An Interview with Dave Harrington

Jeff Weiss talks with Dave Harrington about the Dream Machine, Grateful Dead, and New York's jazz scene.
By    June 19, 2018
Photo credit: Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool

William Burroughs once claimed that Brion Gysin was the only man that he ever respected. It’s the level of exaggeration expected from the archetypal con man sorceror, who weaponized language into a series of disposable blades aimed at the adam’s apple. As with many telepathic collabators, Gysin and Burroughs understood each other on a molecular level as schemers and conjurors obliterating the boundaries between dream and nightmare, chimerical wilderness and daily horror. They were advance cavalry, occult experimentalists who anticipated the post-modern malaise—where it’s scarcely possible to tell the difference between hallucination and reality. The drugs helped then, and they still do.

In a frozen Paris spring as the fourth Republic collapsed, Gysin and Burroughs decamped to a dessicated flophouse called the Beat Hotel. Room 15, where Burroughs obssessed over scotch-taping his photos into collage, attempted to kick junk with apomorphine, and conspired to transform the techniques of the painted canvas into demented holy writ. In search of a final cure, he absconded for London to see a certain Dr. Dent (real name: no gimmicks). Upon his return, Gysin unveiled the cut-up technique, which relied partly on Burroughs’ inspiration and partly from a serendipitous ephiphany achieved when Gysin slashed through a pile of newspapers with a Stanley blade and re-arranged them into jumbled disassociative poetry. Naked Lunch was born shortly thereafter.

With the panaromic creativity of a half-insane Outkast, the duo of Burroughs and Gysin collaborated on full-length manuscripts, a scripted adaptation of Naked Lunch, and a liminal avant-garde invention that they deemed “the Dream Machine.” Conceived alongside their “systems adviser,” Ian Sommerville, the Dream Machine is essentially a light installation built to induce psychedelic visions without the need for illicit substances. All you need to do is close your eyes (clicking of heels is optional).

Described as a stroboscopic flicker device, the set up is rather simple: you take a hollow cylinder, slit some holes in it, place a powerful bulb inside and set it atop a spinning record player. The idea is that light beams from the cylinder somewhere between 8 and 13 pulses a second, a frequency said to correspond to alpha waves, the electrical oscillations normally present in the human brain while relaxing—whatever “relaxing” is supposed to mean in 2018. It’s intended to slip you in a hypnagogic state, the shadowlands between sentience and sleep, where the wolves of the subconcious roam. It’s one of those things that can induce transcendent visions or seizures.

It’s catnip to artists always seeking the enhanced clarity often wrought from the derangement of the senses. Which is maybe the reason why I’m in New York in the first place to speak with Dave Harrington, the experimental multi-instrumentalist who masterminded the “Dream Machine” concert installation last month (alongside musician and curator Sophia Brous and multimedia designer Ken Farmer of Wild Dogs International.) The project was unveiled as part of the Red Bull Music Festival in New York and taken the following night to the FORM Arcosanti Festival in the arid pink deserts of Arizona.

The concert itself was weird and brilliant, recollected faintly a month later in the fractured “what the fuck” recesses of memory. Irreducible to syllables, it was more neurological lightworks, a jarring soundclash of blinding strobes and strange noises from the dark corners of soil and soul, broadcast in a dimly lit room warehouse space in Brooklyn. The retinue included The Master Musicians of Jajouka (led by Bachir Attar), industrial pioneer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge of Psychic TV, British cellist and electronic producer Oliver Coates, and drummer Greg Fox. It sounded like a collision of ancient spirits and futuristic reverie, axis mundi jazz, warped intestinal spirituals.

It was the type of ambitious art-for-art’s-sake conceit that could’ve either been fatally pretentious or lethal and poignant. The fact that it was the latter was in no small part thanks to Harrington, one of the most quietly significant musicians of this generation, whose Darkside collaboration with Nicolas Jaar radiate with the sort of orphic boiling cauldron energy that Gysin and Burroughs once exuded. But while that’s what Harrington is most known for, the New York native has embodied the modern liberated spirt of “listening to more jazz.” His creations are governed by meticulous technique but few exacting rules, which imbues them with unusual freedom and tremendous energy.

