The album, Darko’s is more than a simple club record; instead, it tells a multifaceted story of finding moments of light in the darkness, and friendships that help bring visions to life. Not to mention, it’s an act of exploration for the burgeoning producer, in which we see him travelling to the free-form bass realm in works like “Love100” and “Euclidean Dreams,” visiting the dark side on sought after set weapon “Descending,” and playing around with deep and classic house formats on the Nala-assisted “Red,” “Oohs and Arps,” and of course “How Many Times”—a collaboration with label boss VonStroke himself. It comes just at a time when DIRTYBIRD turns a page in its own history, back to the dynamic curation it became known for in its earlier days but with an even more exploratory touch.
‘Midnight Swim’ is yet another milestone on Steve’s journey, which to date has included releases on Box of Cats, Audiophile XXL, and Justin Jay’s HotBOI. Not to mention, through it all Steve has maintained a busy work life as a software developer at iZotope—where he gives back to the dance music community by helping craft new and innovative plugins.
We sat down with Steve to chat more about the ‘Midnight Swim’ story, his work at iZotope, and the next steps in his artistic journey; his responses are nothing short of illuminating.
>Hey Steve, pleasure to have you on. Diving headfirst into ‘Midnight Swim’; what is this LP’s significance to you as an artist? Ie, a marker of sonic evolution, a longtime goal you’ve had as an artist, etc
The pleasure’s all mine, thanks for having me! For me, Midnight Swim is really a means for me to venture outside of my standard realm of operation creatively – to explore some new styles, but continue to refine my typical sound. I wanted to have the album take its listeners on a bit of a journey as opposed to just spitting out fourteen big club records. This has absolutely been a longtime goal of mine and I thoroughly enjoyed working on a larger scale project. Can’t wait to do another one.
>The album is all over the map genre-wise and one thing we’ve noticed is that it’s pretty “out-of-the-box” for you. Do you see yourself moving into deeper/darker shades of house, and even breaks or drum n bass in the future? What about side projects?
Yes, absolutely to all of these things. I’ve been really loving making some deeper stuff and find myself really enjoying deeper house and techno cuts lately. Doing a weekly two hour DJ set on Twitch (Darko’s Dungeon on Dirtybird Live) has really pushed me to start exploring new music more than ever. There’s a big difference between touring different cities where you’re playing to different crowds all the time and playing on the internet where you certainly have new people tuning in all the time, but also have loyal fans who are tuning in every week. I want to make sure they’re always listening to fresh tunes that I haven’t played in prior shows. Long story short – this means I’ve been digging deep to find something like 15 to 30 new records to play each week and exploring some styles that are new to me and have been incredibly inspiring. I’ve written a few breaks and drum n bass tunes and have several more leftfield bassy sort of tunes that I wrote while working on Midnight Swim, but didn’t quite make sense to have on the album. I’m very much considering starting up a side project for releasing some more experimental bass/drum n bass stuff.
>Collaborations played a big part in this album, we see. Can you tell us a few stories about how certain tracks were able to be realized thanks to the help of their collaborators? Like, “How Many Times,” “Red,” “Brock’s Last Trip,” etc
If you told me I’d be making a record with Claude VonStroke a couple years ago I would never have believed you, but anything is possible it turns out. How Many Times (collaboration with Claude VonStroke) started out as a work-in-progress demo I’d sent him along with a batch of other tracks about halfway through the writing process for the Midnight Swim to get his general feedback. He got really excited about one tune that was rooted around a deep pad track, but kind of went in a million different directions. I sent him over some stems and he worked it into what it is today.
Red came about also through Claude – he introduced me to Nala. She sent me this beat with such a rare, hypnotic and dancefloor crushing vocal. It was so good and inspiring that the rest of the track came together very naturally and quickly. I tried to keep the whole track super raw with the distorted 303 line and heavy drums. There aren’t too many tracks in this song, but it makes pretty heavy use of delay with time automation to make the vocals and 303 sound big and wonky.
Block’s Last Trip is a collaboration with my brother Pete, who played and recorded all of the guitar parts (also a sample of his cat, Block, growling that makes an appearance halfway through the track). The record started as a pretty simple beat and funky bassline when I sent it over to him. I told him something along the lines of “here you should do some weird Primusey guitar shit on this beat and see where it goes”. And that’s basically what happened. He absolutely shreds and ended up recording something like seven or eight different parts that get layered during the final breakdown and evolve into absolute madness. We have done a few tracks in the past as well, my favorite being Temptation which is an older cut of ours.
