Darby Cicci may be best known as one third of revered Brooklyn reverists The Antlers, although to suggest this is his solitary musical achievement of note is to reprehensibly neglect his work under the School of Night nom de plume. For an eponymous five-track EP, self-released last October, brims with an innovation to endear even the most apathetic of listeners toward Cicci, its if not exactly poppy, then pretty, pretty accessible tracks sprawling, grandiose soundscapes emotive as Hospice in themselves. He speaks of deathbeds betwixt sips on green tea down in Dalston’s Harvest, the frothing of overpriced lattes scratching away at the back of the tape. Although we’re now fast approaching Christmas, it was then Hallowe’en, and as thoughts brew, the typically American festivity seems an unlikely, if primary influence.
From the sullen moniker to School of Night’s artwork (that which depicts a gloomy mansion) and onward toward the art itself – one containing lyrics of playing dead and falling out of windows – it would appear Cicci has been better inspired by the trick, rather than the treat. “I’ve always really enjoyed minor chord progressions and stuff” he smirks, “although I don’t know where that really came from.” An exhuming of his innermost inspiration reveals clues: “I like that kinda creepy vibe, and I think my favourite piece of music is this weird, obscure score to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s not on any of the DVD releases or anything, but there’s this American channel – Turner Classic Movies – that played it. I remember watching it this one time at, like, five in the morning – I couldn’t sleep, so I turned on the TV and it was just starting – and the soundtrack was this minor-sounding horror score that I became obsessed with. I had that VHS for a long time, and I just listened to it constantly. It certainly affects everything I do.”
Arguably a more arcane inspiration still, although as we continue to creep around Darby’s mind, the truth unravels further: “I watch a ton of horror movies. I mean I love the John Carpenter stuff – all the goblins – and Dario Argento movies. Their scores are just creepy, and weird, and fun – they kinda sound like psychedelic rock.” Rather more inevitably, it’s an infatuation that began in childhood, if one that has continually served him rather well indeed. For Hallowe’en, in all its ghastly intricacy, remains a cherished occasion in the still-beating heart of a man who’ll later “butcher a show” in full-on Elliott Taylor regalia. “It’s always been one of my favourite holidays, so you guys gotta get with it!” he enthuses with an unrestrained relish a world away from The Antlers’ sullen Burst Apart of 2011. “I mean it starts off as a kid thing, so everyone in America then has really fond memories of being a kid, and dressing up. You’re a kid! You always dress up – every single year you have to dress up. You go to Hallowe’en party after Hallowe’en party; you bob for apples; you do Hallowe’en-themed stuff at school; you carve pumpkins – you just do everything Hallowe’en for the whole month. You walk around and, y’know, the goal is to get as much candy as possible. It’s just great!”
Britney’s itself horrific single of that same year, Hold It Against Me, begins in the background, perhaps foreboding the next turn the conversation is to take. It concerns Cicci’s standing within The Antlers, and his desire to himself direct the band on a more gruesome course. “Peter [Silberman, The Antlers’ lead vocalist and guitarist] likes pretty chord progressions, and major key stuff” he confesses, continuing: “And I’m always, like, ‘Dude, we can’t play this – it’s way too fuckin’ happy!’ So he’ll play some major chords – fourths and fifths – and I’ll play flat fives and major sevenths [in order] to make it all sound a little off. Think David Lynch – the Twin Peaks score: it’s pretty, but it’s haunting. And I’ve always loved that beautiful creepiness.”
It’s one to pervade the dolorous lurch of Fire Escape; the glitchy funereal march that is Play Dead; a magnificently inert Doktor. And these are expressions he apparently feels unable to recreate within the context of The Antlers, hence his momentary breaking away from the band to perform alone, here in an appositely dismal and dank London. “It’s the stuff I work on during breaks from tour, so if I’m home for a week, I’ll get some stuff done before I’m back on the road for three more weeks. That stops the process, and I mean it’s taken, like, two years to finish this thing [said eponymous EP]. I was just determined to finish it, because I knew that once I had, I’d have a sort of a jumping off point to be able to do more of it.”
