If you saw last summer’s Glastonbury coverage, there’s a chance you were mesmerised by the joyous discovery of American alt-folk quartet, Darlingside playing ‘Go Back’ live in the BBC studio. If that was your Darlingside epiphany, you may have followed it up with a live UK date on their summer tour, dominated by tracks from their most recent album, Birds Say and EP, Whipporwill.
What we didn’t know back then was that the next big record was already partly in the bag. That release, Extralife is almost upon us – due out on February 23rd. Jon Kean caught up with Harris Paseltiner recently to talk about the album, its genesis and the influence of Nintendo on their compositions.
LTW: Thanks for giving Louder Than War your time. I’ve had one of those days where I’ve been full-on from eight am until six pm, so this is a good way to wind down.
HP: It’s late morning where I am, so it’s a nice way for me to ramp up.
Extralife takes a departure from the previous album into more conspicuous electronics. How did that transition into the electronic come about?
It was definitely organic. We didn’t set out to make something that was electronic. We tend to write songs and then see what clothing we want to dress those songs up in – see what best serves the song. In terms of whatever was happening in the world at the time and how we were feeling at the time, for these songs to come out in a more traditional and acoustic format didn’t quite serve the arc or the lyrics of each tune.
And all the ethereal bleeps and chimes we hear. How did you create those sounds?
We had a little device that resembles a Gameboy called a Septavox. It’s a tiny analogue synthesiser that has some very rudimentary sounds, sine wave, square wave, sawtooth wave, just very early electronic sounds like on Kraftwerk, or even earlier sounds made by the theremin. We started to play around with this Gameboy thing and it popped out some beautiful arpeggiating chords. You can hear them on ‘Extralife’ and ‘Eschaton’. We took that and put it through our guitar rigs, through our effects pedals and out of the amplifiers and we started to combine that with our acoustic instruments, like mandolin and cello, and we were really pleased with the whole other dimension it provided. It meant that we could start acoustically and then layer on electronic sound, or the other way round – like on the opening track of the album.
Did it feel especially experimental at the time?
To me it doesn’t feel like a major departure, as we’ve been experimenting for a while with looping sounds, like on ‘Harrison Ford’ on our last record, which was made from glitched sounds from tapping on a desk. There are a lot of heavily produced sounds on Birds Say, but they’re a little more hidden. I think we were a lot more comfortable with letting them stand out on this record. There’s more of an aggressive electronic sound, a more Nintendo-ey sound, which is right for us, because as kids, we all grew up with the Nintendo 64, or Sega Genesis. These sounds are deeply ingrained in our childhood – gathering around someone’s TV aged ten for hours at a time to play Legend of Zelda.
Is it any wonder that youth plays a big part in your songs when you all met around the ages of 18/19?
Birds Say pulled on a collective childhood set of memories. The four of us smashed our memories together and made this four-headed memory that we really didn’t experience together, but still represented how being young felt.
This album seems more careworn and foreboding, hewn out of the world of adulthood.
This one is certainly pulling on our collective experience of how things are now, so whereas Birds Say looked backwards, dug a little more into where we came from and where we grew up, this record deals much more with the immediacy of the world right now and the challenges moving forwards.
Were you bandmates, then friends, or were you friends, then bandmates?
We were friends, then bandmates. We sang together in school, in various musical things on campus. The band coalesced both in school and outside of school. I’m the youngest. We started doing it professionally once I’d graduated. We got ourselves into a house in Northhampton, Massachusetts, on the Connecticut River, just trying to work out what we were doing. We went into it with no set plan about what genre we were trying to achieve at all, so we were fumbling around in a dark room for a while.
What were some of the reject styles of Darlingside that didn’t make it through the early formative period?
There was definitely a prog rock leaning early on. I definitely liked to listen to harder sounds. It was a few years in when we really started to focus on the vocals as the focal point of each song, putting that texturally in the forefront of what we were doing. We’ve never really thought in terms of strict genres, or electric vs acoustic. When it comes to writing our own tunes, we just tend to write melodies and let the seed grow out from there.
How did that Glastonbury appearance on the BBC come about?