Beyond the classic Darkside work, he’s released a pair of excellent solo projects, countless remixes, scored the soundtrack to a BBC Pablo Escobar doc, gigged with innumerable jazz and electronic musicians, and most recently produced Spencer Zahn’s stellar, People of the Dawn. Simply put, Harrington is a master of improvisation, which requires the delicate tightrope act of virtuosity and letting one’s mind be completely clear. In a genre-less world, he’s as adept at anyone at blurring the boundaries of sound, splitting atoms by the second, offering a salient reminder that innovation is still possible sometimes. We spoke for about an hour about a lot. No need to summarize what’s below. Just know that Burroughs would’ve respected him too. —Jeff Weiss

What was the genesis for the Dream Machine installation?

Dave Harrington: The initial planting of the idea traces back to when I was in college. I spent two summers working for a comp lit professor and helping him design a course that I was a TA for, about a history of expatriate literature and collaboration in Morocco. His specialty was Arabic literature and he was the only guy in the department who taught courses in Arabic literature and translation.

Did you have a favorite author from what you read?

Dave Harrington: Well, we read a lot of Gysin stuff and Muhammad Shukri. He was friends with and writing at the same time as Paul Bowles, so Sheltering Sky was on the syllabus. Working for him was what turned me onto this nexus of beats in Tangier.

I was studying film and media critical theory, and the professor wanted a film and music component to the course, which is part of why he wanted me to be his research assistant so we could talk about musicians in Jajouka and their relationship to Brian Jones and the Ornette Coleman record, Dancing in Your Head that has the Jajouka musicians on it.

It was really exciting because Gysin himself was a painter, sculptor, and renaissance maniac. Plus, the Burroughs-Gysin experiments with tape machines—so it was about all off these interconnected disciplines floating around each other…that was when I got hip to this world of music and thinking and literature and all the Burroughs cut-up stuff and Gysin cut-up stuff and cut up art, the permutation poems and all these ideas…

It makes a lot of sense when you think about the improvisational quality of your music. And essentially, the automatic writing of the Beats was attempting to tap into that same “first thought best thought” quality that’s in the best jazz.

Dave Harrington: Totally. You can make the same kind of argument about free jazz. You look at it, as oh, you don’t need to read any music, there are no right notes, I can do that, anybody can do that. But it’s kind of a last stop on a long journey on doing everything inside the box. Learning as much as you can, then having the big toolbox and thinking, I’m just going to pick from that.

You have to be a master to break the rules.

Dave Harrington: That becomes a skill that you then have to develop.

When you think about the great jam bands, of course the Grateful Dead, they were playing constantly for a decade before the point where they came into their own as improvisationalists.

Dave Harrington: There’s no coincidence that Phil was studying Stockhausen.

And when Phil heard “Bitches Brew,” that’s when he was like, okay, we need to do this now.

Dave Harrington: That was such a huge thing for me too. On the Darkside tour, “Bitches Brew” was our walk-in music for every show.

Ha. I remember that and thinking…if these motherfuckers weren’t so good, that would be the most pretentious thing ever…but those were some of the best shows I’ve seen in my life. [both laughing] But actually, you guys really achieved that same idea. It made a lot of sense.

Dave Harrington: One of the most influential records on me personally, bar none. And that’s exactly the thing we were just talking about. Most of the people in those ensembles were the best hard bop players alive, and all of a sudden Miles was like, we’re going to play, funk? Question mark?

It’s not like the Jack Johnson record either, it’s…

Dave Harrington: It’s somewhere else. The way that they’re navigating structure…what I love about that record is that there is structure, but it’s so malleable. There’s a little bit of restriction. It’s not free jazz, but it’s not hard bop, and it’s not funk. Piece of this, piece of that, piece of this. They’re making up the rules for a whole branch of the jazz tree in real time.

That was 22 years into his career, too. It’s weird to think that he goes from playing in the ‘40s bebop to Bitches Brew, and then he has Easy Mo Bee beats on the last record, who had been producing for Biggie. Was the jazz archetype of ‘always evolving’ a big model for you going down your path?

Dave Harrington: I mean, maybe. I guess because I grew up studying jazz and spending my weekends going to the downtown New York jazz scene or jam shows. Those were my touchstones.

You ever have a Phish phase?

Dave Harrington: I don’t know if I had a hard phase, I never went really deep, but in my big CD booklet I had Live 1 and A Picture of Nectar and burned CDs. I went to one big show before the big hiatus.

Where was the show?

Dave Harrington: In New Jersey somewhere.

