During the 2011 Communikey Festival, a few hundred local hipsters packed the obscure and highly under-used Odd Fellows Hall on Pearl Street to see why Dark Dark Dark — a poignant Minneapolis-based indie-pop and chamber-folk group that plays old-world instruments — was playing an electronic music festival.
It turns out the band had been deeply involved with former bassist Todd Chandler’s incredible film Flood Tide, which found the musicians (as part of the artist Swoon’s Swimming Cities of the Serenissima project) building giant rafts out of found materials and living on them for a time as they sailed down the Hudson from Troy to Long Island City. At Odd Fellows, Dark Dark Dark played a live soundtrack to Flood Tide, which songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Marshall LaCount calls “part document of Swimming Cities, part fictional narrative, with a twist of environmental activism.”
According to LaCount, “All of us were involved in the Swoon project on many levels. Different incarnations of that project and community are one of the catalysts for Nona [Invie] and I starting this band, and significantly expanded our experience, our ambitions and our community.”
Dark Dark Dark, which debuted in 2008 with The Snow Magic, has always created exceptionally cinematic music, much of which would not be out of place in Tim Burton’s movies, although thus far the band’s songs have instead surprisingly appeared in the background on Grey’s Anatomy and American Idol. Dark Dark Dark’s original Flood Tide score saw the band growing, or simply discovering, its musical capabilities.
“As far as sound,” LaCount says, “I think we did start expanding our dynamic range and some of the improvisation we were ‘allowing’ ourselves to do in [our] usual live setting, in working on the film. We did it in a very Neil Young Dead Man scoring kind of fashion, at least from our understanding [spontaneously composing music while watching a film with very little dialogue]. Noisier and more textural things carried into our songs a little more quickly from working on accompanying the film.”
Dark Dark Dark’s new album, Who Needs Who, isn’t exactly Neil Young shredding away on Old Black. But its intermittent smidgens of distorted guitar bursts are surely a departure from the deeply intimate, spooky and almost baroque sensibility of 2010’s Wild Go, which singer-pianist Invie nods to on Who Needs Who’s title track.
Invie — whose romantic relationship with LaCount ended just before Who Needs Who was recorded — is most comfortable and powerful conveying her bold poetry with just a piano and her wispy voice, or when also accompanied by slow, buoyant bass and gently brush-stroked drums. NPR correctly described her voice as “flexible, penetrating, shedding both light and shadow on the meaning of her lyrics.” And both are necessary when contemplating lines like “I have the memory of trust / I try to keep it close / I swallow it whole / from the mouth of you.”
LaCount says that he and Invie, who have been close for many years, share a musical upbringing.
“Nona and I basically learned our original instruments — acoustic banjo and accordion — reading Klezmer, wedding and traditional songs from Eastern European countries, and American folk,” LaCount says. “We’d play that stuff on the street or in loud bars. We’ve definitely spent a lot of time redefining and personalizing our sound, but people still hear these influences, for sure. There are also classical influences, punk bands, spoken word projects, really all kinds of influences happening.”
It’s almost impossible to point to another modern musical artist that Dark Dark Dark can aptly be compared to, although Joanna Newsom and others have recently also, as LaCount describes, brilliantly made “classical and world instruments fair game in indie and folk music.” He cites the soundtracks to films like Waking Life and Amelie as partial inspirations for that movement toward progression via antiquity.
LaCount, who told me he has “no idea” how his stormy relationship with Invie has informed Dark Dark Dark’s music, has said that the two made a pact at the beginning of their romance to make the music survive no matter what happened between them. Despite some fairly brutal Invie-penned lyrics on Who Needs Who that touch on the breakup and have been described by her as hurtful but honest, LaCount says the strong friendship within Dark Dark Dark is “one of the reasons we can last.”
“Sometimes we may go eight hours without talking, and then spend two hours laughing our asses off about nothing,” he says. “Somehow we generally know how to create the personal space we need when there is no space at all.”
Dark Dark Dark plays the Hi-Dive on Broadway in Denver 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26. See the Hi-Dive’s website.