Composing Paranoia: A Conversation With Darcy James Argue

Last week we published a pretty extensive analysis of Real Enemies, the latest album from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, taking a long look at its extensive use of America’s long and complex history of conspiracy theories through the lens of contemporary politics. Though that sparked some back-and-forth in the comments on a more partisan and ideological basis, conspiracism and the use of paranoia and fear in politics is a deeply bi-partisan phenomenon, one that seems to only have been exacerbated in the past few years as the country pulls itself further and further apart ideologically. I had a chance to talk to Secret Society’s mastermind, Darcy James Argue, specifically about this, as well as a whole range of other things having to do with the creation and process behind this amazing piece of work.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nick Cusworth: So first off, I wanted to congratulate you on Real Enemies’ release and success.

Darcy James Argue: Thank you!

NC: Have you been surprised at all by the kind of crossover coverage and pickup the album has received so far?

DJA: Yeah, I mean, it’s always a surprise to see, you know, a review on Pitchfork, obviously, and other non-jazz publications. There was a thing in Gear Gods. So, yeah, placement like that, it is pleasantly surprising for sure, but I’m always really happy when the music resonates outside of the rarified circles of jazz and big band aficionados. I love those guys, but that’s a small circle, and I’m always trying to reach out with the music and try to, I suppose, evangelize for the possibilities of this particular quirky large ensemble to people who don’t typically listen to big band records.

NC: For sure, and yeah, it definitely makes sense for your music and what Secret Society has been doing the whole time, which is really kind of expanding what people think of genres and formats of big band and jazz, and what is possible through that format.

DJA: Sure, that’s the idea.

NC: So what initially drew you to the topic of conspiracy theories when you first started to work on this project with [writer/director] Isaac Butler and [filmmaker] Peter Nigrini?

DJA: So I had been invited to pitch another multimedia project idea to BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music], and I knew I wanted to do something a little different from Brooklyn Babylon, which was a narrative piece – there was a whole fable story attached to it – and I had the idea, well look, let me try something that is at least nominally non-narrative and something based on non-fictional sources.

So I kind of mulled over a number of different possibilities, including a project about the abolitionist John Brown and various other things, and finally I came across this book. It was recommended to me by my girlfriend, this book Kathryn Olmsted’s Real Enemies. And when I read it I was immediately taken by how masterfully it charts the history of conspiracy theories and of the politics of paranoia since World War I in the United States. And it is actually I think a very sharp, but sympathetic look as to why people believe conspiracy theories and also how people and organizations with political power have encouraged and profited from belief in conspiracy theories – because it is a very powerful tool that you can use to demonize your political opponents and undermine faith in ordinary political processes. You can see why certain authoritarian political figures would be attracted to using conspiracy theories to advance their ends.

NC: Yeah, and I think that certainly comes through in the piece. It kind of presents a view of conspiracy theories and the people who believe in them and propagate them in a way that’s not necessarily sympathetic, but it’s a viewpoint that I haven’t really seen much elsewhere.


DJA: Right, so, I would say that for the first eleven chapters of the piece, up until the end of “Never a Straight Answer,” what we’re trying to do is present the most sympathetic case possible for each conspiracy theory. I mean, it works a bit different from the album versus the live multimedia performance, where we are able to deploy visual storytelling to be a little more, I suppose, explicit about the nature of each chapter. But the idea is that between the music and the voiceover audio samples that we used on the album is to, as much as possible, immerse them in the particular vibe and the particular state of mind and the particular kind of state of being that I associate with each of the conspiracy theories we talk about. So, when we are tracing the history of the CIA’s involvement in the War on Drugs in “Dark Alliance,” I’m not critiquing the people who believe those theories. I’m just sort of charting what the available information suggests, you know what I mean?

