Interview | Darcy James Argue’s innovative machines (AUDIO)

Darcy James Argue, left, conducts his big band, Secret Society. Courtesy Ben Anaman

by Brad Linde
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If someone tells you that Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is an old-school big band, they’re not necessarily wrong; they just aren’t giving you the whole story. Argue, a Canadian composer and bandleader who has helmed the 18-piece orchestra since 2005, is inspired by science fiction’s “steampunk” subgenre, which contemplates a world that’s still dependent upon steam power, and therefore neo-Victorian technologies. Old school for sure. But not exactly in a Fletcher Henderson kind of way.

Argue and Secret Society, who have enjoyed a new level of prominence since the very well-received release of their 2009 album Infernal Machines, arrive in D.C. this Wednesday for two shows. One is at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and the other at DIY performance space Subterranean A. The latter gig is especially noteworthy for being the first non-New York production put on by Search & Restore, an innovative organization dedicated to jazz advocacy and concert promotion. Looking forward to Wednesday, we asked Argue a few questions about his music, steampunk and Search & Restore. Here’s what he had to say.

Listen to “Transit,” by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: [audio:|titles=Transit|artists=Darcy James Argues Secret Society]

CapitalBop: Can you talk about your influences in composition and arranging? How do compose and develop a piece for your ensemble?

Darcy James Argue: My biggest compositional influence is Bob Brookmeyer, who I studied with at New England Conservatory in the early 2000s. Bob was big on “pre-compositional work” – which, in a nutshell, involves examining your basic materials from every conceivable angle before you actually get down to composing. This is an approach that has served me well in my own writing.

CB: Your album is called “Infernal Machines,” after the John Philip Sousa quote warning of the use of modern technology. With a traditional big band performing in a modern context, how does the music specifically relate to the idea of steampunk?

DJA: Sousa thought the phonograph cylinder would kill music – that was back in 1906. You get someone saying something similar every time there is a new development in music technology. But technology can cut both ways – Creative Commons activist Lawrence Lessig has actually repurposed that Sousa warning in his advocacy of “remix culture.” You’ve now got non-musicians adopting a less passive, more participatory relationship to music by remixing, making mashups, making their own music videos and putting them up on YouTube, and so on.

Steampunk is a genre of speculative fiction that usually evokes an alternate universe, where Victorian technology, design, fashion and so on continues to prevail. Secret Society imagines a world where the big band did not fall out of favor after the rise of amplification, but instead remained a vital part of the popular music landscape right up until the present day. What if Elvis and Hendrix and Bowie and Prince and Beck and Kanye had all fronted big bands? What would that sound like?

CB: The District is very excited to have such an original-sounding ensemble visiting for multiple performances. Can you tell us what to expect from your D.C. shows?

DJA: We’re really excited to be making our debut at the Kennedy Center in their free Millennium Stage concert series. But since that’s an early show (6 to 7 p.m.), we thought we’d take the opportunity to stick around to play again later that night. This also gives us the opportunity to play a double-bill with a really innovative large ensemble from Richmond, Va.: Fight The Big Bull. We’ll be playing unamplified sets at a hip underground space called Subterranean A – a real old-school, basement big-band blowout. We will be playing different material at each venue, so if people really want their Secret Society fix, they can get a double dose.

CB: Search & Restore is presenting Secret Society’s performance at Subterranean A. Tell us about your relationship and work with that organization.

DJA: Search & Restore is a young organization, but they have been doing an amazing job of getting down in the trenches and building the jazz audience of the future. Their focus is on presenting the music in a way that feels vital and exciting, especially for a young audience that’s not interested in getting fleeced at some stodgy upscale jazz club. This is their first time presenting a show outside of New York, but I think you’ll start to see Search & Restore events all up and down the East Coast before too long. They just wrapped up a $75,000 Kickstarter fundraising campaign that will help them document what’s happening on the NYC scene and beyond.

CB: How have you managed to keep the ensemble working steadily, with rehearsals, a core personnel and an ever-developing book of compositions and arrangements?

DJA: Keeping an 18-piece band together is a formidable challenge, both financially and logistically. Taking the group on the road – even for a one-day run-out like this one – is a huge endeavor. I’m very fortunate to have a group of musicians that believe in the music and are willing to make all kinds of sacrifices in order to bring it to new audiences.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performs this Wednesday at 6 p.m., in a free show at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. The band plays a second performance at 10:15 p.m. that night, at Subterranean A; tickets are $17.50 in advance, or $20 at the door. For more information on Secret Society, visit

Brad Linde is a D.C.-based saxophonist who co-leads the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra.



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