”I realize pop stardom is an unreachable goal, so I’m pivoting towards a new one: creative midfielder for U.S. Citta Di Palermo. They’re down in Serie B this year so it may be doable.”
I could write an essay about how much I cherish and adore the music of Michael Grace, Jr., with My Favorite and The Secret History he’s put out the kind of music that saves lives and makes the sometimes cruel world seem more beautiful, but I will mostly let him talk for himself. The Seceret History’s new album Americans Singing in the Dark is out now and you should definitely, if you haven’t already, check it out. So, without further ado, let’s get on with an interview about music, life, politics, the end of times and many things in-between.
Hi, how are you?
– Relatively well I’d say!
What have you been up to since the last album (personally and as a group)?
– Well it seems to take us 3 years to write, record and release an LP, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of that. But we are also all working day jobs to make ends meet, so we chip away at our masterpieces after hours so to speak. I’m lucky that aside from teaching a few classes I’m mainly making art. So I keep busy, carrying my little notebook around. Let’s see, what else… I sometimes go to horror movies at the multiplex by myself at noon like a aimless degenerate. I watch a good deal of sports. I play basketball with the NYC Popfest promoters. You can usually find me at the margins of town, acting strangely.
The new album is called Americans Singing in the Dark and is a kind of sequel to My Favorites The Happiest Days of Our Lives, right? What made you want to revisit the characters from ten years ago?
– Well, The World That Never Was is about feelings and memories re-experienced as nightmares or hallucinations or myths. Very real stories told in unreal ways. And I think that was my way of insulating myself from some hurt that was still a bit too raw. Like if I reframed some personal saga as a vampire story I could spare myself a portion of pain. But this time I wanted to make a more explicitly ‘realistic’ album, a more distinctly New York LP like something Lou Reed would do. So in doing that, the stories of my friends and foes in NYC just seemed the best place to start. When I realized it would sync up exactly a decade later to the last My Favorite album, it only focused it more in that direction. Do you know the famous quote by Mark Twain? “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think I’m guilty of trying to make everything rhyme. In the end a lot of my work is just the ongoing ”ballad of the band”, with us as stand-ins for a lot of the beautiful losers of my generation.
How long has it taken to record the album and how has the experience been?
– It’s been a 3 year process. Anything I am involved in becomes a tedious march through darkness. All’s well that ends well I say.
Is it hard keeping the band together considering that you all are doing so many other things and, in some cases, living in different places?
– I think to some degree the definition of ”together” changes. I have to be willing to see the experience of a band as becoming more about the songs, and the fluid phenomena of bringing them to life with people, and less about us being ”the last gang in town”, to quote The Clash. Life does change and people have different responsibilities as they get older. So while I wish Lisa wasn’t in London, I also think it’s time for me to step into that spotlight a bit more. So perhaps the weight of what The Secret History is falls a bit more on my shoulders, but I can handle it, I think. That’s partially why we are playing a few My Favorite songs for the first time. Because I’ve come to terms with the fact that the two bands are points on the same creative line. And that line, for better or worse, probably starts and ends with me.
What is your hope for the new record and the future of The Secret History? Are there any certain plans?
– At this point, in this climate, an indie band can’t really have really grand aspirations. I think the record is the equivalent of an honest, expressive film or novel…something people can spend a bit of time inside. I know it’s good. But those are not the kind of attributes that a lot of the Pitchfork side of indie culture values. They mostly want clever abstraction of a good idea or aesthetic from the past. Which is like the same thing say… a trendy clothier does. Presented by skinny young white people whenever possible. Which is also what a trendy clothier does actually. I mean all artists explore what’s been done before, that’s WHAT ART IS, but ideally on top of a foundation of intention, something with a bit of warm blood in it. Music like DIIV seems to just aggregate other good records and blur the meaningful bits that aren’t quite as easy to ape. Youth as the best car commercial ever. VICE on the other hand just promotes what I call ”transgression tourism”. Nothing entertains rich kids quite like the fucked up things poor people, or better yet, poor people of color do. But beyond that, people aren’t really looking to take chances with what they expose. Thus you get coverage for a whole label, with the same publicist whom essentially do the same thing. Honestly, soon we will only be thinking in 7 second intervals and real art will be something exchanged in the shadows like cigarettes or Levi jeans in the 60s Soviet Union.
