A series of phone calls from Los Angeles to what sounded like a very cold winter day in New York City…
Casey Brown: You recorded your debut EP, September 000, just weeks after the band formed in 2000. How excited are you to finally have some recorded evidence of what you guys have been up to over the last three and a half years?
Benjamin Curtis (Guitar/Vocals): Very excited to have recorded evidence! We’ve made a few attempts to do it, and the timing has never been right. I think when we recorded it, it was the perfect time.
We could record these songs again and they wouldn’t sound like they do now. We could have put it off forever, waiting for that perfect opportunity… it got to the point where we’re just going to start playing things differently and they’re not really gonna get that much better, they’re just gonna be different. We kinda caught it right at the point [where] it was perfect. We were so impatient waiting for the right situation to do it, but in the end it was the best thing for the music.
Josh Garza (Drums/Percussion): It’s pretty exciting, ‘cause it seems like in the three years since we recorded the EP, obviously any band will change, even more if you write new songs. One of the things is that the EP started to become less of a good representation of us in a lot of people’s minds. They would say, ‘I like it, but what you guys are doing now is so much this, so much that.’ Now it’s exciting because in a weird way it was kind of like a healthy test for us to ask, ‘Well, can we capture this bombastic thing we are doing and have it translate?’ Just to be long-winded, I am personally really excited to have people hear an updated Secret Machines.
CB: Being hailed as NYC’s best live band by many publications—including this one—was there pressure from your fans to transfer the live experience to the record?
BC: There was. We recorded our EP as basically a glorified demo tape. It had much more life than we ever thought it would, and it was just a studio thing and in between then [and now] we turned into a band… You’re always gonna do something different in the studio ‘cause it’s never gonna be the same as a live show. You have to approximate what you do live coming out of two tiny speakers—or these days two tiny headphone speakers coming out of your iPod. It’s never going to sound like Josh is wailing on some drums, feet away from you. But you have to take an abstraction of it and just imply it, and we did: We really made an effort to imply that power, volume, and energy into a record without sucking all the life out of it. Which happens really easy when you over-think things, and we definitely over-thought it, but we did leave things up to chance and that kept that live feel to it. I think we did it. I think that people that have seen us live are gonna listen to the record and say that’s the record they wanted to hear, if they indeed wanted to hear it. [laughter]
JG: The funny thing is the fans that we felt like we would get that from would have to get in line behind the pressure that we were giving ourselves. We were looking at each other going, ‘OK, we’re not making a live record here,’ and, granted, we don’t have the largest fan base in the world, but we recognized that they’re into it. Those few people have to be spanked in terms of they’re either gonna like it or hate it. There’s people who have never heard of us and for them it might take a few listens or whatever, but I’m talking about the dude who was at the show three years ago and with us all the way through. So yeah, there is a lot of pressure on this project to deliver in a good way as opposed to it being like, ‘Oh, it’s too over-produced or too under-produced.’ The pressure has been on from day one.
The EP wasn’t a full-length, but to us it kinda was. There was a movement, there was a beginning and end, and there were a lot of long-winded intros and soundscapes and things that we felt like we needed to explore. CB: One of the first things I noticed about the record is that it seems more to the point than I expected it to be. There isn’t really the 10-minute space/jam/psych-freakout sequence that some of your audience might be expecting. Was that an intentional move?
BC: It was. Well, it was intentional to actually have a song going within seconds of pressing ‘play’; that was definitely intentional. We’d already done the five-minute crescendo at the beginning of a record and that’s fine and I enjoy it, but right now we feel like what’s good about our music isn’t just the fact that we play one groove for 10 minutes. When we play live we still do it, we stretch it out in parts, but we just kinda try to do the part enough times where it made sense. And if it was supposed to be repetitive, you got the implication of repetition. And a couple of times we did something one more time, but we never did it 10 more times. We were really excited about the songs we were playing and we didn’t want it to be so much a private party for all the patient people of the world, which there still has to be. I mean, for God’s sake, the first song is 10 minutes long… it’s not the Ramones. It is a little more to the point and it was intentional. We wanted to make a classic record that a lot of people could get into, in their own way.
JG: It was deliberate. If there’s anything we can say about the record, it’s how deliberate it is. The EP wasn’t a full-length, but to us it kinda was. There was a movement, there was a beginning and end, and there were a lot of long-winded intros and soundscapes and things that we felt like we needed to explore. We feel like, like you said, it is very to the point. We got a beat, we got a song. We did make a conscious decision to avoid being too ambient.
