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05. Per’s picks of 2010, part 1: The Secret History

The World That Never Was, the freshly released debut album from The Secret History, starts with what I presume to be the voices of Italian soccer fans rejoicing. I’ve never quite under­stood the appeal that sports seem to have on a vast number of people worldwide, so at first it leaves me in a bit of aesthetic discomfort. But as the music kicks in I come to the realization that, even if it’s hardly probable that I’ll ever sit in front of the telly rooting for a group of color-coordinated athletes battling it out with another group of color-coordinated athletes, at least I can sympathize with that basic “us against them”-mentality. Because I do have a team that I root for. A team of my own.

The members of my team however doesn’t play together at an arena against an easily defined enemy, they might actually not be aware that they are fighting together at all. But whether they know it or not, I do believe that the people involved share a lot of kindness and conscience and good, old-fashioned indie mentality and ideology together. I will here in a series of articles present some of the members of my team, those ones who’ve released an album during 2010 of power, integrity and musical beauty. And if my team have a star player, then it undoubtedly is The Secret History. I’ve had a relationship of love and friendship with this group for fourteen years, and if you’re wondering how I possibly could have devoted such long time to a band who’ve just released their debut then I guess it’s time for a re-cap.

The Secret History are rising from the ashes of much loved NYC indie legends My Favorite. I guess one should actually bracket the much love with quotation marks, since they unfortunately never received the accolades that their fans believed they rightly deserved.

It is probable that their music just were too smart and too beautiful to succeed since, as history have told us, artists who actually manages to combine heart on the sleeve sincerity with wit rarely becomes the darlings of the music press. They only focus on the former, leaving the world for most people less interesting, less intelligent because of it.

But for some reason My Favorite did manage to seize a moderately sized but faithful audience here in Sweden, returning several times to keep sensitive aesthetes dancing with tears in their eyes to peaks of human creativity like “Working Class Jacket” and the achingly perfect “Burning Hearts”. And these trips to Sweden weren’t only beneficial to the audience, the band have themselves said that the gigs My Favorite did here persuaded them in times of doubt to keep going even if they were largely ignored in their homeland. But in 2005 the good times came to an end when singer Andrea Vaughn announced her departure from the group, and with that the rest of the bunch decided to drop their all too fitting, but highly ungoogable moniker to start anew.

Now, five years later, we at last have The World That Never Was. My Favorite is now The Secret History, and two new vocalists have been added, Lisa Ronson as lead singer and Erin Dermody on backing duties. But everything is still all the same. In a good way. Released on connoisseur label Le Grand Magistery, TWTNW gives us at times a harder edged sound, bringing to the forefront the 70’s glam rock influences that was always lurking about in My Favorite, while toning down, but still retaining, the 80′ synth/post punk sounds. And the pale spectre of classic, british indiepop is of course still looming heavily above it all. I do hope that the rawkier sound (which at one point even takes the music into full-fledged heavy metal territory. Lovely stuff!) won’t deter listeners of a more “twee” inclination, because it is an elegant, eloquent record, both musically and lyrically, whose heartfelt, manufactured sounds in my world makes it the proudly black sheep of a family who includes the likes of Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile. Big words perhaps, but that is the way I speak. And this graceful beast deserves them.

I sent off a few questions to The Secret History’s songwriter and lyricist Michael Grace Jr about the new record. This is what the man had to say.

So, it’s been five years since the demise of My Favorite until the release of The World That Never Was, how has the last years been treating you and the rest of the crew? Was it easy to decide on getting your ass out there and find a new vocalist, or did you guys ever think about throwing in the towel?

It wasn’t easy at all to find a new singer, but luckily we did before the impulse to give up overtook us. I mean I’d compare it to moving to completely new country. You are still you, but all the short-cuts and routines you had to express yourself are gone and you have to find a new way, a new path. But when I give up, it will because I want to, not because a collaborator decides to do other things.