And there’s a breaking point. If you look at Loose Change or any of the other 9/11 “truther” documentaries or any other sort of document of conspiratorial thinking, you don’t open with your most controversial claim. You open with the stuff that is commonly understood and that everyone can agree on and that everyone already knows. And so Real Enemies opens with a chapter called “You Are Here,” which is the present moment, and if you open up the booklet you have the portrait of Edward Snowden and images associated with the PRISM program – the PRISM surveillance program and other associated programs – and the suggestion is, look, we live in an era where the government can read all of our emails and listen to all of our phone calls and intercept all of our electronic communications, and that’s just the way it is. And this is something that everyone knows and is vaguely aware of and has, more or less, decided to make their peace with. And we kind of proceed outward from there into less well-known or less well-trafficked conspiracies until we get to outer space – “Never A Straight Answer,” which, of course, is an alternate acronym for NASA. And that deals with moon landing trutherism and reptilians from Alpha Centauri by the way of space jazz.

And at that point the album and the live performance break down, and there’s a section of text read by James Urbaniak taken from Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style In American Politics,” where the show stops and you just have this bit of text. It is read without musical accompaniment for about a minute before the music starts to creep back in. And that text lays out a critique of paranoid styles of thinking and of conspiracy theories as being fundamentally toxic to the democratic process. And there are two ways to view that text, and there are two ways to sort of view that moment in the album and in the show. The first would be that we, the creators of Real Enemies, are tipping our hand and telling you what we truly and genuinely believe about these conspiracy theories that we have documented and trafficked in over the past hour. Or, two, like the end of the Parallax View, the audience was getting too close to the truth and the whole thing had to be shut down, and this is the official whitewashed story that is being presented to you at the end of the album because it is something that the authorities want you to believe because you are getting too close to the truth.

NC: That’s interesting. I didn’t think of the second option when I heard those monologues, but that makes sense. I really enjoyed the kind of rabbit hole effect that you all created with the structuring of the piece. I saw the original performance of it, and I felt really primed for the more obscure and out there theories because, yes, PRISM is obviously a thing, and Iran-Contra, and there were all these things that were either in the realm of things that have been proven or believable or plausible. And then suddenly you find yourself dropped into the Illuminati and all this other stuff, and it creates this really interesting effect where you feel like you’re sliding deeper and deeper down into the realms of conspiracy. It’s a really cool effect.

DJA: Yeah, thank you. That was certainly deliberate, and that came from a lot of research into paranoid storytelling, if you will, in documentary films and in books and whatnot. And that is the exact kind of structure someone will use when they are trying to convince you of something that on the surface might sound kind of outlandish. And it’s sort of a gradual introduction of, you know, the phrase “just asking questions,” and by a process of asking increasingly pointed and leading questions to undermine people’s faith in the official narrative.


NC: Cool, so as a composer, how did you take the mission of taking these conspiracy theories sort of at face value and presenting them in the most sympathetic light and converting that into the musical side?

DJA: After we got the green light from BAM – at that point we had already worked out the structure of the piece, so when we went to pitch it to them we had the chapter titles all set, and the organizing framing device of the clock (from the echoes of the doomsday clock) and the notions of circularity that are very common in the book, Real Enemies, represented well by the clock. And we sort of plotted out our boiling the frog structure proceeding through increasingly, sort of, gradually ratcheting up the level of paranoia until it reached a particular breaking point. And then from there, Isaac Butler, who was our writer and director of the piece, wrote up a spine, sort of a script where the words in the script are designed to be removed by the filmmaker. It was almost like a comic book script in a way of describing, well, we see an octopus, and we see its tentacles reach toward these eight military contractors, for instance. Stuff like that.

And so when I was composing the music I was referring to this spine, so I had an idea of what the imagery for the chapter would be and how that imagery would be structured. And while I was writing I would kind of break down the structure of the chapter itself, so I would know I would have to hit certain marks in the music, and I would create a MIDI mock-up of it from my music notation software and send that to filmmaker Peter Nigrini with some placement notes – like, okay, here’s where I picture the music synching up with our spine that Isaac wrote. And then from there we’d go through some several iterations of the video, often beginning with just four screens of video, and trying to figure out if we’re in the right ballpark here.

