The Secret History Sing Their Life
Michael Grace Jr. and his partner Andrea Vaughn had been making cassette tapes since they were teenagers, but their band My Favorite really started getting serious in 1999. By 2002, they had built enough of a following to headline a CMJ showcase at departed indie haven Brownies. Supporting them on the bill were two bands called Interpol and the Walkmen.
“They probably started six months prior. I went downstairs, and they had a hairdresser, a makeup guy, someone carrying their amps, and no one had ever heard of them,” Grace Jr. says, “and I said: ‘Aw, fuck. This is how you do it.’” Eight months later, Interpol were indie huge, and Grace was just “sitting there, reading Nine Stories or something.”
Once the Walkmen and Interpol broke, managers and record-industry hangers-on came out of the woodwork to convince My Favorite that if they tried hard enough, they just might become the next Stellastarr*. Grace Jr. was into this idea—to a point. “It didn't feel natural at the time, but sure,” he says over pie at the Brooklyn dinner Jimmy’s. “You get to that point where you don't think there's anything left to do but try."
But with the way they blended John Hughes pulse of the Rough Trade catalog with the articulated longing of the Magnetic Fields and Belle & Sebastian, My Favorite had a tendency to be a little “too” for their times. Too post-punk when the indiepop world was on the ’60s-revival tip; too wistful and cardigan-clad when New York post-punk bands were suddenly in fashion—the right sound in the right place at the wrong time.
“Michael created worlds, cohesive and fantastic in ways that made you want to live in his songs. Very few bands can do this, but he really put forth a series of images and ideas through his lyrics that felt related from song to song, almost like a collection of short stories set in the same town. Joan of Arc, ghosts, saints, suburbia, record fetishism, loneliness, and an enduring faith that there was a way out, however unlikely, created this enveloping sense in me that I wanted to be in that world, to live in his dreams,” says the Pains of Being Pure At Heart's Kip Berman, who's on record as calling My Favorite's 2003 album, The Happiest Days of Our Lives, one of his favorite records of the decade. “There is something daring and endearing in the way he wrote songs that took risks and stood apart—they captured an emphatic sense that this music was not made for everyone, but explicitly for people who felt there was nothing more important than three-minute pop songs that perfectly evoked the desperate, emphatic yearning they felt for a life beyond their bedroom, their self-doubt, or their imperfect bodies.”
My Favorite ended in 2005, when Grace Jr. and Vaughn’s relationship ended. “It really short-circuited the band at the height of its potential on some level," he says. "But on another level, it's sort of like James Dean dying while still handsome and dangerous—y'know, it didn't stick around and become something that maybe I wouldn't be happy about.”
He was already well into the next My Favorite album when the split happened. By that point, he had spent more than a decade in a well-liked—if never exactly popular—band, writing about beautiful losers and people who love music harder and longer than what some would say is healthy. When asked if he ever thought that the break would have been a logical opportunity to get a regular job, he chuckles. “Have you been talking to my mother?” he asks. “I always thought I wanted to do another band. My heroes were always novelists and painters and people like that never stop because they weren't 20 anymore, y'know?”
Most of the musicians from My Favorite stuck around after the breakup, and Grace Jr. found a new foil in these pages. "I halfheartedly began perusing The Village Voice classified section for bands looking for a singer,” says Lisa Ronson, daughter of David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson. "Michael's ad came with the title ‘Tragic Female Singer,’ and when I saw the list of influences included David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Bob Dylan, the Smiths—all people my dad had worked with—I thought: 'This is it. This has to be the one!'”
The Secret History’s 2010 debut, The World That Never Was (Le Grand Magistery), was a tight collection of Smiths-’n’-Sebastian pop. They’re finishing a resolutely immodest followup titled Americans Singing in the Dark; the characters are based on different people Grace Jr. met in New York, with each song's aesthetic—from aggro-punk to smooth Sade soul—being informed by the music that character would have enjoyed. Grace Jr. says he pictures all of the album's characters playing its songs on a bar jukebox. “I do think that if all of the aesthetically adventurous bands stop caring about telling stories and all the bands that tell stories only sound good on NPR, we're in trouble,” he says. “So I'd like to kind of find some third way.”
Some of the songs are about close friends (he had to talk one into letting him use his nickname in a song by arguing for the importance of art); some are people he played one show with then watched cry into their hands backstage; others are composites. “I was quoting Whit Stillman's Metropolitan when one of the characters gets called out for lying about this person he met, and they say, 'They're just a composite, like in The New Yorker.’ Quoting Whit Stillman movies probably underlines the ceiling of our band's potential success," he notes wryly.
All the characters, though, have one thing in common: struggle.
“I realized how much struggling my friends and people from my generation, even some of the younger people that we had met playing shows. . . . There was always kind of a longing that was being unfulfilled,” he says. “And I really thought that these guys really do tell a certain story about America, and I've always been a guy that had a lot of European influences in terms of the music that I listen to. So I liked the idea of writing about America, even if some of the bands I like are not like that. I wanted to make an album about America because I felt like America was kind of in a crisis, but a lot of indie music wasn't about that.”
The band's members are hashing out as much as possible in their home studios, then recording as much as possible during day-long sessions at New Pornographer producer Josh Clark’s studio, then sifting through the sessions to make sense of it all. Because everyone in the band has jobs, they have limited ability to tour, so they’ve had to fund the making of this album with their own savings and sales of their recent single "Sergio," which Grace calls a “hazy class-warfare anthem." The band used the crowdsourced-funding platform Kickstarter to help out with touring costs last time, but that pin hasn't been pulled yet.
What label releases the record is also up in the air. “The amount of money that labels are going to give you is a lot less than it used to be," Grace notes, "because they can only actually sell, I don't know, 20 percent of the times people are actually getting their music? You know, the idea of artists bartending and waiting tables to write books or make films is nothing new, so we don't mind working and scraping and putting it together.
"Has it slowed down the progress of making the record? Absolutely. But you kind of have to have some inner peace about that.”
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