All art is a subjective experience, but music is the only art form that can really be experienced in nearly every imaginable context and circumstance. And when just the right music, context and circumstance come together, the experience can be profoundly, inexplicably magical. For Secret Machines, three young artists who paint vivid pictures with sound and volume, every performance - and every track on their new Reprise debut entitles, Now Here Is Nowhere, is informed by the continuous pursuit of that intangible magic.
"Everyone's been to a show where you're watching the performance, and all of a sudden the world's different," says Ben Curtis, Secret Machines'guitarist and vocalist. "You have some kind of epiphany, and it's totally generated by that music and that moment."
"We've all experienced that," agrees bassist, keyboardist and vocalist Brandon Curtis. "That's the only reason I've ever wanted to play music - to deliver that to other people. Given the right moment, we will change your life."
The latest link in the loose-knit chain that connects Pink Floyd, Neu, Can, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, La Dusseldorf, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The Band, My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized, Secret Machines play music that's spatial, ambient, organic, ecstatic, hypnotic, and not a little bit psychedelic. "We're just trying to make music that connects with people, connects with the cosmos, and connects with the gods," explains drummer Josh Garza. It's music that will definitely take you places - which is appropriate, considering that Secret Machines' musical quest has been an epic journey in itself.
The Secret Machines story begins in Dallas, Texas, where Josh and brothers Ben and Brandon served their musical apprenticeships in the Nineties with such bands as UFOFU, Tripping Daisy, Captain Audio, Comet and When Babies Eat Pennies. When the three musicians found themselves at loose ends in July 2000, they decided, says Brandon, "to do something that was a little more significant to us." Secret Machines was formed, and plans were immediately hatched for trading the big skies of Texas in for the limestone canyons of New York City.
"Living in Dallas, we would have probably had the same ideas and written the same songs," says Ben. "But the reality is, you've gotta go where the work is. It's like we're migrant farmers; the season is in New York, so you go to New York." "And anyway," adds Brandon, "in all the great rock and roll stories, you have to get up and go somewhere else. The Beatles went to Hamburg, Bob Dylan went to New York, and Jimi Hendrix went to London. You have to go out and seek your fortune, you know?"
ut rather then heading straight to New York, the trio first stopped in Chicago, where they spent eight days recording at a studio belonging to their friend Brian Deck (Red Red Meat, Califone). "We knew that living in New York would be such a drain on our finances that we wouldn't be able to afford to record after moving there," Brandon explains. "We funded the recording ourselves, with whatever savings we had; our friends and family contributed, and we sold a bunch of stuff. That was our plan - zap together enough cash to go to Chicago, then go to New York and just kind of land."
It was a rough landing in New York, however. "We rented this apartment in Bushwick, and for two or three weeks we didn't have hot water," Brandon remembers. "It was winter, November of 2000, and it was twenty degrees outside; there was no hot water, we had no jobs and no money, and we were just like, 'What the f--- have we done?'"
Ben, Brandon and Josh quickly adopted a Spartan daily regimen - by day, they looked for (and eventually found) jobs; by night, they rehearsed in their one-room loft apartment. "Our equipment was at one end, the stereo was at the other end, and our beds were in the middle," Brandon recalls. "It was actually kind of nice, waking up every day and looking at our music equipment, because it was almost a reminder of why we were there. When we would find ourselves frustrated, or depressed, or overwhelmed, it was a little bit of a consolation to lose yourself in your instrument."
The band's Chicago tracks were eventually released in March 2002 on Ace Fu records. Though the EP, September 000, received rave reviews, Secret Machines - whose stunning performances inspired New York Press to call them "the city's best live band" - were already miles beyond it.
"Living in New York City has been kind of a harrowing experience, a real collective struggle for the three of us," says Brandon. "I think that experience focused the Secret Machines into what it is, and I can hear that in the music. The record we've just recorded sounds more driven and more focused, and a little more refined. The record we did in Chicago has a little bit of a more sprawling feel, and a slower pace; the implication was of more of a vastness, in the sense that you're kind of floating in the vastness. The new record has more of a driving nature to it - we're propelling ourselves through the space, instead of floating in it."
After an extended road trip to Southern California in October 2002 - a visit which the trio concluded by inking a deal with Reprise - and a brief stop in Marfa, Texas to play a concert amid the Chinati Foundation's environmental art installations, Secret Machines returned to New York and began work on their Reprise debut. Recorded at Stratosphere Sound, Now Here Is Nowhere is both urban and interstellar, conjuring up everything from the screech of the subway to the hum of a distant satellite.
Adding to the record's sonic alchemy was co-producer Jeff Blenkinsopp, a technological wizard who'd worked with a number of classic rock and punk acts before dropping out of the music business in the late 70s. Inspired by Secret Machines' wide-open approach to making music, Blenkinsopp built several custom signal processors that helped Ben, Brandon and Josh finally realize and reproduce the sounds that they'd been hearing in their heads.
"I think Jeff related to our music, because we're influenced by stuff that he was actually participating in, bands like Pink Floyd and Hawkwind," Brandon explains. "He'd come up with these ideas for sculpting frequencies and shaping them, and he'd put them into boxes so we could use them, kind of like what Eno was doing with Roxy Music in '72."
Rather than simply reproduce the band's live sound, tracks like "First Wave Intact," "Nowhere Again" and "Lights ON!" mix live drums with multi-hued layers of treated guitars and keyboards, while still retaining the elastic, adventurous spirit of a Secret Machines performance. Now Here Is Nowhere glows with the organic warmth of The Band's Music From Big Pink, while also possessing the mechanical propulsion of classic Krautrock bands like Neu and La Dusseldorf, a combination of seemingly contradictory musical strains that sounds completely natural the way these gentlemen work it.
"I kind of see Krautrock and late-Sixties Americana as coming from the same place - as musicians relating to their society, and people trying to reattach their relationship to their culture and their history," Brandon says. "I really feel that's part of why we play music - we're making some effort to relate to the present moment, and relate to society, and actually reflect what we see in the world around us in our music. You start talking politics with somebody, and immediately it becomes like a war of semantics. But somehow, if you can color around the issue with music and metaphor and lyrics, maybe you're able to communicate a bit better."
Ultimately, though, it's the music itself that motivates Secret Machines to keep pushing the sonic envelope. "For us, it's about being true to the art," says Josh. "It's about looking back at The Band, looking back at Zeppelin, looking back at all those bands and saying, 'What did they do, and why did they do it?' As opposed to saying, 'Let's try to mimic, let's try to redo what's already been done.'"
"Secret Machines is what I bring to the table, what Ben brings to the table, and what Brandon brings to the table," he continues. "It's a very, very personal thing. This is what we do - and we do it as hard as we can, each and every time."
--- from the official Secret Machines website