James McDonald 03/10/2010
Among the hay bails and cattle sheds, Darwin sticks out like a sore thumb. I guess anything short of dungarees and a straw hat, (and an assortment of other stereotypes) it'd be quite hard to not seem out of place here, but Darwin's made the extra mile. Limp brown twirls cascade from his head like a waterfall, tied steady by a dutiful Alice band. Loose clothes hang lazy from his frame. His PR rep for the day introduces us and I'm immediately excited by the prospect of talking to an American for the next allotted time period; it evokes the feeling that I'm in some kind of movie, albeit always a low budget feature-length. I ask If a photographer can take some pictures to accompany the interview, and he immediately panics; 'erm, I need to check my hair first!' This statement becomes somewhat less tongue-in-cheek as he detours to the nearest van to catch his reflection in the window.
A person I look up to once told me you should never discuss religion or politics when meeting someone for the first time. For reasons unbeknown to me now, I saw it fit to plough directly into both when speaking with Darwin, although first I proceeded in demonstrating my ignorance toward researching an artist before conducting an interview;
Did you fly in today?
'No, no, we didn't fly. We drove down from, erm... Sheffield? We played at the Tramlines festival last night so...'
Ah, how was that for you?
'It was actually really small... the venue was real small but James the co-owner, really nice guy, gift of gab, erm, it was a happy night!'
So shake off the cobwebs, come straight down here, and then anything else tomorrow?
Yeah, Secret Garden Party tomorrow. We haven't been there before...
No rest for the wicked. You'll have a great time, it's a good experience. Not meaning to draw assumptions but I'd imagine someone with your personality would really enjoy it...
'Well, someone told me it was really 'druggie'?'
There is that side of it, usually you'd have to meet a required level of intoxication if you're spending a weekend in fancy dress...
Ah, well I'm not a drug person...'
Actually, that's pretty refreshing to hear these days..
'I guess so yeah'
[members of Fucked Up walk past]
'What band are these? What band is that cute girl in? Oh!'
Cute girl? Are you on the prowl?
I don't know who they were... they had a pretty cool swagger about them...
'They were sexy'
You seem pretty taken aback...
'I don't have anything else to do this weekend!'
Okay, focus your mind away from attractive females for a second and back to the attractive awe that is I.
[laughs] 'That was pretty good!'
A friend of mine, who is a fan of yours, wanted to know if you had a favourite disco record?
Ah, I love that Heatwave stuff. I love to drop the science on people like Heatwave, Rod Temperton, Michael Jackson, I love to drop that on people, and then I like to, you know, what is it? Too Hot To Handle and the other one is Boogie Nights!
There's some other good ones on there, I have it on cassette...'
Ah, you have a good tape deck at home?
'No man, it's fucked! My tape deck is fucked, but I love tapes...'
'No, erm, no I've never owned a record player of my own but I want one 'cos there's lots of great stuff.'
Personally I spend too much time and money on vinyl, I like having a hard copy of songs, I can be quite nostalgic in that respect...
'Yeah, it's also a great way to explore music y'know? Just go to a thrift store and flick through - you know you're going to get a certain era of music as well and it's the same with cassettes really. I like that too, it's different 'cos otherwise it's just Bittorrent or whatever, not the same at all.'
You're pretty familiar with the UK, you've been here a few times before... Do you feel welcome and comfortable here, and have you picked up on any colloquialisms or cultural differences?
'Yeah, I feel very welcome here! Erm, the drinking culture's markedly different, everyone drinks beer and people get drunk more, that's different. In London, the hipsters, their clothes are a lot cleaner. Just little things like that are all I've been able to notice so far.'
And you're back here later in the year...
'Yeah, UK tour in October to promote the album, but it came out in April so it'll be like a second lease of life hopefully.
Are you often approached for remixes? I'd imagine a lot of the vocal and guitar hooks in your music would transfer well into a remix.
'We haven't had too many remixes yet, but people are welcome to! It's nice to hear other people's perspective of your own music.'
Cool. I'll get to work on a Gabba mix of one of your tracks when I get back...
'Gabba?! What's Gabba?'
Ah, you probably don't wanna know. Very extreme, like a kick drum machine gun.
'Woah, that sounds intense.'
It's an experience. Back on track, in a general sense what would you say you are trying to achieve with your music?