So our plans are to try to get people to give a listen, and our dream is to be part of a wave of groups that starts a discussion about the state of ”overground” music in the boutique subculture. Capitalism has finally alienated us from our music. Rock n’ roll was actually one of the success stories of capitalism in the 20th century. But no longer. We need to demand poetry.
Oh also we are going to London to play with Comet Gain on July 25th and at the Indietracks Festival on July 27th.
Is there any songs or lyrics you are especially satisfied with on the new record? Is there any past songs or lyrics, with My Favorite or The Secret History, that have a special place in your heart and/or mind
– I think the words to ”Sergio” are both passive and violent at the same time, which I like. I think ”Cuz What We’re Not Is All We’ve Got” is an unusual closing lyric for one of my songs. I’m sometimes accused of being flowery so I like the economy of that. I also like how ”Age Of Victoria” goes from kind of painterly to extremely direct with language. It’s awkward to toot one’s own horn, but I also think I snuck in a pretty good and darkly funny bit of poetry into ”Johnny Anorak” without making it leaden or unlistenable. It’s subversive. So much so that no one cares. There are always songs that mean a little something extra to a songwriter. ”Our Lady Of Palermo” from the last TSH album is like a gospel song, a prayer. ”Love Theme (From The World That Never Was)” on the other hand is full of desolation and degradation, but in a seductive way, tricks the listener into wandering down that dark alley. When I hear ”Le Monster” from My Favorite I can actually smell the damp student houses of the late 90s. It fills me with that radioactive depression anew. ”Burning Hearts” is a song where all the elements just come together balletically, I couldn’t recreate that again if I tried.
If you could only utter one more word, and then be silent for the rest of your existence, what would that word be?
For me, your songs have always been about eternal youth through the ages and growing older and dealing with the changes in one’s own and the world’s ideals. About feelings towards innocence, the state of the collective mind, the norm vs. the dream, missed and realized opportunities (personal and collective) and idealism. Any thoughts on that (even though it’s not really a question)?
– Well any songs that could be described like that can’t be half bad! Thank you! I think you’ve said it quite well. Growing up, growing older, while trying to hang on to yourself so to speak. That’s where we are at.
What is your feeling towards, and recollection of, Sweden and the shows you played here?
– Honestly, Sweden saved My Favorite. It was the first place with kids that understood what we were really up to in significant numbers (Editor’s note: I played records at one of My Favorite’s shows, in Lund, and saw the band dancing all night on our crowded dance floor after the concert, the following week’s letter from Michael about Sweden saving My Favorite made me really happy). New York came around in the years that followed, but Sweden was first. Gothenburg, the Starke Adolf gang, it will always be one of my most cherished cities because of the great times we had there. The festivals from Benno to Hulsfred, were also amazing. I think there was something in the kind of ordered, rational culture of Sweden that made the haunted, ragged suburbs of Long Island seem interesting. Maybe I was encouraging a kind of freedom, a kind of madness they craved. Likely it was just that they were smart, passionate kids and we were too.
What is your take on today’s indie pop-scene and the music business as a whole?
– I think I answered this pretty well a couple questions ago in regard to the hipster-ification of indie. Regarding indie pop, part of me has eternal affection towards the indie-pop scene. It has more heart and camaraderie than it’s clique-ier cousins, that’s for sure. A greater sense of history also. But if I’m to be perfectly honest, there haven’t been enough great bands. The title of that Camera Obscura LP Underachievers Please Try Harder is fucking brilliant and cheeky and true. There haven’t been enough Belle & Sebastians or Magnetic Fields, or Comet Gains. Allo Darling I think are really trying. But honestly indiepop did not end up as powerful ideologically as Riot Grrrl made me hope it would, and there are just too many people overly concerned with being cute, or orthodox. I consider the first two Sarah Records compilations immensely special. But I do realize now that I took different things away from them than many others who are currently starting bands did. But I think ultimately the gang at the NYC Popfest has done a good job bringing all the threads together and trying to make sense of it. At least once a year.
