Thursday, 16 June 2011



The secret to his Secret Society

We have a few concerts at the festival that just about everyone seems to be excited about, and one of these is Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. The grammy nominated Vancouver native is bringing a tremendous band... the next generation of New York based instrumentalists, some of which are also canadians including Toronto's Dave Smith on trumpet and our very own Ottawa born and raised Mike Fahie on Trombone. This is a band that sounds fresh and is packed full of incredible players so don't miss this one.

Darcy was kind enough to answer a few questions about his music. Here is what he had to say:

1.  Where did your band name and album name came from?
The album title, "Infernal Machines," comes from John Philip Sousa's testimony to Congress in 1906, in which he warned about the dangers of that very scary up-and-coming music technology, the phonograph. Sousa was by far the biggest rock star of his day, and he was vehemently opposed to those newfangled gramophone players, which he felt were ruining music by making people dependent on machines for their music-making, rather than relying on their own vocal chords.

So on one level, the title is a reference to the fear and anxiety that inevitably surrounds every new development in music technology. But the thing is, Sousa's concerns weren't entirely unfounded! As (Creative Commons founder) Larry Lessig points out, the age of mechanical sound reproduction really did usher in a shift from a highly participatory musical culture -- if you wanted to hear music, you had to get together with your friends and make it yourselves -- to the more passive model of listening to records, or listening to the radio. And the digital age to some extent represents the pendulum swinging back to a more participatory model: remixes, mash-ups, and the like... even video games like Rock Band force people to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of music in a way they might not otherwise.

On another level, you can easily imagine the bigband as a a kind of ornate and terrible machine, with many moving parts, gears grinding within gears and so on. It's clearly an old-fashioned contraption, an obsolete bit of music technology whose time in the sun came and went long ago. But that's precisely what makes it fun to hack, to try to make it do things it wasn't originally designed to do.

As for the band's name, I think it's interesting that I'm always being asked to explain it. We wouldn't be much of a secret society if we let things slip that easily...

2. There are rhythmic and melodic layers built into a lot of your music that I’ve heard. Is that something you make a conscious effort to do is there an underlying influence you draw upon for that?
Well, part of the interest in writing for such a large group of musicians is the thrill of hearing all of these interlocking parts coming together and creating something dynamic and massive. I've always been drawn to music that does that -- The Rite of Spring, Mingus tunes like "Haitian Fight Song" and "Hora Decubitus," Steve Reich... or the current artists like tUnE-YarDs, who are able to take the basic "play, sample, and loop" template and turn it on its head.

3. Do you have some favorite Canadian artist(s) that stand out and why?
Michael Bates is, like me, a Vancouver expatriate currently living in New York. He's a tremendous composer and bassist -- his music is really vivid and lively in a way that a lot of contemporary jazz isn't. Of course, I'm a huge fan of Montreal-based power-couple Joel Miller and Christine Jensen -- Christine's outstanding bigband record (deservedly!) won the Juno this year, and Joel consistently manages to combine musical inventiveness with an intense, open-hearted lyricism. And I think everyone who follows the Canadian jazz scene is aware that Brad Turner is a total badass -- on trumpet, piano, and drums!

Of course, there's been such an incredible vitality coming out of the Canadian indie scene for the past decade or so -- it's really inspiring to see artists like the New Pornographers, Metric, Wolf Parade, K'naan, Stars, of course Arcade Fire (amongst many others) find such phenomenal international success while making genuinely awesome music.

4. Your band has sounds coming out of it that you don’t usually hear in a big band, sometimes almost like sound-effects, sometimes the big band sounds like an indie band, either way the music sounds very visual to me… if I may be so bold as to ask: how do you do that?
What part of "Secret Society" was not clear to you?

Seriously, the short answer is that I try to listen both broadly, to a lot of different kinds of music, and deeply, to the stuff that really rings my cherries, so I can try to figure out what makes it click at a fundamental level. 

I hear a lot of music that tries to bridge genres but does it in a really superficial way, like just grafting on a prefab hiphop beat or a crunchy guitar sound, and that stuff never fails to sound cheap and awkward. For me, at least, the point of combining different influences is to weave something that sounds fresh and organic and seamless, not some horrible Frankenstein's-monster assemblage of a bunch of different genres.

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society will be performing June 28th at 10:30pm at the OLG Stage. Tickets and info available at


  1. Nice interview, Petr! But I still really want to know where the name "Secret Society" comes from...

  2. I know... that's for us to figure out