'Well, the drive for me just comes from, like, having a career. Also some type of Erickson psycho-social stage of development, and erm, music is just what I love to do so that's where the drive mostly comes from. I feel ultimately the goal of artists or the function of the artist in society is to inspire people. I keep that in mind, I think these days, what's equally important; there's the music and then there's, like, the personality, and then there's something else like an image or political import or whatever...'
It's nice to hear that behind everything your passion is what drives you; I feel in this day and age that can often become distorted, with 'artists' being thrust into people's faces to sell records, there's a lot clogging the arteries...
'Yeah, totally. Like, with John Lennon, there's the musical aspect and then there's his personality which is equally important and then the whole political and spiritual thing which is as important in who he is to other people. I think when you get to that level those things become important y'know? At the moment, I'm just music for music lovers, but I try to make music for the masses, and at the moment I've sorta shot myself in the foot because I produced it in a way that only music lovers would really be able to appreciate. It's very Lo-Fi and stuff... but we'll see in the future, we'll see what happens. I think the best music is karaoke music! Y'know, the song that stands out in a karaoke booth because it's so fun to sing, or the song people will sing when they're protesting or whatever, that for me is when music breaks out beyond its normal capacity...'
That sense of unity in sound...
'Yeah, that's special, I think that's pretty cool. For now I'm happy creating music and expressing emotions or whatever.'
This is one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you - as an aside from being an artist, which is what the majority of people see day-to-day, I'd imagine there's a lot more to be drawn from your personality. For example, I imagine you could hold a pretty decent political conversation...
'I could hold it, I'm not interested in politics though. I'm way more interested in spirituality, just from the way I've been brought up I think.'
So do you have any particular life mantras you keep in mind?
'Don't worry, be happy!'
That's not really a mantra man, it's more of a cheerful tune...
'Okay, erm, there's other ones - 'Expect nothing, receive everything'... 'A smile or a glance that lifts a drooping heart is just as important as giving your life to a cause', in spirituality they are equal. That's something Meher Baba said...'
'Meher Baba's the guru that my parents discovered in the 70s, that's how they met each other and then that's how they raised me and my sisters, through an awareness of it.'
I was meaning to ask actually, naming a child Darwin is pretty fantastic I think!
'Yeah - they didn't actually name me after the scientist, they named me after a follower of Meher Baba. He's actually an English guy and my parents looked up to him, rightly so, and erm, they also wanted my name to be similar to Darryl.'
Right, well this is all new ground for me. Can you give me a brief crash-course on Meher Baba? What did he particularly teach?
'Well, he would say that he came not to teach but to awaken...'
Like any prophet really?
'Well, erm... I felt he had this really special thing going on, like, divine love. He just drew people to him. I dunno, it's very unknown now but it was around a lot in the 70s. But I think it's the real thing. You can think and think and wonder and be existential in philosophy but you never get an real answers, you just get more questions... I did that when I was 18, I read a lot of Nietzsche and stuff and it freaked me out and would make me really sad, but something my Dad said was like, 'I don't know all the answers, but the way you can trust other people as humans sometimes, I know I can trust him [Meher Baba], trust that he's not bullshitting', y'know? I'm not quite as devoted or convinced as my parents, but I've felt that feeling toward him - I've felt the Baba love and it's a big thing for me.
Do you, therefore, find it subconsciously transferring into your music?
'It doesn't really I think. It does affect my persona - what I believe in and how I try and live my life, but when I make music it's more to do with being true to the human experience, which for most people has nothing to do with spirituality and has everything to do with your emotions, the little shit that you want and the things that eat at you, all that stuff. The little things. With spirituality you might have moments of existentialism; I have one song that's very existential and I wish I had more because I think that's really cool, but it's not a lot of material when you break it down from a song writing perspective...'
Which song are you citing as being existential?
'Oh, 'Constellations' - very extistential. People say it's a happy song but it's actually really bleak and like 'what the fuck's going on?!' I'm excited for the video, we're gonna shoot for that in August with Terri Timely - brilliant directors, they've got a brilliant concept so I'm really excited to work with them. I think they're gonna go down in history as one of the best directing teams of our times.'
Could you tell me a little more about your recording process then? You do it all yourself you said...