CB: Not only do the individual tracks stand out, but the record also flows seamlessly as one solid piece of music from beginning to end. Did you have the album sequence in mind before you recorded or was that put together in post-production?
BC: Hmm. We did have an idea, not as much as we had with the EP, which was pretty scripted from the get-go. This time the running order did change as we went along…
CB: As you were going along in the mixing?
BC: Yeah, but at the same time we didn’t want to make… Tommy. Not that we could have ever made Tommy, but if you put Tommy on shuffle, some of the songs aren’t gonna make much sense to you. I think you can put this record on shuffle or listen to a track and it exists within itself and tells a story within itself. We didn’t ever want to jar you too much, but at the same time we wanted to tell some sort of story. Song four doesn’t have to go after song three, but it just worked well that way.
JG: We couldn’t quite figure it out until after we tracked everything, but it was something that had come up. Some of the songs we tracked, it was like, ‘Well, let’s give it something from the beginning in case it needs to transition from the song before it.’ We took all that into consideration, but it wasn’t until after we had tracked all the songs that we were like, ‘Hey, this song is coming first, definitely.’ And the way they were recorded helped to determine where they went, ‘cause there are a few of those songs where we didn’t even know how they were going to sound until we tracked them and that kind of made it easy for us.
I don’t think this whole mp3 thing is a people’s revolution; it’s the same thing: Big corporations are still selling people music. It’s not any different, they’re just fighting amongst themselves on how to do it. We’re not really taking sides. CB: You and your sound designer, Jeff Blenkinsopp, produced the record. Did Warner Bros. seem to feel at all reluctant about giving that much control to a recently signed band making their debut LP?
BC: Absolutely. They were completely reluctant and we had to stand our ground a lot of the time. We were never bitchy or prima donnas about the thing, saying, ‘No way in hell could anybody ever produce it,’ but we asked them to trust us for the opportunity that we could do it, that we had some ideas. We felt like, just for our own sanity, that we [needed to] get the chance just to try. We didn’t really do demos for this record and that’s unusual as well. They wanted us to wait, they wanted us to tour some more, but we felt that it was really time and it was one of those things where we couldn’t be dissuaded. We asked them to let us do two songs and we did two songs and they were happy with it.
It’s funny; we didn’t like the studio we were in, and didn’t exactly like the engineer we were working with, and we asked to change and they still weren’t comfortable with what we were doing. So, we wanted to go to a different studio and they said, ‘Look, you can do two more songs, but if these songs aren’t great then we can’t spend any more money on you making this record as you’re doing it now and we’re gonna have to talk about it.’ Basically we went in [to the new studio] and gave it all we had and were really serious and—not to be too melodramatic—but we kind of felt like we were fighting for our lives a little bit. We gave them two more songs and they loved it and said, ‘Call us when you’re finished. Keep going.’ It was good that we were able to convince them. It wasn’t a matter of demanding anything; we were just able to convince them. It was such a big vote of confidence, ‘cause we really didn’t know. We were having these nightmares of being stuck in the studio with Bob Ezrin, not to say that won’t happen in the future, but it definitely wasn’t the time then.
CB: That must have been hard for Warner Bros., since you guys had some pretty big-name producers coming after you to make this record.
BC: We did. They were doing the full-court press.
CB: I can see how it comes across as being prima-donnaish to be turning down all these people.
BC: And I feel very lucky to have ever had the chance of doing that. If they wouldn’t have liked the four songs and wanted us to use a producer… we would have tried. We weren’t ever gonna demand anything, but we were really confident that we could do it this way. That’s why we work with the people that we work with, for the fact that they could see it as it was happening. After we turned in the four songs, Warner’s main concern was to make sure that we were having fun making the record, and that’s a very nice thought.
JG: Yeah, totally. I think they were nervous that we would do… kinda like the question you asked earlier, I think they were scared that if left to ourselves we’d turn in a record with two songs of 30-minute soundscapes. Which I can understand, because if I worked at Warner Bros., I would be like, ‘Look, man, you guys better not give me a fucking Space Odyssey here.’ I think we had to win them over. We had to go in and track a couple of songs and show them that we’re not trying to make a record that’s hard to get into. We’re not trying to alienate the masses. So yeah, they were completely hesitant but somehow we managed to win them over. I really don’t know how.
