by Nancy J Price
David Bowie raves about them, REM’s Michael Stipe says their single is “pure sex,” and the lead singer of Snow Patrol admits, “I’ve cried every time I’ve seen them live.” Upon hearing all this, you may well wonder what kind of experience you’re in for at a Secret Machines concert.
Oh, you’d be surprised.
What hits you first is the hugeness of the sound. It’s not just loud — it’s like a wave that goes over, around and right through you. Equally unexpected is that once the show starts, there’s no repartee between songs, no beer breaks, no posturing or crotch grabs. The band, in fact, seems almost oblivious to the crowd — an impression that’s only intensified by the moody backlighting.
While not necessarily the esoterically risqué tearjerker of a show the feedback from The Secret Machines’ A-list fans might have led you to expect, their live performance is lushly atmospheric and meticulously crafted, right down to the last detail. And then there’s one more revelation: Everything you hear comes from the heads and hands and hearts of just three people: Brandon Curtis (vocals, keyboards, bass), his younger brother Ben (guitar, vocals) and their friend Josh Garza (drums).
Put the wheels in motion
Of course, they haven’t always attracted a hipper-than-thou following, nor was it very long ago that the press deemed them New York’s “best live band.” The trio actually began on the other side of the Hudson — about 1500 miles on the other side — back in Dallas. There, the guys paid their dues playing in various other bands, including Captain Audio and Tripping Daisy.
But soon after joining forces to create The Secret Machines, the baby band decided to had to get out of town. In their quest for intensity and inspiration, they decided to head to New York City, making their pilgrimage in late 2000; cleverly timing the trek so they arrived in the dead of winter. Once in the big frozen apple, they spent a lot of quality time in the one-room apartment that served as both their living quarters and their rehearsal room. And they got jobs. Their days were intense, inspiring, and even a little insane — and it’s just what they needed.
Fast forward four and a half years, and the band is in California to play a sweltering evening show at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. Fifty thousand people and more than 80 bands have convened for this musical extravaganza, inexplicably set 130 miles east of Los Angeles, right out in the middle of the desert. And in the VIP area — a schmooze zone for hundreds of musicians and an assortment of actors and others in the industry — The Secret Machines are hanging out a few hours before their show.
Just a few years ago, an invitation to play at such a prestigious event would have seemed impossibly out of reach. So how did they get here?
Nowhere to go
Their first album as The Secret Machines, the September 000 EP, was released in 2002 on the ever-so-hip Ace Fu label. Still, they weren’t altogether satisfied with what they had been able to achieve. Their lifestyle hadn’t improved dramatically, and they were still slogging around on the subway to get to gigs.
After having played around the city for nearly two years with no major label interest, the three decided they needed to do something different. They decided to drive out to California for a few weeks to see if they could change their luck. Due to a combination of good karma and great timing, the prize was soon in hand: A recording contract with Reprise Records, the label Frank Sinatra started up in the early sixties. With newfound hope, the band returned to their adopted hometown and began to make a brand new start of it.
They recorded their album at Stratosphere Sound in West Chelsea, a studio owned by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. The album was produced by a team who truly understood the band’s needs and desires: The Secret Machines themselves. The label needed a little convincing to let them self-produce, but ultimately they got Reprise’s blessing.
After the album was done, their next task was to convince the label to so something else a little out of the ordinary.
“The way they do releases in the retail world is they have this system — a process — like a really defined assembly line. You drop it in six months in advance, and it has to go through all these things, and then it’s released… It takes a long time for it to get through it,” says Brandon Curtis, tucked away in a shady corner behind a concessions stand. “And it’s the only way that the major labels know how to do it. It has to fit into their bureaucracy.”
He is speaking of that epic struggle — something even Mozart and da Vinci had to face: Capitalist versus artist. Musicians want their art, while their patrons — in this era, the record companies — have rules to follow and costs to cover.
“[The album] was done, and we were like, ‘Why can’t you just make it available? Why can’t you just sell it, if people are interested in buying it?’ If they hear about it — if we’re playing shows, if we’re out doing stuff — they can go online and download the album,” he says. “It just seems really obvious to me, as opposed to living underneath the archetype of sales procedures that are antiquated.”
So the band and the label agreed to try an experiment.
The Secret Machines’ first full-length album, Now Here Is Nowhere, was released in February 2004 — albeit only in digital format. This virtual release from a major label caused waves in the industry, and got the band a fair amount of press based on the novelty value alone. But it all made sense: For just under nine bucks, listeners could download Nowhere in its entirety from a variety of online retailers. And then its corporeal twin — complete with jewel case and cover art — made its debut three and a half months later.
