:: The Secret Machines ::Fox Theatre :: October 14 ::
By Jeffrey V. Smith
The secret is out. The “best band in New York City” is making intelligent, progressive, psychedelic music hip again. Whether it’s a first-rate studio production or an epic live performance, The Secret Machines are crafting music that is as innovative and artful as it is accessible and euphoric. A unique, intentionally communal, in-the-round experience awaits a fortunate few when the act brings its acclaimed live show to the Fox Theater — its only Colorado appearance —October 14.
Steeped in the raw energy of playing live, the band’s music has always taken the path of least resistance, its most natural, organic course. Simply put, “The Secret Machines is what happens when the three of us play music,” guitarist Ben Curtis recently told The Marquee. “It is what it is because of the way we play together. It’s not studio magic.” According to Curtis, his brother Brandon — who plays keys, bass and vocals — and drummer Josh Garza developed the band’s “aesthetic” by “playing together and realizing things that worked” with how they interacted and sounded together. “It wasn’t like, ‘Lets start a band and be loud and be psychedelic,’” he said. “It just turns out that’s what happens when we all play together. We simply listen to each other and just kind of let it go. We turn it on and we start playing.”
Despite its limited personnel, or perhaps because of it, when the band does “turn it on,” something smart, vast and almost rapturous comes about. Layered vocals and melodies; immense, bombastic drums; reverb-drenched, throbbing, swirling guitars and keyboards, all blend to create something almost glorious. To many who are transported to other realms, it’s even more. This is not what one would typically expect from an American rock trio. It’s nothing that surprises Curtis, however, who knows the band is plenty big enough to make the powerful music his band plays. “It is three people right now because it works,” he said, “there doesn’t really seem to be a hole for something else.”
The band further sets itself apart from the rock trio mold by foregoing the temptations of an overbearing lead instrument. “We’re not one of those bands,” Curtis explained. “Josh’s drums are as much in the forefront as the vocals, and the keys, guitar and bass all kind of create this sort of cloud of music. It’s interesting because no one is trying to step out and shred your face off or anything. It’s a cool dynamic.” That dynamic is part of what has attracted fans such as David Bowie, who has been praising the act since 2004, and Spiritualized’s reclusive Jason Pierce and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields to its live shows. It’s also allowed them to step into opportunities such as recording the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” with U2’s Bono on lead vocals for an upcoming film release.
Even though the band’s notoriety comes from its mesmerizing live experiences, the band has been able to self-produce two well-received albums for Reprise/Warner Brothers: Now Here is Nowhere in 2004 and their most recent, Ten Silver Drops in 2006. Both works revolve around their own central theme, mood and atmosphere while, much like their live show, songs are threaded together with beginnings and endings blurred. Without a doubt, the band puts much more intention into their recorded work than most of today’s popular recording artists, especially ones that can also play a fantastic show. “Whether or not we’ve always accomplished what we wanted to do [in the studio]is questionable, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s all been up to us. The challenge is always ours,” Curtis said. “We’re really lucky our label has been so cool about that. They signed us because they are fans of what we do, so they’ve let us do it. We’ve been able to make records the way we want and have them sound the way we want them to sound. People have responded really well so far.”
Having been given the chance to make music with a record company’s support, for a passionate fan base, the band members feel they can do nothing less than their best. “It is something we feel like we should do because it’s such an opportunity,” Curtis explained. “We take the time to craft our records into something that flows and tells a complete story.” That concept, however, can be somewhat dangerous when so often songs have to stand alone thanks to Internet downloading and other new technology — something the band enthusiastically supports. The guitarist pointed out the irony in that despite being “one of the great albums of all time,” if The Who’s Tommy is put on shuffle, “it just sounds weird” and “doesn’t really make any sense.” For that reason, the Secret Machines approaches its creations a little differently. “We kept in mind that at some point the songs might have to stand on their own as individuals. You kind of have to walk that line of making an album versus a collection of songs.”
Even now, after being voted the “Best Band in New York City” by The New York Press, gaining the notoriety of music fans, critics and peers to be one of the best live bands anywhere and releasing its second major-label album to critical acclaim, the band feels it’s just now ready to “take things a little further out.” Never letting an opportunity go unexploited, Curtis and the band feel that this tour, by “branching out and doing something different with the presentation,” is the start of a new direction for the band. “We’re really trying different ways to get our music out to people that aren’t exactly the traditional ways,” he explained. “We’ve arrived at this point where we can do a lot of different things creatively, and that’s cool. It’s an opportunity we’re going to totally take advantage of every time. Anything can happen and that’s cool.”
This philosophy of doing things differently and doing things well has always been an aspect of the band’s live gigs, which is why they have such a loyal following. “We do what we can to create a really diverse environment for people coming to shows and make it a little more of an experience rather than like a TV show or something like that,” Curtis said.
This goes a long way toward explaining the whole in-the-round tour idea. “It’s really cool, I think, because people’s pre-conception of what it’s like to see a band is really distorted since you don’t know where to look. You are just kind of standing there with us,” Curtis explained. “We are right in the middle and you hear everything, but it’s less like a TV show and there is not that barricade of security bouncers staring at you in between the band and the audience. It’s really weird.” At the time of this interview, the band had only played on their round stage twice. “We did it once, and then we did it again and we were like, ‘We don’t want to play on a stage in front of people anymore’ because it’s totally different, it changes the way we play, it’s really interesting,” said Curtis.
The boundary pushing isn’t just for the band members’ benefit. They’re too loyal to their fans for that. “We do this because of how we want the audience to experience what we do. We wanted to do something different. It’s an opportunity, if you can go out and play music for someone and have the means to do it, why not do something really different,” Curtis said. “It just seems like something really special because it is exactly the way we play when we rehearse, in the middle facing each other. It’s interesting because we can keep contact with people around us and at the same time we can look at each other and we can really take our arrangements a little further out because we can keep eye contact and make decisions more quickly. That way it’s even less like a recitation of our material and more like a new performance. I think it’s better for the crowd and it’s better for us, too.
Ultimately, Curtis still plays and experiences music because he loves it. It’s something that is oddly missing in today’s highly financed reality of cookie-cutter, disposable, commercial-radio and MTV musicians. For Curtis, it’s not so much about the cash, although moving the band out of its one-room apartment with no hot water did have its blessings. It’s mostly about powerful, cosmic musical moments. “I know what we’ve done is good in the studio when we listen back and I can’t remember doing it. It’s weird, but it really does happen a lot,” he said. “Sometimes you slave over all the little decisions you can make musically, and those parts never really work out quite right. Every now and then, however, you kind of tune into something that happens. It’s really good and it really turns you on. Those are really great musical moments. We always wonder where they come from and how they happen. It’s really mysterious.” He added that they also happen in the live setting. “They happen live, the only difference is live you can’t hear them again, they are really temporal. That’s cool! That’s why we play music; we get kind of addicted to it.”
Don’t we all.
:: The Secret Machines ::
::Fox Theatre :: October 14 ::
Spectate if you Gravitate:
• Pink Floyd
• Flaming Lips