They’re either totally underrated or wildly overrated, but what’s clear is that no one accurately rates Phish. They have seemingly zero casual fans. I mean, they’re pretty mediocre on record and can be awful songwriters, but if you’re on the right alchemy of substances, they’re unusually transcendent.

Dave Harrington: I wasn’t even surfing the substances when I saw them. A friend of mine who works at Relix threw me a ticket, and I was like, who am I to say no? I was genuinely blown away. I had an incredible time. I was in the middle of some recording sessions and I went in the next day and the first thing I did was, I was super inspired and I ripped a really excessive guitar solo and I was like, thanks, Trey? Thanks man, thank you. [laughs] Not to make it all about myself, but I was totally picking up what they were putting down.

So how did this specific Dream Machine project with Red Bull come together?

Dave Harrington: This whole business is kind of a cross-media remix effort. I did it in collaboration with Ken Farmer who does all the production and visual design and the other is Sophia Brous who’s singing in the show and wrote the score, the structure, and the idea with me. It came together because basically, I’ve been doing these live improvised film scores for years and I write my own loose structure/score/map for musicians to follow to try and find new structures to improvise.

Mostly in NY?

Dave Harrington: I’ve done a couple in LA, and one at Moogfest too. But basically the other piece of this story is that Sophia organized a festival in Melbourne every year and she talked about me coming and doing one of my improvised film scores at the festival, and she told me the Master Musicians of Joujouka were coming to the festival, and I was like, what if we do Dream Machine live? And she was like, what is that? And I was like, I don’t know, but doesn’t that sound like something we should chase?

What was the process like for you?

Dave Harrington: We’ve been gradually developing the concepts and relationship between the music and the visual, and a lot of that has to do with the three of us bringing in our different backgrounds and skillsets. A lot of Sophia’s solo work is performative. She does this semi-staged thing called lullabies, where she sings all these lullabies from different cultures in the native tongues—twelve different languages—it’s almost like a mini-opera. What I’ve been doing the last couple years is leading improvised bands in different capacities. So it’s been trying to fuse the best ideas we can all kind of bring together.

You recently produced the Spencer Zahn record too. How did that come together?

Dave Harrington: We’d been playing a lot together, and we were both in Melbourne at Sophia’s festival, and he was like, I’ve been recording some synth stuff, and I was like, ‘You’ve never made a solo record!’ So we spent two or three days in New York and did it. He’d already recorded some really beautiful synth stuff. So I added some bass on it, some electronics and live processing, some percussion, and a little bit of left hand noise piano [laughs]. I was just there to help him find it.

What’s your impression of the music scene in New York, what with the cost of rent driving a lot of artists to find creative refuge in more affordable cities?

Dave Harrington: I think there’s still a high concentration of things here. So if you are open to that, it’s extremely possible to find a musical community of people you want to work with. Also, the longer I stick around, the more people I get to play with…the scene feels deeper. This Dream Machine show is an incredible example of that. Over the last few years, I haven’t really been on tour and have been playing around a lot, so I’ve been so lucky to play with legit heroes of mine. Like Kenny Wollesen, a guy who I play with a lot now, and he’s a drummer who I used to see play when I was in high school. Some of my favorite records are records that he’s on—like those Sexmob records.

When I was in high school, I would sneak into Nublu in the East Village and now I’m getting to play with and produce for some of the most incredible jazz and electronic musicians that I grew up idolizing. Every weekend feels like another opportunity to see what’s out there.

What does your ideal day look like?

Dave Harrington: Get up, have coffee, poke around at some music, go to the place down the street that makes good soba, have a good bowl of noodles, come home, poke at some music some more…but I mean, honestly, this week, I spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in the studio with Nick Murphy, because I’m co-producing his next record. Then yesterday I came here, and led rehearsal with a twelve-piece chamber electro-jazz ensemble.

It’s been all kinds of different for me since Darkside stopped being a band. One week I’ll be working on Spencer’s [Zahn’s] record. I’m putting out a new record in the fall of Dave Harrington Group music. I’m working on and off with Nick. I did a couple film scores this year. Just floating in and out of the studio, picking up projects and playing a bunch.

When Darkside broke up, was there an impetus to get off the road?

Dave Harrington: Yeah, we had toured really heavy for a year before. In the couple years leading up to that, I had been touring in Nico’s band as a touring guitarist. So from 2011 until 2014, I was just on tour the whole time and only home occasionally.