While acknowledging that releasing their album online was an effective strategy, Curtis shrugs off any suggestion that the band was — or is — at the leading edge of musical reform. “I don’t know what the wave of the future is, but I do think it’s stupid — and a little bit futile — for an industry to dictate the methods of distribution of its content,” he says. “You have a company that makes music and sells music, and it says, ‘I only want to sell music on CDs.’ No, you don’t make CDs, you make music. You don’t sign CD manufacturers — you sign musicians who make music. And why are you so concerned with the particular direction you’re selling or the method of transmission? You should be open for any kind of way of doing it, because that’s the business you’re in. Because otherwise you would have died in the vinyl business.”
Curtis himself buys a lot of music online. “It’s easy for me — when I think of a song, or think of a record, or think of an artist, I just go to iTunes and punch it in. And 99 cents later, it’s right there,” he says. Not only does it make sense from a distribution standpoint, it also offers a way to maintain the work’s immediacy. “And it’s foolish for anyone to refute that,” he says, “or to at least not acknowledge it.”
The best things in life are free
But his desire for widespread accessibility goes deeper than buck-a-song downloads. “I’ve always been into just giving away music,” he says. “When we first recorded the first CD, we gave away hundreds and hundreds of copies, without any real intention of ever selling them. Because for me, it wasn’t really the point — making money selling music. It was like, ‘This is what I do, and here it is.'” That experience gave him hope for the unconventional release. “I think the freedom that I associated with those times kind of related to the idea of releasing it outside of the machinations of major label culture.”
Outside major label culture? That begs the question: What, then, prompted a seemingly unlikely alliance with The Man?
“Uh, money!” he answers without hesitation, and without apology. “We didn’t give up anything,” Curtis explains. “We produce our own albums, we book our own studio times, we pick the studios, we work with engineers that we want to work with. We have all the control that we would ever have, but we just have a financier, basically, saying, ‘Go into the studio for four weeks.’ And that’s a really great thing to do. At least at one point in my life I wanted to do it, and it’s kind of amazing.”
Not that he’s knocking the indie thing. “It’s wonderful to be able to record yourself and to work in small studios and to do things on a shoestring budget,” says Curtis. “It’s wonderful, and I’ve done it for a long time. But at some point in my life, I want to be able to go into a studio and make a record and not be stressed out — like we have four days to do 15 basic tracks.”
Fortunately, they won’t have to revisit the starving artist phase of their career anytime soon. There’s a new EP coming out in June, and, “Monday morning, we start three weeks in the studio again to record our second record,” he says. “That’s only possible because of the reception that our previous record had.”
Again, he doesn’t feel like he’s giving up anything for the privilege. “We still get to produce it ourselves, we still get to pick our engineer, and still haven’t had to give demos to a label to get approval for what songs we’re gonna record,” he says. “We just said, ‘We want to record,’ and then they said, ‘Where?’ And we said, ‘Here,’ and they said, ‘How long?’ And we said, ‘This long.’ And then they made the arrangements. And it happens, and that’s fantastic.” With a slight smile, he adds, “I mean, I’m completely aware of how lucky that is, and how fortunate we are to be in that situation.”
Grateful for the pleasure
And while he appreciates all that they have achieved, the bottom line is that to keep living in the manner to which they have become accustomed, they have to sell records. So how far do they want to take it? How important is the concept of commercial success?
“There are a million ways of framing that argument — the idea of commercial success,” he says, shaking his head. “For me, there isn’t a point that you get to. We’re here making music and playing music, and at this particular juncture, we’re able to support ourselves doing it. I make enough money playing music that I can pay my rent, and eat, and I get to travel around to places like this and all over the world.”
In addition to criss-crossing the states on numerous occasions — both as headliners and in support of bands like Interpol — they have also given their passports plenty of action over the past few years. And wherever they go, Ben, Brandon and Josh always make themselves available to meet their delighted fans.
“To me, that is fantastic, and that feels very successful,” says Curtis. “But if anyone else was to be asked if they thought The Secret Machines were commercially successful, that would probably be no, ’cause we’re not having gold records and platinum records, and we’re not — whatever…” he trails off. “There’s a lot of things we’re not. So I don’t really buy into the idea of some kind of objective commercial success — I don’t see that. We make money playing music, and we work in an industry where the things that we create provide an environment for people. There are enough people out there that are interested, and that allows us to continue to do it… So that’s awesome, and I’ll let someone else define success.”
He doesn’t need to wait long for that to happen. Their show that balmy California night won them accolades across the board, including from big guns like Billboard magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and USA Today. It also earned them a new legion of fans eager to share the secret.
Still, don’t expect any one of them to rest on their laurels. “I want to improve, and write more records, and do more music. The only reason we’re making another record is because we can make a better record than the last one,” Curtis says. With a shrug, he adds, “And if no one else agrees, then that’s fine, too.”
As is the case with most artistes, his motivation comes from within. “Do I think we’ve done everything we could do? Do I think, ‘Am I satisfied with the records that we have made?’ and thinking that that’s good enough — and that we don’t have to really do anything better?” He looks over and waits a beat before answering his own question. “No, I’m totally unsatisfied. I’m driven.”
This interview from 2005 originally appeared on SheKnows.com