Interview | School Of Night
by Tom Johnson
As instrumentalist and producer of indie heavyweights The Antlers, Darby Cicci has made a rather impressive name for himself. In a little over five years the New York-based trio have become known as one of the most respected and interesting bands around. Brave then to suddenly make the switch to home-produced, self-releasing pop star; but that’s exactly what Darby has done and in a couple of weeks he’ll release his debut EP under the name of School Of Night. More open and expansive than his current ‘day-job‘, the EP is a textural and thoroughly enjoyable stroll through playful synths and inventive pop songs. In between recording the new Antlers record, and gearing up for a release of his own, we chatted with Darby about getting his hands dirty again, what we should expect from the EP and his love for Elliott Smith…
Hey Darby, how are you gearing up for the EP release?
I’m super excited. The year so far has been pretty chill. Antlers has been on recording breaks since about the Spring, with a few sporadic trips to various places. I’m really psyched to finish the year out with a lot going on.
How are you feeling about it at this point?
It’s a little different to normal! In the past with The Antlers it’s been a lot more excitement and hype because all the more tedious stuff is being done by other people, but now there’s a interesting balance between being excited and also, because I’m self-releasing, making sure I cover all my ground. Well I’m self-releasing here, Transgressive are handling over there with you, but I’m taking on a way more active role with everything. From the press, to the artwork and the promotion. It’s a little more exhausting and hands-on, but more rewarding overall I think.
How has that hands-on process been?
Yeah it’s much different to just handing over the music and being like ‘my job’s done!’.
No offence meant, but a bit more like a ‘Real-life’ job?
(Laughs) There are similarities. I still wouldn’t call what I’m doing a real life job. The whole thing I’ve been telling myself is nobody is making me do this. I signed up to this! I’m doing a lot more work but I like that. I really like taking on a much more hands-on role with my music, and helping to spread the word. The Antlers has expanded so much in the last few years which is great, but part of that role which we used to take on, from booking our own tours, or making our own posters, is something that I miss. It’s nice to get my hands dirty again!
It’s funny to here you say that. As an outsider you imagine all bands are aiming to get to where The Antlers are right now, but I guess a lot of what makes that whole thing so exciting get’s a bit lost…
Well, I might well be the only one who thinks that way! I’m sure my band doesn’t miss the early days quite so much. I think it’s really important to take an active role with your music. I think people look at a music career as a destination and they don’t really envision it past a certain point. You get to a point where everyone is doing stuff for you. It makes things easier but the danger is that things can really get away from you. The real focus and drive and the goals you have with the music…it’s really important to extend those through to every aspect, from how you promote yourself and how your name and your music gets out there. Sometimes when there are a lot more people involved that message can get a little watered down. So I think it’s important to stay in control of those things.
So when did School Of Night become a real, sustainable thing?
I think right around this time last year. Last fall I was finishing this EP off and working on it a lot. I work on a lot of different styles of music in my free time and maybe it doesn’t have as much to it, but these songs meant a lot more to me. What they were about and what I was going through at the time, I really felt that I needed to make my peace with these songs and put them out there. I was a lot more passionate about these songs than anything else I’ve ever written and I felt that I needed to do everything I could for it and make it as special as I could.
Was there a certain point when it all started to come together?
I wasn’t making it with the intention of putting it out. I figured I’d maybe just give it away for free. I think that the point was that I put so much time and energy in to this that it didn’t feel like something I could casually dismiss. I think that by the time I finished it up I owed it to myself to do this and I didn’t want to let myself down at all.
How would you describe the record and what should people expect from it?
I think of it as futuristic church music, mixed with sugary pop (Laughs)
I really wanted to embrace the synthetic quality of it while trying to make it feel as human as possible. As someone who’s been playing all these visceral, emotional and intense songs for so many years now – and that’s still a huge thing for me – I wanted to lighten up a little bit and play with sounds that felt a bit like…toy sounds. That’s sounds stupid now I say it out loud. There was a lot of sitting down and playing and fitting things in that maybe wouldn’t work with other projects of mine. I also wanted to keep a closeness to it, an almost childhood sense of music.
What’s your favourite track on there?
