This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
There’s a reason why they have that quote posted on their website. New York rock trio Secret Machines are apt guides for those wishing to seek and find the truth expressed by Huxley who was challenging readers and music fans to ponder the inherent power of music.
Before their Chicago show, I had a backstage talk with Brandon Curtis (vocals/bass/keys) and Josh Garza (drummer). Even though first formed in 2000 and are seasoned indie-rock warriors, I was still wondering how they’ve managed to soldiered on when so much has happened since 2006’s Ten Silver Drops. In roughly two years, they’ve left Warner Bros., weathered the departure of original guitarist Ben Curtis (Brandon’s brother), added guitarist Phil Karnats to the mix, and self-released The Secret Machines in October.
During our chat, both Brandon and Josh explained how they’ve continued to make the music they’ve always wanted to, while adjusting to the creative challenges of being independent and making music on their terms.
They sat on the couch across from me. Curtis calmly sipped a beer while Garza warmed up his drumsticks, tapping them on this shoes and the floor, wrapping them with grip tape as if preparing for war.
The Secret Machines have appeared to come full circle. And our conversation confirmed that they’re ready for the next wave of challenges.
Can you explain the new rhombus stage set up and tell me how the visual effect is working with the tour so far?
Brandon: During this tour we’re figuring out how our playing works with this new stage set up. We’re exploring the nuances and subtleties of different lighting schemes, figuring out how the songs fit together. We’re really enjoying the process.
What type of impact do the new songs have on figuring out that process?
The visual presentation of our music has always been something Josh and I have enjoyed doing. We love putting the energy into figuring out how our music can be represented visually. It’s something we’ve always be enthusiastic about; just as much as the playing and writing music. We also like the challenge of finding out how to experiment visually with the means we have right now. Our design on this tour is very stripped down; but it still has a lot of character for what it is.
To create the rhombus structure you called on the award-winning set designer Es Devlin who’s also done work for Kanye West. Was there any inspiration from other live shows you’ve been to that made you want to create a particular atmosphere during a Secret Machines show?
Brandon: I don’t ever want to duplicate an experience. We both have had some significant [concert] experiences as fans that made an impact on us and made us want to do our own version.
Josh: It’s one thing if you’re Def Leppard and can afford to do production, or if you’re Radiohead and have the towers of blinking LED lights. But when you’re at our level it’s more like something we want to do. It’s also our way of fighting laziness. It helps us to expect something from each show. We could just set up and play and that would be great. We saw spiritualized play in Dallas. The show wasn’t even sold out but they did a very simple light show that was mind-blowing. It was so simple but so effective. It inspired us to try and say something because for us it’s more than just being a band; it’s about saying something.
How has it been going since you left Warner Bros. and put the new album out on TSM label?
Brandon: It’s been a learning experience. We chose to put this record out ourselves. We’re still discovering what that means, figuring out the benefits and limitations. It’s a challenge this day and age to figure out how to make things work. It’s a different matter when you’re counting every penny. Nobody at Warner Bros was a completely different situation when it came to budget affecting everyone. TSM recording is a closed, close-knit system. We’re working with what we have and it’s exciting. It’s also very grounding.
Josh: It’s also a Catch-22. When you have an endless budget you can be as creative as you want. But when you have a limited budget you can’t be willy-nilly about spending money. Having a limited budget also forces us to be creative. And that’s a challenge we’ve sort of been used to. On this tour that creative challenge is showing, which I think it’s a good place for us to be. I want to inspire the other [bands] out there trying to do what we’re doing. I don’t want a medal for trying but at least we’re trying.
Has this budget challenge revealed anything new to you about making music or changed your creative process?
