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Dave Harrington: From Darkside to "Dark Star"

Dave Harrington truly entered the Grateful Dead universe just in time for their 50th anniversary. Though the New York City-bred Harrington grew up attending jamband and jazz shows and studying Jerry Garcia’s guitar parts, he scored international fame as one-half of the indie-electronica duo Darkside. Along with his Darkside partner Nicolas Jaar, Harrington toured the world for a few years, connecting the dots between crowds of electronic, improve and rock music with his holey original style. In late 2014, he invited some of the friends he met on the road to take part in his first Holiday Spectacular at the DIY venue Glasslands (just a few days before it shuttered). Harrington and his diverse collaborators, which included the members of Real Estate, closed the night with a sing-along version of the Bob Dylan and The Band classic “I Shall Be Released.” Then, the dominoes started to fall: Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker revealed Harrington had deep roots outside the hipster blogosphere and invited him to take part in the Brooklyn Is Dead show he was putting together for Relix’s 40th anniversary. At that show, Harrington met Joe Russo, who was also on the bill, and the new friends started gigging around the New York improv scene with a diverse mix of collaborators. Their friendship also exposed Harrington to the larger jamband world and, two years later, he has shared the stage with members of the Disco Biscuits, Antibalas, Yellowbirds, Woods, Fat Mama, Guster and many other like-minded improvisers. Tonight Harrington will also take part in Russo’s Hooteroll?, show at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capital Theatre, where he will show off his skills on a different instrument altogether—the bass guitar.

Your two current projects under your own name are the Dave Harrington Group and the Merry Pranksters. Can you talk about the origin of those two bands and how they correlate creatively for you?

I put out a record as the Dave Harrington Group about a year ago, so the group came out of learning to play that record live, and reinterpreting the stuff that was made for that record. Then it’s evolved, and it’s had different members. We did some tours in Europe over the summer, and we just got back from Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. The group plays pieces that I’ve written or composed.

There’s always improvisation at the core of pretty much everything that I do, and certainly both of these bands. With the group, it leans more in the direction of small group playing, and it leans more in a jazz influenced direction, for lack of a better word, in the tradition of—for me, which I’m influenced by, which is ‘70s ECM records, and electric Miles period, in the early moments of fusion before it became a genre. Also, the group plays live improvised film scores as well. When we were in Tennessee, we were doing a live improvised film score to No Country for Old Men, and we’ve done silent films over the years. We’re going to Moogfest in about a month and change to do a film. That’s what that band is about.

The Merry Pranksters is a no rehearsal, no songs idea band that got started because my friend—who’s a promoter in New York named Chris Tart, he runs Tango Presents—asked me if I wanted to do an after-party at Rough Trade for when Dead & Co. played at Citi Field a little over a year ago. I was like “whoa,” because he had come to see me play a trio show with Joe Russo, and he was like, “You should do something for this,” and I was like, “Oh, cool! Nothing against it, but I’m not going to do Dead tunes,” because I’ve played with Alex Bleeker and stuff before where we’d done after-parties playing Dead tunes. And that’s super fun, but that’s not something that I do with my own projects, though I always have a blast doing that.

I was like, “I want to do something in this Bitches Brew tradition of improvisation, but I want to do something that is more groove-oriented for a late-night party vibe, but still comes from a purely improvised place.” And he was like, “Cool. Great. Put the band together. Do whatever you want.”

Then I was hanging out with my friend Andrew Fox—who has a project called Visuals—and that’s actually who I’m with upstate now, and we’re working on his next record. He was helping me brainstorm what to do for this gig, and he was like “Well, it’s an after-party for a Dead thing,” and it was his idea to call it Merry Pranksters. So that’s what I did. We had two drummers, and a vibraphonist, and a three-piece horn section, and a keyboard player, and a bass player, and a percussionist, and it was huge, and crazy and a blast.

I continued to do that band, and now we’re doing an informal, every couple of months, residency-type-thing at Nublu, and refining it. It’s had a rotating cast of characters, different musicians every time. The band has gotten a little bit smaller, but it’s always large format, at least six, seven, eight people, and different people every time, and guests. The last time we did it, this Moroccan band that’s based in New York called Innov Gnawa played with us, and I’d been working on their EP, mixing and doing a little bit of production for their next EP. The bass player who was playing with Merry Pranksters plays with them, and he was like “The guys want to come and jam,” and I was like “Great!” So, during the second set, we did like, a 20-minute Moroccan Gnawa jam onstage at Nublu, with the full seven-piece band. So that’s the vibe of that band, is that it’s always a late-night party band, in a way. Like a groove band, but via improvisation. I’ve been really lucky to have new friends and old friends play with that band. Yuka Honda has been playing with us lately, Stuart Bogie, Ilhan Ersahin—who runs Nublu, he’s one of my favorite musicians—he’s been playing in the band, and a bunch of the guys that I usually play with from Brooklyn and the New York scene. So, that’s a long-winded answer; you’ll have to edit me down a little bit, but that’s the idea.

