How a line-up change, a new studio and a refreshed writing process revolutionised the sound and dynamic of Monkeytown's bass-rooted duo
Two and a half years have passed since Dark Sky last presented the world with a body of work. For most of us, it only feels like yesterday. To the band members Matt Benyayer and Tom Edwards, so much has changed that it probably feels like a lot longer.
Back when they released their first album Imagin, Dark Sky were still a trio, largely working out of their respective bedroom studios. The pinnacle of a four-year adventure exploring myriad genres from garage to techno, and working with highly respected labels such as Black Acre and Tectonic as well as their natural home, Modeselektor's Monkeytown, Imagin remains a remarkable debut. And it left us under no illusion as to what Dark Sky were capable of... or where they were heading.
Yet they still felt they hadn't reached that destination. So, after 18 months of touring the first album, they completely changed everything about what they do and how they do it, in order to get closer to what Dark Sky can truly be.
Some of it was circumstantial: third member Carlo departing to chase new ambitions, and the success of Imagin enabling them to finally afford a professional studio space, were both hugely influential, process-changing events for Matt and Tom. Other aspects in their creative refreshment quest were completely conscious, such as their stripped-back focus on naked instrumentals with no collaborators or vocalists. But the real switch was conceptual: for their second body of work, Matt and Tom used photographs and nature as their main sources of inspiration, narrative and, in the case of many the field recordings they made around the world, textures and tones.
Cue Othona, an album that takes its name and inspiration from an Essex outpost in Bradwell-On-Sea where a lonely, rickety field tower maintains its dutiful lookout - long past retirement age - over the coast and local community. Enticed by the image and energised by their repeated trips to the location, the album and a whole new way of working began to take shape.
Images, memories and field recordings of trips gone by added more layers to the collage, from old Cold War spy towers in Berlin to bustling Marrakech bazaars. Yet the collage remains refined and succinct. Only nine tracks and 50 minutes long, Othona is a head-turning, sense-blurring trip that sucks you in from start to finish with clear textural themes, sounds and ideas carried throughout. In fact this succinct tone and sense of momentum is so fine-tuned and considered, they eventually ditched the original track that started this whole new mindset.
Flipping any clichéd connotations of second album difficulty on their head, Dark Sky's sophomore long-player is a story of a complete creative revolution. Here's how they got there...
And then there were two...
Tom: "Yeah, Carlo left over a year ago. We're still great friends, he just felt like it was time to do something else. As we started to work on the second album, it felt like the right thing to do."
Starting in Bradwell-On-Sea seems like the right place to start talking about the album...
Matt: "That came about through Tom bringing a collection of photos to the studio at the start of the process. We wanted to try out new ideas and approaches for writing and taking inspiration from images. One really stood out. We kept getting drawn to it - it was the field tower that we named the final track of the album from. We knew we had to actually visit this place and find out more. From there we unravelled more about the location."
Tom: "My dad lives near there, so I'd been there a few times, but we both started going down and getting more inspired."
Matt: "We also brought our artist down to there to get inspired and explore. A big part of doing this was trying a new approach - the first album was written off instinct, groove and muscle memory, and we really didn't want to go through that process again."
This was a complete creative transformation, then?
Matt: "Totally. Plus the new dedicated studio allowed us the space to really get into the process, turn on the machines, try new things, jam and experiment."
I'm assuming some serious kit is being used here...
Tom: "We've picked things up over the years. The collection has been very natural. Coming from a software background and starting with nothing, we've identified different things we know would fit our style or sound or the way we work. So we run things like the Dave Smith Mopho and the Elektron Analogue Keys, and enjoy extended periods of time not looking at laptop screens at all. Everything runs off off clock devices and through an iPad to sequence things. There's a step sequencer app called Xynthesizr which has helped us jam more, develop and randomise things so they evolve more organically and how we reflect influences like nature in the music."
Where else in nature did you explore for inspiration?
Tom: "One place in particular was Teufelsberg in Berlin. It's a manmade mountain with these crazy structures, and was used as a field station during the Cold War. It's a fascinating place. Matt also went to Marrakech and recorded musicians jamming in market places and field recordings."
Matt: "We also took a lot of field recordings around the area surrounding this studio. Bringing the recordings back into the studio and manipulating them into something we might use. It really brings life to the tracks."