CB: The move to release the record digitally two months before the official release is interesting, to say the least. Is that more of an area where you have to sit back and let the label do their job or is it a mutual decision? How did that come about?
BC: It’s something we were into. I mean, it’s obvious that there’s no real formula for success these days, which kind of worked to our advantage a little bit. It takes them months and months to release a record in stores and releasing it this way is something we can do more affordably for the moment and sooner. ‘Cause really, we just want people to be able to get this record sooner [rather] than later. I think a lot of these companies haven’t really been given the chance to market music the way I think they can, and I’m not sure that everyone listens to music this way but I think they are going to. I don’t think this whole mp3 thing is a people’s revolution; it’s the same thing: Big corporations are still selling people music. It’s not any different, they’re just fighting amongst themselves on how to do it. We’re not really taking sides. I don’t really have any strong feelings on the kind of format that puts out our music and I’m not gonna cry if people don’t listen to side A first on the LP—‘cause I like it all! I think the Apple store and all these companies have got a good point. They figured out a way to sell you music really easily and that’s great! I don’t think many people have done this before it’s reached the stores, and we kind of found that out the hard way, that there is still a protocol of how you can release a record on mp3. There’s a lot of organizational work that the label still has to be involved in, and it’s been interesting ‘cause a lot of the people at the label are having fun.
CB: Because it’s new?
BC: Because it’s new and they’re being creative in ways that they haven’t really done before at work. We have such a good relationship with them personally. And I think that’s the only reason this has happened is because they like the record anyway and they’re excited about finding ways to do it and they agreed to do it—which is amazing.
CB: Was it something you pitched to them or something they pitched to you?
BC: It was something we pitched to them and it was a product of our manager, Bill. I think someone said to him, ‘Yeah, we love to market records on our websites but I wish we could sell it here first.’ And I think the response was something like, ‘Well, why can’t you?’ And he said, ‘Well, record labels don’t do it that way.’ And we were like, ‘Well, why isn’t it done that way?’ We were kind of expecting the worst, but Warner was into it.
I think a lot of people come to see us because magazines write that we are a ‘great live band.’ When people say you’re a ‘great live band,’ you have to be great every time. Someone might just see you once when you’re having a bad night. That’s the only chance they’re gonna give you. CB: Live, I’ve seen you guys blow the shit out of headlining bands and steal their audience right out from under them. Is it true that some of the bigger bands you opened for went on to institute a policy that TSM were no longer allowed as a support band?
BC: Thanks, Casey! You know, that is completely true and I’m embarrassed by it and I don’t think I can name names, but there are a couple of New York City bands that swore that they would never have us open for them again. And we haven’t.
JG: It sort of feels that way. If we were complete paranoid freaks, I think that we would believe that wholeheartedly. But we get this vibe sometimes in New York where it’s like, we’re buddies and everyone’s friends and you’re in the scene, but when it turns to gigs… that part of the conversation people steer away from and you never know. It does seems that once we play with a band we usually never end up playing with them again and it’s usually ‘cause suddenly they’re not available or they have opening bands. It’s kind of funny ‘cause now it’s getting to the point where bands will only play with us as long as we’re playing last. But we’re not quite at the point where we can do constant headlining shows.
CB: What are some of the upcoming touring plans?
BC: We’re touring down to SXSW [South by Southwest], playing some cool shows there and after that we are going out to the West Coast to meet up with Blonde Redhead and we’re doing the whole U.S. with Blonde Redhead in late March through April.
JG: We’re trying to hook up some shows with The Fever on the way down to SXSW. I think we’re doing Cincinnati. Basically two lonely bands hooking up to play two lonely gigs on the way to Austin. Which seems like a lot of bands this spring. We really want to get on the ball so we can try to hook up with the U.K./European festival circuit and play with all the other bands.
CB: You were recently on tour with Spiritualized. What were some things you learned from Mr. Pierce and company?
BC: Wow. He’s a wise man and he loves to talk about music. I would have good conversations with him about the Secret Machines and actually he gave us some really nice aesthetic criticisms of our live show. And also a lot of encouragement from the whole band. Really enthusiastic and supportive. Watching them and the way they tour is such a slick machine. The way they tour is they have an absolute minimal amount of chaos. When they hit the stage and they play, they control the environment as much as they can so they can just play and be relaxed when they play and it’s always a great show. That’s something we learned from them, to take it more seriously and approach it like that, which we have since playing shows with them. Even the way we set up and break down. There is always chaos. Something will always break, especially with us.