If you were a film, which one would you be?
– Hmmmmm a cross between La Dolce Vita and Rumble Fish I’m afraid.
– The Great Gatsby goes to Middle Earth.
– A cross between Robert Longo’s Pressure and Manet’s Bar At Folie Berger.
What is the last thing you think about before you go to sleep and what is the first thing you think about when you get up?
– Well it is not the same thing each night! I am grateful that my best friend is in bed beside me, and that’s often in my thoughts. There is also likely a cloud of anxieties ricocheting in my mind. Thus I often listen to baseball games on the radio until I drift asleep. In the morning I tend not to have thoughts until I have a coffee and brioche. But if you’re following me on twitter you likely know that.
If you could, would you go back in time and change any one single thing in your own life or in world history and, if so, what would you change?
– These are very challenging questions! For various metaphysical reasons I would not change anything that has happened in world history. The story of humankind will be what we make of it, and that experiment needs to go on without my all powerful intervention. In terms of my own life…sigh…I should adapt the same attitude, but ok next question.
What do you think of the state of USA today (the nation not the newspaper)? There were a lot of people, both in the US and abroad, who had high hopes for Obamas presidency. Do you think he has lived up to the expectations and the hope?
– The state of the Nation is pretty dire. America is still a Young Idea. But I feel the things which make it compelling are fading, while the things that make it dangerous are becoming completely entrenched. You can make a devil’s advocate argument for mid-20th Century American capitalism. It gave birth to the teenager, rock n’ roll, fashion, tolerated various forms of self expression. Youth culture led to social progress for a period of time. But this version of the economy with it’s further concentration of wealth and power is beating the citizenry into the ground. And a broken people are a violent people, a cynical people, a distractible people. Beyond that, art and music are now so fragmented, so ephemeral, so without content, that we are losing our ability to react to the world around us in ways that aren’t just boring and didactic. So we are becoming just adjuncts to a corporation’s dream. We are not creating our futures anymore. We are downloading them.
Regarding Obama. I still care for him as a man deeply. I’m still awed at how his election changed this deeply racist country historically. But he is hemmed in. He isn’t the president that Occupy wants, and the more the machinery of an American presidency is revealed he ceases being the President even Democrats wants. But if progressives carry the torch forward, build on his coalition, in two or three generations we may be able to change America and the turning point will have begun with him. I know many are tired of me being an apologist, but my memory is long. America will be America until the people increase consciousness and demand changes. It’s naive to want one man to do it. The truth is most Americans believe a lot of nonsense regarding why things are the way they are. They need to wake up and follow the money, that’s what a good detective does.
That’s where the answers lie.
In the broadest sense regarding the world and existence (interpret it as you like). Do you think
there is hope?
– Hope for what? A sustainable green utopian social democracy? I dunno. Hope that someone might love you despite your imperfections, perhaps because of them? There is hope for that. And if that were to happen more and more, individual by individual… the first thing might work itself out.
What bands, movies or other stuff would you recommend fans of your music to check out?
– Oh I don’t know. I listen to a lot of old and new music but I haven’t been floored by a record since Destroyer’s Kaput. I think Whit Stillman’s Damsel’s In Distress deserved more eyes than it got. I think despite all the hype people still don’t realize how good a show about America Mad Men is. Man I know I should be recommending a bunch of cassette only bands that play at the Kent space. There are girls on twitter who can do that.
If the end of the world was a fact, how would you spend the last day on earth?
– I’d like to have just a normal day off with Laura. Go to the beach, go for a walk, read some newspapers together. Get a giant burrito and a lager. Play a little pinball.
Thank you Michael and thanks for the music!
Martin Memet Könick
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