And then once we had the four screen version it would get blown up to the fifteen screen version. There was a lot of figuring out what information to present and what information to withhold from the viewer and from the listener, and to what extent we want the show to make sense. Baked into the structure of the piece is the idea that we want to, as much as possible, encourage the audience to make their own connections between things rather than spelling everything out. So when the audience sits down and sees the multimedia incarnation of the show they see a grid of fifteen screens and that grid has gaps in it. So in order to resolve any of the images that are projected onto that screen, the audience has to mentally fill in the gaps. It also means that when we’re projecting text or headlines or anything like that it’s a little more of a challenge to read because there are gaps, so as the text scrolls you can kind of fill in what the headline says but it might not be instantly obvious. But there’s a certain amount of work that we are asking of the audience that echoes the kind of work that actual conspiracy theorists do, which is taking seemingly unrelated events and draw connections between them.

NC: So at what point did you decide you wanted to heavily incorporate the twelve-tone theory and the other major musical influences into the piece?

DJA: Pretty early on. Once we settled on the clock it was just a short leap to there, like oh, this needs to be a twelve-tone work. And, of course, there is actually a conspiracy theory about twelve-tone music, which is that it was this system of composition that was foisted upon the American classical music establishment by these academic composers who had great disdain for listeners and believed that they this sort of cult of twelve-tone serialism, and that if you weren’t part of that cult then you weren’t a serious composer and that you would be denied advancement and commissions and academic jobs and respectability within classical music. That is kind of the conspiracy about the kind of twelve-tone cabal of Milton Babbitt and his buddies, and that is not entirely true! But there are enough grains of truth in that picture that it makes it an attractive way of explaining mid-century modern music and mid-century modernism. So the fact that there is a conspiracy theory about twelve-tone music itself made the use of twelve-tone language for Real Enemies irresistible.

But another thing about that is that if you’re writing a piece about conspiracy theories you don’t want the music to be particularly pretty all the time. You’re looking for something creepy and sinister and for something that even when there are moments of consonance or there are moments that are referencing more tonal styles of music that there’s something lurking beneath the surface that’s disquieting. Sort of like how you could superficially listen to the [Tadeusz] Baird violin concerto and be all “Oh yeah, this is sort of pretty and beautiful and you have triads and oh my god what is that?” There’s that undercurrent that there’s something wrong even when we’re being superficially consonant, that the threat of dissonance is never far away.

And that was obviously appealing to me as a composer, and it just makes for a very useful way to structure a very wide-ranging piece. I knew that it would have to go to a lot of different emotional places and a lot of different evocations of time and place in the music. We would have to have our kind of 80s LA electro-funk piece and we would have to have some Nicaraguan song and some mid-50s bachelor pad cha-cha-cha – and, of course, space jazz at the end and Sun Ra – and figure out how to make all of that music live comfortably on the same album. Using the twelve-tone row allowed me to unify all of that and have kind of a connective tissue, a through-line of musical structure that maybe isn’t instantly obvious to the listener but I hope creates a sense of connectivity throughout all of these very different musical moods and settings that are involved in the piece.

NC: Yeah, I definitely picked up on that because the album itself is really eclectic in that you are bringing in so many different styles and little bits and pieces of things, but the twelve-tone general feeling kind of ends up serving as the home base. It’s a cool effect throughout the entire thing.

DJA: Thanks.


NC: So Real Enemies was originally performed in 2015 and, you know, kind of conceived and written before this crazy, ridiculous year in politics that we’ve had, but most people will have heard it right before easily one of the strangest and most conspiracy-driven elections America has faced. Do you believe the piece has taken on any new or special meaning now in light of that?