>We heard that ‘Midnight Swim’ is the product of balance; you’ve been working full time at iZotope this whole time while writing. How were you able to fit album writing into your schedule, and what are some major lessons you learned along the way when it comes to work/musician/life balance?
It has certainly been a lot to handle at times, but the writing process started in September 2019 and continued through around October 2020 which can be an ample amount of time to finish an album if you’re able to work efficiently. You can’t rush creativity, but you can spend time and effort refining your workflow for making music which has ended up paying dividends for me as I’m able to turn around tracks pretty quickly at this point. Generally, I would spend weekends coming up with new ideas (i.e. starting songs from scratch) and spend most weeknights working on polishing up the ideas I liked and working on mixing them down. Not being able to tour due to the pandemic also meant that I had significantly more free time to work on music, which also helped. The biggest takeaway I have from all of this is that it’s best to take some time away from making music from time to time. Focusing on other things for a few weeks can be extremely reinvigorating for creativity and can help you zoom out a bit, see the bigger picture, and reevaluate.
>It feels like you probably didn’t have much time for yourself in such a situation. How were you able to find your zen and keep mentally healthy through the writing process?
I’ve started cooking a lot, which always feels somewhat relaxing and usually rewarding. Also, just chilling out with my fiancée and watching a show or playing some games has been good for the mind. I’ve gone through phases of playing Dark Souls, Hades, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Celeste on Nintendo Switch. These have been mostly relaxing aside from Dark Souls which is as soul crushing as it sounds.
>The LP is also a story of finding those bits of light in the darkness; are there some tracks in particular that capture this theme?
The most obvious one to me is Eelated (hence the name), which is a collaboration with my good buddy’s Bøats. The record is a balance of some uplifting chords and vocal chops in the main section juxtaposed between an increasingly dark and dissonant breakdown. When the breakdown ends, the tension of the song releases and really exemplifies the darkness versus light theme.
Closure also fits the bill – the main chord progression in the tune bounces between eerie, dissonant chords, but hits some more major chords from time to time to emit some hints of hope and euphoria. I thought this balance of darkness vs. light made this record work well to close out the album.
>Curious to know more about your work at iZotope; how has being a software developer there influenced your career and sound, if at all? Are there any plugins you’ve worked on that you’ve ended up using regularly yourself?
I think the largest influence on my music career from iZotope really comes from the people I’ve been able to work with there. I’ve worked with folks who come from a wide assortment of music and audio backgrounds (mastering engineers, mixers, producers, every type of instrument player, etc), which has been extremely eye opening for me. Everyone brings a different perspective to the table and we collaborate together on anything from products, features, or crazy prototypes to thinking about how we can help teach people about music production or give back to the community. It’s been truly inspiring and informative as both a music producer and also in a more general sense as a human. It’s easy to get caught up in focusing on producing your specific style of music, so it’s been very eye opening to hear about how people with backgrounds in different styles of music and different careers operate.
Yes, I’ve worked on lots of plugins that I use regularly myself. To name a few: Ozone, Neoverb, Neutron, Nectar, and DDLY.
>When it comes to the current “Steve Darko” sound, where have you been finding both influence and inspiration from of late?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been really digging deep on Beatport lately to find some fresh new tunes and have stumbled across loads of great minimal tunes from the 2000 – 2010 era. I wasn’t quite DJing back then and had no idea lots of these records existed so it’s been like running into a goldmine of brand new music. I’ve been especially digging stuff by Gaiser and releases on Minus Records. Also, relistening to some old Primus records the past few weeks has me all fired up and feeling inspired – definitely nice to dip outside of the electronic realm and pull some inspiration from other styles.
>Finally, what’s coming next in your pipeline this year? Or, what other goals do you hope to accomplish after this major career milestone?
I have lots of tracks either done or close to finished that I wrote while I was working on the album or shortly after – I’m going to try to piece a few EPs together with what I have and just keep writing new music. Also, several unfinished collaborations that I need to revisit now that I’m less tied up wrapping up Midnight Swim. Really looking forward to doing another album at some point, so I’ll be cooking up some ideas for that as well!
You can pick up a copy of Steve Darko’s release on DIRTYBIRD from …HERE…