"It was like trying to shoot Laurence of Arabia
on a Clerks
budget," says the 33-year-old composer/conductor Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
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."