EXCLUSIVE: Darcy James Argue on Secret Society's 10th Anniversary, Canadian Jazz, 'Real Enemies' and Why Big Bands Still Matter

By Maria Jean Sullivan on May 09, 2015 02:37 AM EDT

10 years playing with an 18-piece ensemble seems like but a stitch in time for GRAMMY- and JUNO-nominated composer-cum-bandleader Darcy James Argue. Sure, this year was his best for winning, receiving both the Doris Duke Artist Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. But as bright as those gongs are, 2015 isn't halfway done arguing his can't stop/won't stop attitude, soldiering on with that trademark sound of his nonpareil ensemble, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.

Following the release of that group's 2009 debut, Infernal Machines on New Amsterdam Records, with rave reviews everywhere from Merkin Hall to the Kennedy Center, Argue's band landed yet another, arguably better New Am release: 2013's Brooklyn Babylon, complete with an equally original graphic novel by Danijel Žeželj care of an über-successful Kickstarter campaign.

We got on the horn with Mr. Argue to talk, at length, about his upcoming 10th anniversary show at The Bell House in Brooklyn, the deal with Canuck jazz, his brilliant new work-in-progress and why both awards and an ensemble like Secret Society remain relevant.

C-LITE: Let’s start with your Canadian upbringing. Looking back, do you consider jazz in Canada any different from here in the country that birthed it?

Darcy James Argue: I’m not sure I can really generalize too much on that because there’s a real shared North American culture in terms of jazz. The differences are not really as pronounced as they are between the U.S. and Europe or other parts and places overseas. There’s obviously a lot of interaction, a lot of Canadian expatriates who end up in the United States, including several members of my band like Ingrid Jensen and Mike Fahie. A number of people from my high school actually ended up settling in New York and have become fairly active jazz musicians. One big difference would be the fact that in Canada, there’s a lot more public support for the arts. Thus, there is this network of jazz festivals that brings in really great talent year after year. So, growing up in Vancouver at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, I was able to hear all kinds of incredible music. And that definitely sort of shaped my perception of it growing up. I was really lucky to grow up in a town that had a festival with such incredible programming. A lot of jazz festivals these days are booking more 1970s soul bands than real jazz artists. So, it was wonderful to grow up at a time and in a city where I could hear people like Richard Davis and Roland Hanna come in and play a dual concert at a jazz festival.

C-LITE: You did some time in Montreal, as well. Did you then head straight to New England Conservatory? What brought you to Brooklyn, eventually?

DJA: I grew up in Vancouver, and then I lived in Montreal for about seven years. So, I was part of the Montreal jazz scene there. That place has an interesting vibe because Montreal--music is so important to Montreal. It’s a town with orchestras, some really great conservatories and a very active jazz scene. And the music is just really, really important to the daily lives of so many people in Montreal. After that, I went to New England Conservatory for grad school. I moved to Boston for that. Since then, after graduation, I moved to Brooklyn, and that’s sort of been it. In the U.S., the cities that I’ve spent the most time in were grad school in Boston and about 12 years now in Brooklyn. That’s really sort of been my primary. Obviously, there’s nothing like the New York jazz scene anywhere else in the world. It really is still this place where people come from all over the world to be able to be in the environment, to be surrounded by so many like-minded musicians and have the opportunity to learn from and perform with really legendary figures. And to learn and perform with your peers who are operating on the highest possible level.

C-LITE: Let's fast-forward. You garnered GRAMMY and JUNO noms for your two New Amsterdam LPs, Internal Machines and Brooklyn Babylon. Perhaps your third record will finally grant you a win?

DJA: It would be nice, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I feel incredibly honored to have my first two records just be nominated for a GRAMMY. I just feel so incredibly fortunate that that even happened. I have no expectations. If those things happen, they happen and they’re great. I feel like the kind of recognition that those records got from a popular standpoint and from a critical standpoint was surprising, but gratifying to me. As far as the next record, right now, I’m focused on writing music for it, trying to make that as great and as exciting as can be--sort of challenging myself to try some different things this time around. Hopefully, it works out. We’ll see how it goes. But my focus has always been just trying to do something that’s in my voice. That’s really satisfying for me and, hopefully, also satisfying for other people. Anything else on top of that is great. If I’m making music that’s fun for me to play and fun for the audience to listen to, as far as I’m concerned, those are the basic things.

C-LITE: Depending on whom you ask, it’s almost better that you didn't win.

