As social scenes change in southern Illinois, businesses switch hands and infrastructures fall apart, Secondary Modern continues to prevail as a local music staple.
Brothers David and Daniel Brown of Marion began their music journey as the three-piece group Secondary Modern more than nine years ago. Back then they were high school kids playing their first shows in obscure places, like at a Christian youth center called Club 1 A.D. in Pittsburg, Ill. They were also part of the first wave of bands to perform at Herrin Teen Town — Now HITTS — which has since developed into its own music scene.
26-year old David Brown is the architect on guitar, keys and lead vocals, while 25-year-old Daniel Brown keeps the rhythm on drums and adds depth with backup and occasional lead vocals. Through their six albums they have maintained pop-oriented songs to some degree with the obvious touch of various classic rock groups such as The Beatles, Soft Boys and Rolling Stones, buried within their tunes.
The brothers played together well before their teenage years, performing as The Volcanoes in local malls and Boy Scout cabins.
David Brown remembers making up words and writing them on a piece of paper. Above his lyrics, he wrote the letter of the chord he was going to play and strummed it until changing to a different chord for the chorus.
In 2007, their parents opened the Chicago-esque bar, John Brown’s on the Square in Marion. What appears from the outside to be a misplaced little bar lodged between two buildings and stowed away in the alley is one of the best musical atmospheres in Marion.
Matt McGuire joined the band on bass in 2009 around the time their album “Vaudeville Ghosts” — which cemented a new sound for the band — released.
“When (McGuire) joined the band, we kind of just changed everything that we were doing, aside from the fact that (the songs) were still pop-oriented,” David Brown said.
David Brown started playing more dissonant chords — a more tense progression of notes combined with complex song structures – letting McGuire add his own touch of clashing bass lines.
“I was seeing, ‘okay, well, he’s been using these chords, and now he’s even branching into this other realm of chord progressions,’” McGuire said. “As a bass player, those are the ones I knew I wanted to work with.”
Now the evolved trio has fit elements of Pavement into their song style. David’s guitar surges through a darkened space which, at times sounds disharmonious and vengeful, obscuring the pop elements. However, the clean harmonies often reemerge to give balance to Secondary Modern’s sound. It is the group’s ability to use many different tools in a single song that makes them so spectacular.
The band is anticipating the release of a new EP titled “Venus Birds.” The four-song demo was recorded at The Observatory in Chicago by SIU alumnus David Allen last November. Maintaining the group’s bent-out-of-shape zeal with the occasional rays of gleeful harmonies, it is the length of a leisurely cigarette break, as David Brown described it.
“Venus Birds” will release at Secondary Modern’s March 7 Hangar 9 show. It is Secondary Modern’s sendoff show before they go on a short tour, which includes a stop in Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest art and music festival.
The band members are not strangers to touring; they recalled their lowest moment, which occurred in 2009 when their instruments were stolen in New York City. They had just finished performing at a Manhattan bar called Pianos. Elated by feelings of a job well done in the heart of New York, the trio parked their car on Fourth Street and went to a late night screening of the psychedelic 1973 film “Holy Mountain.”
“(‘Holy Mountain’) ends and we kind of go back into reality,” McGuire said. “We leave the place and it’s New York at two a.m., and we’re literally skipping and giggling back to the van.”
David realized the van was unlocked and laughed hysterically at his perceived error. Suddenly, that euphoria transformed into gut-wrenching anger when they realized the van was broken into.
The thieves stole some money, a phone, McGuire’s bass and two of David Brown’s guitars, including a Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar.
“Not just any guitar,” McGuire said to David Brown.
“No! I took out a loan to get that,” David Brown replied.
David Brown’s head was spinning with contempt and confusion. As he tried to rationalize what had happened, he screamed profanities at a horse-mounted police officer and a man sitting on a porch directly across from the van.
David Brown collected himself, realizing the man on the porch was not intimidated.
“I immediately came to my senses and realized what I was doing,” David Brown said. “I’m yelling at some guy on Fourth Street in New York at three in the morning.”
With broken spirits and a New York goodbye, the group headed back to the Midwest and finished the tour with borrowed instruments.
Secondary Modern has since released their best music five years later with their 2013 record “New Colony,” their self-titled 2012 effort and “Venus Birds.” They are undoubtedly a close-knit group, especially David and Daniel Brown who work two businesses away from each other. Daniel Brown works at Mike’s Music and David Brown at Plaza Records where the band also practices.
Whether they are performing somewhere in Carbondale or playing for a home crowd at the family-owned bar, Secondary Modern members stay busy by working on different projects. The group recently filmed a music video at the Cedarhurst Museum in Mt. Vernon. The project was directed by Shawnee Community College professor Mike Faris and is yet to be released.
It is that artistic ambition that has transformed Secondary Modern from teenagers playing youth centers in Pittsburgh, Ill. into seasoned musicians touring the country and finding ways to evolve musically.
Dylan Frost can be reached at dfrost@ dailyegyptian.com, on Twitter @ DFrost_90 or by phone at 536-3311 ext. 254.