Pianist/composer Darcy James Argue and his big band, the Secret Society, have been gathering up awards and critical recognition for several years. Their sole studio CD to date, 2009’s Infernal Machines, is pretty amazing; if you’re anticipating the blaring horns and churning swing of the 1940s, forget it. While there’s an element of TV/movie “action jazz” to their sound, particularly when the horns balance against stinging electric guitar, this is no Brian Setzer-style retro project. Nor is it a squawk-and-roar free jazz/improv ensemble, a la William Parker‘s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra or one of Butch Morris‘s conductions. Argue’s compositions blend jazz, rock, and orchestral music in a way that’s closer to J.G. Thirlwell than Duke Ellington, and while there’s room for individual expression, the musicians are definitely executing his vision.
This interview was conducted a few months ago for an article in Cowbell magazine; I only used a sentence or two therein, so now I’m putting the full transcript here.
The Secret Society’s music isn’t Ellington-style swing, or Glenn Miller, or anything non-jazz people associate with the term “big band.” The electric guitars really jump out, for me, and there’s this post-rock production on tracks like “Phobos.” What do you see as the group’s fundamental template?
Well, I think there’s no getting around the big band associations, no matter what I do. But I try to embrace that in a way that makes sense for me. It was such a huge part of American popular music in the pre-World War II era, and it seems like there’s potential to be mined there of, like, “Wow, this was ubiquitous.” It was every song you heard on the radio, whether it was a jazz song or a novelty or a pop song, whatever, there was a big band. For a whole bunch of reasons, that stopped happening. But it didn’t have to stop happening. There’s a whole alternate possibility of the music, if it kept changing and evolving, but it could have still been for big band, and it could have kept going. If that had happened, what would that sound like, and what would the relationship that instrumentation would have to popular music, and what would it be to jazz? But instead, the big bands became more underground. Even within jazz it’s a very marginal subculture that most mainstream jazz fans are not fans of, apart from a very narrow range. People like the Miles Davis/Gil Evans stuff, a lot of people like the John Coltrane stuff, some people like the later Dizzy Gillespie stuff. But for most jazz fans who are listening to very mainstream Blue Note records and whatnot, they’re not gonna have a lot of big band stuff. They’re not even gonna know Gil Evans’ records without Miles. So it went from being ubiquitous and on every single record to being something that even most jazz fans kinda turn their noses up at or are just not aware of the developments that happened through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. In a way, that’s kind of exciting and liberating, because it lifts the last baggage, so I feel like there’s a lot more potential to surprise people, because they are probably less aware of some of the elements of larger ensemble stuff, and so there’s more room to stretch. There’s more room to try different things. There’s room to make music that tries to sound fresh and contemporary and that will make sense for people who are gonna go see Vijay Iyer or Rudresh Mahanthappa or Miguel Zenon. I feel like it’s already surprising enough that there’s a big band that exists that’s in dialogue with contemporary jazz—people are surprised enough by that that it gives me carte blanche to take it in younger, different directions that are influenced by what’s going on in contemporary jazz but not beholden specifically to particular schools or whatever. And that’s really exciting, because it allows me to sort of carve out my own territory in ways that maybe I couldn’t if I was involved with a small group.
The one side of large ensemble jazz is the traditionalist big band thing, but the other side is the free jazz ensemble, with 19 guys blaring away, and you’ve avoided that, too.
That’s something that—there’s people doing great work in that vein, and I love seeing Butch Morris do his conductions; that’s an amazing and really exciting way of creating music. But I’m not particularly wired that way, as far as my own creativity goes. I’m a planner, and I like to construct a narrative in advance, so that improvisation can kind of serve the needs of that narrative. So it’s kind of a tricky thing, because for me, I have something that is still going to have enough room in it for an improviser to move things in a particular direction, and for there to be enough spontaneity within the music. But on the other hand, there is this larger form, and regardless of whether there’s a section there where it could go in another direction, it’s gotta hit a certain spot and it’s gotta hit in a certain way. That’s how I think about writing, and it’s definitely philosophically anathema to people who have a more ideological bent about how the most important thing is that anybody can take off in any direction at any point. I don’t feel all music has to be that way. I think it’s great that there is music out there that does do that, and that’s really exciting, but for whatever reason my own interest in—not even my own interest, my own voice seems to lend itself more to something a little more written than the more spontaneous stuff that someone like Butch does.
So you’re not someone who spells improvisation with a capital I.