I think maybe Fire Escape, the track we just put out. Maybe also Vacuum, the last track on the EP. It’s certainly the longest song I’ve ever written. They all have varying senses of how I feel about them. The first song is probably more playful than anything I’ve ever made. Oh, Doctor too. It was originally called Asphalt because originally I wanted it to sound slow and sludgy like pouring asphalt. I kept slowing it down, slower and slower, until it felt like it wasn’t even moving and I really like how that song stretched my own tolerance for what I think is boring or intolerably slow! (Laughs)
How much of the EP is informed by playing with The Antlers? You must have learned a lot, over the last couple of years with the shows you’ve played etc.
It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago but I’ve been playing with The Antlers for the better part of six years now and the last four years with them has been super busy. So I listened to stuff I recorded before that thinking that it wasn’t that different, and then I realised that I didn’t even play synths back then! I was like ‘wait, this is all guitars!’ I think I was more of a weird psych-folk dude back then, I’ve mellowed out a lot since then and taken on a more patient and caring approach to music and that’s really helped me to explore more etheral and atomspheric things.
Which records did you grow up with. Who were your musical heroes when that kind of thing first started to matter?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. When I really got in to music it was through Jazz. I was playing trumpet a lot when I was younger and I didn’t get in to music to write songs, it was just about being a performer. There are so many long lists of great players, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Coltrane again and getting back in to that.
After that…I don’t know. It took me a long time to get in to electronic music. Earlier on I pushed a lot of it away thinking that it wasn’t real enough. I was in to things that felt weirder, or more off the wall. Syd Barrett was a big inspiration for me. Once I got in to Elliott Smith in college it totally changed my view on songs. I always thought of them as being pretentious; poetic, literal stuff and that music alone was somehow a higher form of art, but that brought me back down to feeling like songwriting was such a high art and in a way it became so much more meaningful when I really learned how personal it could be. Then it took me about five years to learn how to write a song – it wasn’t a quick process at all!
I know pretty much every Elliott Smith back-to-back, but XO has always been my favourite. It think it pushed him to work with new ways of arranging and the energy on that record is incredible. I love Either/Or but it does feel comfortable, in a way, and I like hearing him push in to other elements; it’s a really nice contrast. I’ve listened to XO over a thousand times I’m sure, but I always hear new things, especially with the horns and keyboard sounds he used; it was really inventive.
Can we expect some live shows from you?
I don’t expect to do any big tours, just the odd show. I have one in New York next month. I played one already – one whole music show! I opened for my friend Porcelain Raft at Glasslands and that was an exciting night. So after the next show I come to England for a handful of shows. London on Halloween and then I think maybe another two shows. Probably Manchester and Bristol.
How have you found it? It must be somewhat different…
Yeah, it’s totally weird! I haven’t been by myself on stage for a long time! I’ve spent so long trying to work how not to be boring solo performer (Laughs). I think they can be stripped down, soulful simplicity or they can go to the other extreme; dude with a laptop, full production range of sounds, and I didn’t think that suited me. I don’t want a computer around me. Ever. I decided to go with just an analog drum machine, and play some piano and a couple of synths. It’s probably half of what I tour with, with The Antlers, so I consider that simple. Other people are probably like “‘Look at all his gear!“
And what next for you? After the EP and shows…
Well, I’m right in the middle of the next Antlers record, which will hopefully be done by the end of the year and then maybe released in the Spring time…
How is the new Antlers record coming along?
It’s been a pretty slow process. In a good way. We’ve spent a lot of time this year experimenting and just playing A LOT. Playing every day for hours and hours and hours… It’s safe to say that I don’t think any of us have ever been as good as we are right now. It’s interesting though, it’s a bit of a new direction for us. To me it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done in the past. I’ve been playing mostly trumpet I would say, so there’s going to be a lot of horns happening! I hope people are in to that…
Are you going to be doing more School Of Night stuff? It sounds like most of these tracks were written some time ago…
Yeah, I started working on a full-length this year. This EP has been done since March and I started work right away. I don’t quite know where it’s at but I think in the time between Antlers finishing the new record and starting to tour I should have a few months to get in to the studio and get some real foundations down for a full length, that will hopefully be out in the next year or so. I’m also making a little film and scoring it. A little historical documentary…
Can you tell us more?
It’s sort of based on the 1939 Worlds Fair. I’ll leave it at that (Laughs). I have a lot of musical friends involved and I’m trying to expand it in to a much bigger collaboration with a more audio/visual element. I’m really excited. I’m looking forward to telling people more about it next year…
The School Of Night EP is released on October 14th, via Transgressive.