Darcy James Argue: In His Own Words

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. i i

hide captionSurprisingly, Darcy James Argue = not a pseudonym.

Oliver Heisch
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.

Surprisingly, Darcy James Argue = not a pseudonym.

Oliver Heisch

My profile of Darcy James Argue runs on NPR's All Things Considered today. (Finally!) If you miss it, it'll be archived online at the above link.

As much as I'm proud to link to it, there's only so much you can get to in a 5:30 report geared specifically to a lay audience. We barely touched on his background in Canada and the New England Conservatory; the sheer impracticality of leading a big band these days; the dialogue between jazz and popular music; the state of the Jazz Internet. And so forth.

This March, I went to his apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn to get him on tape. Because I was setting him up to be quoted in a radio report, our conversation wasn't really conducive to flipping into an extended audio interview. (Read: I sound really awkward.) But it's immediately clear in talking to Darcy that he's both a great composer and a really bright dude, with bundles of interesting things to say about where his music is coming from. So here are some choice quotations left on the cutting room floor:

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Two great things about music in New York City:
"The great thing about New York is that no matter what insane project you have decided to undertake, there are at least a half-dozen — if not more — people in the city doing exactly the same thing. Often, sometimes it seems like everyone in New York has a big band, even from my perspective. But that was one of the attractive things about moving here. ... Of course it is completely insane. But there were other people doing it, so it kind of seemed all right."

"The great thing about New York is that there are so many musicians who are just dying to play music. You call people up — you know, for rehearsals or whatever — who you've never met, you've never heard, they've never heard your music. And they're just incredibly happy for the opportunity. It's like, 'Hey, you wanna come down to the union and read some big band music? It's really hard.' And they're like, 'Oh man, I love to play hard music!' That's just kind of the vibe here — everyone's dying for opportunities to play — no one really turns stuff down. If they're free, they'll come out and play."

On why leading a big band is insane:
"From trying to pay people in the band a reasonable amount, or going out on tour, or even just fitting into a club, having that large of a group is a logistical nightmare. Down in the basement of this place, I have this cart with 20 music stands on it that I go and drag to all the gigs. And all the stand lights, and music folders, and that sort of thing. If I wanted practicality, it would definitely be a piano trio or something like that ... this is definitely not that kind of experience. There's every possibility for something to go wrong."

On the cost of recording an 18-piece big band:
"Without getting too deep into it, making a record like this, it's kind of like trying to shoot Lawrence of Arabia on a Clerks budget."

On waiting over three years to make a studio recording:
"It's kind of a weird chicken and egg thing. Still in this digital age, you still need that album, that product to be able to open certain doors in terms of festivals or reviews or whatever. But at the same time, it's such a huge and expensive endeavor with all of these musicians, and such a massive project, that you want to make sure that things are tight before you actually hit the studio. ... And that really only comes from playing music, and playing it as often as you can."

"Some people will go in and do something that's very much 'live' in the studio — go in and book six hours, run the tunes down, and that's it. And I wanted to do something really different. People already have that; as I said, we record all our live gigs and put them up on the net, and people have had that. So this is definitely a studio album, and a crafted studio album."

On growing up with jazz:
"I had kind of a squandered youth, in that I, at a fairly early age, bought into the whole jazz snobbery thing. Because that's what all your teachers were telling you: that jazz was art, and classical music was art, and everything else was not. And this conflicted a little bit with my love of Living Colour, but there was a sense of 'I'm a kid, what do I know' — these are your teachers and your idols telling you these things. It's like, 'OK, I guess it's time for me to concentrate on listening exclusively to jazz.'"

"There were a few turning points. One of them was hearing Miles Davis' [A Tribute To] Jack Johnson ... I had heard Bitches Brew and I had heard In A Silent Way, and those kind of worked for me a little bit. But they felt like there was a little bit of a veil behind them. It was still very transitional. Those records, despite their many virtues: they really don't rock the way Billy Cobham rocks on Jack Johnson ... for me, I hadn't heard jazz like that before. And Miles just sounds so killing on that as well. So that was really my 'oh, maybe not all fusion is terrible' moment."

"There are a lot of records that I kind of had a secret fondness for, but wouldn't really cop to it in public. Stuff like [Guns N' Roses] Appetite for Destruction or whatever. So it took me a while to be able to come out of the closet, like, "No, that's a f——-g great record."

