The Secret Machines’ Brandon Curtis Talks Transportation From Then To Now (INTERVIEW)

The day before the release of his first album in a dozen years, Brandon Curtis is sitting on his screened-in porch in Northern Vermont, miles from the Canadian border, with a seemingly endless sprawl of pine trees behind him that couldn’t make for a sharper contrast to his younger years. The Secret Machines came up in the early 2000’s on a New York City scene that gave us acts like Interpol, TV On the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Since as far back as 2012, Curtis has been carefully crafting what would become the group’s fourth album, Awake in the Brain Chamber. But sometimes life gets in the way. 

In 2013 Curtis experienced the devastating loss of his younger brother, Benjamin, the former guitarist and backup vocalist of the Secret Machines. Although the younger Curtis wasn’t on the previous album, the two had begun working together again prior to his death of Lymphoma at the age of 35.

Not too long after, Curtis got married and moved to the Green Mountain State. He’s been hammering away at the long-rumored album, The Moth, the Lizard and the Secret Machines, but right now, this moment is reserved for Awake in the Brain Chamber, a welcome return to form after 2008’s self-titled LP missed the mark. Their fourth full-length album showcases Curtis’ evolved songwriting prowess in a way that puts his own growth under a positive spotlight.

Their first release, 2004’s Now Here Is Nowhere, was a hard-hitting album heavy on space rock concepts, and on their sophomore release, 2006’s Ten Silver Drops, Curtis softened those sharp edges out to make room for songs that had catchier hooks while simultaneously personalizing the content with an emphasis on themes ranging from romance, heartbreak and existential exploration. 2008’s self-titled third record certainly had some keepers but was hamstrung by a record label that was doing more harm than good. The best song from the album cycle, “Dreaming Is Dreaming,” wasn’t even released on the album, but as a stand-alone single. 

Awake in the Brain Chamber showcases an extremely personal brand of songwriting that doesn’t limit the prism through which the listener experiences its content. These songs aren’t as first-person as the material on Ten Silver Drops, but even without that kind of narrative crutch, this is material that clearly demonstrates the amount of personal development and clarity Curtis has attained over the past dozen years. More than anything released by the Secret Machines to date, Awake in the Brain Chamber is easily the most comfortable and mature. 

But this isn’t to say that Curtis is a Zen Monk at peace with the universe. Expectations for this album are high and he knows it. 

Are you excited about the new album release?

Brandon Curtis: I am… Yeah. It’s one of those things that’s been a long time coming so it feels good that it’s happening. 

Are you nervous?

Man, always! I hadn’t really thought about the content of the record or the subject matter but doing these interviews, it makes me nervous. I used to get nervous because I wanted people to like me [laughs]. I don’t know what it is now. It feels like when you’re vulnerable or opening up. it feels risky even though I don’t know what the risk is, I just feel nervous. I should probably talk to my therapist about that. 

From where I sit, it seems like your music has gotten more and more personal over the years. Maybe you’re nervous about exposing your soul and how people will respond?

I feel like I’m excited to share and be vulnerable and for people to hear it. I’m nervous about it in a weird way. Like when you make dinner for someone: You know it’s good, you’ve tasted it, but maybe they just don’t like carrots. Someone explained that what stage fright really is, is the feeling of potential energy, the vacuum or empty space before you do something and those nerves are just feeling that potential energy. I kind of feel that way.

It must help not having to do all of the traditional promotion that comes with releasing a new album. You won’t be playing the Tonight Show or signing CDs at a record shop. When this album comes out you’ll just be sitting right there on your porch. 

I’m here. When we were talking earlier this year, [Secret Machines drummer] Josh [Garza] and I, we’ve gone through different visions of how we were going to put this out. A few years ago we were close and near a place where we thought it was about to happen… This pandemic has just made the situation simple in a way for us. We don’t have to answer a lot of different questions. We aren’t being judged for not planning a tour [laughs]. I wasn’t that excited about touring… I’d like to do shows at some point but promoting a record is hard work. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. It’s a funny thing to feel fortunate because of the pandemic… but [that’s what] allowed this space for our music to get through.