So, while not a Grateful Dead cover band, certainly within the spirit of the Dead.

There’s definitely a nod to that tradition, and whatever the in-between is between the Dead and Miles Davis and the 2000s, groove, downtown New York, Tonic stuff that I grew up on.

You recently released a new song for the Ourfirst100days project. Can you walk us through how you created this number?

I’ve known the people who organized that—from Secretly Canadian—for a while, and when I saw that they were doing it, I just thought it was such a great thing to do, and I wanted to get involved. I was like “I know you guys need 100 songs. Do you want one from me?” and they were like “Sure! Absolutely!” I went in, and I wanted to make something that felt like I made something pretty special for it. I wrote something particular for it that was, I guess, my version of instrumental tacit politics; anarchic jazz noise.

You’ve witnessed a number of different musical scenes coalesce during your time living in New York. How would you describe the community that is currently evolving at the Nublu venues and how long have you been part of that world?

Well, it’s been one of the most exciting things for me in the last couple years to be involved in that community. I mean, I grew up—when I was in high school and college—sneaking into Nublu, the old Nublu, and going to places. I mentioned Tonic before: that was really the music that was coming out of that time in the mid-2000s in New York had a huge influence on me. So to now, 10 years later, feel like I’m part of that community is really a pleasure for me.

I used to go see Ilhan play years and years ago, before I knew him, and now to get to play with him is just I blast. They recently opened a second Nublu—Nublu 151, or what we call the New Nublu, and it’s a bigger venue. You can comfortably have an eight-piece band, or a 10-piece band there. There’s been a lot of overlap lately amongst—I don’t know how to characterize the community exactly, but people like myself who have, variously, a foot in the free improv world, or the electronic world, or Brooklyn indie scene and the jam world. There’s been a co-mingling that I certainly have been trying to do my best to show up for, and be a part of, and try to foster as much as I can by booking gigs and playing a lot. That’s been really exciting!

I was playing every Wednesday with a project called EXO, EXO Sessions or EXO-TECH, depending on the way that they organize it, where it was similar to the—with a different musical goal in mind, but a similar approach of the Merry Pranksters being an improvised band. That is a band that’s led by Sophia Brous and Kimbra—who are both vocalists—so that is like an improvised song thing. There was a whole other cast of characters who were involved in playing those shows, widening this circle, people like Greg Fox—who I’ve started playing with a little bit now—who plays in Zs, and people like Trevor Dunn and Mark Ribot—who I also got to play with this month—who are people I grew up listening to. So, there’s been an uptick in people in our community wanting to do improvised shows, which is, for me, one of the most exciting things possible.

In a few weeks you are going to be playing with Joe Russo and members of Antibalas as part of the Hooteroll? show at the Cap. What have you learned about both Jerry Garcia’s playing and your own from rehearsing for that album?

I’m definitely influenced by Jerry, as a guitarist, and have been for a long time. So, that got re-ignited for me when I was playing with Alex Bleeker, doing some Dead music, which was also when I first started playing with Joe. But what’s interesting for me about this is that in the Hooteroll? band I play bass, which is what I grew up playing; I grew up as a bass player.

The way that Joe’s approaching it, and they way that we started rehearsing it, it’s very open. it’s really doing the spirit of the music. I don’t want to speak for Joe too much, but my feeling is that what we’re doing is really in the spirit of Hooteroll?, and it’s not about replicating everything to a t. It’s about using the ideas and—it’s the same thing I was talking about before. Part of why I love that record so much, and it’s so fun to learn and play that music, is because it walks this line between Bitches Brew, improvisation, and there’s a psychedelic Pink Floyd type element to that music that actually predates some of the Pink Floyd stuff. I had to look up the dates at some point to make sure, because there’s a track on that record that feels like it has DNA deeply in common with “Breathe” from Dark Side of the Moon, but it predates that record by a couple of years. So, Hooteroll? is so interesting to play because it suggests all these tendrils into these other worlds that are really dear to me, musically.

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