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Secret agent men: (l-r) Von Schaff, Feck, McCann and Baker. Leif Zurmuhlen

Altered Ego

Is Secretguy’s unlikely blend of musical styles and personalities hard music for the sensitive, or vice versa?

By John Rodat

We kick off simply with the journalistic niceties, but things are kind of fluid from the very start: Introductions, handles and aliases—noms du secret—are offered up in quick succession. Secretguy are having fun with the oddity of their creation, their obscure fraternal order.

“I’m Matthro. Or Matthrolopithicus. Or, what was the other one? What was it that Bob called me? Oh, the Metallic One.”

“Shawny is sg 66, but you don’t wanna know about all that.”

“Jimbo. Jimbo Feckmo.”

Even the singer-guitarist—recognizable to local music fans as Big Al, former front man of the area’s once-preeminent ska-metal act Can’t Say—claims a new moniker.

“I’ve just been going by Albie,” he says quietly.

Secretguy—who are in fact bassist Matt Baker, guitarist Shawn McCann, drummer Jim Feck and guitarist-vocalist Al Von Schaff—seem to take ironic pleasure in the self-conscious nature of the creation of band identity. Check out the Secretguy Web site and you’ll find it organized like that of a political cell, complete with manifesto. But the seeming seriousness of headings such as “Propaganda,” “Espionage,” and “Blackmail Art,” is belied by a healthy sense of the over-the-top and the ridiculous. What are Secretguy all about? “Hellfire and damnation. That’s what secretguy are about. Yep. Wrongness and evil and bile. That’s the stuff.” What is their mission? “Paint peelin’ and thunder dealin’ at numerous clubs in the greater Capital Region, making the patrons nervous and eager for strong drink.” And how do they plan to accomplish this? “The ’guy bring the rock like strong kung fu—loud and proud—doing justice to their various influences with emotional, multi-layered songwriting, mid-’70s hard rock bombast, devil-blues howlery, and more than a nod toward quasi jazzbo long-winded improvisation, sheathed in a light coating of scum.”

The satanic-hayseed headbanger lingo is pitch-perfect, and nearly enough to convice you that Secretguy might just be “dumb as a pick-axe,” and as inappropriate in polite society, but it’s too much fun to read to be truly, completely evil, right? And a quick listen to Secretguy’s seven-song Who is secretguy?—which the band kindly provide—makes clear that there’s a whole lot more to this racket than just racket: A sludge-rock bass pulse roils like bubbling tar, drums out of the Golden Age of British metal bat it back, chunky rhythm guitar just begs for a guttural death-metal growl, and a lead played like David Torn on Scotchgard skitters mechanically throughout, poking sharp flanges into a beastly hide. The vocal melody is insistent but sung—not just shouted—and the lyrics are off-kilter and allusive, imagistic. It’s water and God and macadam and insurance agents and reeking cities of the dead and barn dances and nursery rhymes. It’s the sound of something vast, bulky and intricate falling apart at a frightening pace before you, allowing glimpses at the thing—the fleshy, pulpy something—underneath.

Playful as Secretguy press materials may be, it’s clear the band take their music seriously. As it blasts, the foursome all respond physically, nodding in time. That this quartet—a self-proclaimed metalhead bassist, a “funkmeister” guitarist, a drummer who hocked his kit to buy an engagement ring, and the driving force of a ska-metal band—would respond to the same music equally favorably is odd, that they would band together to produce it, highly unlikely.

The secret history of Secretguy began back in 1998, when Von Schaff disbanded the popular and comparatively long-lived Can’t Say.

“After nine years of playing in Can’t Say—as much as I loved everyone I was playing with—it grew tiresome to keep doing the same type of music,” Von Schaff explains. “I had ceased to listen to it in my spare time, it wasn’t really where my interest was. On top of that, being the main provider of the material, that just put added stress on me.

