The Secret Machines ascent into the apple of the public and critics' eye is a rapid one. Hailing from New York City by way of Dallas, Texas - the trio is carving out a niche with their unique brand of music and electric live performances.
Their music is a beautiful marriage of strong song writing, crafty melodies laid atop a soundscape of ethereal pop. The band's following is growing as fast as its buzz.
Livewire's Phil Bonyata caught up with vocalist/bassist/kerboardist Brandon Curtis and talked about all things Secret Machines.
Livewire: How are you Brandon?
Brandon: Great except I've been at the DMV all day trying to get my license. Apparently, I have old tickets and the place where I have the tickets has no record of the them and the place where I'm trying to get my driver's license says I have them. I'm totally in limbo.
Livewire: I guess you're going to have to get a limo driver.
Brandon: The last thing I want to do is pay someone to drive me around.
Livewire: The Secret Machine's buzz is going at full blast right now. Why do you feel your band is breaking now - when so many other talented acts languish their entire careers?
Brandon: Um... that's a good question. As people and musicians we've never really taken stock and looked back where we feel we have arrived or achieved anything. It's hard for me without sounding cynical to acknowledge things like success or whatever. To me success is a very real moment of creation. Success to me is in the studio or on stage doing the things we're doing that are very real. I felt successful from the very first time I was able to play music. I can't believe this - I felt like the luckiest person on the planet! Like the first time playing at First Avenue in Minneapolis where "Purple Rain" was filmed was so unreal. And from the very beginning one or two people would show up and one of them was my mother (both laugh) that was still success to me.
Livewire: When you moved from Dallas to New York in late 2000 - what were some of the immediate cultural differences between the two cities?
Brandon: I mean everyone talks about the weather it's the ultimate topic of conversation. When you get to New York City in November - it was cold and rainy and the streets were dirty. We moved to Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood - I mean it was desolate and lonely. Totally not like a warm and inviting feeling like a tree lined street. Like Dallas with all the duplexes and gardens. The cultural differences were the standard of living in some ways. The three of us moved into this one room apartment - we immediately had to pay an incredible amount of money for almost no space. It felt like at the time a fight for our lives. To find our identities and to prove what we were doing were valid. And through that it helped to define ourselves with each other and as a band.
Livewire: So it was pretty Spartan living in that loft?
Brandon: They take these old gutted factories that used to make textiles or whatever and have wooden floors and put up really thin sheet rock walls and they put a metal door in front of it and they call it a loft. There was no insulation, the windows had cracks in them, there were mice and cockroaches and they paint the walls white and you're doing the hip, arty living. And there's gunshots going around, I mean it's like a weird, fantastic romantic notion of New York City. Gangs hanging out outside (laughs) and we were like where are we going to buy weed when we get there? Right outside the corner was the local gang where we would but nickel bags. It was a really, really weird kind of in-your-face kind of reality. And I would never trade it.
Livewire: You've worked with famed producer Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine) what did he bring to the table that was unique?
Brandon: Well, he mixed this record and we produced it ourselves. It's one of those things that's hard to pinpoint outside of it's own kind of relevance. Alan Moulder worked on records that were awakening moments for me musically. When you talk to him about a song or an idea or going over our tracks - getting balances or EQs stuff like that - to me the fact that his hands and ears process that were applied to those records that influenced me were being applied to our music and it's thrilling in one sense and validating in another sense. Because this is the man that worked on really great seminal records. Him as an engineer and mixer I mean he's really, really good. I mean once he gets involved in it everything improves. More than some people have a specific kind of style or aesthetic - his to me is about quality and improvement. Everything he touches always becomes better!
Livewire: Musically if you were an objective critic (and I know how hard that can be) - how would you describe and rate your latest album Ten Silver Drops?
Brandon: It's a difficult question - not because of some sort of pretense that I can't talk about my own music - that's not it. My relationship to it is one from the inside out. You know being there when the songs were written and being recorded and the mixing and the artwork - I mean it's really, really impossible for me to say what our music sounds like. When I hear it - I hear specific things that are impossible to convey.
Livewire: Do you feel that the prospect of more money and possible label interference might adversely affect your music?
Brandon: Reprise has been really good to us and they kept their distance as far as the creative process. They let us drive the creative machine that is our music. They let us produce our first two records and we kind of dictate when and how. We do own our art and we imprint our creative personalities on every aspect of it. So far that's been the case and it takes a lot of guts for a label to give up that much control and I hope that doesn't change. The question of money - I mean the more money that you have means just that you have more money. It doesn't mean you have less problems. Now we have enough money to afford our own apartments and not to have to kill ourselves to survive and still dedicate ourselves to music - I don't know...it's an interesting question - I'll let you know when we have tons of money. (laughs loudly)
Livewire: Give me some artists that move you today.
Brandon: Well there's a lot of stuff. I really like the new Scott Walker record - I think this record is in a class by itself! He has a really stylized and specific kind of vocal sound that you either love or hate. Well it's like more Morrissey and the real croony David Bowie stuff. I think Lightning Bolt and Hyper Magic Mountain are really amazing. I like the new TV on the Radio record. There' actually one guy in New York called Atelia who makes really great electronic music. There's a lot of great music out there. Everyone talks about how bad the music industry is today, but man, there is so much much good music being made today - much more then I can keep up with. It's really incredible and inspiring.