Every time you play for somebody it’s your one chance. I think a lot of people come to see us because magazines write that we are a ‘great live band.’ When people say you’re a ‘great live band,’ you have to be great every time. Someone might just see you once when you’re having a bad night. That’s the only chance they’re gonna give you. They’ll say, ‘They aren’t a great live band. The Secret Machines suck.’ We’ve had those nights, but I don’t think Spiritualized has those nights. Seeing how they do it… we’re on our way, but maybe a few years behind them.
JG: The one thing I really got out of it is the way the Spiritualized team works. They come in to a place and take it over and play their show and get the hell out of there. It was very impressive, because outside of being in a band you just go to the gig and you go home. There’s a lot of things that have to be taken care of and seeing from that perspective really inspired me to want to get a good team and crew together. It was really inspiring, seeing as how Spiritualized isn’t a mainstream band. They’re really psychedelic, very blinding, yet they have their shit together. I want to be at the point where we have a good team together and can go to any town, any stage, and it’s awesome.
If you go to a really good club with a really good sound guy he can make anything sound good. What’ll happen is that a lot of these great bands who have different sounds [end up] sounding a little more similar because it’s all set up the same. CB: Speaking of packaging, can you give some clues as to what the artwork will be like?
BC: It’s nothing too overblown or psychedelic. We wanted an image that was easy and that you could look at and spend some time with. It’s self-referenced with us and what we do. I’m not gonna tell you what it is ‘cause I think you’re gonna like it when you see it, but you’ll have to believe me, it’s a good cover. We just finished it and now we’re doing the layout and all that shit.
JG: It’s gonna play up the Secret Machines. In terms of being very specific, yet kind of vague. The cover goes along with that vibe… an air of mystery. It’s not just a record cover, it’s your record cover, our record cover. It will make people want to learn what it is and why. Indie bands don’t really seem to do that. Although, at this point it’s debatable on whether or not we’re an indie band. We’re an indie-sounding band on a major label, so we’re trying to bring those two together.
CB: 679 Records just recently released the debut EP in the U.K. Will the record be coming out via Warner or 679 Records in the U.K.?
BC: As of now it is. I hope it is. We love them. They’re for real. They’re music fans and Secret Machines were absolutely not forced on anyone in that company. They’re all really, really excited and that’s all you want.
JG: It’s kinda hard because the fact that Warner just got bought out and things are gonna change. There are budget cuts and they’re getting really tight. With that said, all the world markets… nothing’s set in stone whether they’re gonna go 679 because of the momentum and because of their enthusiasm for the project, or is it now not an issue? Now it could even be an issue where, will Warner still be doing business with 679? At this point in the game, nobody knows what’s going on. We’re just excited because of what they could do with the EP. Something that no one could do in the U.S. or even in New York could do. They’ve done more for us in the London and the U.K. than New York’s done. I think it would be worthwhile to continue the relationship because they’re just fucking into it and you wanna work with people who are into it. I would hate for this project to be given to somebody and have them say, OK, work on this. They may or may not be into it.
CB: What’s the best description you’ve ever heard of TSM?
BC: Oh, that’s a good question. Hmmm. I don’t know. The most consistent description is LOUD. I don’t know these like, ‘bastard children of two bands from the past’-type descriptions. I don’t repeat those and hopefully people can come up with some new ones!
JG: Hmmm. It’s one of the things that we used to say a few years ago, I don’t remember if it was me, Brandon, or Ben, but it was ‘an Appalachian band vacationing in Germany.’ That’s the best description I’ve heard ‘cause we’re into rock. We’re into Beggars Banquet Stones, but we don’t like to sound like the Stones. Everyone should know that Appalachian refers to blues, and we’re kind of swampy sounding and everyone in a weird way knows Germany. Somebody might say, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ But anyone who likes music is gonna know.
CB: How did getting [sound designer] Jeff Blenkinsopp come into play?