How is your relation to the album now when it is out and about? Do you avoid the recordings, or do you revel in them? Do you ever sit down for a prolonged amount of time to hold and look at the record?

Honestly this is the first thing I’ve ever done that I’ve enjoyed listening to with two years of it being released. It’s within 10% of what I wanted it to be, and what I wanted it to be was “Wuthering Heights”, “Night of The Living Dead”. It’s a pretty good pop record, and a pretty good work of art, and you can’t say that about many records of the last ten years. Now in terms of sitting down and staring at the record… I don’t need to… I just close my eyes and I’m in the cover photo, in the world that never was. I’m always just a wormhole away.

Would you be offended if I’d describe your music as crescendo porn?

Crescendo porn, isn’t that redundant? I am only offended by fascism and the lazy university student notion that the universe is without magic

Well, what I meant is that your works, almost all of them, feels like they’re fetischizing the noble art of dramaturgy and climax. And many times we are treated to an extra, totally different chorus at the end as a way to pump up the song to a higher level, instead of using clichés such as changing into a higher key. Is this something you think about while writing the songs, or does it just come by default?

Ha ha sometimes people say that I go too far. I am jealous sometimes of two minute pop songs. I was listening to the first Lucinda Williams album on Rough Trade, and she didn’t so much as write a middle eight on any song. Just verse/chorus… sometimes we’d get a bridge. I think you make a good point about dramaturgy. I write parts based on where I want the story or feeling to go, not on traditional patterns or gimmickry, though I’m always for a good gimmick. So we sometimes get this operatic ending. “Crescendo porn”. It’s not very pop of me, or maybe it’s a postmodern reality. It takes three pop songs in a bus wreck to capture one mediocre life.

If My Favorite was by some called an 80s retro band then The Secret History is more obviously referencing the 70s. Was this a conscious decision to separate the band from it’s predecessor, or just natural progression? If there had been a second full length from My Favorite do you imagine that it would’ve sounded quite alike to this one or not?

I’m not sure it was conscious at the beginning. But I see the 80s as this Faustian illusion of possibility and ecstasy through machines and plastics and cosmetics. Emotions as objects, products. And I think I dealt with that well in My Favorite. I suppose the 70s are more about the faded, failed promise of the 60s becoming this complex swamp of experiments and radical expressions. A real concrete desperation and loss of bearing. But I think there is actually a mix of 60s/70s/80s on the record. I think it would be fair to say it’s aesthetically about the end of the 20th century. Skipping through time and ending up in the 70s like the cast of Lost. I think if My Favorite had made another record it would have gone in that direction, but the end felt like the end of a dream, and I think that left us in a similar place as say Roxy Music. Nothing but trinkets and souvenirs. Or perhaps I just want to follow Lawrence’s trajectory very closely.

Some of the songs on the album go quite a way back, for example ”Death Mods” must at least be eight or nine years old, since that’s when I first heard it on a My Favorite live webcast. During how long a period have the tracks on The world that never was been written? Which ones are the earliest and the latest?

“Death Mods”, “God Save”, “Backwards” and “Johnny Nightmare” are the oldest being potential My Favorite songs, though they all evolved in this band. “Living Dead” & “How I Saved My Life” were actually recorded and released by My Favorite. “Johnny Anorak”, “Stalingrad”, “Love Theme”, “Sister Rose”, “Palermo”, “Sex With Ghosts” are more recent. But honestly it all feels like one slow crawl away from wreckage. Is one meter of the dirt really distinct from another?

Most of the reviews that I’ve read of the new album has been very positive, and righteously so, but its eventual success can be hard to gauge for a little swede on the other side of the Atlantic. Are you getting at least modestly more attention in the States now with the new project, or are you still doomed to only be loved to death by a precious few lucky enough to get exposed to your music? Although one could argue that there are at least some fates worse than the latter.