I love being on tour and I love playing shows, but it’s been really nice to be home. The thing that’s been most exciting is that by being here for a couple years and investing time in building relationships, I’ve been able to work on a bunch of new projects. I’ll work in a studio, meet new improvisers, and be able to be home so that when somebody calls me like do you want to play a free jazz gig in a brewery on Sunday night for no money, I can be like, ‘hell yeah I do.’

That’s one of the most interesting extra-musical things to me about Darkside. I saw you guys at the Roxy and then Coachella, and by the end it was clear if you had the ambition to be, you could have been a band playing before 10,000 people in small arenas. I thought you were about to really cross-over, but you stopped before that happened, and I always wondered if that was a considered decision to not want to get to that often sterile level of mass fame.

Dave Harrington: The idea always from the beginning was that Nico and I had our own pursuits that we wanted to do, but we wanted to do this together too. There was never an expectation that this is the thing now. We both had all of these things outside of the band and since we stopped, Nico put out an incredible solo record, he’s been running a very prolific label and done all types of different things in chasing his own solo music. And I’ve been able to do these collaborative projects. When it was over, it was like, this is great. We’d decided from the beginning that, it’s not like, “the cycle’s done, better get back in the studio and get the next record, or do the next lap of touring.”

Which is interesting, because it’s not the modern mentality. The Against All Logic record is amazing, but nobody knew that he put it out at first. Do you feel a kind of allergy to the notion of popular music with its fame chasing and desire to be headlining festivals and atop Spotify playlists, etc.?

Dave Harrington: In a way I think I’ve self-selected myself out of that puzzle because of the music I make. I don’t want to be beating my head against a brick wall trying to get people who don’t want to listen to my music, to listen to my music. I feel so lucky to be able to do shit like this and play with great people and pick up great kinds of projects and be able to pivot from working on a pop record with somebody to working on a film score. That’s the type of thing I always wanted to do. I became a guitar player when I was twenty-five. I had spent the ten years before that being a jazz bass player. I’d played guitar, but not professionally.

For me, what’s exciting is, it didn’t occur to me that the level that Darkside got to, was something. I was incredibly excited about it, but it wasn’t what I was after. For high school me, the dream was being able to play with Kenny Wollesen. And I did it. That’s not like humble bragging or anything, that’s just who my heroes were in high school. MMW at the Beacon was like the gold standard.

I think a lot about Outkast and how a lot of people will be like Andre’s the greatest, but he wouldn’t be the greatest without Big Boi. And so I’m curious how that manifested in Darkside. From a distance, I loved you both solo, and it was interesting in a different way to see a new form created in those collaborations.

Dave Harrington: Really in all the collaborations that I’ve done, playing together means that it becomes a whole other thing entirely. It becomes a conversation, not a discussion. When you put two heads in a room, the energy becomes just really condensed and directed. And in my experience working with Nico, it’s why it worked, and when I had that relationship with other people, when both people are going to take risks and accept ideas, that’s all that is needed.

But when there are only two brains doing that, you can move through that process in a very rapid, in a very productive way. You’re not worrying about a third guy’s feelings, and there’s never a third guy. You’re constantly trying to find balance, and I think that can be very productive.

Do you have a favorite Grateful Dead period?

Dave Harrington: My favorite album is Dick’s Picks Vol. 7, because that was the one that I was given first. It was literally the first a friend of mine gave me.

What about studio album?

Dave Harrington: Blues for Allah is my favorite studio record. I mean, when they get into the “Slipknot,” “Help on the Way” business, that is very intriguing. I love the proggier side of the Dead and the long-form Bobby tunes. I love all of it, but that’s the stuff that stays with me, that I go back to, like, what are they doing here?

What are you working on next?

Dave Harrington: I’m putting out another DH Group record sometime in the fall. And then, beyond that, I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t have any other huge things. I’m going to go to LA, going to be in LA some point in the summer to do some studio work. I’m working on the Nick Murphy record, which took a lot of time this year, whenever I had time, a block of this, block of that. So I’m excited for that to see the light of day.

I’m kind of in a state right now where I’m trying to wrap stuff up. My record, Nick’s record is almost done. I’ve purposefully not been taking other stuff on so I can spring clean and get to the point where it’s like—so what should I do right now? What’s next is I’m going to try to do something without doing a million things.

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