We hear no new material a little later on in the evening, his setlist pulled exclusively from said record, plus an offcut shed from iTunes’ deluxe edition of Burst Apart and another from his solo début, Minus Green. Although the creative process is slowed not only by his seemingly incessant tangential commitments, whether writing, touring or producing, but so too by a vicious system of self-critique, Darby confiding: “It’s hard to listen to stuff you did last week, let alone last year, and feel like it’s current. And so I’ve so many pieces of music that I’ve started yet never finished, but these five just kept coming back to me.” Haunting? You bet, but a secondary torment faced when operating alone manifests itself in the point at which “you get stuck, and there’s not someone else there to jump in. You sorta have to reimagine it, and rethink it, so a lot of soul-searching goes on.”
However, by contrast, “the hardest part for me was writing lyrics I feel represent what I actually wanted to sing. Peter’s an effortless lyricist – he can just rewrite a whole song overnight – whereas I find it difficult to write lyrics and words that make sense with the sounds. You start thinking about it, and what you’re saying with the song, and I say to myself: ‘Well, is this really how I feel? I mean why am I writing in the first place? Am I just trying to finish a song?’ ‘Cause I could do that in my sleep! So I really tried to write what I felt – like, every word. Just cut out all the bullshit. ‘Cause with the first record that I made [the beyond obscure, aforementioned Minus Green] I felt there was a lot of dirt in there. And now that I’ve been writing this full-length record for a while already, it’s definitely taken a step beyond that where I feel really connected to it, and it has a real through line to it. Which is nice.”
Speaking of spines and through lines, despite training as a thespian in his youth, Cicci actually intended to train in another vocation – one, once again, rather closely aligned with Hallowe’en. “I used to wanna be a doctor and actually, right before Hospice came out, I nearly quit the band to go to nursing school” he says candidly, blowing less cobwebs, than steam from the rim of his mug. “Music wasn’t really going that well – the first two years, the band were just playing a lot of really small shows where five people would pitch up – and when you’re all working shitty jobs, I just thought: ‘Man, I gotta do something.’ And at that time, I felt really connected to being a nurse, and taking care of people. My mom’s in medicine, and my brother has since then gone to nursing school and become a nurse, but I always felt it to be a really noble profession. You wake up knowing that no matter how hard your day is, you’re gonna save somebody’s life. And I’d feel good about that.”
As often seems the case, medicine can seem a perhaps appropriately contagious profession within a familial situation, thus did he feel as though he’d turned his back on his kith and kin? “It was always when you’d have a really bad show, and you’d feel really deflated afterwards. And you’d question yourself: ‘What’s the whole point of this music thing? People there at the show didn’t like it; I didn’t like it. It didn’t make money; it was just exhausting.’ At least if you’re there in the hospital, you’re still helping. But I remember when my mom used to come home when I was a kid, and she’d say: ‘Yeah, there was a car wreck today, and six children were killed. And their mother survived.’ So you’d hear these horrible, horrible stories, but I knew that she’d be there, somehow keeping everyone together. And you can make the argument all day that music saves lives, and emotionally keeps people together, but I guess I’ve always been frustrated that it doesn’t actually save anyone’s life. Physically, it doesn’t do anything.”
Arresting as a go on a faulty defibrillator, Don’t Stop The Party booms heavily about Harvest’s ligneous interior – one replete with open brick embellishment that ought to bring Cicci right back to his native Brooklyn. But one attitudinal thing that’s anything but in keeping with NYC MO is his refreshingly open attitude toward the widely reviled ‘side project’ tag, as he sees the ‘Darby of The Antlers’ epithet as “the context of who I am. If it were some negative thing I’ve done that I’m not proud of… Like, Darby from this really horrible production of Romeo and Juliet at Indiana University, that people had dug up… I was naked onstage, believe it or not – I used to be an actor! But no, it’s totally understandable – I would think of somebody else’s side project in the same way.”