DJA: Well, first off, I think it’s unquestionable that we’re living in a particularly paranoid era in our politics, and, you know, these things tend to be cyclical, but I don’t think there’s any question right now that the politics of fear are on the rise, and not just in the US. When we performed the multimedia version of this piece in Amsterdam over the summer, our first performance was the night of the Brexit vote, and then our second performance was after everyone had woken up that morning and seen the results and was beginning to ponder the possible implications for their own country. It seems, as if though, the Netherlands may be headed for their own referendum on their participation in the EU. And the types of arguments that are advanced for leaving international institutions like the EU are completely paranoid arguments. They are not rationally defensible, and they are entirely based upon conspiracy theories about immigration.

Obviously when we first started writing the piece we thought about, well, you know, as we return to the present at the end of the piece we will need to say something about birtherism because it’s such a prominent, but absurd, conspiracy theory in American politics. But the voice that we used to represent birtherism is Sheriff Joe Arpaio because, at the time, he was sort of the most prominent and powerful birther. We could’ve used Trump, but at the time Trump held no elected office, and it seemed like that would be too easy or superficial, whereas Sheriff Joe Arpaio is actually someone who is in a position to make policy, so his investigation into the president’s birth certificate seemed so much more consequential at the time. And, of course, we all saw what happened after that.

But it is remarkable the extent to which Trump has absorbed the paranoid playbook, and I think it’s not for nothing that his political mentor was Roy Cohn, who was instrumental in the Red Scare and in the House Un-American Activities Committee as an advisor to Joe McCarthy. That’s really where Roy Cohn learned to wield paranoia for political power. And I think you really see in Trump the very strong echoes of 1950s paranoid politics in a new and hyper-accelerated form. But it’s certainly how he’s speaking to his supporters and what he’s saying now about the legitimacy of the election itself is straight out of the Roy Cohn/Joe McCarthy paranoid playbook of: You can’t trust the institutions of democracy because they have been compromised and infiltrated, and I am the only one who can set things right, and in order to do that I require extraordinary anti-democratic power.

NC: Definitely. Dovetailing from that, I was really struck by the prescience of the two monologues at the end of Real Enemies, particularly in the “You Are Here” reprise when James Urbaniak talks about the lack of trust in government and how that can kind of create a conspiratorial death spiral where citizens question the government’s ability to carry out basic functions like fair elections, and in turn they participate even less in the process and become further disillusioned in that. Given that Trump is basically running his campaign at this point on the premise that the elections are rigged, do you think there’s any chance we’re already entering this cycle, or is this just a repeat of things we’ve already seen?

DJA: Well, there’s two ways that the cycle can go. The cycle can continue to spiral downwards, or there can be a kind of return to the core ideas of openness and populist democracy that you saw represented in certain other candidates in this presidential cycle. We saw that in the wake of Watergate. One of the positive consequences of Watergate is that because of popular trust in government had reached an all-time low, there was a genuine effort to open up the books. One of the voices you hear in the show is Frank Church of the Church Commission, which took a hard look at what our intelligence agencies were really doing with the public’s tax dollars both at home and abroad. And we learned, for instance, that the CIA had been involved in secret mind-control experiments on Canadian housewives, which is a real thing that happened in the search for the Manchurian Candidate, and is something that the CIA obviously would have prefered not be revealed. But because public trust in institutions had reached such a low ebb after Watergate, there was a real demand for that level of accountability in order to restore the public’s faith in democracy.

And what I’m hopeful of is that after fifteen years of legislation like PRISM and The Patriot Act and the War on Terror being used to justify all manner of extended contemporary surveillance state mechanisms, I hope that we are about to reach a breaking point with that and that we are starting to see some pushback with that. Certainly I think the kind of electronic hacking initiatives that we’ve seen from, presumably, the Russians and the kind of internet outages we just had are a demonstration of the real fragility of these kinds of systems that are designed to safeguard our privacy. I guess the most succinct way of putting it is that I hope that the current level of distrust in government can be productively channeled in order to make government more open in a way that has some hope in restoring that trust.


NC: For sure. So, as a whole, do you think that Americans are too suspicious of government, not suspicious enough, or is it more a matter of the ways in which they are suspicious?