“You gotta understand that at that time we were getting a record deal with Moon Ska,” he continues. “I had to write a record, and I was thinking I wasn’t really too cool with being in the band anymore—so I wrote our last album in a matter of a month, like 14 songs, because I felt obligated to the other guys, who had done so much for so long to make the band happen.”

Though the album was completed and released on the prestigious Moon Ska label, an unforeseen event provided Von Schaff with a perspective that made the continuation of Can’t Say impossible for him.

“The same day the album came out, my grandmother died,” says Von Schaff. “As a result of that, I went through all the ordinary, crazy, life-changing shit that death makes you think about. I figured I only have a finite amount of time to do things. So, six months after that album hit the stores, the band was gone.”

Free but uncertain of what to do next, Von Schaff dabbled with the solo acoustic format before hitchhiking to Florida, where he kept his hand in by doing “the whole street musician bag” for a while.

He returned to the area just over three years ago, and though he was eager to start up a new project, he had more than his share of anxiety about doing so.

“I knew I was ready for something,” he says. “I just didn’t know what direction or form that might take. You know, I was kind of feeling that thing that so many punk rock-type songwriters feel, which is, ‘Do I try to write what some people might consider material of more depth, or do I continue to do what I was doing?’ I wanted to do both. But I wasn’t sure what to do that would be artistically honest and would also be something that would rock.”

Baker, a friend of Von Schaff’s since high school, picks up the chronology at this point: “So, I get a phone call—and as far as I know he’s in Florida, right?—and the first thing he says is, ‘Do you want to start a band?’ And I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Do you want to form a band with me?’ And I go, ‘Who is this?’ ”

After renewing their acquaintance—and enlisting the drumming skills of Feck, a lifelong friend of Baker’s—they formed Local 518, who would prove as variable in style as Can’t Say had proved rigid.

“Matt and I always used to joke about putting together a great and awesomely heavy band,” says Von Schaff. “But when I wrote my first batch of material after Can’t Say, it was all acoustic music. We kind of went in a Pentangle direction and then tried to do a lead singer with acoustic guitar and a lead guitarist thing. . . . But we couldn’t keep a guitarist.”

It wasn’t until Von Schaff took a job at the boy’s group home where Baker worked with McCann that Secretguy really formed their core. “Shawn provided the missing link that turned Local 518 into Secretguy,” Von Schaff says. If Von Schaff was looking for an accomplice to expand his musical palette, his rhythm section says, he couldn’t have done better than McCann, whose own bent is toward organica (organic electronica) and other experimental forms. The two hit it off immediately, talking music and jamming together during bedroom recording sessions in which they’d play everything from wooden spoons to power tools.

Baker laughs, “Shawny would play shit, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t get it.’ And then those two got together—and I still don’t get it.”

“Luckily,” Feck adds, “Matt and I, we can finish each other’s sentences, we’ve known each other so long. We can hold down the bottom end and provide the solid foundation for these maniacs to go nuts in.”

“That’s kind of what keeps our music in the terrestrial realm,” Von Schaff says. “If it were up to me and Shawn, it’d be centerless, and it’s important to have direction. You can fly off the handle way too easily, and when you do that you don’t entertain the audience—and that’s what you’re there to do, if you’re going to bother to play live.”

As Von Schaff talks, the fact that he has long deliberated over these questions of musical philosophy is apparent, as is their importance to him. “Basically,” he explains in a soft, serious tone, “the way I look at it, it’s all part of the search for meaning in your life and you try to infuse that meaning into your music. You’ve got to get past the megalomania of ‘I’ve got something to say, and obviously people need to hear it.’ Pete Townshend said once that eventually every songwriter had to stop telling his own story, and Castaneda wrote about that too, the erasure of personal identity, the erasure of self-importance.”

There’s the briefest pause in which to consider erasure of personal identity as espoused by Von Schaff—Big Al, Albie, sg 14, front man of Secretguy—before his bandmate speaks.

“Of course, when you quote Castaneda, you sound really self-important,” Feck notes.

As a whole, Secretguy laugh.

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