Tom: "It's amazing what it does without the listener realising – it can really open up your mind and imagination. It's only when you take them out you realise what space they were filling."
We've got a sense of space. How about a sense of time? The backdrop of last year wasn't a pretty one. Was the political climate a factor in your process?
Matt: "I've not considered this, so if there was any influence it would have been subliminally, and hopefully the negativity is channelled into something positive. But great music has come off terrible situations in the past. Look at Thatcher and punk music. Conservatism gave rise to an incredible force in creativity. We are already seeing this again. From a personal perspective, music has given us sanctuary: when we're in the studio, we're shut away from everything, both good and bad."
There's a lot more consistency to Othona than Imagin. Do you mind me saying that?
Matt: "Not at all... that's what we wanted! Imagin was quite a naïve album in many respects. We were young - maybe too young - trying out old ideas but not quite as effectively as we could do now. Othona feels like it should be our first album in many ways."
Was the fact it's an entirely instrumental album a conscious decision?
Tom: "Very much so. It was about going back to the roots of what we were doing when we started. So it was part of going to back to basics and trying to nail the instrumental side, and also getting to know our own working process. We haven't ruled out vocals in the future and would love to work with songwriters, but in a much more collaborative way, writing together in the same room."
Communication seems to be key theme here...
Tom: "There really was so much more communication during this whole project. Just between the two of us in the studio. We were very disconnected during the first one, working in our own studios, only getting together to finish things off. So having the studio space was important for that reason. But also simply in the fact it meant we could leave our gear set up how we want it. This was a massive influence in terms of the consistency on the album. It helped us create that coherent, flowing feeling. We even dropped a track to keep that flow as dynamic as possible. It was hard to let that go because we'd based the album around the track."
A bit like working with a sample, when you build a loop up around it and eventually the sample no longer works and you have a completely different track
Matt: "That's exactly it. Without that track, you wouldn't have the album. For a while we got attached to it, working so intensely on the album for two years - it's very hard to let go of it. But if you want to develop as an artist, it's something you have to do."
What's it called? And will it enjoy a life of its own eventually?
Tom: "It's currently called The Follow. We may release it under another a name that's more based around that sound. We'll see."
The radio shows are a key part of what you do. You seem really driven about joining the dots and highlighting the wider context of your musical make-up.
Matt: "Definitely. We're huge music lovers and, hopefully like most people, have a thirst for such a wider world of music. It's important to help spread that and help highlight it to other people. The NTS show has been a really interesting exercise in doing this creatively, as have our recent Spotify playlists. There's only so much you can express in a DJ set, so anything like playlists or our radio show helps to paint a much bigger picture musically."
On the flipside, how about the live shows?
Tom: "We're working on a whole new show now. The idea is to really get to know 10 tracks inside out, then strip the set back to seven tracks and work on completely stretching them and developing them so what you see and hear live is an entirely different experience than what you hear on the record."
Sounds like there can be some cool improvisation there?
Tom: "That's the dream. Obviously there are limitations, as there are only two of us. We used a live drum kit in the last shows, but we've swapped that for two drum machines and more modular patches. It's all hardware with no laptop. We want it to be like a DJ set and kept on a continuous groove. Once we've really got to know the tracks and understand who's pressing what and when, then we'll be improvising as much as possible. There's a bit of development needed before that, though..."
There's this constant sense of development since your first single. Every release has shown a different side to what you do, from UK garage to deep techno. Is Othona the sound of you finding what Dark Sky truly is? Or is it the never-ending mission itself that drives you?
Matt: "We've definitely become a lot more comfortable with what Dark Sky is and who we are. We're hearing signatures and traits that appear naturally in our music and it's a case of trying to reference them in different ways in other tracks. We used to come up with a nice idea before, then once it was done we'd move on and disregard what we'd done. Now we're a lot more conscious of what we've done and how we can bring the best elements together."
Tom: "We are constantly developing, though. Hopefully we always will. So in that sense the mission is never-ending."
Now you've completely reformed your creative approach on Othona, will that same process be in place for album number three?
Matt: "I'm not sure. Maybe not! This process was the context for this album, and it was especially important because of the album's instrumental nature. It was the consistency and theme."
Tom: "We've taken a lot from this process, and that will always be part of what we do now. But I have no doubt we'll find new ways to find inspiration from other sources and energies out there..."
Words: Dave Jenkins
Othona is out on Monkeytown Records on 7 April