By alexander laurence
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.