On making jazz music with rock influences:
"Sometimes you have these projects of jazz musicians or indie classical musicians who kind of figure, 'Well, yea, I'd really like to do this rock thing.' And they bring a guitar sound to it that makes you think, 'Have you ever heard a rock record?' You know? ... If you were going to bring a balls-to-the-wall guitar, it had to sound real — it had to sound like something that you would actually hear on a rock record, and not some kind of weird, halfway, 'jazz' approximation of it."

"I find it dispiriting that there's not more of a conversation going on between jazz and, for lack of a better word, what 'normal' people listen to. That jazz really became this very insular, subcultural thing. Part of that involved some people trying to make it into a high art, and take it away from the interface with popular culture, and try to make it more rarefied, I guess. But that's not part of the jazz tradition that I love. When Coltrane covered "My Favorite Things," I think The Sound of Music had been running on Broadway for eight months? That was a new tune when he did it. There's always been an engagement with popular culture in jazz until very recently. I don't know, it just makes sense for me to want to be able to bring that back. And it makes sense for someone who wants to be any kind of musician in the year 2009 to be aware of Animal Collective or TV on the Radio and other bands like that that are — whether you like them or not, it's good to be aware of what's out there ... I just feel like these are things you have to deal with in some way."

On the idea of a Steampunk big band:
It also comes from trying to find a virtue in the weirdness of it. Like when we play a rock club like Union Hall. People walk in, and they see 18 music stands and one guitar player. Is that guy going to sing? Is he going to conduct? it's a little weird and alienating ... having this steampunk frame kind of helps people get it a little more. This is deliberately weird — this is deliberately anachronistic. Having that conceptual frame helps people who aren't familiar with the whole jazz big band history at least get a sense of what I'm trying to express with this music.

On making 'complicated' music:
"I feel like the stuff I'm doing with Secret Society is not — I mean, sometimes it feels complicated, because it is really difficult to play — but it's important to me that it doesn't sound complicated, or at least that it doesn't sound like the point of it is trying to be complicated. If we're doing this odd meter thing, I don't want it to be this prog-rock thing where the whole point of it is, 'Oh, we're playing in 11/8 now, look at us!' Whatever happens, I just want to feel really natural."

On the state of the jazz blogosphere [as of March 2009]:
"There really weren't a whole lot of jazz blogs at that time and there still really aren't. Which is a little bit depressing. Obviously, blogs have played such a huge role in the indie rock world especially, and even in the classical world, of maintaining this community where people talk about music and are excited about music and care about it a lot. And there just doesn't seem to be that sort of activity, or that same kind of critical mass for jazz."

"Jazz musicians and the jazz media tend to be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to Web-based stuff. To the extent that [Secret Society has] found a bit of a younger audience — I think it has to do with, like, 'at least there's someone out there who's trying to use Internet technology and social media technology in a way that makes sense and is relatable, and is at all similar to what I'm used to.' So I think that it's going to happen; it's just at this point really slow."

On posting live recordings online:
"When we started doing this [posting live recordings online] ... The response was really tremendous. There were people from all around the world who heard these gigs — far more than people who actually showed up in the audience at that point. That's amazing: to be able to get e-mails from people in Japan, or people in Belgium saying, 'Hey, that was really awesome — I loved that set that you guys played last night.'"

On the new jazz business model:
"The old jazz dream used to be: you would go to jazz school, and get discovered by a big name like Terence Blanchard or something, and then go out on the road as a sideman, and then after a little while, you would go put our your own record on Fresh Sound, or whatever. I guess there's still a few people who do that, but that model is seriously endangered. It's not the way of the future. I think that it's a little bit healthier now, honestly, that there's a premium on writing your own music, and having a band concept, and doing something that is individualistic and doing something that is more personal than being able to thread on [John Coltrane's] 'Moment's Notice.'"

On connecting with audiences:
"If you're not doing everything in your power to communicate to the audience, why are you even playing music in public? And to my dismay, there were a lot of people, some of my close friends [and] musicians, who really disagreed with that. To me — I can't relate. As someone who likes being an audience member, what I love is when there's an artist out there that's absolutely putting everything on the line in order to communicate something to me — in order to make me feel something. If I can't do that up on stage, then I feel like I've failed."

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