Dave Harrington :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Dave Harrington is a modern-day guitar hero in an era that increasingly does not seem to care about such figures. His credits should be legendary, but as it stands, he plays weekly gigs in New York City and carries an unassuming personality. His latest record, Pure Imagination, No Country, should change that, but it probably won’t. Anything outside of another Darkside collaboration with Nico Jaar is unlikely to move the needle, but Harrington’s okay with that. He’s just happy that anyone is giving his freewheeling blend of modern electronic music with experimental jazz a chance.

Pure Imagination is noisy, but gorgeously so. It’s an album arranged around the jazz guitar, Harrington’s weapon of choice that leans on the wide-swathing color palette of Samer Ghadry’s drum work and the broken buzzing keyboard work of Andrew Fox. An additional four players round out the group, sharpening the album’s teeth without ever allowing it to bite too hard. As Harrington and I discuss, it’s a tightrope walk between free-improvisation and prevailing ideas, a balance Harrington began studying on 2016’s Become Alive and has mastered here.

The album’s strongest moments arrive in its final ten minutes, on the back of its penultimate and final tracks, each of which take half of the title’s name for their own. “No Country” is dark and angry, a mirror of our time without explicitly labeling itself as such. It grinds and pulses out of the darkness, with shards of light that pierce more than illuminate. It’s nearly unnerving, a poison that would leave us sour if not for the tonic of “Pure Imagination.” The latter is the best thing Harrington’s ever penned, a stirring and cathartic play on the famous melody. How often do pedal steel parts appear in modern jazz music? Not enough, is Harrington’s answer. His guitar peaks with delicate distortion, deliberate yet never dragging. It’s the least busy track on the record, just Harrington’s guitar, his pedal steel, and a few electronic touches. It falls to silence, and the record is over.

The album begins in such fury and concludes in such contemplation, its two bookends feel like opposite worlds. Pure Imagination, No Country, is a breathtaking ride in that way. Dave Harrington’s the conductor, but the album’s beauty lies in Harrington’s willingness to let the direction dictate itself.

Aquarium Drunkard: Have you always lived in New York?

Dave Harrington: [Laughs] Like a caveperson. I left for college for a few years. In college I was living outside of the city. But aside from that I’ve always lived here

AD: How has the jazz scene evolved since you started playing after college?

Dave Harrington: I don’t want to speak towards any generalized statements about the scene — as my experience since moving back to the city, especially after Darkside went on hiatus — I’ve really become a part of scenes in which improvisational music is the overlap between these different worlds. These are different communities that are sometimes connected and sometimes not. I feel like my experience has been very positive and one of constantly meeting new people and developing musical friendships. I don’t know if I can speak about the global concerns of New York jazz, but I feel super lucky and honored to play with the people I do and that there’s such a good community of people who are open. These are people I grew up with and also people I used to go see when I was in high school. I’m getting to play with some of those people now which is a real honor.

AD: Is part of the reason Darkside went on hiatus to pursue this project in particular?

Dave Harrington: We had always had the idea that we would do it and then we would shut it down. Nico and I both have our own identities and ideas. These concerns existed before the band and were obviously going to exist after. When Darkside was finishing its last bit of touring, I remember I had a conversation with Nick Gould who was our lighting designer. He was like, ‘When you get back to New York, make sure you have something planned.’ I was like, Oh, what a great idea!’ I started booking solo guitar gigs. I started developing solo music, playing on Mondays at Nublu. I got more involved with the community at that club. All of this grew out of the idea that I was back in New York and I needed to throw myself into stuff. I’m not gonna wait around.

Jazz and left-of-jazz traditions are where my biggest inspirations lie.

AD: Did that playing lead to Become Alive?

Dave Harrington: Very much so. A lot of that record was recorded during the Darkside time. I didn’t finish all of that music and complete it as a piece until I was back in New York. The people on the record were people I was playing with a lot, and that was the start of me really leading a band. I hadn’t led a group playing my own music in a while. That was all baked into the various things I was trying out. That whole endeavor has only gotten larger and more complicated as the years have gone on.

AD: Pure Imagination, No Country sounds more like a band performance than Become Alive does. Was that intentional?

Dave Harrington: Totally. All of the major recordings for this one happened as I started figuring out how to play Become Alive, while preparing it for shows. It was a project of condescending the sprawling material of Become Alive into something four or five musicians could do. We would use that as raw material to create new improvisations. That was the feeling that I came into the studio with. Some of the new album was even recorded while we were on tour for the last record. It’s an evolution of a band touring, a band playing. There are some guests, but the core rhythm section of [Andew] Fox and [Samer] Ghadry is on everything. Our interplay was what I really wanted to capture on this record.

AD: Is the record being more intentional a decent way of putting it?