I guess it was our team, working hard to get us out there in the UK. We’ve spent so much time in the US going through all sorts of different iterations, so it was good to be able to show up to the UK with some fully-formed tunes.
In terms of bands and USPs, that condenser mic is palpably your thing. How did it become a big part of the act?
We had been playing in a traditional rock format for a while, everyone on separate microphones. We’d practise the songs close together, in someone’s living room or someone’s kitchen and we would come up with all these little trinkets – where a person’s voice should flip a certain way – and we’d go on stage and things would just disintegrate. Nobody could hear each other and everyone was just in this vacuum space. We felt that there was a really big disconnect between what we were doing when writing and when we were performing. I guess for most bands the solution would be to practise more at home the way you were going to be performing on stage. Instead what we decided what we would do is to turn the stage into the living room experience. We thought if it’s what we do when we write, let’s just drop a microphone in front of everyone. Suddenly we were having a much better time on stage.
When was Extralife conceived?
We started recording in 2017 in April and May, then we went out on the road in June. We completed recording in August. It was done through the hot months. Birds Say was recorded in the depths of winter through some of the heaviest snows on record in Boston. We were snowed in some days because the snow was piled so high we couldn’t get to the studio, but for Extralife, there were days where we were overheating in the control room and having to go outside.
Yet weirdly, wouldn’t the average listener say that Birds Say sounds more like Spring and Summer and Extralife sounds more wintry and autumnal?
Probably the reason is that the recording time does not reflect the writing time. I think Extralife reflects the darker months, where the songs were all dropping into place and the lyrics were being hammered out. I do have memories of sitting outside on a beautiful day at a bench, working the lyrics of ‘Go Back’ with Don or sitting on a patio, working on the first lyrics for ‘White Horses’ with Auyon. With Extralife, we were rehearsing in the dark, dirty basement of my apartment and it was really cold. Everybody was bundled together around a single light in the middle of the room drinking tea. Definitely a different vibe on the writing side on each record.
Will you be touring the album in the US primarily?
We’ll be hitting the West Coast, the East Coast and the Midwest mainly through March, directly after the record comes out. We intend to be back to the UK. I don’t know how the plan stacks up, but we’re really big fans of the UK and we look forward to bringing it once it’s out. The one January show in London will not just be it.
Your band dynamic seems to trade off competitive drollery. Who is naturally the most dry and droll?
Not me. I am definitely unskilled in the art of sarcasm. I’m like a loose puppy, so I’m probably the furthest from being droll. Different edges of drollness comes out from the other guys. Auyon might take the cake, as he’s almost always that way.
You’ve covered ‘1979’ by The Smashing Pumpkins. What next for a cover?
We had fun doing a grunge rock cover, to take one of their melodies and put it into our style, especially as it’s something people don’t immediately expect. Finding covers is really hard, because you don’t want to take on real touchstones. You also don’t want people coming up to you at the end of shows and saying “You know who does four-part harmonies that you should cover – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.”
If you could pull off an audacious cover of a song, that really wasn’t Darlingside, what would it be?
If you’re going to choose something, it should be from way outside the wheelhouse. Bowie or Jeff Buckley would be great to cover. We had talked about it being fun to cover a 60s girl group, like the early R&B of The Crystals. We’ve also talked about some big 80s songs with enormous melodies, or a new wave band like Talking Heads, that’s initially far away from the sonic palette we would use, so to take one of their songs and then suspend it in space and build something around it would be fun. With something like ‘Heaven Is a Place On Earth’, you could take Belinda Carlisle’s melody out of context with four guys singing it – maybe even take it from major to minor. A lot of 70s/80s music is so heavily linked to the image of the time that it’s easy to overlook the quality of the songwriting structure. You just need to listen to Styx or something like REO Speedwagon’s ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling’ and you can hear its strength. I would love to cover that song. That is a never-ending and glorious chorus.
The new album is just around the corner. How do you feel about it?
Excellent. I really look forward to bringing the new songs to the UK. It’s somewhere we love playing. We’ll bring the new tunes and we can all get weird together.
You can hear ‘Futures’ from the forthcoming album, Extralife here: