Secret Machines – Light’s On (Interview With Benjamin Curtis)

Argued by many to be one of the more innovative bands on the scene today, the Secret Machines have made it their business to offer fans a product that differs from the industry norm. Proving the point, the group is about to embark on their “In The Round” tour, showcasing the band in a Shakespearian-esque stage, flanked on all sides by fans. Further beating the dead horse, the group even gave their web-based listeners first dibs at the entirety of their latest studio release, Ten Silver Drops. As the group continues to build a name, the Secret Machines have been proving to critics what their fans have known all along, that they are much more than “just another band.” In between tour stops, Glide’s Andrew Bruss caught up with Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis.

The Secret Machines studio debut, Now Here Is Nowhere, really put the groups name on the map and got your music out there. What would you like to see the group’s latest album, Ten Silver Drops, do for the Secret Machines?

I want it to be the “link in the chain.” I feel like we have a lot of music to make, and I don’t see us ever repeating ourselves. Right now I think the record is sonically and emotionally relevant, and its our contribution. We make music as a reaction to things. And at the end of the day, music is really just more shit in the atmosphere, so if you’re going to make more shit, you should make it wisely. We want to be aware of contributing something that will make a positive change, versus a negative change. We could have made a lot of different records, but this is the one we chose. I just hope people listen to it with open ears.

Now Here Is Nowhere had a dark, sci-fi-esque theme to it, whereas Ten Silver Drops has more of a romantic undertone. It seems that there is consistently a theme to each album the group puts out. Can we expect that trend to continue on the next album, and to add a preface, is new material being developed for a new album?

I guess I’ll answer that one in reverse. The way any Secret Machines album comes around is from this turning nebulous idea. Every little idea solidifies in its own way. Right now the music we’re talking about is something very different from everything else we’ve done. You’re talking about the differences between the two records, and its weird because I’ve read that about us. It seems like that’s the popular line in the press, so I guess its all in how you look at it. I feel a lot of the lines in Now Here Is Nowhere could be interpreted as love songs if you turned the pronouns around from “they” to “her.” It’s an easy change, because I’m not so sure there is that much of a difference between the two records.

Is it a safe assumption that the Machines will continue the tradition of producing the albums by yourselves?

Well, we’ve never really looked at it as a tradition. We’ve been working with Elliot Goldenthal, who does a lot of film scores, and he does opera at the Lincoln center right now, and we’ve been working on this Julie Taymor film called Beatles Music. We’ve been recording a few tunes for it. Elliot’s been really interesting to work with so far, because he has no interest in the standard format and tradition of rock and roll. He’s really free in the way he sees music and that’s been really inspiring for us. What we’ve been trying to avoid with producers, is outside influence on the music. It’s hard enough for us in the studio having people telling us what’s good and bad, and you almost stop trusting yourself. And for us, we try to make music that’s as honest as possible with no regard for pleasing people, or labels or anybody. But the cool thing is we usually end up doing both. The label always likes it, and our fans like it. So if we ever worked with anyone it would probably be someone like Elliot who is way, way, way outside the normal realm of rock and roll music. If we picked a producer, we’d probably make a totally far out record.

So if you were to accept what has become an industry norm, incorporating a producer, you would only do it if it furthered making music that’s farther outside of the box, and on your own terms?

Yeah, definitely. I think we would just do it so we could push ourselves musically, and for an additional challenge if we felt we couldn’t push ourselves enough. On the last two records, we really pushed ourselves to explore uncharted waters, making music with a sound we weren’t familiar with yet. It’s a great way to do it, and if we thought we would be working with someone who would help us continue working like that, we would do it. But I don’t think we’ll go into the studio with Bob Rock and a psychiatrist any time soon.

The Secret Machines are often described as being a New York band. New York based publications have voted the group to be the best live group in the city, and the Machines held the release party for Ten Silver Drops in New York. Seeing as the three members all met and grew up in Dallas, is there a home-town-hero type of feeling to the shows in Dallas that doesn’t exist when the group performs in New York?

Not really. It’s not like that there. When we go down to Dallas, its good to see our friends, but it’s not the scenes personality to claim hometown heroes as their own… minus the Cowboys.

So Dallas fans don’t see Secret Machines shows as a possible homecoming?

Maybe, except for the fact that when we did play in Dallas, there weren’t that many people that showed up. Most of the people who came to the show didn’t seem to know us, so it felt like any other show. What we’re doing is so new. The Dallas fans are getting to know us just like everyone else.

What was it about the Dallas music scene that brought the group to New York in the first place?

There’s so much great music in Dallas, and there are a lot of records from the area we still listen to. We just wanted to play with some different people, and try to participate internationally a little more.

What type of folks was the group hoping to play with in New York that you couldn’t play with in Dallas?

I don’t know. When we first moved to New York, we saw the Silver Apples play right down the street. Only 15 people showed up, but it was amazing. And the Silver Apples weren’t even playing in Dallas.

A big question many Secret Machines fans seem to be dying to know about is whether or not a live EP will be released any time soon?