Brandon: Not directly, no. This new challenge hasn’t impacted how we make music because our music has always been about and stemmed from dealing with what’s right in front of us. I’ve never felt any limitation that changed my perspective on music. My music is the filter through which I view the world, and that filter changes as the world around me changes. The only limitation that I have to deal with are more practical; like how do you deal with the fact that you want street advertisement in New York City but at the same time you want listening stations in city? It’s all a part of the record business. It’s not that we didn’t care about [these decisions] before; it’s just that no one asked us about them before. We’re very enthusiastic students about whatever world we’re thrown into. We’re up for challenges that force us to prioritize choosing between a sold out show or a high-guaranteed show. I’m glad, though, that all this ‘business of music’ hasn’t seeped its way into the pleasure of making music. We love adapting to whatever situation is presented to us on stage and we take that same approach as we navigate this tour and being independent. Playing, writing, thinking about music, our goal is to have more time to do all of those things as we go along.
On past albums, you’ve used a mix of strong, swift and somber psychedelic blues-rock to tell stories and communicate feelings. Any changes this time around?
We aren’t doing anything that we haven’t done before. We’re just trying to do it better. I approach songwriting on a very personal level. I try to tell a story through my own eyes and use the lyrics and music to explain how I feel about whatever is going on in each song.
Sounds like you guys are still having fun and taking each day as it comes.
Brandon: [laughs] Somewhat…
Josh: [Laughs] We’re working on it!
Brandon: [chuckles] It’s a work in progress.
Josh: When it comes to the arts, nothing’s a given. I’m not going to take anything personally. It’s about the arts. And the reality is that nobody gives a shit most of the time. Everybody just wants to be entertained. Whether it’s a movie, a book, photography, or whatever. Most people just want to be seduced by entertainment. Most people don’t understand that it’s hard to be writer, a photographer or in a band. It’s not like going to college and you’re guaranteed a job or a certain amount of money a year doing whatever you do. It’s an uphill battle and you can’t bitch too much about because everything I just mentioned is part of the gig.
Yeah, we’re having fun but that’s because you have to look for the fun and remember the fun. The funniest thing about being in a band is that that fun time is the music, but that’s not the only thing that goes with [being in a band]; there’s business side, touring, and the business side of touring. When push comes to shove, we just want to be playing music and writing songs… but they don’t make it easy.
No they don’t.
Josh: They never have and never will. But this is our dance and it’s what we do. It’s not the best dance but if you look close there’s a lot of subtlety to my dance. We’re ready to go a kick ass and take names tonight!
As the band hustled away to set up, I headed towards the main stage area thinking about Josh’s last two “subtlety and kick ass” comments, wondering what exactly they had planned for tonight.
I hadn’t seen a stage set-up quite like this before. Just watching them set up this strange rhombus structure was nothing short of mesmerizing. The crowd watched in anticipation, getting a visual feast of curious stimulation before the music even started. The band positioned their instruments inside the rhombus structure, working with and around the stage crew who wrapped thin plastic straps around the rectangular pipe structure and connecting multi-colored light fixtures to the side of the structure.
The house lights went down.
A thunderous tidal wave of crashing cymbals, snarling guitars and psychedelic fuzz erupted surging back and forth between the stacks of stage-side speakers.
Curtis and Garza weren’t kidding. They did what they’ve always done. With great force and intricate intensity, weaving in old and new tracks, they descended to the fiery depths of Dante’s inferno and ascended upwards to dreamy psychedelic heights.
Emotion was there on every note, wrapping around your heart and ears at every melodic turn. “Sad and Lonely” dripped metallic blue tears over Garza’s liquid rhythmic thunder. Fear and pain poured from “The Walls Are Starting to Crack”, a new mini-opus filled with growling guitars and machine-gun tom blasts. As if in the center of a glowing red-hot furnace, the trio reflected the scorching sonics of “The Fire Is Waiting”.
The show was building to its final moments, reaching cathartic crescendo on the last number, “First Wave Intact”, a vintage Secret Machines nine-minute anthem from the debut Now Here Is Nowhere. Like an army seconds away from battle, the crowd pumped their fists in unison and roared the three-word chorus “First. Wave. Down!”
It was a sensational resonation that flowed through the Metro, out on to the streets of Chicago’s north side and hopefully rages on to the next city as the tour continues.