James Young talks 'Foam Island'

"It's harder than you think trying to get people on board to talk about their life for a weirdo pop group with 4k followers trust me", Darkstar tweeted yesterday. On their third album, and second on Warp, James Young and Aiden Whalley have opted for a bold new approach. Its title, 'Foam Island' alludes to the divisions within the British Isles - its distinct 'bubbles' which then become 'foam' - but the LP was born out of a desire to represent Huddersfield, their hometown, in a genuine and truthful light.

It's a very different beast from their 2008 outings on Hyperdub. There's bright pop songs, for a start, with Whalley's heavily processed vocals that hark back to the days of 'Aidy's Girl's a Computer'. But the pair have also collated the voices of young locals in North Yorkshire - from ex-prisoner and charity worker Dominic to 17 year-old Tilly who's training to be a hairdresser. 'Cuts' lifts its audio from a local government website explaining financial cutbacks, while public safety announcements on 'A Different Kind of Struggle' are sat next to a girl's concerns about politics that "if I do start thinking about it I get worried". The result is cinematic, but vital: you get a sense of the inhabitants' reality, but overwhelming optimism in a place that's been hit hard by austerity.

We dialled up James in between live show rehearsals to find out a bit more about the workings of the project, its socio-political message, and the unexpected outcome of the whole thing.

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You were initially inspired to make this album after recognising certain shifts in the atmosphere in Huddersfield during trips to see your family. Can you pinpoint what some of those things were?
We spent 18 months in West Yorkshire making our last record, and we felt that there was more to say, we thought we were only scratching the surface. So we met a group of people from various backgrounds and wanted to explore their lives, really. For them to let us in and talk about various things, from who their friends were, girlfriends, boyfriends, what their family life was like, what kind of thing they got up to on a daily basis and where they worked, or studied. After that you started to get a collage of consciousness and a sense of their life. And I think that's what we wanted to portray first and foremost - less the political angle and more so an abstract portrait of what political decisions do to these people.

When you approached the interviewees on the street, were some of them initially guarded or were they happy to chat?
Initially it was very difficult. First of all you're talking to kids who don't know who Darkstar are. The majority of them didn't. Secondly, Warp is a different beast now in the North, and the independent music scene in a town like Huddersfield is limited, to say the least. So Warp didn't hold much weight when you were approaching people, whereas in a bigger city like Manchester or London, you'd probably find a fair few people that would gravitate towards it. So it was really just trying to get people on side, because you were trying to make a genuine project that was basically about Huddersfield today.

It was really difficult but over time, three or four trips, we started to get a group of people and revisited them. They'd talk to their friends about you and you'd go and talk to their friends and family. By the end we became friends with everyone. It was an amazing experience, to tell you the truth. It became a necessity for us to deliver it properly, because if there's any type of cynical viewpoint on this I wouldn't want it to reflect on these people that have been so kind and gracious to allow us in. I'm pretty sure they're all pleased with the outcome though.

Have they all heard it?
Yeah, I'm in daily contact with most of them now. I'm helping a few of them with a few things they've got going on up there. I'm involved with a charity called Global Diversity now, based in Huddersfield. We're doing an all-ages gig there on Friday night, the album launch day - we're going up there and putting on a panel, bringing people from Warp and management up. There's a lot of kids in Global Diversity that are making music and we're gonna try and show how best to get their music out and about. Then we're gonna perform live. We just want to carry on that relationship. We're really happy with it.

You had no idea, before you did the project, that you'd walk away with these long lasting relationships?
No I didn't actually. I thought I'd either encounter people that would give me ten minutes and that'd be that, or we'd just go our separate ways. I didn't envisage this at all. It's been great. Depending on how the record goes and how it's received and budgets and that, it would be nice to do something else to do with the record that can involve everyone properly - an occasion. But we're still exploring that at the moment.

The day after the Pig-Gate allegations seems an appropriate time to talk to you as the video for 'Pin Secure' is pretty Black Mirror-like... What did you make of the news?
You know what, it was baffling to the point of... It's just unbelievable, isn't it, that that guy is Prime Minister. I find the whole thing quite distressing - that people of that ilk can get into those positions now. And have been doing for generations. It's a boys club and it's a pretty disgusting one at that.

Aside from the Black Mirror comparisons and people gaining a sense of satisfaction from what happened yesterday, I think it's just a bit sad that they've been able to get into those positions and take responsibility for a nation, to be honest. I think it's disgusting. I think he's a disgusting man.

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It makes you wonder what else is gonna see the light.
I was reading about The Bullingdon Club, how they all buy expensive tuxedos, go to restaurants and smash the place up then send them the bill the next day.

Or light a £50 note in front of a homeless person...
All that stuff wouldn't surprise me. It's absurd. And the more that comes out, the more I feel like anything else could really be brought to light now. Nothing would really surprise me. They're just abhorrent people, I think. It's good that it's come out, though, because the more light that's shone upon these exclusive circles, people will start to realise that it really is just jobs for the boys.

On the album Chantel talks about how young people are disillusioned with politics. 'Foam Island' was finished just before the general election, so what do you make of Corbyn, who's arguably got young people more engaged than ever?
I definitely agree with that. It's the simple fact that he's actually answering questions honestly and isn't scared to say that he doesn't know. I think whether you like him or not, I think he's a timely reminder of what party politics should be, rather than a personality. I thought the last election was absurd for a couple of reasons, mainly because Labour allowed the Tories to manipulate the public to the extent of getting working class voters on side, and then secondly the Tories were able to use UKIP as a Trojan horse to probe the more extreme policies. I think Corbyn's a difficult force to contain. He sounds different, it's as basic as that I think. He tackles questions head on, he's quite inspiring.