Livewire: iPod or vinyl?
Brandon: I'm a little bit of an audiophile and I hear the subtleties in music. When I hear an iPod I can hear the compression - I can hear the difference. When you listen to the same song on CD you can tell the difference. But I can carry my iPod and have all my music on it and play what I want depending on what mood I'm in, but when I'm home I'll put on a CD so I can really get into the sound, you know.
Livewire: Well some vinyl enthusiasts say that vinyl has a better resonance and warmer sound then on CD.
Brandon: I believe it and I personally don't have the space in my apartment to keep vinyl. I mean I have a storage space with all of my vinyl in but it's just not convenient. And I don't think you can rule out convenience in all of this. Music is supposed to be something that surrounds you and I understand the ritual of dusting off the record and checking the needle and making sure everything is just so - I know people that do that and that's cool. Some go kind of ridiculous in the extreme though.
Livewire: One of the problems I see from going to vinyl to CD to mp3 is that you're losing the cover art and you're also losing the concept of an album. Will there be albums or records in the future?
Brandon: I don't know - but recorded music started with singles. The very first actual album was a Frank Sinatra record - it was like 1959 or something - it was the first that was about a concept or idea. And from there everybody else was doing it. I don't know that one is better than the other. I mean I like single songs- the idea of the quickness of a "song" like you can do on "shuffle" and I do love albums too. The problem is when you have artists or bands that should be singles bands and are forced to make albums and you have bands who are albums bands that are compelled to make singles. Why can't they just exist as they are? There's really no reason that Franz Ferdinand should be forced to make an album - they make really great singles. Because of this kind of inertia history - we must make an album, we must sell an album. And then you take a band like us, for example, "why don't we have any singles on the radio" and does that make us any less then what we are? We don't make "singles" and some bands don't make "albums." I don't like the force that dictates that the album is the Holy Grail. I don't believe that.
Livewire: When can we expect a new album from the band?
Brandon: Well, um...we have to write it. (both laugh) I think this time we want to have an idea on what it is we're doing. On the first record this was the song that we played - this was the record we played to the label. This was the music that started us out as a band. The second was like we're on tour and it really captured that feeling of a band on tour - on the road. Like we're going forward. It's a little manic and a little intense. This time I think we have to consider what it is we want to do. We don't want to be reflexive... like let's go it's time to make a third album. We want to make sure that we're saying something, you know. Whenever that happens...(laughs)
Livewire: How do you get along with your brother Ben? I mean is there ever an Oasis type friction thing going on there?
Brandon: No, I think everyone has a different relationship with their family. Ben is a really, really great talent in music. If he weren't my brother - hopefully I would still be playing in a band with him. It's really, really thrilling to work with him! The fact that we've known each other so long - you know have the same parents - the same history makes it really, really precious. I'm very respectful of his identity and our relationship. I'm six and half years older then Ben - so we didn't really grow up together - so there really wasn't that much direct competition as we were being raised. So, there really wasn't any latent hostility. I don't feel like we're living out our childhood with each other. Maybe with Oasis things are little more clustered and intense. We spent some time with the guys from Oasis and they were really cool. As much as I expected fireworks I didn't really see it.
Livewire: How did you guys' fare at this year's Lollapalooza in Chicago?
Brandon: I enjoyed it - I though it was really fun festival. What a massive stage it was on. I walked around wanting to see some bands and going to that festival would be exhausting! The bands were so far apart from each other. I'm not trying to be critical of the people that are doing these fests - I think it was a financial success, but I'm not convinced that it really holds the aesthetic of what Lollapalooza really was. The variety of bands and the overall scope of it didn't give me the feeling of the early ones. I mean I went to some of the early ones. Those had a real flavor and originality that I didn't get that from this one. I don't know if it's just because I'm cynical or jaded. Like everyone says it was a great success, but I think people made a lot of money. There wasn't a lot of musical variety. They billed bands that are popular, but that's not what Lollapalooza was meant to be.
Livewire: Are there lots of drugs and women on the road?
Brandon: (laughs) Um..here's the thing when you roll into town - I don't care what night it is and you're the event that night - you're the party. When people show up it means it's time to party. They're looking forward to it - they brought their friends, I mean it's a special moment for them. The problem is when you do that five nights a week as "the party" it becomes really, really tiring. That's how I think you get some people that go way overboard and get psychotic behavior (otherwise it's not rock n' roll behavior) and get other people that are just assholes - you know withdrawn. For me the challenge is to have some kind of a normal life. It's fun to like drink or do whatever chemicals every once-in-a-while and it's nice to meet people to hang out with. But you have to be careful because you can get really carried away with it and become lost and lose touch. I try to avoid that. You know the party has to end at some point and then you can have another one.
Livewire: When it's all said and done what would you like the bands' legacy to be?
Brandon: Weird. For me it's like when the band stops to exist or I stop to exist, I kind of feel like it's someone else's problem at that point. For me, I have a strong urge to pursue and push to make and create and to learn stuff. That's just the feeling I have from day-to-day. When the band is over it's for someone to kind of connect the dots. What a high pressure thing to think about how you're going to be remembered. It's hard enough to get out of bed and see what's going to keep you interested in what happens today.
More Secret Machines
Concert review - New York April 26, 2006