DJA: I think, you know, everyone thinks they are the right amount of paranoid. Alex Jones believes that everything he says on his radio show is completely justified, and that the people who listen to his conspiratorial fearmongering and are skeptical of his claims are not “woke” enough and are too naive and are not taking the appropriate level of skepticism towards what we are officially being told. I also think that it is to the advantage of people who would rather not have effective government to encourage people like Alex Jones, to encourage that kind of totally reflexive, unthoughtful skepticism of any kind of government pronouncement. And rather than say trust, but verify, or even distrust but try to muster evidence from sources, when the public’s first reaction is simply like “I refuse to believe anything the government tells me on any level, and there is literally nothing anyone who has power our democracy could say or do to persuade me of any kind of point-of-view,” that everything is automatically suspect by virtue of coming from the government, if that’s the case then democracy can’t function. So there’s a level of unthoughtful, reflexive – it’s not even really skepticism, it’s reflexive denialism – once you reach that level it’s impossible to have a conversation with those people because they’re completely closed down to any avenue that you might use to persuade.

But it’s also impossible for democracy to function, and there are many powerful interests who would prefer that it be impossible for democracy to function because it is to their financial advantage to not have an adequate regulatory mechanism, for instance. So, you know, there’s an irony to the people who have this view of “Well I just don’t trust anything the government tells me,” because a lot of the biggest donors to the various political parties are thrilled with that view because it is to their advantage that you believe that your vote and your ability to protest and your ability to rally public opinion is something that is not actually available to you. You are actually a citizen of a democracy powerless because the fix is in, and the only way to resolve it is either burn it all to the ground or to bring in some strongman-type figure. And those are terrifying options! And I feel like that’s the road down at which there’s a tipping point for skepticism. Obviously, everyone should – given, for instance, that the CIA did conduct those mind-control experiments on Canadian housewives – there is a level of skepticism that is absolutely warranted and required in order to inform citizens to have a watchdog role to play in keeping a democracy healthy. But there is definitely a tipping point beyond which the whole thing collapses in a garbage fire, and I worry about that tipping point.

NC: Yeah…hopefully we’ll see some form of course-correction in the next few years, but I have some doubts. So this is obviously not the first time that you’ve incorporated political and social commentary into your music. How do you approach your music and writing as a vehicle for such commentary?

DJA: You know, to be totally honest, it’s just something that’s been a part of who I am as a composer and as an artist. It’s something that the composers that I most admire like [Charles] Mingus and Don Byron and Dave Douglas and Billy Strayhorn and many other people in the history of jazz have incorporated in various ways, some form of social commentary in their music. I don’t think it’s something I ever made a conscious decision about, that I’m going to do this. I think that it has just sort of been part of the way I think about music and art as having some connection to things beyond the sort of insular world of chords and harmonies and rhythms and sound. I think there is a tradition in jazz of music that is about more than just music, and that’s a tradition that I’ve always wanted to be a part of.

NC: One last question. Anything interesting coming up for you and Secret Society the rest of the year? I know you’re flying into Copenhagen tonight.

DJA: Yes, so I’m off to work with the Danish Radio Big Band, so we will be performing some portions of Real Enemies’ music with that group, and then I am also working with the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and will again be drawing from Real Enemies, among other things. It’s always interesting to be able to collaborate with other musicians on my music. I have some other projects in the hopper that I can’t really talk about yet because we’re still in the initial discussion phases, but I will say that you may see some more collaborative projects from me coming down the pipe in the future. That’s something I always enjoy. As fun as it is to sort of be the mastermind of Secret Society, I think there is an attractiveness to working with other artists and to help them realize their own vision as well. So I think we’ll see some projects of that nature emerging in the next year.

Real Enemies is available now through New Amsterdam. You can purchase it and the rest of Secret Society’s discography (as well as listen to and download a bunch of live takes of equally amazing un-recorded gems) at their Bandcamp.

"We're all fools, all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly." - Ray Bradbury