I guess another part of that is how influential the right wing press was in the election. As an artist, do you feel there's a responsibility to make a statement through your music?
I wouldn't feel comfortable saying what other artists should do. I'm not sure really. For us it was more being around West Yorkshire. We felt there was something being missed in the documentation of that time and place. It's as simple as that really. But as far as other artists go I can't really comment on that really.

I was reading that great interview with you in The Fader, and one thing that stuck out was how the government spends £69 a head on culture in London whereas it's £4.50 everywhere else.
It's amazing, isn't it.

Do you notice the lack of cultural funding in Huddersfield?
Yeah, there is a music festival that they have a budget for every year... that's been slashed now. I actually went for a meeting with Kirklees council - they've cut the funding so dramatically that they actually don't have roles as of next year. It's a bizarre thing that's going on up there. And after all the cuts the Tories implement I think you'll see quite a brutal reaction from various parts of the public. I don't know what. I think the Conservatives are underestimating how desperate people get when you put them on the breadline, you know. There's a weird case in Huddersfield where bin men have been confronted... I think one got attacked as well - because certain people think they're the most public face of the government. So I think they're closer to what's coming than most of the UK.

The North and the Northeast especially are in quite desperate times. Someone told me the other day, that by 2017 there won't be a public library open in Liverpool. I imagine that type of thing will happen earlier in Huddersfield (the day after the interview, there's news of two Kirklees libraries closing). It's pretty grim. I mean, it's a beautiful place but what's going on up there in terms of austerity is fairly severe. I don't think anyone knows just how severe yet. And I don't think they will until they get to that point. But I think there will be a real harsh reaction once all the cuts are implemented, the welfare cuts especially.

I scanned the news this morning and there was an article today about how 347 more council houses in Kirklees will be lost if the Right to Buy scheme is extended.
It's quite upsetting isn't it, that people that take that help for granted now don't have it. And probably not an alternative either, I think they're discounted. I think the Conservatives have a notion of being too suspicious, when many people rely on it.

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In quite a few places I've seen 'Foam Island' described as "moody", whereas I get an overwhelming sense of optimism through its melodies. I don't know if you'd agree?
No, I completely agree. We really tried to encapsulate a sense of optimism. It would have been easy to do a cliché portrait of the North but we really wanted to display the sense of pride in the community and somehow try and translate that to some of the tracks. Some of our most accessible work to date ever is on the record, too. Conventional pop songs, to be honest.

I gather you got given a modular synth by Lexx which was used to create a lot of the sounds you hear throughout?
He's got a modular synth and all sorts of great equipment. He co-produced the record with us. We had lots and lots of fun experimenting with sounds and bleeps and percussion. We're usually pretty expansive when it comes to the studio - we don't like to limit ourselves with the prospect of trying to translate it live. We just wanna have fun. But that being said, I think it is a more minimal record than the last one. It's probably a bit more concise. The older you get, the more definite you get with your decisions, in the studio. 'Cos time's limited anyway, it costs so much money.

Was there a battle between wanting to make something that people could relax to and enjoy musically, and really stand up and take note of politically?
Yeah, I think lyrically especially, because something like 'Stoke The Fire', I think because it's such an upbeat - I suppose, happy - tune, that it's difficult to keep the message on track. Certain tracks like that posed problems. Because you don't wanna go overtly joyous but you also don't wanna be sucked into a darker mood. I think there's a line we've walked lyrically that cradles both worlds, to an extent. And I suppose that's the conflict you're referring to. There was a lot of rewriting, re-recording. We had to go back into the studio quite a lot until we felt comfortable with the mood and narrative.

On 'Days Burn Blue' I got an almost militaristic, marching band vibe with the drumming. Was that intentional?
It was weird with that one - our A&R summed it up exactly the same as you, but that wasn't the last track for a while, and then when we started sequencing the record it became the final thing, it did feel like.. I don't know... not like conflict, but it felt like there was a resistance rather than the record petering out. An element of aggression. So I think we wanted to close it on a more aggressive note than the rest of the album - like you said, the beat is quite like a marching band of some sort.

You've said you wanted this to be a "quintessentially British record". Did that extend to you only listening to UK sounds while creating it?
When we're making records I tend to try and limit myself to listening to British artists. I don't know why. I think you have got to be in a particular head-space when writing lyrics, to be inspired by something. So I always revisit records that had an impact on me, I think. We always try and aim to make sure it sounds like a British record. I don't know why, because when I'm not writing, and DJing, I listen to so much music from all around the world.

Finally I was wondering about what you wanted for the outcome of the record. Did you see it as a call to action, or to instil hope in people?
I'd like the people that contributed to the record to be proud and happy with it, most importantly. And to feel like it is them that came across on the record. The next music videos are all of the people involved. It's tricky releasing music these days because it changes so dramatically from the last time, so you don't know how quite to gauge if it's gonna do well or not. But on a personal note it'd be nice to do some decent shows and get a few of the things around the project up and running back in Huddersfield and for those people to feel really comfortable.

A few of the people we spoke to up there were musicians, just kids though, and they were really interested in our project. I think if we can somehow help with the process for them, then that'd be good for us. I dunno if that's me giving you an answer for interview but I don't know what to expect from the music industry, personally. It's changing hugely. I don't think we can take much for granted, to be honest. What do you think?

Personally I think it's something that can't really fail to grab you - as soon as you hear those real people speaking... You can't really not take something away from it.
I don't know. I'm worried about putting certain things in. It could've come across as a little bit opportunistic maybe, but I think we've done it from a very genuine place. D'you know what I mean?

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Warp release 'Foam Island' on October 2nd.

Words: Felicity Martin

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