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Featured Member: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

At the start of a calendar year, we can't help but reflect on the past while starting fresh in the new year. How appropriate that our first Member Profile of 2009 spotlights a band that is active in the here-and-now, having just stepped out of the recording studio, while envisioning -- and creating -- an alternative history for big band music of the Swing Era.  Darcy James Argue, composer, leader of the band Secret Society and Fractured Atlas member, explains how he and his "co-conspirators" (that is, band members) make this happen.

Darcy, tell us briefly about your band and your music.

Secret Society is an 18-piece steampunk big band based in New York.  I lead the band and write the music we play. In the '30s and '40s, virtually any popular song you might hear involved a big band -- in those pre-amplification days, you needed a lot of instruments to fill a big ballroom with their sound.  After WWII, the big bands faded from popular consciousness, doomed by technology, economics, and changing tastes.  But I am one of a handful of crazies who remains fascinated by the possibilities of this old-school instrumentation.  For me, it's an interesting challenge to try to make cutting-edge music with a big band -- which is, essentially, an antiquated music technology.

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You are probably asked to explain the name "Secret Society" over and over, but, for the benefit of those who have never heard the explanation…

To the uninitiated, jazz often seems very mysterious and unfathomable, almost cult-like.  I guess this is true of lots of musical subgenres, but jazz musicians sometimes take a kind of perverse pride in their own obscurantism.  So "Secret Society" is a bit of a private joke about that tendency towards insularity.

You just played the inaugural concert in the Jazz Gallery's 2008-2009 Large Ensemble Commissions Series. How did that go?

The Jazz Gallery is a treasure.  It's a not-for-profit performance space in West Soho and it regularly hosts some of the most exciting music in New York.  Their Large Ensemble Commissioning Series is devoted to presenting the next wave of great jazz composers and it was a real honor for us to kick things off in December.  We premiered some new compositions and used the performances as a launching pad for our first studio album, which we recorded the following week -- the album is called Infernal Machines and it will be out this May.


Who and/or what have been your biggest influences?

I've been fortunate enough to study with composers Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider and they have had the most direct influence on my writing.   I'm also really into Steve Reich, Television, Talking Heads, Prince, Tortoise, Calexico, and TV on the Radio, and you can probably hear some evidence of all that in my music for Secret Society.  There are a lot of non-musical influences that permeate my work as well -- I don't think it would surprise people to learn that I'm a fan of David Lynch's movies or David Foster Wallace's fiction.

If you could collaborate with any musician, composer or other artist, who would you choose and what might you propose as a project?

I would love to write a film score at some point.  The problem is that for budgetary reasons, the music for most independent films these days is made up of existing songs or stock tracks.   When there's an original score it's usually done with electronic "virtual" instruments, and that's not really something I'm terribly interested in.  But I would leap at the chance to score a movie using Secret Society musicians.


What are some of the positives and negatives, the ups and downs, of overseeing such a large band?

The big positive is the opportunity to work with so many fantastic players and to hear them bring my music to life.  The big negative is logistics -- juggling everyone's schedules, trying to squeeze into tiny performance spaces, etc.  Also, as you might imagine, nobody's in this band for the money.

How do you define success? What has been your greatest success to date?

I hope our greatest success is the recording we just made!  We spent three very long and intense days in the studio just before the holidays, but everyone in the band played their asses off and I am thrilled with the results.  We still have a lot of mixing and mastering ahead of us, but after three and a half years of gigging with Secret Society, I'm really looking forward to the release of our debut recording.


How do you use your Fractured Atlas membership?

As you might imagine, recording an album involving this many musicians is a very expensive proposition. Our fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas allows to reach out to our fanbase and appeal to them to help us with our recording expenses.  Most of the contributions we receive are small individual donations, but they make all the difference -- given the state of the economy, we are tremendously grateful for every last dollar.  The bottom line is that this album would not be happening without those donations.  For those who are able to give a little more, we also offer the opportunity to sponsor a musician, or even to be our Executive Producer. (I should mention that these offers are still open... )

Right now, fiscal sponsorship is more common in the classical music world than in jazz or pop circles, but with the traditional recording industry in decline, I think you're going to see a lot more musicians of all stripes turn to Fractured Atlas and similar organizations as a way to help raise money for their recording projects.

What is the Secret Society working on next?

We have finished the "recording" part of our recording project, which is like having wrapped shooting on a film.  Now we need to take all of that "raw footage" we recorded and edit it, mix it, master it, and otherwise tweak it until it's ready to be sent off to be manufactured, a process that will take roughly two months.  The album should be available for purchase from New Amsterdam Records in early May, and we are planning a big CD release concert at Brooklyn's Galapagos Arts Space on May 7.

How can we learn more about, and hear/see/experience Secret Society?

The best way to keep apprised of all of our nefarious activities is to check our regularly-updated blog. You can subscribe via RSS, join our mailing list, download recordings of our live shows for free, etc.

Top image by Dani Gurgel, (c) 2007.