DJA: I’m sure some people feel that way.

C-LITE: Because of genre, or more where Secret Society has always seemed wont to go?

DJA: What I’m trying to do with Secret Society and within our music is something out of the ordinary for a jazz band; it’s music that falls into the cracks in a lot of ways. I feel like there’s been an interesting cross-section of people who have been drawn to this music and whom it’s resonated with. It’s not in one camp musically or aesthetically. What I think happens is it tends to appeal to people who like to hear stuff that relies on a certain amount of cross-pollination, people who can perceive connections from disparate forms of music. On the whole, there’s been a long-standing trend in jazz and classical music of incorporating an eclectic set of influences that, in a certain sense, has become pretty the point where maybe people are a little bit skeptical of it. I think in some cases, they’re right to be skeptical. Because there is a lot of sort of bad stuff out there. I feel like there’s a lot of superficial borrowing of the most obvious elements from rock or hip hop or world music and putting those things together in a way that doesn’t really grapple with how to integrate them in a way that has some kind of understanding of where the commonalities are--what to do with them and keep it in some kind of coherent whole. So, I think the people that gravitate towards Secret Society, I hope, are the people on whatever level that can hear that’s what I’m trying to do when I’m bringing in influences from brass bands or contemporary Brooklyn indie rock. That I’m not just taking the surface elements of those genres. I’ve actually spent some time with them to figure out what it is about that music that really works for me on a deeper musical level, and how I can integrate that into my own composition.

C-LITE: You just put out the full score to Brooklyn Babylon. Should we expect to hear that piece performed by an ensemble other than your own soon enough?

DJA: The parts are not available yet individually, except for one piece, The Neighborhood. I am still my own music copyist and editor. And I’m very, very picky about that kind of thing, so it takes me quite a long time. We premiered Brooklyn Babylon in 2013, and it took until 2015 for me to finally be able to release the score online because of all the finicky music publishing stuff that has to happen. When I first came to New York, I made a living as a music copyist. There’s parts of me that won’t allow the score to get out there if it’s full of corrections and bad spacing and it doesn’t look beautiful on the page. I definitely would like to get it out there. Certainly, there was interest when I was performing Brooklyn Babylon in its entirety. The public will have to wait for me to have the free time to actually get the parts finalized, which I think I can do. But I’m kind of up to my neck in an EP right now. The other parts will probably have to wait until my next project premieres, and then I’ll circle back and get the complete set for Brooklyn Babylon out the door.

I wanted to get the score out there just because I kept getting so many requests from jazz composers and composition students and peers. I made all my scores available from my website for free. I’m always really grateful when I can go to a composer's website, and I can get their scores in some form or another. I’m not saying everyone has to do it for free. I’m happy to pay. But often, it’s impossible to get scores unless you rent them. It’s very difficult for someone who just wants it as a score study to figure out what other composers are doing, how they’re approaching some of these challenges. I’ve always been really grateful when composers have those accessible. I’ve written to a number of people in the past, and they just always e-mail me copies of stuff. It’s always helpful to know the details and see what composers you admire are up to. And this is something that is harder to do on the jazz side because a lot of these scores are not available in any form. You can’t buy a volume of Duke Ellington scores. The best you can do is get transcriptions of the original manuscripts. They’re in the Smithsonian, but they haven’t been properly edited and assembled into an anthology and put out there--which is really, it’s shameful. If you can get down there and get your scanner out and copy some of the manuscript, there’s a lot of great things to be learned from that. I feel like, as a composer, that it’s to my benefit to make my work accessible to people who want to look at the score.

C-LITE: You mentioned new work. Can we talk about Real Enemies: synopsis, collaboration, even staged performances?

DJA: Yeah, there are some performances that are coming up. The dates and locations are still sort of top secret at this point, but I can tell you a little bit about the project, itself. It is a full-scale media piece called Real Enemies. It’s a collaboration between myself, video artist Peter Nigrini and writer Isaac Butler. The piece is about conspiracy theories as American mythology. It’s going to involve about an hour of live music, multi-surface video projections, sound footage, text and live video. We’re really trying to make a kind of sensory experience for the audience, replicating the idea that everything is connected to the healing of conspiratorial thinking. Imagine the big, stereotypical cork board diagram with all the string and what not. We’re trying to reflect that in a musical structure.

