New York's Best Kept Secret
With a vast wealth of experimental noise part of the band's musical armoury, it’s hard to imagine what to expect when meeting the Secret Machines. While images of them languid in a circle, embracing the universe in a psychedelic haze after dropping a few tabs spring to mind - the reality is somewhat different. Because although there is a prog rock link in their musical lineage, the band themselves rightly claim that this is far too generic a description. “We were actually debating this with a big prog rock fan recently and he was happy to hear that we agreed we weren’t prog,” says guitarist and vocalist, Ben Curtis. “I mean Kylie is pretty far out and psychedelic but people wouldn’t necessarily regard her as prog”...
In a small, dark but cosy London hotel room, brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis along with their cousin Josh Garza sit perched around a square table. All three have a mellow vibe about them. While some may find such long periods of time with their siblings testing, for the Secret Machines it’s ideal. Of course it’s all about the 'chemistry'. “We think of ourselves as a socialist band, because everything from writing the songs to playing shows is a collective experience,” says vocalist and keyboardist, Brandon revealing a shiny gold tooth. “We’re friends so there’s no real rivalry. If there is, it’s so passive-aggressive that you wouldn’t really see it. We might actually be doing it right now,” sneaks in Ben with a cheeky smile.
Formed in Texas after deciding they were “incapable of doing anything else apart from playing music,” the Secret Machines moved to New York to chase their dreams four years ago. While on this journey they scrimped and saved to make their first recording, 'September 000', in 2001. They eventually signed to 679 recordings in the UK and released their debut album, 'Now Here Is Nowhere', earlier this year. The band have nothing but good things to say about their home: “Dan Stacey (head of A&R at 679) is like, only one of the few people we thought we could talk music to,” says Brandon. There's a weird culture in the record industry over here, because it is all so business. But Dan’s got pleasure as well as business - and The Streets! I think we just really like the ambition of all the bands on the label.”
Marked as one of the best albums to come out this year - 'Now Here Is Nowhere', is a blueprint for a sonic conundrum that traps everyone willingly into its puzzle. With a cosmic futuristic sound, it becomes an epic diverse melting pot of blues, melodic pop, punk, ambient and good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. The album was co-produced by Jeff Blenkinsopp, who has been known to have links with Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. “He helped us find a sound which was unique and encouraged us to have confidence in ourselves. He would and still does offer crazy ideas and was unusually supportive at a time when we really needed it. When you’re in a band, it’s good to have people like that around you to test your limits,” says Brandon.
One of the finest moments on the record is new single 'Sad & Lonely'. The song has sentimental value for the band, being one of the first songs they carried in their head well before they had even recorded the album. “I think it’s a timely song. There aren’t so many songs around with such personal sentiments. It’s one of those songs that can catch a moment in your life and can be applicable for many reasons, which is pretty monumental,” says Ben.
A wise man once philosophised: 'The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the road to salvation is hard.' Although he may not have actually been thinking of the Secret Machines when he said this, it almost seems as if these very words were meant for them. The threesome had to embrace a frugal lifestyle when they first started out. Penniless and living a sardines-in-a-tin-can existence in Brooklyn, they were faced with the world of menial jobs in order to survive and buy musical time. At times, even their supportive family were slightly anxious with their predicament. “Our family have always been really loving. I’m sure initially they had problems with us being broke and flipping burgers to make ends meet. But at some point they realised this is what we wanted to do with our lives,” reflects Josh. “Now it’s gonna come out in the article 'Secret Machines were flipping burgers to make ends meet!'” says Ben. Spoken like a man who has had to tell this tale far too many times and is a little irritable of its repetitive nature. “True, but I don’t want to talk about my crack selling days,” sighs Josh jokingly while rolling his eyes. “He used to sell me crack,” adds Ben humouring him. “And I used to buy my pipes off him,” says Josh pointing to Brandon, eager not to leave him out.
Quite clearly, their determination shows they are discontent with imitating art; they just simply want to live it. Rather than shy away from obstacles, they thrive on them.
“There’s always a struggle. There’s always another possibility or another idea that hasn’t been done yet. I think a challenge is a good thing. We’ve never been escaping the struggle,” explains Brandon. “Success is an opinion of your history. It’s a subjective moment/ amount of time - joining where a project begins and ends. “Looking back we’ve been totally successful but it doesn’t mean we’ve finished.”
“We were successful when we were broke and inhabited a small room together because we we’re living life how we wanted to,” adds Josh.
Patience and endurance has definitely paid dividends. It doesn’t get much better than finding out David Bowie “digs” what you do. The lads were particularly impressed when the Thin White Duke himself was curious enough to turn up to one of their shows. “He came to see us play and he was very enthusiastic. He’s like our hero after writing some of the best songs - the most amazing music,” says Ben.
Being appreciated live is also core to what makes the Secret Machines tick. It was their consistent stunning hypnotic performances in the early years that led to the New York Times hailing them as 'the city’s best live band.'
After recently, kicking off with two headline shows, the Secret Machines are now going on tour with fellow New Yorkers, Interpol, this month and are looking forward to hooking up with them again.
“We became friends after shows with them years ago. We see them out and about in late nights and early mornings. We’ve become closer friends after being on the road together. They’re good guys,” reminisces Ben.
“We love being on the road.” adds Josh.“You look out a window of a city that you don’t live inside of a hotel that doesn’t look familiar. It’s great. We’ll be happy as long as we’re put in a position to keep doing this 10 years from now."