BC: Accidentally. We were getting Brandon’s Rhodes fixed from this guy ‘cause we heard he used to do Pink Floyd’s gear, and we went in there and started chitchatting and he listened to our music and went to our show and really liked it, and we sort of brought him out of some sort of self-imposed musical retirement. He has a shop where he works on high-end gear, but he had stopped doing all creative stuff. The best part was, he hadn’t listened to any new music in more than 20 years and you couldn’t surprise him with a sound, which is kind of sad to say that we haven’t come so far. He had some ideas about picking up where he left off and going off in another direction, which was cool. We kind of felt like we stumbled upon some sort of time machine and we could go back in time and make different decisions on where we wanted to take sonics. Which is to say I don’t think we came up with anything new. I don’t think we’re gonna change the world with the sound of our record, but it does sound different [from how] I think most records have sounded. I would go in and just play guitar and he would listen and turn knobs and we would talk about the stuff that I wanted to happen. We talked about what he wished he could do. It turns out it was really easy to do, and he took a personal interest in shaping the sonics. It’s funny, if you go back and listen to some earlier recordings of unreleased stuff you can hear that we’re trying to do the same things that are on the record, but he had the means to do it.
He’s a 50-year-old kid who can be creative with a piece of solder and a soldering iron. He does that like other people would take a picture or something. He’ll say something like, ‘I’ll make this guitar sound like a kazoo blowing through a jet engine,’ and he’ll solder something and suddenly it sounds that way. To me, that’s completely magical. I think we’ve inspired him a little bit, too. He wants to work with other bands. I wish he wouldn’t! I wish we could keep him in a hole and dig him out when it’s time to make the next record. He’ll do good for whoever he works for ‘cause he has a very fresh take on the way things should sound. He doesn’t have any ‘80s or ‘90s damage to send him in any strange directions.
CB: Josh, I see how a guitar, keyboard, and bass can use a sound designer for the filter boxes, but what does a sound designer do with drums?
JG: The beauty of it is that it’s a little more subtle. You hear it on the record: the thud of the kick drum. What he can do with me isn’t as intricate and complicated as what he can do with a guitarist and a keyboardist, but there are things that he can do with triggers. Like using the kick drum as a trigger, but it’s triggering the bass cabinet sound. It does a loop—you usually get triggers to trigger an 808 or sampler or you’re actually triggering your own sample of you. What we do is, I’m triggering the signal for the bass, for instance, on ‘First Wave Intact,’ when you hear the kick and bass at the same time, you really are hearing it at the same time because it is happening at the same time ‘cause I’m triggering that sound. That’s just an example of what I can do. I could also trigger the guitar delay so that the delay is always on beat, as opposed to Ben having to adjust and me having to play with that. I work with the things they have as opposed to becoming an electronic drummer.
But I think it’s interesting ‘cause we’ve barely even begun to explore the triggering of the filter boxes, and how not only it can be used in a studio, but can I now take that into the live setting? Can I now trigger all that shit and we have a system set up so the audience will get the same sound? It won’t just be of the kick drum being turned up really loud, it will be like ‘What the fuck?’ That’s obviously the kick drum, but it also sounds like the bass, a tone… it’s the blurring of lines as opposed to a lot of bands that play live and they separate everything and turn it up real loud. We want to make it seem less separate. Like, we love the fact sometimes we don’t know who’s making which sounds. Blur the lines so people get it all as one, as opposed to getting beaten over the head and then sounding like everybody else. ‘Cause I think that’s what happens. If you go to a really good club with a really good sound guy he can make anything sound good. What’ll happen is that a lot of these great bands who have different sounds [end up] sounding a little more similar because it’s all set up the same. We’re saying, man, throw all that out the window.
CB: What’s the impact you want to make to people on this record. What do you want people to be saying in 20 years?
JG: I hope people can be inspired from it. What we’re doing isn’t the best shit since sliced bread. We’re not inventing anything. I want people to be able to hear it and be like, ‘Wow, cool, I can do this!’ I want people to hear and feel like for a brief moment they’re hearing something a little different without it being different. You know what I mean? Like when you listen to Led Zeppelin II, you don’t say ‘Wow, that’s a different record.’ You like it because it’s Zeppelin II and it doesn’t take away from any other record. I want to go back to simplicity. Like, I want people to dig it and think that’s a band doing something that a lot of other bands weren’t doing at the time. I don’t know about 20 years from now, but maybe over the next two months!
CB: What are you listening to in the background?
BC: Harold Budd’s Oak of the Golden Dreams.
JG: Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, Side 1.
Now Here Is Nowhere
The Secret Machines’ full-length debut, Now Here is Nowhere, breaks new boundaries both sonically and legally: it’s being released in digital format today. Our writer chats with guitarist Benjamin Curtis and drummer Josh Garza.
A series of phone calls from Los Angeles to what sounded like a very cold winter day in New York City…