I really can’t gauge the attention we are receiving here. It’s not like Sweden. Over there if Sound Affects or Benno were writing about you and P3 were playing you, it seems like you had people’s ear. The “spiritual” legacy of puck and indie really lingered there for some reason. Only commerce moves quickly across the Amercan plains. Art dies in the desert.

People who hear it seem to really appreciate the record. Shows have been good, and people are excited. But getting casual music fans aware of it is difficult. Certain influential music blogs refused to as much as review a track, even though they covered my previous band frequently during a more innocent age, even though some of the bands they currently champion name me as an influence. So I think to some degree that syndicate, that sensibility doesn’t know what to make of us. Subculture without content is a pose, and posers see actors as a threat. Because if words and melody and meaning become more important, then maybe blogs and dilettante ghetto aesthetics become less. You know what I mean?

If The Smiths were a Brooklyn band now, certain folks would turn their nose up at them on their way to see The Drums with no sense of irony. Our age is not Gilded, it’s Dark.

So anyone who wants to love us to death is welcome, but they’ll be the French Resistance, the White Rose Collective, the Garibaldini. There is no framework in America right now for what we are doing to be terribly “successful.” The kids are being Dum Dum-ed down. But they’ll never walk alone.

Unfortunately I have to say that the disaster, the disease of hipsterism have hit Sweden as well, and hit it hard. I think it’s hard for any western country to avoid it these days, now with the flattening of the earth called internet. Even though I love that these post-post-modern days allows everything, reveres everything, it sadly seem to result in artists wearing their influences on their sleeve and only on their sleeve. The references is there to check and nothing more. The numbers of actually interesting acts are dwindling for every year, and I don’t think it’s because I’m getting older, it’s because I have the patience to listen. Maybe we need a new art? What acts of pure, blinding light do you feel are worthy of mentioning in this day and age?

I mean it’s something I go over in my mind. Were Huggy Bear really better than Grizzly Bear… or am I just remembering exciting times and feelings? Biased? In the end I think it comes down to one’s motivation and sense of purpose. And I’m not sure the current crowd has the same “belief” that Style Council fans had, or Smiths fans, or Sarah Records fans or Riot Grrrls etc. Now that may be a side effect of the technology. It’s hard to have “sub-culture” when everything exists in an instantly accessible over-exposed virtual “surface”. There is no “sub”. I mean we are all hipsters. We’ve always been hipsters. Lou Reed was a hipster. When Stuart Murdoch wrote about hipsters in 1995, it was like Eazy E writing about niggas. But there has to be a reason to “be cool”, it has to say something about what you think isn’t cool. And for the longest time that thing that hipsters were reacting against was usually narcotic capitalism. But I fear the new hipsterism says just the opposite. We can not allow ourselves to become human I-phones. Like a recent writer said, “we are not gadgets”.

I don’t know about pure blinding light, Per! I’ll take a few candles and torches. I’d be satisfied if The Secret History were a torch. As far as a “New Art”. We don’t need a new art, we just need a renewed commitment to making it. The rest will take take care of itself. People just need to be willing to be a little more audacious. A little less calculating. They say the personal is political, but the aesthetic is political too. Start with chords, melody and a story you know something about. I suggest a walk in the woods.

”The Swedish stakes have all gone sour” Lisa sings on one of the tracks on the album, I sure hope that isn’t so! Do you have any plans yet to come back to our viking shores with Secret History? We need your love, and you need ours. You know that.

The “Swedish Stakes”? Why do I bother to print a lyric sheet? Hell we even made a digital booklet for Itunes. Also what kind of Sarah Records fan are you? The lyric is “The sweetest aches have all gone sour!” However that is a great misshear! I’d like to think we could come back and conquer Sweden again, but only time will tell. Next year we will be recording, and the only place we want to play is Gothenburg.

“The World That Never Was” is available to buy from Le Grand Magistery or for streamed listening at Spotify.

Per Johansson