I feel you. There are a lot of people who are thriving in this new Covid world, a less structured world. It’s awful what’s going on with people dying and businesses shuttering but it does seem like people are finding left and right that certain aspects of this new rhythm works for them. I think if you find something that works for you, you can’t ignore that. 

That’s a really good point.   

You mentioned thinking the album was almost done a few years back and I remember at the time you posted this really cryptic tweet of Josh playing drums in the studio and then panning back to you. But that was the last we heard from you guys until like, this June!

[Laughs]

Can you tell me A. What you were doing at that point and B. What has transpired between now and then? 

That was the session where we recorded Josh’s drums for [Awake in the Brain Chamber]. He and I had finally got to the point where we were ready to do a Secret Machines record. We’d talked about what it would look like, what we’d do, what our expectations were for each other and the band. Once we got that settled we were doing session in LA and started mixing a month or two after that. We were coming to a place where we were going to put the record out. 

We had traditional management and were talking to labels but Josh had some personal issues that developed around that time [Editor’s Note: Garza’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer]. Because of my experience with my brother it was important to me that his wife was the priority at that moment. Josh is a trooper and was willing to keep it going, and it’s not that I told him what to do or anything, but my two cents were we should be putting this on hold until Jesse [was] better. I can’t think of any fucking reason why we should try to be a band while something like that was going on. 

She recovered and we resumed last fall. I’d just finished touring with Interpol and my schedule was opening up and (Secret Machines) were looking at what we were going to do next and then with Covid… Our first plan was to just put it up on Bandcamp with a tweet but Josh’s wife is a publicist and said, “Lets present it in a way that gives us the opportunity to have the most people to hear it.”

A proper role out: Press release, single, wait a month, drop the album…

Yeah: Press, photos that whole thing.

You mentioned what you experienced with your brother, and I just wanted to say what a mensch Benjamin was. He was my first ever artist interview I must have been about 19 at the time. I was super nervous and he could definitely tell. After the interview, he told me that I asked good questions and did a really great job. It felt like he was trying to put me at ease. There was a very distinct kindness to him that was impossible not to notice. He was a very sweet guy.

That makes me so happy to hear. One of the unintended benefits of this rollout is having the opportunity to talk about him and his life and remember him as a human and a musician. I love getting the opportunity to talk about him. He was a good guy! He was super generous and giving. He was also really tough and single minded and focused. Driven. I miss him…

One thing I love about your music is if I break apart the tunes, you guys are all playing really simple parts, but I’ve picked up the guitar and played those parts and as simple as they seem from reading the tablature, it doesn’t sound anything like what you guys were actually doing. The Secret Machines have a real skill for making something minimalistic sound super elaborate. When you guys make records do you strive for that or are you just being yourself and letting chips land where they may?

It’s funny because I’ve worked on other people’s records, done mixes and over the years I’ve been asked to submit stuff for films and commercials and all my shit sounds like that. I can’t not sound like that! I don’t feel like I have a choice. 

Part of these new songs was about accepting that. Early in the Secret Machines, with Warner Brothers, there was pressure. People were invested. The third record was recorded for them but I don’t know what their expectations were but they didn’t know what to do with us. On this record, we were dealing with managers and label people, and it was like Deja vu. “Coachella is 90% electronica and there’s this and that,” and all this analysis of the recording industry and reasons why our record didn’t fit in anywhere and Goddamit, I’m fine with that! I love writing music and making songs and it feels nice to just do that for myself at this second.

You were saying all your stuff sounds the same, but I’ve been listening to this record for two months now and to me, it sounds a lot different. It sounds like a Secret Machines album, but specifically, your instrumental work, where I’m used to hearing you play on a Rhodes or something analog, it sounds like you’ve transitioned towards more digital synths and DAWs. It sounds a lot more current, for lack of a better term. 