Yeah, we’ve filmed and recorded a bunch of stuff. We’ve been about 85% happy with a lot of shows, but as soon as we tape a show we feel really captures what we’re trying to do live, we’ll make it available.

A big part of the Secret Machines live dynamic is the stage setup. You don’t just stick the drummer in the back, and a singer in the front who works the crowd. You’ve got the drums on the left, keys/bass on the right, and you fill in the gap in the middle. How did that stage dynamic develop? Was it planned or did it develop naturally?

It started because that’s how we played in our rehearsal room, and the first time we played we realized there was something to it. It gave us a lot of communication, and incorporated a lot of eye contact and as a result, we could make decisions quickly. It helped us play more intuitively as a band. It felt like there was almost a fourth side missing, that could have been the crowd, and when we tried to fill that gap live, it worked.

How do you feel the live experience of a Machines show differs from a giant festival crowd, or a sold out amphitheater accompanied by Bloc Party, versus a small, possibly undersold crowd of dedicated Machines fans?

The size of the crowd isn’t really a deciding factor in the way we play. The only real difference would be in the length we play for. It can happen anywhere with different places for different reasons, but what we want to happen at a show is for someone to forget where they are. Whether you’re at a venue, or in the grass in some field, or a swimming pool, we want that space to transcend what it usually means. Music can do that. I’ve been at shows where I’ve dropped my drink because things got so intense I forgot my hands were holding anything. Music can transport you to a different place. It’s more likely to happen with more people than less people though.

As the sound of the group has changed from album to album, do you feel the demographic of your fans has changed, from this tour, or the Now Here Is Nowhere tour, even all the way back to when the group was playing material off its Indie release, September 000?

It’s always been really interesting because we’ve never been able to put a finger on what type of person comes to see the Secret Machines. We’re always surprised because as soon as we think we have it down, we’re always totally surprised by who we find at the next town. I’ve met so many young kids at shows who seem so moved by it, and its consistently surprising, what type of music they like, what they’re culture is, and what type of background they come from. The one consistency in our fans seems to be curiosity in music. They’re people who are really open. I’ve always been very impressed by the people I meet at our shows. Seeing a dad bringing his daughter to a show is always something I feel is amazing. I always meet these kids and I think to myself “wow, I wish I was as cool as you are when I was your age.”

The Internet has clearly been changing the rules regarding the record industry. Ten Silver Drops was released on iTunes prior to its release on store shelves. So can we expect the Secret Machines to continue operating outside off industry norms, and if yes, how will we see that taking form in the future?

It feels like a lot of people are leaning towards not even releasing a physical CD. Groups are talking about just releasing their music in digital and vinyl. And these days that doesn’t sound too far fetched. The more we can cut out the ridiculousness, and the bullshit in getting our music to people, the more people can hear our music. And we will go as far as we can so more people can hear our music.

So is it fair to say that you feel there’s a rift, regarding how the music is interpreted by the press verses members of the band?

Absolutely, but in a weird way, there’s sort of a party line of the expectations people go into this stuff with. Just the other day, I listened to Now Here Is Nowhere, and I realized “my god, these are some really intense, and personal songs” and I almost began believing myself that Ten Silver Drops is this incredibly melodic, sappy record. I was almost duped into thinking that by all the press we’ve gotten. But we maintain all the same qualities in our music. We try to describe a singular moment in time, from all of its perspectives, and in its entire entirety. I’d say that’s a consistent thread that runs through all of our music. Maybe our perspectives were a little different for Ten Silver Drops. Next time around, who knows? It might be both, and it might be neither.

I understand you had a project with Michael Rother of Harmonia. How did that come about and what we can expect from that project in the future?

It came about the first time the Secret Machines went to Hamburg. I guess someone over there knew the both of us and basically said “do you guys want to go out to dinner?” and that turned into “why don’t you bring you’re guitar” and we played on stage, and between songs we sort of jammed a little bit, and musically it just made a great match. He’s such a lyrical, beautiful guitar player, and we seem to play well together. We’ve only played a few shows, but I think you can definitely expect more collaboration together in the future. We recorded the last show we played, and maybe a few of those tracks will appear on something in the future.

The Machines have their own Harmonia cover, “(De Lux) Immer Wieder”, which was done before you began collaborating with Michael Rother. As a fan, what was it like to collaborate with someone who had such a profound influence on the group you’re a part of?

As a fan, it’s completely surreal. It’s amazing, yet affirming to see that we can get along so well. Sometimes when you’re a fan and you meet a hero of yours you might think, “whoa, I was totally wrong, this guy is a complete asshole” and then you’d hate that music. But it wasn’t like that with Michael. It was an honor.

What would you like people to say about the Secret Machines in ten or twenty years, and more importantly, what do you think they will be saying?

Hopefully they’ll be saying, “I just got the new record.” I hope they’re saying it doesn’t sound like what they were expecting. We will always be making new material in one form or another, as long as we’re still breathing. It’s a special thing when the three of us play together, and we’ll always want to explore that. But in the end, you can never predict the future, and you can’t judge your own place in history. That’s for history to decide.



Related Content

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide