Introducing: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

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Ed. note: If you missed our first post on New Amsterdam Records yesterday, be sure to check it out here. Today, we continue with Part 2 of our little series by introducing you to one of their exciting, new artists, Darcy James Argue.

By the way, Darcy and his big band, Secret Society will be debuting their new album live at Galapagos as part of this Friday's Undiscovered Islands music festival in Brooklyn. Click here to learn more.


Breaking News!... We're giving away a free copy of Infernal Machines at the end of the interview below!

During the "˜30s and "˜40s, big bands dominated the radios and dance halls, swinging on the top pop charts from the jazz age right up until rock and roll took the world by storm in the early "˜50s.

But big bands (defined as generally a dozen to two dozen musicians) never completely went the way of the dinosaur; they hung around, playing fancy weddings, The Johnny Carson Show, of course (ba-da-ba-daaa-ba"¦), and even made a brief, trendy comeback when Harry Connick Jr. re-popularized old jazz standards and Broadway tunes for a new generation in When Harry Met Sally.

So what about today, in a music scene dominated by computers? Can the big band thrive without falling back on the music of the "˜30s and "˜40s, a la HC Jr? Composer/conductor Darcy James Argue thinks so.

6a00d8341e689653ef0112796999fc28a4-800wi1.jpgHe's got a debut album out called Infernal Machines, featuring his band, Secret Society. With five winds, about a dozen brass players and a tight rhythm section (guitar, piano, bass, drums), Argue's Secret Society imagines what would have happened to big band jazz had it continued to evolve through the "˜50s and "˜60s, right up until today.

Argue's music is a fusion of many different sounds, incorporating everything from hip-hop to straight ahead rock, from jazzy ballads to driving blues. On his Web site, he calls it Steampunk Big Band (more on that in my interview with Argue below),

For example, check out this excerpt from the first track off Infernal Machines called "Phobos" (that's one of Mars's moons, in case you forgot).

That cool, funky beat sounds like something right out of a drum and bass track. But when it's met with a distorted guitar, it starts to sound like Radiohead. Then the Secret Society winds and horns swell in and the summation is pure Darcy James Argue.

[read on for more excerpts and a brief Q&A with the bandleader himself]

But not to give you the idea that Argue's Secret Society is only about a fusion of styles; they DO do straight ahead jazz too, and they do it well. Take the following example from the last cut on the album, "Obsidian Flow."

But this is just an excerpt from the song. When you listen to the whole track, which is nearly 10 minutes long, you once again begin to hear the band veering off into the world of progressive rock, and other styles.

Q&A with Darcy James Argue

1. Talk a little bit about what you call Steampunk Big Band. A lot of our readers are probably familiar with Steampunk fantasy fiction, but as it applies to music, not so much.

DJA: Honestly, it started as a lark, really, just casting about for something to put in the "Sounds Like" field when I first set up the band's MySpace page. But I do feel the label captured something of what I'm trying to due with Secret Society, which is to take what is essentially a very old-fashioned form of music technology -- the jazz big band -- and repurpose it for futuristic ends.

The big band originally rose to popularity in the 30's and 40's because in those pre-amplification days, if you wanted to have a really slammin' party, you needed a *lot* of saxophones and brass instruments to fill up the ballroom with their sound. The rise of the PA system changed all of that, obviously. Still, there's something very attractive to me about taking an ensemble that is so strongly associated with a particular time, place, and sound, and then re-imagining it for the present day.

2. The title of your new album Infernal Machines comes from a 1906 John Philip Sousa quote about the recording industry. Sousa said, "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

Obviously this idea resonated with you, but do you really agree? Couldn't it be argued that these machines have allowed people to make music who otherwise couldn't because they lacked the skill, talent, or were even perhaps, tone-deaf?

DJA: I picked the quote because it so perfectly illustrates how the fear of new music technology is not anything new. Sousa -- who was, by far, the biggest rock star of his day -- comes off sounding a bit like Grandpa Simpson here. I actually came to the quote via Larry Lessig, who has used it in his lectures on copyright and Creative Commons -- but he thinks Sousa was right! In his view, the rise of recorded music -- the "infernal machines" -- decimated participatory (read-write) culture in the Western world. In place of "young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs" -- in other words, if you want music in your life you need to make it yourself -- you have young people passively consuming on-demand recorded music, i.e., read-only culture.

Obviously it's not quite so simple as that -- records have always and will always inspire people to start their own bands. And of course it would be awfully hypocritical of me to put out a record if I was secretly pining for a world without recorded music. But there is also something potent about Sousa's vision of kids gathering to sing songs on summer evenings because they needed music in their lives, and singing it themselves was the only way they could get it. I love technology as much as the next utopian-minded geek, but technology has consequences and it's good to remind ourselves of that.


3. Egos in bands always produce fights on the road, in the studio. And here you're traveling/working with 18 other musicians! Obviously you're the bandleader, but how do you manage all the personalities?

DJA: I mostly play traffic cop on stage -- when the conductor starts making sounds as well it's usually a sign that something has gone pretty seriously amiss.

I would like to say I rule with an iron fist, but that's not really the way it works. Everyone in the group is a fantastic and in-demand musician and they all have much more lucrative things they could be doing with their time than rehearsing and performing my stuff. I won't pretend rehearsals are always all sunshine and waterfalls -- it's incredibly demanding music and it takes a lot out of all of us -- but at the end of the day we are all in it for the music.

Want to score a free copy of Infernal Machines? All you have to do is drop a comment below telling us what your favorite big band song is. We'll randomly pluck one of the comments and send you the CD! It's that easy

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Part 3! And check out past On Music posts here.

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May 6, 2009 - 2:42am
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