Darkstar’s New Album Gives Voice To Northern England’s Neglected Youth
The British duo’s third album Foam Island is a nuanced portrait of life in the north of England under the rule of a Conservative government.
Stepping off the train in Haringey to meet electronic duo Darkstar, it feels momentarily like I’m not in London anymore. The area is residential, the train platforms uncrowded, the area mostly deserted save for the occasional truck rumbling by. I meet the dubstep-turned-synth-pop duo at a cafe round the corner from where they recorded their third album, in the studio they share with their co-producer Lexxx, and British singer-songwriters Jamie Woon and Gwilym Gold. It’s one of the first chilly days of the year, and both writer/producer James Young and singer/producer Aiden Whalley wear jackets but squint into the cold sun as we speak.
We might be in the U.K.’s capital, but with a freshly pressed vinyl of the duo’s third album Foam Island on the table between us, there’s another place on our minds. As Young explains, the title, Foam Island, came from the desire to make a “quintessentially British record”—to reflect Britishness, he wanted to include not only a reference to an “island,” but to the divisions within that island. Hence, “foam”: a mass of bubbles. “We were talking about the relationships and the differences between London and the rest of the country,” Young explains, “and I do think we were thinking about each bubble of the country and what was specific to that bubble—and Huddersfield is like its own little island.”
The band have been working towards this record, that lives and breathes the northern manufacturing town of Huddersfield, for some time. After emerging in the ‘00s as part of a wave of London-based dubstep producers on underground label Hyperdub, the duo made their creative name in the capital, but are both originally from the north of England. Their 2010 debut album—recorded with vocalist James Buttery—was in fact titled North, and included a cover of the seminal 1970s northern English band Human League, though the band admit that the record was mostly about “London and ex-girlfriends,” with the northern reference more of an aesthetic choice than a statement. To record their 2013 follow-up, News From Nowhere—a turn towards lush, escapist synth-pop—they relocated to the northern English countryside; but they took their title from a utopian socialist text published in 1890, and their surreal lyricism dealt in abstraction more than reality.
“We didn’t want to preach, but we wanted to convey a harsher narrative than we’d ever done before.”—James Young, Darkstar
After that record, vocalist Buttery left the group because, in Whalley’s words, “our ideas just didn’t come together like they did on the previous record.” Darkstar’s founding duo set about returning to “that mix between human and electronic we were pulling on when we first starting making music on Hyperdub.” Buttery’s voice has now been replaced by Whalley’s, whose tone sits high in his register and close in your ear; but more fundamental than their stylistic shift is the change in what they want to say.
Huddersfield is midway between where the pair each grew up—Young in Cheshire, a mostly agricultural county sandwiched between Manchester and Liverpool, and Whalley in the city of Wakefield in Yorkshire, which used to be home to many coal mines—and not too far from the cottage where they locked themselves away to record the pastoral News From Nowhere. But that album, they say now, wasn’t a true picture of the area they were inhabiting—politically, economically, or socially. “We almost missed the point of being there,” Young says. After watching Made In Huddersfield, a 1980s BBC documentary about the city’s relationship with punk focused on the impact of a Sex Pistols show there, Young became fascinated with the way the film’s interviewees’ perspectives intersected with its music, giving a whole new listening experience colored by real voices and experiences.
It was with that in mind that Young and Whalley set about making their third album with an unusual method: by making over 15 trips up to Huddersfield to interview local people. Specifically, young people [pictured throughout this piece]. They started by approaching strangers on the street; soon, they were having dinner in these strangers’ houses, buying and smoking weed with them, and building a small network in the city. This was in early 2015, and with a general election looming, they found that politics was at the forefront of their interviewees’ minds.
Darkstar set about making their third album with an unusual method: by making over 15 trips up to Huddersfield to interview local people. Specifically, young people. This was in early 2015, and with a general election looming, they found that politics was at the forefront of their interviewees’ minds.