Nonetheless, in a sense, Cicci himself is in fact yet to really find out what the exact purpose of School of Night actually is. “I’m just sorta doing it, and seeing what happens” he admits, but regardless of raison d’être, it’s allowed him to reassess, and in turn reassert, all he’s creatively capable of. “I feel like it’s been really easy to fall into a pattern of doing The Antlers all the time, and after a few years, it was just, like, ‘We have a music career. We’re not gonna disappear tomorrow, even if our next record sucks. So it becomes this really cushy thing, whereas before, we were doing really hard shit. So I needed to step up my game, and really see what I’m made of. I’m not busy enough; I’m not doing enough!”
By way of comparison, under the gloomy guise of School of Night, Cicci of course does absolutely everything – from the programming of drum machines, to the pressurising of various keys – and thus sings every last lyric referenced above. And this proverbial restringing, and subsequent retuning of his vocal cords has also had Darby pushing himself: “Having not sung in a band for years, I was starting to think, ‘Well, I’m not a singer.’ But it’s weird when you kinda convince yourself that you’re not something, when you know you kinda do it. So it’s a reexamining of what I’m interested in doing. Whether or not I do it within the band for whatever reason, I should just keep pushing, and trying to do more things.”
Back in New York, Cicci has left Silberman with the stems that, once properly entwined and fully produced, could yet become The Antlers’ next record, so he’s anything but done with the day job. Nevertheless, he suggests “it’s nice to have a balance – to be able to do both, and to have them balance each other out. If you only do one thing, after a long period of time, you start to ask yourself whether you should, or even could do anything else. And I think bands fall into that pattern – bands who’ve been about for fifteen years, who just keep on touring. They’re not inspired; they’re not excited to do it. Not that I’m not inspired by what we do, but that’s just what you see people doing, purely because that’s what they’ve always done. So the hardest part is shifting gears, and not falling into those patterns.”
The shifting of the figurative gears has been another of what seem many learning processes so far as School of Night may be concerned, and it’s the next pitstop in our swiftly disintegrating discourse: “Peter is really patient, Michael [Lerner, The Antlers’ percussionist] is really patient, so I’m kinda the impatient one that keeps everything moving fast. But School of Night was a sort of test to see how patient I could be with things”, hence the naturally lengthy running times of the EP’s each and every piece – not one of its five components fizzles out anywhere short of the five-minute mark. “So when I was making it, I was thinking: ‘Y’know what? If everyone thinks this is just totally boring, that means I actually succeeded in one of the goals I had! I’d have actually slowed the fuck down!’ ‘Cause I was so worried of it being boring, I would always want to speed it up.”
I presuppose it’s a consequence of living in New York – the city that never sleeps, nor indeed stops. “You’re stressed out all the time – everything’s fast; everything’s moving” Darby concurs. “Paranoia! But I’m kinda speeding things up again, so this is a nice diversion for me. Five songs; thirty-two minutes. That’s long as fuck!” But, when it comes right down to it, the crux of School of Night is that, in essence, he feels as though he doesn’t “have to be doing this project at all. I don’t wanna say nobody’s encouraging it, but nobody’s been, like, ‘Hey man, you really need to put this out!’ I just thought, well, I’ve made this, so I’m gonna put it out.”
It’s thus that he concludes, “I don’t have anything to lose at all [in] doing this, so it’s just really liberating. It’s cool, and I’m having fun doing it!” As his palm approaches mine and we part company, there’s one final twist in what sounds an impossibly serendipitous playlist, Alice DeeJay’s caustic Eurodance smash Better Off Alone resonating densely around the café. It’s a sentiment I, nor would I imagine he’d agree with, although solitude sometimes is. And under the cover of School of Night, Cicci has recurrently proven himself to be a pretty compelling solo artist in his own right.
School of Night is out now.