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Darcy James Argue: His Secret Society

By Published: December 9, 2008
AAJ: That's cool that everybody was so willing. They probably also told you that you were crazy.

DJA: [chuckles]. It still is completely insane. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing with my life. This big band I'm running and recording is a totally unreasonable way to make music. It's like I've gone out of my way to create the absolute most difficult scenario in terms of hours involved in preparation, to actual minutes of music produced. But for whatever reason, the payoff has been worth it for me so far.

AAJ: The music I've heard sounds really good. And I know the critical acclaim is there, which has to feel good.

DJA: It's been incredibly gratifying. Critics and listeners have responded so well to this music. It's obviously really important, especially in this kind of endeavor where it is so labor intensive to get even five minutes of music out there. Sometimes it's difficult to keep motivated through the grind of preparing that. That kind of response, especially from the audiences, has been very encouraging. It's been very motivating, as well, for me writing stuff and keeping the band going.

AAJ: How do you sustain yourself, financially?

DJA: I'm a music copyist by day. I do a lot of work for various clients. Sometimes I do Broadway or film scores. Sometimes it's composers who still do work with pencil and paper. Or they have the score in music notation software and they want me to extract parts or whatever. I try to hustle up as much of that as I can to feed my big band habit.

AAJ: You guys don't travel that much?

DJA: We did have a mini-tour back in January. It was a Canadian splinter cell version of the band. I brought up as many players from New York as I could afford and we hooked up with some of the musicians I had collaborated with in my days on the Montreal scene, as well as Toronto players. That was great to be able to bring that music back to Montreal, which is a city that I dearly love. We played a show in Montreal, then we went to Toronto and did the last IAJE convention. And we did a gig at a club called Tranzac in Toronto as well. That was great. It was a wonderful experience to take the music outside of New York for a little while and collaborate with a different group of musicians.

We're trying to do something similar this summer. With the Canadian jazz festival season coming up, we'll try to set up a little tour of some festivals. Again, it will probably be a combination of musicians who play in the New York band and then some Canadian players as well.

AAJ: The joys of carrying a big band must outweigh the frustrations.

DJA: I guess on balance. Or it's something I'm powerless to stop doing.

AAJ: You've used the word "steampunk" to describe your music. What does that mean for you?

Darcy James Argue

DJA: For people who aren't familiar, steampunk is a literary movement, but it's also become involved in lifestyle and culture and invention. It involves an alternate vision of the future. What if the technology of the late 19th century, the external combustion engine and whatnot, was still the basis for contemporary technology.

A lot of it is inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and taking that view of the future and extrapolating it. It's using an anachronism, like using the past, or an imagined past or imagined future, as a way to comment on the present.

What also struck me is that it had so much contemporary resonance. To take these kind of pulp, late 19th century tropes and plug them into postmodern storytelling techniques, and to be able to do that and make some wry commentary on the state of the modern world and our relationship to technology. For whatever reason, that resonated with me and what I was trying to do—to take what is, in a lot of ways, an antiquated music technology and use it to make contemporary sounds.

The big band is born of the need to have a band that could fill a large ballroom before the days of amplification. If you needed the music to be loud and powerful, you needed 17, 18 players wailing away on it. Technology has rendered that necessity obsolete. Popular music has moved on to other things. Back in the day, the big bands were the sound of the day. If you had a singer and you had a radio hit, they had to be backed up by a big band. It was the sound of the day.

I thought, what would happen if that instrumentation had persisted through the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s? What of that was still a necessity for popular music and every song you heard on the radio had a big band behind it still? What might that music sound like?

Jazz, at that time, had that interesting relationship to popular music. Not everything you heard ion the radio was jazz, but it was jazz all kind of jazzy. There was that shared instrumentation and that shared sense of swing behind everything and a shared harmonic vocabulary. What if you had this contemporary big band that had a shared sonic vocabulary with bands like Tortoise or TV On The Radio? What might that sound like?

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