“We didn’t want to preach,” says Young. “But we wanted to convey a harsher narrative than we’d ever done before.” The pair found that their artistic process coincidentally aligned with the timeline of the general election, and found themselves writing their final tracks—”Cuts” and “Days Burn Blue”—in the wake of a landslide victory for the right-wing, pro-austerity Conservative party. It was a victory that sprang in part from promises made to the north of the country, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying—the week before he was re-elected—at a rally in Yorkshire: “the only way to secure the future of the north, is by voting Conservative.” He spoke directly to the north-south divide: a perceived split between the generally affluent south and poorer north that has existed roughly since the end of World War I, when the north’s industrial and mining economy began to crumble. This divide persists, and is arguably widening, today: in 2008, men from the north of England were 20% more likely to die under the age of 75 than men from southern counties like Greater London, Cambridgeshire, and Dorset. For every 12 new jobs created in the south of England, just one is created elsewhere in the country. The government spends 500 times the amount on transport in London alone than it does on transport in the entire north-east of the country, a region of over 2.5 million people. The list goes on.
Since Cameron was re-elected in May 2015, in the first majority victory for the right-wing Tories since 1992, this pre-election speech has paled into distant memory. Going against an earlier promise, he has slashed child tax credits—a scheme that tops up the income of the country’s lowest paid families, and is used by more than half of the families in the north-east, statistically the worst paid region in the U.K.—among other cuts to public spending (something Darkstar address on “Cuts,” which lifts audio about the upcoming financial cuts to Huddersfield’s borough from a local government website). Plans to build improved transport connections in the north have been put on indefinite hold. Refugees have been placed disproportionately in the north-east (the market town of Rochdale in Greater Manchester, with a population of under 100,000, will take in twice the amount of refugees as the whole of the south-east of England—which is the most densely populated region of the U.K. at 8.5 million). Two weeks ago, Cameron was even caught on microphone making a cruel joke about how people from the northern county of Yorkshire “hate each other”—a Yorkshire politician responded that people from the county are the “friendliest in the world.” The divide between the north and south of the country has in many ways never felt so clear-cut.
“I feel frustrated by how much of a fad something can become in the press,” says Young, who was conscious of not wanting to superficially capitalize on topical issues. “I’ve found [election coverage] was a phase of certain publications’ shelf life, and I think it’s such an important and impactful decision that [the country has] made and it’s just been forgotten.” More broadly, what drove Darkstar to make this record was seeing “the north not being documented in an accurate way”—Young relates his frustration with the mass media’s characterization of the north being restricted to cliches like “oh, it’s grim up north” and the musical stereotype of “laddy indie bands.” That’s why Foam Island is not simply a protest album about an election—though there are elements of that, with the urgent protest song “Stoke the Fire” demanding on the chorus, speak or hold your tongue—but a nuanced portrait of life in the north, told—crucially—by northern voices. It is radical simply in its highlighting of young, northern, working class perspectives that are largely absent from mainstream media. On the interlude “A Different Kind of Struggle,” a girl named Chantel—one of Darkstar’s interviewees—articulates the distance she and many in her position feel from the representatives in U.K. government: that’s where the young people are having a problem—in that, there doesn’t seem to be anybody current who’s able to understand the issues that we have at the moment. “[She] was literally about to be evicted,” remembers Young. “So she was on some real hard times—she had been suspended from work for disputing a policy that came in.”
With clattering ballad “Through The Motions,” the band also shine a light on how the Conservative government is changing the aspirations of young people in the north by making it harder for them to pursue education and invest in property. Do you know when you go, oh, ‘I’m going to go to uni, get a job I like, buy a house, meet a boy, settle down, says a female voice. Well, I wish I could have followed that. But I haven’t. “My parents did that, Aiden’s parents did that,” says Young, referring to buying a house and settling down. “But that’s gonna be taken away from people. It’s harder now to get on a mortgage scheme...I think with some of the welfare cuts and the plans the Conservatives have, you’ll see people having to adapt their ambition.”
Another interviewee who had a big impact on the duo was 31-year-old Dominic Mills, who in his teens went to prison, but has since worked with charities like The Prince’s Trust to help other young people find the opportunities that can change their lives for the better. “He’s an interesting dude, ‘cos he’s got so much weight behind him in the community but he feels restrained by it too,” says Young. “Like, he could probably go on and do other things, but he’s just too loyal to where he’s grown up and the issues that that community has. I respected him because it’s obvious he could go on [to other places], but he felt so connected to his roots that it wasn’t an option.”
Since David Cameron was re-elected in May 2015, his pre-election speech has paled into distant memory. Going against an earlier promise, he has slashed child tax credits—a scheme that tops up the income of the country’s lowest paid families, and is used by more than half of the families in the north-east—among other cuts to public spending.
