DARKSTAR, originally from Sheffield, are a dyad of electronic mastery, who began creating music together in 2008. After the success of their album North, the duo went on to join forces with Warp Records and set out on a spontaneous journey, experimenting with new sounds and portraying an unprecedented picture of life in the heart of Northern England.
Over the past few months, the duo have commuted weekly to Liverpool to work alongside participants at Harthill Youth Centre to produce Trackbed – a raw composition set to be played live on the 27th September as part of the larger Different Trains 1947 movement, which comprises of a multimedia performance that brings together an array of artists to explore the 1947 Partition of India. Taking place at Metal at the historical Edge Hill train station, the Trackbed project introduced a group of talented and enthusiastic young people to musical self-expression, guided by Young and Whalley.
The duo also worked with Harthill Youth Centre – a stone’s throw from the historic station – on an interactive installation that will be on display at Metal at Edge Hill on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays until 21st September, from 11am to 7pm. Both the Trackbed performance and installation are free to take in. Ahead of the premiere of Trackbed – an inspiring addition to the wider Different Trains 1947 project – Stephanie Banasko sat down for a catch up with Darkstar’s James Young and Aiden Whalley.
Liverpool is a city not shy of big characters and known for its Scouse hospitality. Have you felt that sense of community since working here?
James Young: My parents are actually from Liverpool so I’ve had a massive understanding of that sense of community for all my life. I’m a season ticket holder at Anfield. I thought I was well versed in what Liverpool culture is until I started this project. Because I never knew that Harthill and the community surrounding Harthill existed and how vibrant, tight knit and talented that community is. So I think there’s facets and nuances to Liverpool that I’ll never be able to understand because I’ve not seen it first-hand but I think this is one thing that I’m privileged to be able to witness.
Was there a pivotal time in your career when you decided to start working with young people and start incorporating their voices into the music?
JY: The election before Brexit, when Milliband and Cameron were standing for PM, it was the lead up to that [that] we were mainly writing politically leaning tunes, we’d been recording a lot in a studio in West Yorkshire. I felt like it could be a back drop to the record. Our music’s not so much about the mainstream dissonance like who you’re voting for. We’ve took a more personal approach to Trackbed, focusing on smaller, meaningful topics like how people interact with each other. Then slowly but surely, building a collage of informed opinions.
It’s really cool what you’ve created together, it’s given young people in the inner city a voice…
JY: That’s exactly what we aimed to do in a subtle way; we wanted to provide a space to breathe so the outcome was natural and not contrived.
Honestly, I wasn’t fully clued in with the tragedy of the 1947 Indian separation until today. Did you find working with the youth club that there was an education around it… were the kids aware of the history?
JY: Trackbed is under that umbrella but it’s not informed by it because the community we worked with at Harthill don’t share such a strong connection. Trackbed is more of a sister project which provides an independent message and unique education based on local truth and how the community in South Liverpool integrates.
There’s been a massive influx of social media over the last few years, these days everyone has an online presence, providing freedom of speech in a lot of countries. How would you say you’ve used social media to campaign for change?
JY: After we made our album Foam Island and had that volume of work behind us, we used it to promote our art but didn’t overly enforce it. We like to let the music and all the ground work behind it speak for itself. I think if the message comes from a genuine place then social media can be used to unite, empower and connect with people who share the same ideologies.
How would you say the current political climate has influenced your music?
JY: In terms of writing, there’s only so many songs you can write about your ex-girlfriend and tales of the heart. You can’t ignore what’s happening in society right now, it’s present in all of our lives in one way or another. So it starts to ebb on your conscience, and world affairs travel to the forefront of what you want to convey lyrically. With this project, we had the challenge of flipping people’s perspective, illuminating a neoteric train of thought.
This year, we’ve witnessed a wave of young people show a keen interest in politics, it’s inspiring to see that more people are waking up to the fact that, as a generation and a collective, we can steer the future in a mutually beneficial direction. Jeremy Corbyn is hugely influential in motivating modern revolution. Do Darkstar agree with his politics?
JY: Yeah definitely, he has galvanised the younger vote and it’s incredible to see. We’ve just gotta crack on with it and make sure it keeps going.
If you’re into astrology you’ll probably be aware of the recent shift in energy, the constellations show us departing from a 2000 year cycle and entering exciting times – the Age of Aquarius – which brings a new focus on human potential. The enthusiasm from the kids in the building is contagious, was it challenging trying to hone in on their potential?
JY: Our initial introduction at Harthill was intense; we were collaborating with 15 to 20 young people who were all really involved with the project. When we first got there it was more a case of feeling it out for a while and trying to sit in the background. The scrutiny that we faced from brutally honest, dynamic teenagers was eye opening.
JY: Absolutely, they were eager to learn about what we do, on the second visit we set up a little studio and made it inviting so the young people could interact.
Aiden Whalley: I learned a new skillset of how to engage with people in a way that tells a story based on mutual interest. I was a little weary of how the framework would transpire coming in to the project, I didn’t want it to be artificial or put a strain on the kids’ natural expression. That aspect provoked a challenge. We had to concentrate intently on mixing our style of music with what they’re passionate about. I enjoyed infusing song writing with melodies that they were already familiar with and developing something that all came together successfully.
The kids are clearly majorly proud and happy with the outcome of the installation.
AW: We feel the same… it’s an immensely rewarding project. It’s a privilege to be in a position to be able to visit Harthill. We discovered a vast level of natural ability in the young people we worked with.
This composition has given them an extraordinary opportunity to unearth their talent…
AW: Yeah and being a part of aiding that talent to come to life was amazing, it does wonders for their confidence. We noticed after the second visit, the creative juices picked up a flow. Throughout the duration of the project, new ideas were continuously brought forward, we wanted to keep it fresh and exciting so we switched up the set-up regularly, utilising a variety of equipment like drum machines and synths.
Are there any specific new ideas that stand out?
AW: In one session, we set a drum pad up, one of the girls brought a whole new meaning to the term head banging, and she created a unique sound by head butting the drum!
How original! It sounds like there was never a dull moment. One of the greatest things about interacting with younger people is that they are more ‘in the moment’ and as a result have this raw, authenticity about them. What happens with the installation once the composition is performed live on the 27th?
AW: We’re hoping the project will gain more exposure and the museums and galleries in Liverpool will host the installation. It’s been a real pleasure working with the youth club, it’s amazing what we’ve produced and we want their talent to be seen and heard by many.
So finally, let’s get deep for a minute, would you give any advice on how to keep a positive outlook to people who have dabbled in making music but may be lacking in determination due to their environment?
AW: That is a tricky question because it is subject to the components of the individual. However, I think it comes down to perseverance. You’ve got to be stubborn and believe in what you’re doing, the most random thing can give you motivation.
Darkstar premier Trackbed live on the 27th September at Metal at Edge Hill Train Station. A short film by Cieron Magat will also feature alongside the project. The screening is followed by a performance of Different Trains 1947, which you can find out more about here.