No. And that’s a good way of putting it. You know what I mean. There are people who are very ideological about improv, and that can be a little bit frustrating. I love a lot of those people’s work, but I love other things. I feel like improvisation ought to be a means to an end. It ought not be the goal in itself. And there are some things improvisation is really great at, but there’s a role for composed music. And in my work it’s always like trying to find not a balance that I would prescribe for everyone else on the planet, but a balance that works best for my own particular creative predilections.
Has there been a lot of membership turnover in the band?
I would say of the people who were on our first-ever gig, which was at CBGB in May 2005, probably about half those people are still in the band. Which I think is pretty good for a group this size. And part of the reason is that I resisted for a while determining who was in the band and who wasn’t in the band and what their status was. I just had a large group of co-conspirators I called upon, and some people were available for some gigs and other people were available for other gigs, and it felt more like an amorphous thing, like, here’s this stable of people in New York who had played the music before and understand what I’m after. And then once we recorded, it was more like, okay, the people who are on the record kind of became the people who are in the band, and sort of necessarily, it became more of a formal thing, just because they were on the record. But there are still people who are in the kind of extended family, which is very necessary because obviously I’m almost never going to have all 18 people who are the core of the group on every single gig. It’s not ever gonna be possible. So I do it like, this is more like an extended family. It takes people a while to wrap their heads around it. It takes people a few gigs to really get into what I’m after, so they can get beyond playing the ink on the page, which is hard enough, and really get into the spirit of the thing. So it’s nice to be able to draw upon a fairly extended group of people so that when I don’t have the quote-unquote regulars, there are other people. There’s a deep bench to call upon. And New York is great for that, because there are so many incredible musicians, and basically everyone is down with playing gigs that pay a really shitty amount of money.
What kind of venues do you play? Have you noticed a willingness on the part of non-traditional spaces to book the group?
I had the most luck with Skippy [Jack McFadden] at the Bell House, and he also booked a set at Union Hall early in the days of that venue and early in the days of the band. We were kind of physically too big for that space; originally we had the keyboardist practically in line for the bathroom, that kind of thing. But he’s been really great and being able to play a space like the Bell House—I like playing for standing room crowds, I like playing for a slightly younger demographic, they’re a lot more responsive in that kind of environment. We played Dizzy’s [Club Coca-Cola, at Lincoln Center] on a Monday night, and that was great because it’s such a beautiful room and they have a really great sound and the staff was fantastic and I could actually pay the band. So all of those aspects were great, but the pointed jokes at Goldman Sachs’ expense don’t go over as well in that room.
What kind of audiences do you draw? Are you drawing a youthful crowd?
I feel like there’s a bunch of different jazz audiences right now. And obviously the people who showed up for that big band bonanza that we did CMJ week at the Bell House doesn’t overlap with the people who showed up at Dizzy’s. I think it’s important for me to be able to not neglect the traditional jazz audience, because everyone’s chasing the crossover audience, everyone wants to reach indie rock kids and that kind of thing, and I’m certainly no exception to that, but it’s the traditional jazz audience, or at least the progressive-leaning subset of that, that supports that and is still actually paying money for records. And I think being able to do gigs that reach those people, and gigs that are hopefully gonna be more of an environment that is friendly to the quote-unquote civilians, are both really important. So it’s a matter of trying to bring music to people in a way that they wanna hear it, and making options available. There are people who are gonna have a lot more fun standing around for three hours and hearing three progressive-minded big bands and having beer spilled on their feet. And there are other people who are not gonna be able to hang with that. And being able to play out in a bunch of different venues and build audiences and come to them, at least meet them halfway as far as the kind of environment they want to be in, is a big part of trying to figure out how to make this absurdly large ensemble viable.
Obviously the logistics must be tough, but has the band toured much?
