The Making of Darcy James Argue's "Infernal Machines"
“ The music on 'Infernal Machines' has such a jolting, visceral energy because it manages to sound at once joyously familiar and unsettlingly alien ”
"It was like trying to shoot Laurence of Arabia on a Clerks budget," says the 33-year-old composer/conductor Darcy James Argue of his debut album, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam), which will be released next Tuesday, May 12. Argue didn't have to tread such a quixotic path. Up until five years ago, he was performing as a pianist in small groups, playing clubs and jam sessions. Had he decided against dedicating himself full-time to Secret Society—his 18-piece big band—he might now be on the brink of releasing his first piano trio album. It's easy to imagine: Argue interprets eight to ten standards, records a couple takes of each track, mixes it in a week, and scrounges up a few nickels to pay the expenses. Darcy James Argue: Vancouver Sunrise—it could have been a nice record.
Instead, Argue opted for the arduous and the absurd, hauling 18 musicians into the recording studio for three days last December, editing and mixing for two months, and often passing off a few winks in the studio's isolation booth as a good night's sleep. To finance Infernal Machines, Argue solicited fan donations and paid for the rest out of his own pocket. With that kind of financing scheme, "you don't have a record company telling you, 'you're spending too much money,'" Argue says. "But on the other hand, you have credit card companies telling you, 'you're not making your minimums.'"
Why would Argue risk going broke to make a big band album? After all, he calls the jazz big band an "alienating fucking thing," and writes in his program notes that it's "difficult to think of any musical style that is further from the mainstream zeitgeist than contemporary big band jazz." He says he hopes his music appeals to the indie kids who love Explosions in the Sky and The Octopus Project, but he's chosen a musical form that couldn't be any more archaic. Stop a skinny-jeans-wearing sophisticate in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the Mission district of San Francisco and ask him if he'd like to go to a big band concert. He'll only say, yes, if he's feeling ironic. Argue asks this question and expects an earnest answer in the affirmative.
The extreme contradictions of Argue's approach are, paradoxically, where it all begins to make sense. Argue calls Secret Society a "steampunk bigband," riffing on the literary genre that imagines a world of coal-powered robots and interplanetary dirigibles (think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). This flight of imagination may endow Secret Society with nerdy cool, but it's also designed as a tongue-in-cheek way to take the audience beyond its preconceptions. "It's kind of an 'alright, we're not fooling anybody, let's try to come to terms with the fact that we're using the same instrumentation as Glenn Miller's band and move on from there.'"
Ironically, composing for the same instruments as Glenn Miller's band is precisely what allows Argue to create bold, moody, and defiantly contemporary music. Eighteen musicians offer myriad possibilities to a composer and Argue deploys them to reproduce some of the electronic studio effects that define current pop and rock recordings. In the composition "Phobos," Argue uses a cup-muted trombone to echo the main tenor sax-lead melody, acoustically mimicking an eighth-note-off digital delay—a technique that started in dub music before becoming omnipresent in pop production. On other tunes, Argue acoustically replicates the emulsifying effects of a studio filter pass. "The great part about having the big band," he says, "is being able to make those layering choices and to be able to have that expanded palette so that I can manipulate color, and timbre, and sound in a way that you can't in a jazz small group."
When Argue made Infernal Machines, he found himself with even more possibilities for sonic manipulation. Ever since Secret Society played its first show at CBGB's in May 2005, Argue has posted MP3s of the band's live dates on his blog; so when it came time to record an album, he opted to use studio production to emphasize new textures in his music. When Infernal Machines opens, a reverberating and heavily treated cajón jolts us into a dark dreamscape. A distorted electric guitar enters to amplify the spacey mood, before the horns' long, clean lines focus the music on the contrast between the acoustic and the electronic. "I hate to use this word because it sounds totally douchebaggy," Argue says, "but the cajón is a sound manifesto. If you were expecting just another standard contemporary big band live-in-the-studio kind of thing, then you've got to adjust your expectations."
On "Redeye," the album's fourth track, Argue electronically loops an acoustic guitar line that repeats constantly as the music builds and shifts. "Some of the notes in the loop fit the chords," Argue says, "and some of them grind against them, but because it's been going on for the whole tune, there's a sense that the ear doesn't really notice it. It's a way of subtlety leading up to these pretty dissonant things that don't sound dissonant because you've kind of like massaged your way in and out of them." Argue may use pop techniques, but it doesn't make his music sound "poppy"—at least not in the pejorative sense. On "Redeye," the acoustic guitar loop makes the music richer, denser, more unexpected.
Argue's music balances complexity with accessibility. He crafts through-composed epics that build elaborate narratives over twelve minutes, and then talks about wanting his music "to feel good." His fluency in jazz, classical, and popular music has given him an intimidatingly vast harmonic and melodic vocabulary, but he says it's "all gravy on top of having a strong rhythmic foundation." As quirky and intellectual as Argue can be—the track titles on Infernal Machines are based on the CIA torture of the Canadian engineer Maher Arar ("Habeas Corpus"), Zeno's dichotomy paradox ("Zeno"), and the Fung Wah Chinatown Bus ("Transit")—he sees theory as far less important than groove. The music on Infernal Machines has such a jolting, visceral energy because it manages to sound at once joyously familiar and unsettlingly alien. Those common studio effects feel ever-so-slightly twisted; the music blasts along, but in odd meters; the dissonance builds gradually, without the jagged edges of Monk or Cecil Taylor. The seductiveness of Argue's music is the seductiveness of the uncanny: the recognizable-yet-strange, the interplanetary dirigible, the coal-powered robot, the big band playing the music of an imagined future.