photos: alexander laurence
The Secret Machines
By alexander laurence
They will be playing in LA at the Avalon on Feb 21st, and in Santa Ana at The Galaxy on Feb 20th. Autolux will be supporting them on both shows.
The Secret Machines come from Dallas, Texas. Benjamin Curtis (guitar/vocals), Josh Garza (drums, and Brandon Curtis (vocals, bass) formed the Secret Machines in the summer of 2000. They spent years in the Dallas indie music scene before heading first to Chicago to record. After several months of rehearsals and recording sessions with engineer Brian Deck, the Secret Machines had their first self-made disc. This was handed out at gigs when they arrived in New York a few months later. They landed in Williamsburg in the midst of a creative period. They had to get regular jobs at cafes to survive in the city. Brandon actually worked at The L Café.
The Secret Machines soon created a reputation as one of the best live bands in New York. Ace Fu Records released their Chicago recordings in March of 2002. A track by the band was included on Yes New York, helping them to introduce their music to an even larger audience. Their first full length album, Now Here Is Nowhere, is being released in May 2004. The songs "Sad and Lonely" and "Nowhere Again" are already classics. They came through town on a tour with Blonde Redhead. I got to talk with them in person and on the phone for a while. This is a band to look out for. They have made one of the great records of the year.
AL: This is you first big tour across America. How is it going?
Ben: It's going really well. We are having such a good time. We get along with Blonde Redhead. We are going to tour with them for another month or so. We are playing more and we are getting tighter. We are not so much concerned with playing it right as enjoying ourselves on stage.
AL: Has anything strange happened on this tour?
Ben: It's all been so strange. We got to play a show with Joan Jett, which was pretty far out. Each night has been peculiar. We seem to attract a strange crowd. Each town has its own color. We have had a bunch of crazy nights so far. I can't be more specific.
AL: When you present your music in cities where you have never been before, sometimes you don't know what to expect. People show up and have expectations.
Ben: Yeah. When people see us walking around after the show, sometimes they don't know it was us, because during the show they only saw a silhouette. It's funny. You can actually have a conversation with someone for a long time before they realize that you were the one who was onstage and who they came to see. You can find out what people think before they figure out that you are playing.
AL: Secret Machines has a thing: when you are on stage, you are larger than life, but when you get offstage, you are just regular guys. How did you get together and form the band?
Ben: We were all living in Dallas, Texas. We were all involved in that music scene. It's very small. We kept on running into each other. We all came together at the same time and wanted to take music a little bit more seriously. We started the band.
AL: Had you played in bands before?
Ben: Brandon and Josh played in a band called Captain Audio. Before that Josh was in a band called Comet. Brandon and I played in bands when we were younger. It was Dallas, Texas stuff. I band drums before. These guys wanted me to play guitar with them. I had to go buy a guitar.
AL: Did you ever play shows outside of Dallas?
Ben: Comet did. They were on Dedicated Records. They were a big indie rock band. We have all did some touring. But it has mostly been underground. This is the first time that we have peeked our heads above the clouds so to speak. We have done shorter tours with Spiritualized. We have done longer tours with Trail of Dead. We did that a year and a half ago. This is the beginning of what will be a full year of touring. Our record comes out in May 2004. We will be rolling by then. We have been getting a very good response. It's all about supply and demand.
AL: Did you have a musical background?
Ben: Yeah. It's no more musical than any household. There was a piano in the house. Music was around but it wasn't forced down our throats. We both had piano lessons from the time we were small kids.
AL: Does your family come to shows?
Ben: Whenever we play in Texas they do. They are very supportive. Our parents grew up in the 1960s so they are both rock and roll fans. That is what we do.
AL: Was the Secret Machines a band when you left Texas?
Ben: No. The Secret Machines was formed at the same time when we moved away. We never played in Texas as a local band. We just decided to do it when we were traveling. We first decided to go to Chicago and record our first EP.
AL: How did you go about recording that?
Ben: We saved some cash. We drove to Chicago. We recorded it with Brian Deck who was working with Califone. We liked their records a lot at the time. We spent a week in Chicago and hammered it out very quickly.
AL: You didn't have a record label at the time?
Ben: No. We actually gave it away for free when we first moved to New York City. We made them on the way up. We pressed them and just gave them out. We went out all the time. Some people still have it. It's funny. A while later Ace Fu Records decided that they wanted to bring it out as a regular release. Then it came out in Europe. It has had a longer life than we expected.
AL: How do you write songs in the band? Do you always work the same way?
Ben: Yeah. Things usually happen in the rehearsal room. We kick around some ideas. We all bring different things to the table. Every song still ends up sounding like The Secret Machines. We tape a lot of what we do. We listen to things a lot. It is becoming more that way. We are learning how to refine our ideas more. We want to be more concise about what we want to say. That is the direction where we are moving.
AL: When you were making this new album what did you guys want to do? What was the plan?
Ben: We were thinking about what we liked and didn't like about modern music. We were trying to prove that we could make something that we were happy with. We will know in a few years whether it stands the test of time or not. We are pretty confident with the record at the moment.
AL: Did you want to make an album that people could dip into at any point or something that needs to be listened to in its entirety?