Well, I always use the technology of the day but most of the source recordings for the keyboard parts are not MIDI. They’re Rhodes, pianos or Wurlitzers and then I fuck with it and process it. So there’s a lot of modern tech but my shit starts with writing on electric acoustic instruments. I mentioned to Josh the other day that the intro to “So Far Down,” the last song on Awake in the Brain Chamber, it’s the iPhone recording of me demoing it for the first time.

The intro on the studio track was literally recorded on your phone?

It’s a voice memo from me as an idea. All this shit starts in places like that with pianos and processing. I love doing effects on effects on effects and it definitely puts it in a unique place.

I know you’re stoked that you don’t have to talk about touring, but will any of this make it harder to play these songs live?

Nope! I know the recipe. There are a few things where I might use a sample but most of it is just distortion and reverb and delay in a different order. There’s no fancy new effect, it’s just that different kinds of distortion can bring out different… I was texting randomly with Jeff Blenkinsopp, who recorded Now Here Is Nowhere, and people ask him how we got the bass sound [on that album], and it’s just a bass guitar run through a box with a Voyetra-8, [which is an] old analog synth filter. The distortion and synthy effects this guy built was our introduction to signal processing.

Did he build it himself?

He’s an old school electronics guy. He was our repair guy and Benjamin and I became close with him and he built us these little boxes that had custom distortion and filters, one for my Rhodes and one for his guitar and that was our entry point into analog signal processing, and it sounds like synths. Everything starts with an oscillator and then it gets filtered or modulated by other signals so the source material is kind of irrelevant. If it’s a Rhodes that you ran through another synth, it would sound like the third instrument all together. 

Is it hard starting the engine again, like the actual business of being a band?

Well, we’ve already done a lot. The business part is the thing that’s the least glamorous or interesting… My time working with Interpol was like going to grad school on how to be a band. They had this amazing balance of being detailed and hands-on but also trusting the larger infrastructure around them. With that said their stature has allowed them to have a pretty sophisticated machine around them…

Yeah, but bigger acts than them have done a much worse job in that regard. 

Yeah, true. They pay attention to details and whenever they do something, they do it in a way they all feel good about. They don’t do things randomly. Just from watching them and learning how they function, that’s been something big for Josh and I. We both have to feel good about everything we’re doing and have our fingerprints on it, but we also need to find people around you to turn out. I mean, it turns out there’s a lot that goes into making a vinyl record. There’s a whole art to that and we’re kind of dipping our toes into that but we’re trying to start from a place where we’re not aspiring to get ahead of ourselves. That makes me feel good… I hope I’m not getting off the plot of what you are trying to talk about.

No way! I always tell folks to answer questions however they want and whatever they say is the right answer. This isn’t a math test. 

[Laughs]

You talked about how the pandemic is a uniquely good time to put this album out because there are less pressures and you don’t have to take it on the road. I know you’re married. Josh has a wife and a child. You said you’re not excited about touring but the Secret Machines were a formidable live act between ’04-’08. Once we get past this pandemic, do you not want to be a touring act? Is that not what you want in your life? Should fans not expect to hear this music live sort of like how the post-Rubber Soul material was never even planned on being played live by The Beatles?

No, I love performing and Josh does too. That’s a big part of why we do what we do. What I mean by not looking forward to touring is when you’re engaged with a third party entity like a record label, there are these expectations where, “You have to go here to play this because this guy is doing a favor for that radio person.”

There’s a lot of horse-trading.

Totally. We had a tour manager who always talked about the one gig too many and we’d always do one gig too many and those were the ones that would break you. We’d say we should have been home a week ago but took these extended dates because we were promised this and maybe stuff works out or doesn’t but that kind of obligation… I’d love to be doing shows, I just also don’t want to be gone and at that kind of grind for the tours sake. 

You’re talking about a work-life balance.

I think a lot of people are realizing that. It’s like you were saying earlier. I mean, my wife works in the medical profession but starting in March she has been working from home, and it’s amazing! We wake up and have breakfast together. She goes to her office and I go to my studio and we have lunch and walk the dogs, and it’s like “Holy shit! That’s an option? That’s Possible?”