'It's gonna be different now but for the last album I did everything on a really old desktop PC, with those massive towers y'know? I used a lot of cracked software and crack plug-ins, some really old software compared to today. Limitations are really helpful though when you're creating, there's nothing more helpful than limitations as far as, just getting the juices flowing! I just used this one microphone or whatever I had around and it just helped me focus in on the song-writing and arrangements.
Was it an ongoing project? So as to say you were writing and recording as and when...
'Yeah, I would write and record and mix song-by-song. Although a lot of them I would sketch the guitar and vocals and then when I was recording I'd add other things in like the drums or other guitars. Kinda organic I guess.'
...and from that to this! The whole thing seems to have taken you an a great adventure...
Where are you from originally?
'I grew up in Chapel Hill North Carolina...'
Okay, to be honest I'm not entirely sure why I'm asking that - my American geography fails me. I think I know these places exist because films and TV shows tell me they do, but it's good to know these claims can be backed up by a human being!
'Haha! Yeah, well Chapel Hill is 10 hours south from New York City on the East coast. It's a college town. Great place to grow up, pretty warm.'
Do ever miss home, as I guess this adventure keeps you pretty far from it most of the time....
'Erm, no. I feel lonely sometimes but I rarely miss home...
You need a girl! We need to find you a girl...
[looks over to photographer] 'What about Beth? Is she single?'
Nope, she's my..... friend's girlfriend...
[laughs] 'Ah, I thought you were gonna say 'she's my girlfriend' and then hit me or something! Thank-you for that information, I won't, erm, I won't look at her legs anymore!'
You can probably look at her legs, just don't turn into a wolf...
'Okay, I'll look at her legs'
[photographer rendered perplexed by unsubtle glaring]
You were checking your hair earlier, do you spend a lot of time in the morning perfecting your appearance?
'No I don't! It's just that I've been in a couple of situations on tour where, y'know, we've driven all night somewhere and we finally get to where we're going and then immediately I have to do press, and I realise it's important press...
I should've told you this isn't important press...
[laughs] 'It is to me! I'm usually so tired I'm like, whatever, but I look at my hair and think 'what the fuck?!' Y'know, like, that's not the concept! It's not supposed to look like that!'
So what is the concept behind it?
'This is it [points to hair] this is all it is! Sometimes it looks like a shitty-er version of this...'
...and that's not the concept?
...no, that's what I have to avoid. It doesn't take long though, but it doesn't hold all day so I have to check it from time to time.'
It's very distinctive...
'Yeah, I guess you need to have something distinctive as a new act. I'm gonna need to cross over to something less fucked up though, something less crazy. I shaved my head when I was 18 - I started to get some dreds but I'd never done it before and it went wrong so I shaved it all off. Have you ever shaved your head?'
Nope. I have a complexion about my ears, they were always really big when I was growing up so I have these flaps that cover them! I gave up worrying about my hair a while ago though, I occupy my life with enough little worries so I gave up on hair being one of them. There's too much perception placed on hair or clothes or general 'look' these days so I don't really buy into all that. Enough about my extremest views. You're on in an hour, are you looking forward to your set? I think you got a good draw with the stages as the Barn's got a good atmosphere and sound to it...
'Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it now. It should be really good, potential for greatness(!)'
I'll tell my kids one day that 'I was there'(!)
Well thank-you for taking the time to speak with me. I enjoy talking to artists because I always feel like I'm learning something; you hear a lot of different perspectives...
'Cool. Well I don't care about politics, that's not for me. I think the answers are spiritual in nature. That's not to say that there's no purpose to politics and that it can't be a positive thing...'
My view tends to be that politics is a problem created by man...
'At this moment that has a lot of truth to it, yeah, but not to say that it can only be a problem.
Well I don't want to get you bummed out [n.b. first time I've said 'bummed out'] on politics before you go and do a real happy set! We should probably leave it there...
'Cool, I gotta go grab my sweater! Thank-you!'
There is something almost innate in the American penchant of producing good pop music; they are brazen in the art. The sickly-sweet melodies within Darwin's own produce are disarming and playful, and on listening I feel like a stick in the mud for not immediately owning more disco records or even anything remotely as melodic. The mantra here is; 'we're gonna smile, dance, and have fun with our music - if you're not into that, we'll carry on regardless. There's no rain on our parade.' I wish I were as carefree.
Photography by Betty Saunders