Darto is a band plagued by death. In fact, they were born out of it.
Candace Harter and Nick Merz, two soft-spoken half-siblings who grew up in Duvall, have played in bands since they were 18. One of them was a group called Pregnant, which they formed with their best friend Jared Sletager. They affectionatlely thought of Sletager as an "older brother."
In 2009, they headed down to Portland to play a show.
“Jared said goodnight to us after we loaded out to head to his girlfriend’s house,” Merz remembers.
Sletager was hit by a drunk driver later that night. He entered a coma and passed away a month later. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play music again,” Merz says. “It was just so intense.”
For a year, the siblings didn’t play at all. During that time, they inherited Sletager’s baritone guitar from his mother.
Now living in Seattle, their new outfit, Darto—named after their shared father’s old nickname—emerged from that dark period, a strange sort of family band that’s been steadily producing some of the city’s best music in the DIY scene. Driven by the specter of their “older brother,” his baritone guitar in tow (played alternately by both Harter and Merz), and backed by the drumming of their real-life younger brother, Ryan Merz, the siblings have proceeded to make haunted spellsongs inspired by the creepy woods and rural farmland of their native Duvall.
Lynchian paranoia seeps into Darto’s menacing longform epics. “Highrise,” from the band’s first LP, in difference, lurches along ominously like the unyielding march of progress that’s begun to transform their once-sleepy hometown.
But as if cursed, the album incurred another casualty—a tragic accident at family-run, Kentucky-based record manufacturer Palomino during the pressing of in difference.
“The boiler that boils down the wax for the records blew up and killed the husband [owner Tom Dillander] while our record was being worked on,” Merz says. “It was really sad.”
The song “Boiler,” from their forthcoming EP, was written as a reaction to the accident. "My. God. You're gone," Harter chants like a dirge beneath crushing walls of shrieking guitar.
In spite of this string of tragedies, Darto doesn’t profess to be a dark band. “I promise we aren’t goths,” Harter laughs. But when you see the band perform, you can feel the weight of their past. They play as if possessed—the Merz brothers strangling their instruments to eke out all the mana they have, while Harter sighs like a distant ghost.
Naturally, the group’s new EP, Hex, is preoccupied with the spiritual realm. Its cover features a procession Harter witnessed on a trip to Peru: Catholics in traditional white pointed hoods called capirote during Semana Santa, or holy week, one of the holiest events in Latin Catholic communities.
The controversial 'Hex' album cover was photographed by Harter in Peru. Harter also shot the 'in difference' cover.
But the image has stirred up controversy. “We’re fully aware of what it looks like,” says Merz. “People immediately write it off as something it’s not without really looking into it, which is a really interesting parallel with how people treat spirituality, I think.”
Harter says she chose the cover because the spiritual moment it captures fits nicely with the album’s themes, but the objections some have to it has only deepened the album’s meaning for the band. “People are so afraid of it,” Harter says, “I think it’s interesting how this symbolism has been taken and changed into something else. I think everybody is spiritual, but it’s a loaded word, like this imagery is.”
Hex is even fiercer than in difference. The drum-driven barrage of lead track “Duvall Days,” showcases Ryan’s industrial precision before diving into the pummeling wave of “Warrening,” a track that finds Harter and Merz doing what they do best—summoning strange, incredible noises from their guitars.
This EP release is special for the band, timed to coincide with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Bellevue’s Ground Zero Teen Center, which became a refuge from culture-starved Duvall while the siblings were in high school. Merz, now 27, spent five and a half years as the Center’s music director. Harter, also 27, leads its teen wilderness-immersion hikes.
But even in a band plagued by death, the siblings are finding—or at least hoping—a brighter future awaits by planting seeds in the here and now. “That place [Ground Zero] means a lot to us,” Merz says. “All of our recordings were recorded there. Our first show was there. We only do all-ages shows because that place made us realize how important that is.”
DARTO RECORD RELEASE/Ground Zero 20th anniversary celebration, Fri, June 27–Sat., June 28. Record release show with La Luz, Iron Lung, Special Explosion, Dreamdecay, and more, 3 p.m. Sat., June 28. Ground Zero, 15228 Lake Hills Blvd., Bellevue, 425-429-3203, gz.bgcbellevue.org. $8–$12. All ages.