We’ll be dealing with everything from the Red Scare and Cointelpro to Iran-Contra to alien abduction. Everything--all the crazy stuff that people believe or share on Facebook is going to be part of the texture of this piece. Especially now with the revelations of the NSA wire-tapping program and the Edward Snowden revelations, we were just sort of sitting back and thinking: “Wow, some of the stuff that people believed about the government beginning to read all of our emails...that turned out to be true. And we really still haven’t quite grappled with the full implications of that.” We’re trying to do something, an attempt to do that in an artistically satisfying way.

C-LITE: An interesting, topical and, at least thematically, a très DJA conceit, indeed.

DJA: The theme for Real Enemies comes from the Delmore Schwartz apparition about being paranoid and having real enemies.

C-LITE: Delmore Schwartz, poet laureate of Syracuse. You'll be touring this adversarial and manic spectacle totale, I assume?

DJA: Yeah, there’s a performance--there will be performances. I’m trying to talk around what I can actually say about the project because it has yet to be announced publicly. But I will say, I think it’s safe to say, that there will be performances inside and outside of New York. We’ll be previewing one or two pieces of music from Real Enemies at The Bell House during our show on May 10, at least one piece from Real Enemies. The rest of it depends on the shape the music is in up to that point. But I can promise at least one piece from Real Enemies, a preview of sorts at that performance.

This month, Secret Society turns ten. Come celebrate a decade of tenebrous bigbandery this Sunday at The Bell House:

Posted by Darcy James Argue's Secret Society on Monday, May 4, 2015

C-LITE: Speaking of The Bell House down in Gowanus, your Secret Society has a history there, no?

DJA: Bell House is the site of a big band bonanza that we do. We had three big bands on the bill a few years ago. This year is our return to the space in general. We haven't been back since, but we had a great time playing there. I am definitely looking forward to doing a nice selection of music from 10 years of Secret Society repertoire. It'll be interesting to put all that together in the same show, at a place that we used to play back in the day, and then play material that is hot off the press.

C-LITE: About big bands per se, what's the main attraction? And has that attraction proper changed over the years? It can't be easy corralling 18 musicians.

DJA: It is a crazy way to make music. It's a totally unreasonable and kind of archaic and very cumbersome way to make music. I'm constantly fielding questions from people who are thinking about starting their own big band. The challenges are just immense. They never go away. But on the other hand, it's such a thrill to be able to get so many people together and literally put them on the same page to create this overwhelming wall of sound. This instrumentation has managed to stay alive, and I think stay relevant, to the efforts of people like Roy Schneider, Jim Feeley, John Hollenbeck, Daniel Bates and people who keep finding things to do with it after all these years. Because it really is an incredible canvas.

You've got musicians who are all highly skilled at reading complex music. But they're able to groove and not be just interpreters of the written piece. They bring all kinds of different schools of improvisation and personalities to the work. It is this wonderful array of possibilities when you've got so many musicians together. It's always inspiring for me to think about the personalities of people in Secret Society, what they might do when faced with certain musical situations. It's great because I don't know exactly. I have a sense of how someone like Ingrid Jensen or Ryan Keberle or John Ellis might respond to how I'm writing something, but I don't really know until I hear them. From what I give them, they always surprise me. When it works, it's delightful to me. Like, I never expected them to go that direction, but that's great. That kind of interplay between the written music and improvisers that you know intimately, and are able to write directly for, it is exciting. I'm happy to be a part of it. That's what keeps me in the game, despite all of the logistical and financial challenges of trying to make music with such a large band.

C-LITE: We talked nominations, so I have to mention the actual Doris Duke and Guggenheim awards. Those are huge. Do you get prideful? Or, like Charles Ives or Woody Allen, are awards best left for horses and pies?

DJA: I mean, obviously, it’s incredibly overwhelming. And I just feel so honored and privileged to be in such incredible company. The other artists that received those fellowships and awards this year alongside me are some of my biggest heroes in music. It really is an outstanding opportunity. Having this degree of recognition from these awards is just--I can’t help stumbling on my words--I’m still kind of speechless. I can’t really believe it. I will certainly make the absolute most of it.

C-LITE: Well, hearty congrats on both and on surviving and thriving for over a decade now. 10 years, music for 18 musicians.

DJA: Yes! 18 me up front waving my arms.

Tickets for Darcy James Argue's Secret Society performance at The Bell House on Sunday, May 10 range from $16 to $20 and are on sale now via Ticketfly. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. with curtain at 8:30 p.m.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Darcy James Argue, Secret Society, Grammys, Juno, Guggenheim, New Amsterdam Records

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