“It was important for us to try and acknowledge how positive it can be to stick with the people you grew up with. I sometimes look back and think ‘what if.’”—James Young, Darkstar
Mills’ story encapsulates the shades of grey to Darkstar’s record. The band have played with ideas of utopia and dystopia constantly in their work—News from Nowhere was a dystopian record named after a utopian text, while recent mix “Kirkless Arcadia” matched the name of Huddersfield’s local borough (Kirklees) with a word literally meaning “utopia.” With the grim satire of their “Pin Secure” video (below) echoing British TV drama Black Mirror, and with a general metallic, industrial sheen hanging heavy on their new songs, Darkstar’s Foam Island could be taken at a glance as a dystopian work. But in truth, it’s not a wholly bleak picture. The pair credit their classic Roland Juno-60 synth, as well as their love of sci-fi movies, experimental German band Cluster, and London electronic auteur Actress, for that queasy, dark feeling, but Young argues that dystopia is simply an aesthetic they “gravitate toward,” rather than a design. In fact, there’s optimism peppered throughout the record: there’s kindness in us all, Whalley states blankly mid-verse on the glitchy title song, echoing the opening track “Basic Things,” where an interviewee named Tilly says loyalty, and kindness on a loop over softly rising chords. “It would’ve been quite easy to make this record a lot darker,” admits Young. But alongside Foam Island’s disarming truthfulness, there’s light: see the laughter on “Inherent In The Fibre,” the glistening, bouncy synth melodies on “Go Natural,” and the gentle pop hooks at every turn. The pair strike a balance between recognizing struggle, but also the joy of tight-knit community.
“We tried to pose positive questions towards people, to not go down a particular ‘oh, my life’s shit ‘cos it’s shit round here’ route,” explains Young. “There’s one part with a kid called Javan [on the track “Javan’s Call”] who talked about seeing the future in his community and being able to grasp that. I think it was important for us to try and acknowledge...how positive it can be to stick with the people you grew up with. I sometimes look back and think ‘what if.’”
When Darkstar was growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, finding positive assertions of northern English identity was much easier in British music. Back in the days before 60% of artists in the U.K.’s Top 10 chart had been privately educated (shown in a 2010 survey), acts like Sheffield’s working class warriors Pulp and Manchester’s Brit-Pop pioneers Oasis dominated the conversation. (Even boundary-pushing electronic label Warp was established in Sheffield.) “There’s dinner ladies [school cafeteria workers] that can recite [Pulp] lyrics, and I really admired that,” Young remembers fondly. Things are different now. As shown in a 2013 report, the government spends £69 a head on culture in London in comparison to £4.50 a head elsewhere. The city’s economic gap with the rest of the country creates a cultural one: now, there are few emerging artists from the north of England, let alone chart-topping stars. “London has moved so quickly now in cultural terms that it’s hard to really galvanize a body of work to compete with successful people if you’re not directly in that mix,” says Young. “It is tricky to find something that I’m into in the U.K. that isn’t from London. I don’t know how I feel about that.”
Young and Whalley originally moved to London for university, and as musicians found it necessary to stay there—but the passion they still feel for home seeps through this album. Whalley feels “a sense of pride of being from a good place, and having friends and family there that you’re completely content with.” He adds, firmly: “It is an optimistic place.” As much as Foam Island is a unflinchingly real look into the reality of the north under Conservative rule, it’s also a love letter home. “I like what it’s like in the pubs there,” says Young. “[They] aren’t painted black, they don’t have coffee machines, they’re still proper pubs. My mates still go and play pool. Sometimes it’s nice not to be inundated with choice like we are [in London].” He describes his time in Huddersfield in the summer—”chilling with all these kids and going round the houses, eating with them and going out with them”—as a kind of “holiday.”
Of all the touching passages on Foam Island, its balance between realism and optimism is best encapsulated by an interviewee called Daryl at the end of the string-infused, downbeat “Inherent in the Fibre.” Broadly accented, Daryl refers to his “strip,” a street called Ruskin Grove, as the Gaza, referencing all the trouble that goes down there (so much that, Daryl says, police attempted to install a surveillance camera). But for now, he says, with an audible grin on his face, things are peaceful: enjoying the sun; drinking some brandy with you.