Dave Harrington: In a way. All of the recordings that made up this record were because of the excitement I was feeling with my band playing together, the new territory we were coming up with as a group. Making this record came after touring a year in Darkside and a few years playing guitar in New York, plus a year touring on and off my last record. For this one, I had a more specific idea of how I wanted to use the guitar. The guitar is more of a voice here than it was on the previous record. It feels like a centerpiece of how the album was constructed.

AD: The album sounds less texture-based, too. It’s more instrument based.

Dave Harrington: That’s spot-on. Especially in the way that everything was recorded and treated. Using the studio is still something I’m super interested in. It’s not all about presenting a document. I like the feeling and touch of the studio. I mixed it with Phil Weinrobe who’s a major collaborator of mine now. His own thumbprint is in there.

AD: Who are some guitar players that served as points of inspiration for how you wanted to approach the guitar on Pure Imagination?

Dave Harrington: Jazz and left-of-jazz traditions are where my biggest inspirations lie. I go through phases of digging really deep into a particular guitarist, internalizing it, and then the influence they have on me is the memory of the experience of learning what they were all about. That sounds convoluted, but that’s the way I work. I rarely sit down and learn other guitar players’ licks. But I do spend a lot of time listening and thinking. When I go down to practice or play, those things come out. Around the time of recording this, I was really into John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, that generation of guitarists. Then the occasional Jerry, of course [laughs]. Then there’s a whole other list of guitarists because of the way they use electronics, like Arto Lindsay. I don’t think I sound like Arto, but he changed the way I think about guitar.

AD: Let’s talk about the Dead a little bit. In what way does that spirit pervades your music?

Dave Harrington: I don’t know if I could pin that down or say. I don’t know if there’s a straight line to draw, either. I still go back to that music, though. It’s still something I enjoy listening to, learn, and play along to. It’s one of the things that has leaked into my subconscious. When you do enough improvising, things just happen that I don’t necessarily intend. Sometimes those vibes come through of their own accord.

AD: When I read “No Country” in the title it makes me think about the state of our nation right now. Is that something you wanted to suggest?

Dave Harrington: I like that there’s room for interpretation. With the title I liked proposing the idea that improvisation and instrumental music can create a place for the mind to go that is untethered. It doesn’t require borders and is infinite. That’s where it comes from to me.

AD: I love the juxtaposition of the last two tracks. “No Country” is dark and brooding, and “Pure Imagination” is gorgeous. It’s a nice counterpoint. Was that intentional? Having those two final tracks acting as the different tentpoles?

Dave Harrington: Very much so. “Pure Imagination” is a piece I’ve been working on for years and years and that I’ve played a billion times. I felt like I finally caught a version of it on tape that spoke to me. I wanted it to be part of this batch of music. “No Country” just emerged from these recording and mixing sessions. To me, they were very much in conversation with one another as representing poles.

AD: Does most of your writing process come in the recording sessions? Or do you come to these sessions with songs already sketched out?

Dave Harrington: There are a few different strategies in play on this record. There’s always an element of improvisation at every stage. Some of these songs were written collaboratively while we were on tour, some of the songs came out of larger improvisations, some things were brought in by me and worked up together with the band. Working with a certain set of conceptual ideas and aesthetic restraints with a consistent group of musicians with a developed language is the most important scaffolding. Then the different strategies take place at different points in the project. The looseness that an improvisational approach can have on every step is important, too. Even when we got to mixing. There were things that happened that were deeply experimental. These things were surprising and transformative. It was super inspiring. That’s my baseline.

AD: The looseness is key because the record is very free-sounding, but it still sounds like a band recording an album and not a take of a live improvisatory show. It’s a tightrope walk.

Dave Harrington: That’s the mission. I love the things that work in the studio can do. I’m always interested in that. Sometimes the improvisation is the thing that you’re trying to amplify or present in some ways, and other times the improvisation will present itself as raw material that needs to go on its own journey before it gets really compelling

AD: Is everything you’re working on now all under the Dave Harrington Group moniker? Is that how you’ll be releasing music in the future?

Dave Harrington: That’s the intention with what I’m doing. I’ve had discussions with my collaborators—some concepts and constraints—and it all seems like DHG. It could always turn into something else, but for now that’s the plan.

AD: Is there anything you hope people take away when listening to this record.

Dave Harrington: I would just be really thankful if people spent time listening to it in the first place. For me, that’s enough. I’m flattered and honored that anyone is interested or curious enough to drop the needle or put on their headphones. Buy the ticket, take the ride. I’ll be happy

AD: Is there a theme or story that organizes the record in your mind?

Dave Harrington: I don’t want to give people too much [laughs]. I don’t want to ruin it for the people who take the time to listen to it. The idea of being able to have the experience of walking around listening to this music untethered is what I hope for. words / w schube