Touring is really hard. We did three dates in Europe last spring, which was really great, and we played for three completely different audiences. We played on the canals in Amsterdam, which was much more of a traditional jazz audience, then we played this club in Dortmund which was almost an industrial warehouse, a black box kind of show, and then the Moers Festival which happens in a big circus tent where a bunch of kids come to this small town in Germany and camp out on the lawn and see a bunch of freaky experimental music. So that was amazing, but we were very fortunate that we got a lot of support from the festival so that we could do those other gigs. They sprang for a bus for us and all that kind of thing. Touring Stateside is a lot harder, obviously, and I wish I could do more of it. I wish I could pack everyone up in a van and drive around and crash on people’s floors, but asking people to give up their freelance work in New York and their teaching and the stuff that actually pays their bills, and then asking them to go on the road and take the kind of financial hit that you would need to do that, and feed them and everything, it would bankrupt all of us. So what we’ve done so far is one-offs, like drive out to Philly, play a show, drive back. Drive up to Boston, play a show, drive back. And we’ll probably keep doing that. But I’m doing it—I don’t have a booking agent, I don’t have a manager—so even putting together a one-off in Baltimore or DC is a huge time investment which takes away from the time I can spend writing music for this band. And even the time it takes to generate a minute of music is so insane for this band, it’s really—I don’t know what I was thinking, other than the sound of that many musicians playing together got really, really addictive for me. When we have a really great gig, it gets into my veins and I just can’t stop. If I looked at it rationally, there’s no way I could defend anything that I’ve done, the choices I’ve made about how to make music and where to play it and who to play it for. But it just became this irresistible urge. So I’m trying to find the best balance that I can. So to get back to touring, we want to get out to more East Coast places that are within striking distance of New York and get some one-offs there, but it’s still through word of mouth, playing. Playing shows in other cities is the best possible thing we can do for the band and also one of the most punishing things we can do for the band. So it’s a matter of trying to find the right time, place, city and whatnot to make that happen. And then of course sometimes I’ll go and like, I’m about to head off to Germany and do shows with some German musicians in Cologne and at the North Sea Jazz Festival. And that’s a whole other ball of wax, and that requires an enormous amount of rehearsal, a huge time commitment on the part of players who haven’t spent the last five years learning to play this music. Trying to get it together, even with the best musicians in the world with three long days of rehearsal, is kind of a big, stressful thing for everyone. But it’s also kind of an exciting thing to be able to say, “All right, let’s see what we can make happen in this short period of time. Immerse yourself in it and let’s see what happens.” And I’m really lucky that this group I’m doing these gigs with is a group I got to work with before—they’re like a European big band that’s a lot more like an American band. It’s not a radio band. They get together once a month to play these gigs, playing charts written by people in the band, and they’re in it for the love of playing in challenging and interesting large ensembles, as opposed to the guys who are doing radio bands, where it’s more like a day job. So it’s nice to be able to go and work with these Cologne guys, cause they’re in it for the love.
Your CD, Infernal Machines, is on New Amsterdam, a label that kind of crosses boundaries, that’s not a traditional jazz label. Were you or have you been offered deals from jazz labels?
No, not since the record was out. My plan originally was to go and make the record and then shop it around afterwards. That’s sort of the standard route people go these days. Jazz labels want to hear a finished product, like, what exactly would we be putting out? As opposed to live demos or whatever. So that had been the plan, but I met the New Amsterdam people through one of our shows and said after we go in the studio we can talk. But they were so excited about the live show they set up a meeting for the very next day and I really thought the music they were putting out and the way they operated, the philosophy, was very open. The artists were getting a publicly available document and it’s something where I got control of the masters of the record, it’s not like signing it over to a record company. I got to retain all of my publishing, all my copyrights, and it was much more of a true partnership as opposed to a record label where like even under the rare circumstances these days where someone might be able to advance you some money, once you’ve paid back that money out of royalties, theoretically, if that ever happens, at the end of the day the record company still owns the record. That was something I was definitely not interested in doing. So there are some jazz labels now that are moving away from that old-school record label way of doing things, to try to figure out a way to be more equitable about putting control in the hands of the artist, but with New Amsterdam, everything was right there. When they made the offer, I knew I was not going to do better than that. And it’s an association that I feel certainly helps me reach some people outside of the jazz world and into interesting notated music that sounds like it has something to do with the present day. And to be able to reach those people in addition to reaching the jazz audience was something that was obviously really important for me, and kind of a natural fit for what I was trying to do with the band.
What kind of recording budget did you have for Infernal Machines? How long were the sessions?
I booked three days of recording, and we had, like, two 12-hour sessions and an eight-hour session, and we used every second of that. It’s such incredibly difficult music, and I really wanted the album to be different than just the sound of the band playing live. Some people, when they’re going to do a jazz record, say, okay, we’ll go in the studio for six hours and hit. But we’ve put all of our live shows online and people have a sense of what we sound like live; I upload them so people can check them out if they want. So if I’m gonna ask people to actually pay money for the record, then it’s gonna have to be something with a different kind of sound, something we can only do in the studio, in terms of a sonic perspective on the band, the way it’s recorded, the way the instruments are presented, the way it’s mixed and mastered and all that stuff. So I definitely wanted more of a sculpted studio sound, more akin to the philosophy or approach of a rock record rather than the live-in-the-studio vibe which is much more of a jazz thing. So that ended up being extremely expensive in a lot of ways, both having all that recording time and then, also, I spent basically two straight months more or less living in my engineer’s studio in the East Village mixing the record.
