I caught Darkside last week at Coachella and it made me feel like a ancient Bedouin watching a comet streak past. Some freakish slip n’ slide of divinity. That sounds overwrought in daylight or via LED screen, but there’s something futile in searching for the proper vocabulary or a scientific debunking. Sometimes delusion is preferable. Writing about music you’re actively encouraged to avoid all the cliches that spring readily to mind when you witness something like that. You wonder whether if it’s the drugs. And of course, it’s the drugs. But it’s never entirely the drugs. The chemicals can focus the frame; they can’t paint the portrait.
I have listened to the Darkside live set, recorded in fairly solid audio, roughly a half dozen times. I just finished listening to it and I am now pressing play once more. It is 12:39 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon ten days later. The effects are long attenuated and I am permanently tired and trying to tell you what went on in my head when I was trying to clear every cobweb out of it. When you treat music like religion, dogma is your party favor. Objectivity is encouraged. Skepticism gets you clicks. Sincerity is the enemy of cool. Here we are in 2014 and I’m writing a blog post to try to explain what magic feels like. Being knocked off-kilter doesn’t compute.
The tenor of the Internet demands that we search for what’s next or novel. But at it’s tribal core, music is a ritual to summon transcendence. This is part of an equation usually absent in conversations about drugs and music. Many people do drugs because they make them feel temporarily invincible like Super Mario after he eats a star. Others want to untangle inhibition or crook the antenna to get the signal straight. Then there are those who experiment with the right alchemy in the off-hand chance that they stumble upon the combination: the right band peaking at the right time.
Over the last few years, I’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles going to festivals across North America. Most trips have been paid for — for me to write some cursory exegesis of the bands, the crowds, and to try to discern some glimmer of meaning out of the addled void. I have become a master at writing a thousand words and forgetting them instantly. In the hopes of shedding layers of psychic baggage and making things more fun, I have taken almost every drug that you can’t snort or inject. I am not religious and I’m too old to regularly search for life meaning through music. I have bills to pay, pets to humor, plants to water, and parents to help out. The point of this ramble is that I did not expect to still be thinking about this Darkside set well over hundreds of hours later. I suspect I will be thinking of it for several thousands more. I am intrinsically wired against the idea of a favorite band, but Darkside are my favorite band.
I initially convinced myself that writing about Darkside was a selfless act. As though by sharing some 42 minute MP3 file, you would somehow warp into the same headspace by dint of the gorgeous sonic design. The truth is that I started writing this to understand what was is about the drugs and Darkside that set off triggers usually under lock and key. The sort of thing that made me briefly believe every sappy cliche I’ve ever mocked. To be able to use the phrase “the power of music” with a straight face (for at least a few minutes). We laugh at “basics,” but maybe the feeling before our cynicism calcifies is something to strive for.
I would stop listening to this set if I could. There’s something about memory that translates notes and melodies to a mosaic of color and fragments stitched imprecisely together. It’s less accurate but usually superior. When I watch the videos circulating on YouTube, I can see the flash bulbs and the guitars and the rasping vox. I can re-listen to the pulse slackening and accelerating and re-create the psychedelic experience in faded color.
Psychedelia is a cliche in its own right. I interviewed Nicolas Jaar once by phone. We spoke about Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and Absalom Abasalom and ghosts and origin stories. The idea that once you sample something, it automatically mutates into something new. We talked about psychedelia as an is ageless by nature. You can mimic an old guitar tone or wah-wah pedal, but a purely psychedelic experience is built on surprise.
Darkside made me see something that wasn’t there. Or maybe it was always inherent, a land mine of mind waiting to detonate. Before the set began, “Bitches Brew” played on the loudspeaker. It was a declaration of intent. Innumerable musicians have quoted Miles gone electric, but few can ever really capture the energy and the chaos, something held together by something unseen and hovering on the periphery. You can try to trace the vapor trails all day and color this a fusion of krautrock, trip-hop, Italo-disco, free jazz and minimal techno. Or you can just listen back and feel nothing and attribute it to an ephemeral collision of space, time, noise, moon rocks, weed, and mushrooms. I would rather remain under the compact that it was everything combined and none of these things at all. It was the word at the tip of your tongue that you never quite land on. The feeling in your intestines that dissipates, but you never entirely forget.