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Interview: Michael Grace Jr. from The Secret History

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The Secret History was formed by songwriter Michael Grace Jr., perhaps most widely known in indie circles for the album The Happiest Days of Our Lives, from his previous band My Favorite. The Secret History’s debut EP, Desolation Town, is an evocative and atmospheric release that incorporates a variety of genres and thematically unfolds across a landscape that encompasses Hiroshima, Palermo, Barcelona, and Iraq. In the following interview, Grace discusses the genesis of the EP and its major themes, ideas, and influences; explains why he’s not bothered if listeners misinterpret his songs; and subjects himself to more interviewer prodding than most people would be willing to endure. And he’s not shy about which classic albums he really cannot stand.

Desolation Town is drawing comparisons to the Patti Smith Group and The Smiths, among others. What are your thoughts on those types of comparisons?

I think it is fantastic. In fact, if only there were more artists with the word “Smith” in their name, than this point of reference could be expanded! No seriously, The Smiths will always be the band that made me want to throw my hat into the ring. They were the band that showed me that music could really paint a vulgar picture, could really make you feel something. I’ll always be a disciple of that. As far as Patti Smith, she’s everything great about New York, everything I miss about New York… that’s immensely flattering. 

The way Lisa Ronson sings certain songs, especially “Our Lady of Pompeii” and “The Ballad of the Haunted Hearts,” reminds me of indie pop bands like The New Pornographers. Is that valid or should I have my ears examined?

All thoughts are valid! The New Pornographers are a fine group, whom our keyboard player Kurt, and our House Designer Laura really love. I need to make it my business to listen to them more. What I’ve heard I quite like. Lisa, though, has never listened to them. She does like Camera Obscura however.

Before we mercifully leave this topic, what bands that wouldn’t be apparent from listening to the EP would you cite as influences in making Desolation Town?

Oh I think I’m actually going to answer this honestly despite my reservations. There are things about Death In June that really intrigue me. There are also things that really repel me. But I’m kind of hypnotized. A bit of that gothic pastoralism probably seeped into “Palermo.” As if to outdo myself, I’m also going to admit that some of the stranger bits of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” influenced a track or two somewhere. Ok, now that we’ve reduced our fanbase by 96%…

Each song on the EP tends to have its own unique musical style. One of the things I like about it is that it genre hops without coming across as unfocused or pointlessly random. Was it a conscious effort to shape the EP this way?

Yeah, well I really wanted to put the listener in this vaguely familiar place, somewhere in the past, like the setting of film. And I like how in cinema, the soundtrack is bound to the film by ideas or emotions… but it varies in sound and style, and often artist. I’d like to retain that flexibility. I like how things can change rapidly in dreams, but something of a narrative sustains. All the songs come together to form a sound, but no individual one says everything about us. I think David Bowie was very good at that also.

The song arrangements are credited to the entire band. Was it difficult reaching agreement on the arrangements among seven band members?

Sometimes, but not often. I think the songs only get better when you let people mess with them. I have some really talented blokes in this group, and what they add is what makes these songs what they are. I need that. I’m always surprised, but usually pleased when a song goes off a little in a direction I didn’t anticipate. I mean, I introduce them as folk songs and then say something like “I hear the intro to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin.’” There’s a lot of room for interpretation after that.

Now I’m going to prod you about what the album means. The liner notes contain a few paragraphs about someone who leaves a ruined Hiroshima, wanders around Europe, and ends up in Palermo. Some of the songs on the EP hint at this story as well. Though I hesitate to call the EP strictly autobiographical or a concept album, it seems to have a definite story arc. Can you explain?

Well I’ve always liked atmospheric liner notes, whether from Dylan or Paul Weller or Stuart Murdoch. I’m a frustrated novelist, so I take what opportunities arise. What I will say is that my previous band ended with a song about Hiroshima, so I figured this one should start there. I’ve lived through disasters with a small “d” as we all have. Had things ruined, and have had to figure out how to survive. I’ve also been to Palermo. So there is always something of a writer’s life in his work, I’d hope. But on the other hand, “Pompeii” is set on the battlefields of Iraq, and although it means more than that, the specific experience of being a soldier is something I’ve thankfully not experienced.

One of the things I find most interesting about Desolation Town is that while there’s a definite geography and unity of place, the events within the song aren’t tied to a specific time or era.

Yeah, well I’m glad you said that! I’m really interested in a non-linear sense of time. That is to say, that the same character or heartbreak could happen simultaneously in different places at different times, like Wuthering Heights. So it could be New York City in 1979 or Palermo in 1879. Certain problems linger, don’t you agree?

There seems to be a sense of loss and regret throughout the EP.

Yes. I’ve lost some things, and regrets… I’ve had a few. Then again, too few to mention. But seriously, much art is lamentation. And this certainly is.

Does it bother you as a writer that listeners will possibly interpret these songs in a way that is different with what you intended? For example, I interpret “It’s Not the End of the World, Jonah” as cynical and sarcastic, but what you intended could be something else entirely.

No, quite the opposite, I’m thrilled when they do. I try to create songs with drama, and atmosphere and ornamentation… but songs that have the space within them to be explored, interpreted, rewritten in the listener’s image. That’s far more interesting than the sordid details of my life, don’t you think? Whatever a listener adds to a song in their mind is just as important as what I wrote. We’re partners, lovers in a long distance affair.

A writer once told me that when someone else sings his songs, he feels like a divorced man watching someone else play new daddy to his children. Though you wrote the songs on Desolation Town, you’re not the main vocalist. As a songwriter, are you protective of your songs and how they’re sung?

Well, I’ve always had another singer sing the bulk of my songs. I prefer it, for reasons that have a lot to do with my answer to the previous question. The more prisms a song can pass through, the better. But, it did take a while until I got comfortable with this particular prism, being Lisa. She is so different in so many ways from the vocalist in my previous group. But at this point, these songs are hers as much as mine. But in terms of being covered, one of my songs “Burning Hearts,” has been covered by the group Winterpills, and I do find that a strange pleasure.

Is a full-length album in the works, and will the band be touring anytime soon?

We are currently working on a full length, and hope to have it out by Spring '09. I’m not sure we will be touring till then, but we’d love to hit some east coast cities in the next few months while we finish.

What are your favorite albums of 2008?

I like My Teenage Stride’s Lesser Demons EP, the Evangelicals record. My brother often has to make mix cds for me, of new stuff, because I’m always playing old vinyl in my room. Nothing to boast about mind you.

What’s the one classic album you can’t stand?

There is probably a lot more than one. I actually had to look at the Rolling Stone top 500 records to figure out this answer. I decided to use the highest ranking record I could honestly say I did not like at all. Nirvana’s Nevermind at 17 is pretty ridiculous, it wouldn’t make my top 500, but I can stand it… barely. Billy Joel’s The Stranger at 67 is absolutely horrendous. But I probably secretly like it, or at least as a Long Islander have some conflicted emotion. Guns & Roses at 61, uggh… but I did like it as a troubled 15 year old. The Eagles at 35, well I do like the song “Hotel California,” but I hate that band. Does that disqualify them?

Oh this list is pissing me off so much. I can’t even answer this question. I think Derek & The Dominos at 117 is the first record I really hate. But the fact that The Red Hot Chili Peppers at 310 appear before The Smiths at 385 (or at all)… oh lord have mercy.

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