The engineer on the record was this guy Paul Cox, and he approached me as a fan of the group—a young guy, had the right background in recording classical music but also recording hip-hop and rock and jazz, but he’d never done a big band before. So the question for me was, do I go with the seasoned studio veteran who’s done a million big band recordings before, or do I go with this guy who I kind of see eye to eye with aesthetically, how things ought to sound, and who I know is willing to experiment? So there was a lot of trial and error mixing this record, and a lot of the stuff we tried at first didn’t work. It took us a while to figure out how we get all these instruments, all these mics, together—how do we represent the band the way we’re hearing it in our heads? It took a long while for that to actually come together. But I feel like that was a process that was worth going through, because the sound we got at the end wasn’t a standard—I feel like if I had gone with someone more experienced, it would have been like, “Here’s what a big band is supposed to sound like, bang, there you go, there’s your record.” As opposed to this more experimental process of, all right, let’s try these filters, let’s try this reverb, let’s try building something up from scratch. So that ended up being incredibly time-consuming and incredibly expensive, but I also think that at the end of the day I have a sound on the record that was something that felt really personal to me and wasn’t being imposed by someone else, a sound that Paul and I built together and it doesn’t sound like any other big band record out there. I have to hope that eventually—at the end of the day, recording a big band record is never going to be a cheap proposition, and so it’s a matter of, what does it take to put out something that I could really stand behind? So at some point in the distant future when hopefully this’ll be paid off, I’ll be able to say it was worth it. And even if that never happens, at least I have a record where I can say yeah, I did that and I’m happy about that and that’s the sound. I didn’t have to compromise on anything.
You sell T-shirts on the site, and presumably at gigs. Do they sell well?
Let’s just say it’s not a major revenue stream. But you take every little bit you can to try and figure out how this thing is gonna stay afloat. For most gigs I try and make sure that whatever we make at the door, 100 percent goes to the band. And I try and pay out of merch sales, and maybe there’s a few cents left over for rehearsal expenses. It’s one of the few things you can offer that can’t be downloaded, right? So…
How important is the blog, and maintaining communication with listeners/fans? Have you noticed any direct correlation between blog traffic and CD sales?
It’s not a one-to-one thing, and it’s hard to—it’s a much more intangible thing. It would be hard to say the blog is responsible for x number of units sold or anything like that. It’s much more like, if I hadn’t been blogging, I don’t think there’s any way that Ben Ratliff would have come out and reviewed us before we had a CD out. He was aware of the band through the stuff that I was writing on the blog, not about my music, but about other people’s music, and just about the scene generally. Since the record came out, it’s been this kind of whirlwind of activity and I’ve had less time for blogging, so it’s transitioned from what was originally more of a general jazz blog to the Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society blog. But I think if I hadn’t started out the way it did, trying to write as much as I could about as many shows as I could…that really established an identity for me beyond the music alone. Like, here’s this guy that knows his priorities, here’s what I like, here’s what I don’t like, here’s what I think is important. And I think that gives a better-rounded perspective and allows people to get a better sense of where you’re coming from. And it’s nice because I think a lot of musicians feel that when they do interviews or they have features written about them, the way they’re represented can be—you know, it’s never exactly the way you’d represent yourself. But rather than bitch about that, the tools are out there for you to represent yourself directly. So yeah, I think that having the blog and making the live shows available for download is hugely important.
I’m fortunate in that I kind of got in on the game early, before there were really a lot of jazz blogs out there. It’s really exploded in the past [two years] or so. Which has been great to see, but it also means that it’s a lot harder now for people that are coming up to get the kind of exposure that I got, because at the time there were so few people blogging about jazz, and they were contributing maybe once a week or whatever. And now the field is so much more crowded, which is better overall, but it’s harder to break out, and it becomes yet another full-time gig in addition to everyone trying to juggle their full-time teaching gigs or their other day jobs and their practicing and trying to get out there and be their own publicists and all the other stuff we’ve got to do in our era. Time management is a whole other skill. Maybe that’s what schools should be teaching, more than how to be able to shred on “Giant Steps.” Ultimately, career-wise, being able to figure out, “All right, here’s what I’ve got to do and here’s how I can make time to do that” could be much more valuable.
You’ve received grant money here and there—what can you tell me about that procedure? How much of your time do you spend writing grant applications, and stuff like that?