I feel you. My lady has been working from home and we get to take the dogs out together around lunch as well.

It’s amazing right? So just the prospect of someone saying, “We need you to do eight weeks in the United States and it has to be synched to this radio promo or this or that…” I don’t want to be gone for eight weeks. 

With regards to a live show, when you put out an album, something you’ve bled into, you get to go out there and play those songs for people and you get to see people in the front row singing along to those songs. Since you can’t do that right now is there anything else you want to do with these songs like a Remix EP or something?

We’ve talked about how we might do an online performance where it would be a multi-tracked thing with video, which is kind of interesting. I think Josh and I both have a similar feel about live shows where the main thing that drew me to being a performer is like, seeing Spiritualized in the late 90s and its sensory overload. Volume. Lights. Intensity. Emotion. That’s not something you can have without a big stack of speakers and proximity to people and an audience with its own energy, and you can’t replace that.

Josh was talking about The Moth, the Flame, and the Secret Machines coming out in 2021, is that something you guys are set on?

The date?

I meant more like, the project isn’t abandoned and is coming out.

Oh absolutely! It’s actually what I’m working on right now. When you were asking about my sound, it’s funny, we did a mix of that album in 2010 and it’s dark-sounding and not in a mood way. It’s too muddy. Maybe some of it can be fixed with mastering, but the mix is not good. So we wanted to release it but I pulled up the sessions and I’ve only got workable tracks for like 70% of the album. Now I’m recreating that remaining 30% that isn’t really usable. Some of it is vocals, some of it is arrangements. But we’re going to release it for sure.

Josh said this album is pretty far out there. How do these tunes compare to the farther out stuff you’ve already made?

I’ll speak for myself: My brain was pretty scrambled at the time. I was in a dark place personally. The challenge for me working on this material now is not getting sucked into that mental state I was in ten years ago because it’s depressing and hopeless, but it’s also kind of scattered. It’s not like Elliot Smith depressing. It’s like shopping carts being rammed into each other depressing, like chaos and mess. It’s not neat and tidy or focused. Like, if you were going to make a record to relate to people, you’d probably wouldn’t do some of the things we did. It’s sprawling in some places and ADHD in some places, like, “Why didn’t you go back to that part you just played?” Well, because we were fucking lunatics.

I’ve always been a big fan of acts that take risks, even if it’s a swing and a miss. Neil Young is an all-time favorite and I probably only like one out of every few albums he releases.

Yeah, I think this is kind of what we were thinking when we were making it but I also think the self-titled record was a swing and a miss for a number of reasons that are partly in our control and partly outside our control. [The Moth] was not going to be the record that would redeem us from that [self-titled album]. The Moth would not have been the record that’s setting us on the right track, so my association with it might be a little cynical. 

Is there anything else you want to talk about that I haven’t given you the chance to discuss? Anything you want fans to know? 

I think I’d like to address the contributions of Chris Kyle, Brian Bisordi and Sarah Pedinotti. When Benjamin was sick and we were in the early stages of Awake in the Brain Chamber, the first time this material got mixed was with him present, this was the first time I thought about putting a band together to do some of these songs. One part of that was Benjamin wanted to play in the band but said he’d only play keyboards and when I asked about who’d play guitar he said I needed to talk to this guy named Chris Kyle and his wife Sarah who he said were great. They were in a band and we started playing these songs together and it really helped me realize this was a viable project. They were integral in making this album reach realization and my hope is if we do these shows, they’d be the folks joining Josh and I on the road. That’s what my dream scenario would be. 

Anything else?

I just feel like there’s a part of me that is grateful that you’re interested, and that people are interested. I’m grateful there are people out there who are interested and this music hopefully gets a chance to find people who care about it and it means something to. It means something to me and I’m excited to share it.

Please revisit part 1 of the Secret Machines two-parter with drummer Josh Garza

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