Ben: We tried our best to have something that was more immediate, more emotional, more direct and little easier. Granted it is still difficult at times. In many ways it's a lot more concise than the EP was, even though it's longer. We have heard comments like: "You are a good live band, but the records are so-so." We wanted to even off that perception. We wanted to make a record that is intense as a Secret Machines live show is.
AL: Is this album a bunch of live takes then?
Ben: It was all done live. There are overdubs of course. You can't make a record sound like we do when we are live. You are never going to listen to it that loud. You end up doing embellishments and implications of volume. You can create the illusion of more happening than is actually happening. Things sound different at different volumes. You have to compensate for the fact that most people will hear this record at home on their computer or on headphones sitting on a subway train.
AL: What are your songs about generally?
Ben: Usually they are about current things. The songs are as vague as how we are felling at a given time. We never try to make songs topical. We like lyrics that are open to interpretation. We are always playing what we feel at that moment. It's always hard to put it into words, and that is the reason we play music. Music is how we express ourselves. If I could tell you what we are about emotionally, I would be writing books.
AL: How did the Dallas indie scene influence what you are doing?
Ben: The Dallas scene is really good. Dallas is a city that doesn't have the intensity of cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Those cities are twice as intense. Dallas bands are good and they can play well but there is a certain lack of intensity. We are friends with The Polyphonic Spree for example. They are great and they have this great idea for a band. It's fine. But there is not that extra layer of depth to what they are doing that you have when you have a certain element of uncertainty in your daily life. The problem with some New York bands is that they are too intense and not together. In Dallas there is a level of professionalism and it's easy to get together and practice. There is more space to do your own thing.
AL: Do you like any other bands?
Ben: Spiritualized has been making great records for a long time. I really like Amazing Grace. We have toured with them. We learned a lot from watching them play. I really love The Fiery Furnaces. They are very clever. I haven't heard that in a band in a long time. There is no one writing songs like they do. I like Broken Social Scene. None of this is kicking my ass like any records made in the 1970s. Bands like to recycle the classics over and over again.
AL: You like all the Classic Rock stuff?
Ben: Yeah. We like those records and every point of history. We are not revivalists or anything. There are all the classic records that kids are jamming in the high school parking lot to this day. We like that stuff. We want to make records that kids are playing at their high school parties in twenty years.
AL: Many of those bands like Rush and Aerosmith did a few albums before they hit their stride.
Ben: Right. The record labels developed many of those bands. It's hard to expect greatness from your first record. I hardly know any artist that has made that happen. If it does happen, that doesn't bode well for the rest of their career. That is what history has shown. Hopefully bands get an opportunity to grow and figure out what they want to say. It hasn't happened in a while.
AL: Some of those bands tried to make the length of the album a listening experience. Not just a few good songs and the rest filler.
Ben: Right. You have a spoonful of sugar. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I don't think that there is any lack in integrity in that at all. It's just as hard to write a good pop song, as it is to write a good concept album. The goal is to do both. You want to make something that hits you right away and also something that is complex enough that you want to spend some time with it. Every good record is like that.
AL: What about the audience for The Secret Machines? I noticed that a lot of models show up to the shows and are attracted to the band.
Ben: We are attracted to them too, so it's a mutual admiration. We try to make the groove a lot sexy. Led Zeppelin is really sexy music. It's heavy, dirty, and there's something enticing about it. That is an influence on us.
AL: What do you think of Williamsburg?
Ben: It's great. It deserves the attention. The bands are great there. Those are world-class bands that are really good at what they do. I just don't like turning it into something that it is not, which is just one certain type of music or art. That is not how it is in New York. There are a lot of different things going on. It is always changing. There are a lot of inspired people in that town. I am not sure why. People are always stepping up their game. I like that.
AL: Are you reading any books right now?
Ben: I am halfway through Crime and Punishment. Brandon suggested that I read it. I bought it for a dollar. I am on my psychotic kick for the moment.
AL: What do you think about the idea in that book that some men are extra-ordinary and are beyond good and evil? Only common men are marred by guilt and shame.
Ben: Anything is possible these days. The dilemma is not as big these days as in the age when he wrote it. But it is a scary idea. It freaks me out.
AL: What cities have you liked on the tour?
Ben: I have been there before but Cincinnati really impressed me. There is an amazing art scene there. We played at the opening at contemporary art gallery. All these people from Brooklyn were there. So much is happening in Cincinnati. It was surprising.
AL: Have you bought any new CD on this tour?
Ben: We haven't been doing that very much. But we did buy the new Dylan CD of a live show in 1964. It's amazing. We kept listening to that over and over again. I can't stand the Joan Baez part. Her voice is annoying. But the first disc is amazing.
AL: Have you played in Europe before?
Ben: We have just played in the UK and we have done really well there. We will be back there in May 2004.
AL: You were hanging out with Anton Newcombe of Brian Jonestown Massacre at South By Southwest.
Ben: We know Anton very well. We played The Fader party with his band. Anton has been into The Secret Machines for a long time. He did a live recording of us that hopefully we will be able to release in the future. It was a show we did in LA about a year ago. We played a really exceptional show also there at South by Southwest. We played at the same time as Big Star so I was pissed.