For a group this size, it’s absolutely crucial. We’re trying to get out to play some shows in Europe, but even if you can put a few more festival gigs together, it isn’t something you can do without grants. You have to get a touring grant to support that, otherwise the size of the group makes getting overseas really hard. And Europe isn’t what it used to be in terms of being a magic pool of money for jazz musicians. So in order to make this happen, you kind of have to be on the lookout for opportunities. Traditionally, a lot of groups that get money to tour Europe have been classical musicians, and jazz guys have been a little bit slower on the uptake. And so still, the majority of the applications, the majority of people putting in the applications, are coming at it from a classical perspective. Which makes it especially difficult for jazz musicians to kind of break through, so people get frustrated quickly. They’ll apply for two grants and not get them and give up. And obviously, that’s not how it works. It’s something you have to keep plugging away at and suffer through a lot of rejections. So that’s something I was really lucky at, in terms of the record, being able to get a Copland Fund grant after the fact for the recording. Every little bit helps.
I think it’s something that you’re gonna see a lot more jazz musicians having to get hip to, these kind of fundraising, grant-applying type of activities, because really, the market is getting more and more unforgiving for anything even remotely outside of the mainstream. And this is true across the board. There’s what seems like a really vibrant and creative indie rock scene, but everyone there’s losing money on tour as well. There’s an infrastructure that used to be there in terms of tour support and just getting out there that has crumbled. That gap has to be filled in some way. And I think as more jazz musicians start applying for these things, the culture around those grants is necessarily going to change a little bit toward, I think, being a little more realistic about what’s a productive use of grant money. Like, are we going to put all the arts funding in a big pile and hand it over to some institution where it costs $200,000 just to turn on the lights, or try and get it out to the grass roots where a grant of $1000 makes all the difference to whether a show goes on or not, or whether a live recording is made or not, or whether a tour happens or not? Being able to fund at the grass roots level of activity, there’s so much more bang for the buck. But then it’s a matter of trying to convince donors to support these grants, where the prestige that they get from contributing to a marquee is one thing, but it’s not the most efficient way to build up the culture. Getting it out to the people on the ground, getting it out to the people who are doing the most creative work, that’s where the money’s going to have the most impact, that’s where it’s going to fund the most exciting stuff, where it’s going to make the biggest difference for people, and I really hope we can see a transition towards that kind of grass roots, microfinance sort of approach in terms of getting support for musicians.
Jazz musicians, no matter what kind of jazz they play, are forever obsessing over the audience. But I kind of wonder if the window for getting the American public to give a shit about jazz has long since closed. What’s your strategy for expanding your audience? Do you even have one?
I feel like it’s a mistake to give up on outreach. The impulse toward outreach is important for musical reasons, regardless of whether anyone ultimately ends up giving a shit, I think it’s good for musicians to try to make music in a way that encourages people to give a shit. It’s about a generosity of spirit, trying to reach an intelligent lay person regardless of what they have in their musical background. As long as they’re smart, they care about music, they want to be challenged, they’re going out and trying new restaurants, seeing independent movies, checking out theater or dance or big novels or what have you—that searching spirit. A lot of those people would be a natural audience for what independent-minded jazz musicians are doing and contemporary classical musicians who are not in the academic world are doing. But a lot of those people are really resistant to jazz and to classical music because of the insularity of it. Because there’s been this campaign to keep those people out for so long, this vibe of “Oh, this is for insiders only; you can’t be expected to get this until you digest these 2000 records,” you know. “Until you’ve been to several thousand live shows, then maybe you can start to get what I’m all about.” And that just strikes me as such bullshit. Music should be self-explanatory. Or at least it should try and make it in that spirit of, regardless of what you have in your background, I’m coming out here and trying to engage in an act of communication with the audience. Because otherwise, why play in public at all? If it’s just gonna be music for you and your buddies in the band, there’s no reason at all to play in a public space. The shows that I enjoy are shows where someone’s really pouring their heart into it and really trying to make that act of communication happen. For me, that’s the most important thing, and these weird preconceived notions like “This type of music has always been audience friendly” or “This is too dissonant to be audience friendly” or “It’s too long”…all that shit is bullshit. What matters more than anything is the attitude the musicians teach when they take the bandstand, whether they are trying to reach people, whether it’s important for them to reach people. Audiences aren’t stupid. They can perceive instantly whether or not you care that they’re there. So for me, it’s hugely important to continually try to present the music in venues and in a way that is generous and that makes sense for someone who has never heard a single jazz record before.
The Secret Society will be performing at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St., New York, NY) on Tuesday, November 30.