolers with Squier HSS Stratocasters, Fender Champion 20 mini-amps, and resentment towards the 7th grade social bourgeoisie. It’s difficult to tell whether you’re supposed to take it seriously. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re taking it seriously themselves. The dispatch is moving along, and all you can do is follow the line—which may or may not be a circle.


“For all DARKSIDE’s nonverbal communication, there’s something sneakily taboo at play in their shadowy ethos, stemming from the name—theirs seems to be a terrain we can only really steal glimpses of, Earth just another circle they’ve transcended, maybe shattered, along the way.”

A recent Wednesday evening, around the Canal Street area where downtown starts to reek of gallery openings and garbage trucks, I visited the studio of a frenzied sculpture artist whose work I wanted to photograph. Sharing the space with him were a lanky woman at work on a long-term project and a cheery man who seemed to be there mostly for moral support. Running out of conversation starters, and obsessed to the point where I was desperate to insert the band into every conversation, I asked the artist whether he’d at least heard of Nicolas Jaar, whose provocative prog-electronica seemed in similar spirit to his wistful-dystopia imagery. Not only did he know Jaar, but his dad, too—Alfredo Jaar, the artist and filmmaker, taught architecture at the Cooper Union, the alma mater of at least two of the three artists present in the room.

If anything, it was proof that the world was small, but also that it was threaded together by this invisible duo who had managed to split it along very specific contours: you either knew DARKSIDE, didn’t, or were somewhere in the hasty middle ground, frantically seeking them out. The more popular musical “Dark Side,” perhaps, belongs to Dark Side of the Moon, the Pink Floyd magnum-opus as revered for its cover art as its contents. That album, too, came at the height of a worldwide search for its far more iconic titular surface, soundtracking a Space Race fueled by asymptotic unknowns—not dissimilar to the fleeting enlightenment that seems to keep Jaar and Harrington’s devotees hooked. “As astronomers have stressed for decades, ‘far side’ is the accurate scientific term,” Eric Harvey recently wrote of the Pink Floyd record’s namesake, “but the spooky indeterminacy of ‘dark side’ allows everyone else to tap into the same stoned undergraduate awe of learning that ‘lunatic’ is derived from the 13th-century notion that some forms of mental illness were caused by adverse reactions to the moon’s phases.” For all DARKSIDE’s nonverbal communication, there’s something sneakily taboo at play in their shadowy ethos, stemming from the name—theirs seems to be a terrain we can only really steal glimpses of, Earth just another circle they’ve transcended, maybe shattered, along the way.

“Whatever the resolution may be, it isn’t ours to witness: by the time the dust settles, a new chase has already begun kicking up dust of its own.”

Like a kid who asks mom when dad says no, once DARKSIDE’s discography left me with as much curiosity as when I’d begun, I consulted Jaar’s solo work, not sure exactly what I was looking for. A deep Google search of Jaar yields intimidating tidbits, similar, in some sense, to the video-game checkpoint-slash-caveats of his band—he was profiled in the New York Times twice in two years while still an undergrad at Brown; he wooed the electronic music label Wolf + Lamb into a record deal at 17 years old; two years later, by 19, he had already founded his own imprint, Other People, and performed at museums like MoMA PS1 and classical amphitheaters like the Cologne Philharmonic. 2016’s Sirens, the first album of his I listened to, lands like any other forward-thinking production masterclass, fit for Canal Street gallery openings or the suit-and-tie rooftop parties that rage on in the rented lofts five stories above them. But like his band and the half of the moon it’s named for, it also features a proverbial far side you only come to seek out when you’re made aware. A Guardian profile saw Jaar speak, at length, about his ambitions to have Sirens double as a musical agent and a social one. “The only question I was excited about, for whatever reason, in the moment, was: Can – or should – electronic music be political?” he told an interviewer. “Can we protest through instrumental music, for example? And how would you do that?”

Revisitations of Sirens yield a hotbed of new universes, like a shifting kaleidoscope, or shards of broken glass that once comprised a far simpler circle. In line with Jaar’s ambitions, there are explicitly political moments—it opens and closes on scenarios of unrepentant injustice—but to a certain extent, the LP also thrives, sonically, on a pushiness that feels as urgent as the diplomatic outcry it channels. On “The Governor,” a shuffly track early on in the record, it sounds as if Jaar’s muted monologue is at the helm of a militaristic firing squad, each breakbeat a bullet; midway through “A Coin in Nine Hands,” when Jaar finishes deadpanning about mutual cremation and force-feedings by goddamn brothers, the percussive firing squad returns, this time with a ghastly echo that sounds like smoke from several shotguns. Consistent between Jaar’s own work and DARKSIDE’s is a warlike, live-from-the-battlefield sensibility—whether the dispute exists between belligerent instruments, disembodied whispers, or earth-shattering ideologies. In a live version of “The Question is to See it All,” a staple of the Spiral House record, Jaar’s voice is modulated to unintelligibility as he croaks the titular ultimatum: “The question is to see it all,” something inhuman wails, “or decide there’s nothing there.” In the liminal space between all and nothing, as the auto-tune fades, Harrington’s guitar sounds like a wounded animal, encircled by bassy drums that might also be predators’ paws, slapping against shattered earth. Whatever the resolution may be, it isn’t ours to witness: by the time the dust settles, a new chase has already begun kicking up dust of its own.

DARKSIDE peforms at Primavera Sound.

I was notified that my DARKSIDE T-shirt had arrived in the mail at about 3 PM, but I didn’t actually see it in-person until 12 hours later, at 3 in the morning, fresh out of an Uber from the outskirts of Brooklyn. If they were awake, my parents were furious. It was a Thursday night (or, if you want, Friday morning) in July, and I had requested leave from work the next day because of an ambitious late-evening interview I’d made up my mind to schedule—partly out of inspiration, but maybe also out of intimidation. “I hate to be so blunt, but it’s not where it needs to be for me to even begin editing it,” a recent email response to a second draft read. (The previous draft, too, was admittedly far too crappy for comment.) The response, and the humiliating journalistic failure it signaled, hurled me into a tailspin that lasted weeks; everything—writing, music, communication—was an asymptote, and everything I thought I had, I would suddenly have to re-learn. Money running thin from my last bi-weekly paycheck, a $32 DARKSIDE tee felt like a frivolous purchase, but one that signaled, vaguely, that I was willing to pay extra prices to understand the un-understandable: though I wasn’t as smart as Jaar, Harrington, or the thousands of writers capable of producing edit-worthy drafts on their work, spending money was a power I still had, and I was going to use it to force my way into proximity with them. The new T-shirt on my back, and all the lamps in my room pointed towards my mirror, I would be lying if I said I felt something. Spending money on DARKSIDE, like any other parasocial relationship, is a lot like spending money on a dating app: the fuckwit who wants love and throws down a dollar only realizes that he’s a fuckwit when he’s standing in the mirror, both a dollar and a person short. 

“…And at that point, the speakers blew up. The room filled with smoke, and there were sparks, because we’d been using some kind of shitty travel adapter because we were stupid.”

Though much of it is masked in obscure noises, obscure aesthetics, and obscure Telegram channels, the love in DARKSIDE’s music exists less in crowning a winner, and more in the privilege of playing the game. When Jaar talks about “lending a hand” and saying “Would you like to come in?”, it makes more sense—both for his own music and his band’s—for the entryway in question to denote something more ongoing than hit-or-miss, a circle as opposed to a square. In an early interview, immediately following the 2013 release of Psychic, Harrington detailed the janky, feedback-ridden jam session that birthed the duo’s first single: “We had [Jaar]’s laptop and some little speakers and my guitar, and we set this up in our hotel room in Berlin, and plugged my guitar straight into this tiny little interface in this computer,” he said. “I started playing and [Jaar] was like ‘that’s cool, keep doing that!’ We recorded it, started looping, and I added some slide guitar, and two or three hours later, we had the bulk of this song… And at that point, the speakers blew up. The room filled with smoke, and there were sparks, because we’d been using some kind of shitty travel adapter because we were stupid.” 

The most straightforward music-technology analog for circles, perhaps, is a feedback loop—perpetually living and dying on energy that feeds into its own body, blasting itself (and sometimes your equipment) to stasis then using that very same fatal shockwave to springboard itself back to life. Like the circles that comprise their visual identity, feedback is a recurring motif in the band’s sonic palette, present until it festers, and festering until it’s beyond understanding. It often seems that for them, conventionally bad omens—shattered circles, microphone feedback, smoky rooms, indiscernible whispers—are colloquial positives, integral pieces to a communal fossil everyone is invited to identify. And when you peer into the circular footprint they’ve left, like Jaar’s cell-phone camera in the Telegram selfie, the band is staring back at you, winking.

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