Rediscovering Secret Machines
It has been a strange two years for Secret Machines. After releasing a pair of successful, blog-friendly psychedelic albums, founding guitarist Benjamin Curtis left Secret Machines to co-found the School of Seven Bells, leaving bassist (and brother) Brandon Curtis and drummer Josh Garza uncertain about their group’s future.
For a while it looked as if the Secret Machines would fade into the night, but Curtis and Garza soldiered on and have spent 2007 and early 2008 putting Secret Machines back together. Earlier this year the duo completed their third full-length album, Secret Machines, which features new guitarist Phil Karnats and boasts a slightly darker, more aggressive sound. Below Garza candidly discusses Benjamin Curtis’ unexpected departure, Secret Machines recent shows with U2 and why “you don’t find the g-spot right out of the gate.”
Let’s start by talking about your new album, Secret Machines. When did you first start working on the project?
As soon as Ben quit, which was January of last year, Brandon and I were immediately unsure whether we were going to start a new band or continue as Secret Machines. Around February or March we had songsa couple were ideas from the previous record and we basically spent the first six months of last year, before we could even think of recording or even writing, figuring out what we were going to do about a guitar player. It slowed down the whole writing process. The idea was to record a record and write music, but we didn’t have a guitar player or songs. We just started demoing, we did some tracking with Phil when he was on board, but we didn’t officially begin until around October of last year. By then Phil had been involved in the writing and the demoing and rehearsing of the songs.
Recruiting a new guitarist for a guitar-heavy band is no simple task. How did you first find Phil?
We’ve known Phil. When we all lived in Dallas it was a really small music scene and everyone knew everybody else. At one point or another we all jammed together, and Ben and Phil had played together in Tripping Daisy for a while. When Brandon mentioned Phil it was one of those things that had never occurred to me.
But he turned out to be the perfect person
Yeah, he was the perfect person. At the time I was like, “We don’t need a guitarist, we can get a guitarist to do shit for us.” It was like, “Let’s keep it as Brandon and me and we’ll find whoever.” But when he said Phil I was like, “Yeah! He’s a psychedelic guitarist who doesn’t play like Ben. Perfect!” But that was the big challenge. Ben was a major part of the music and now that you listen to the new album you hear what his contribution wasthe guitars and the sonic frequencies. But the music, which is really bass and drum heavy, didn’t go anywhere.
Who was the primary songwriter on previous Secret Machines releases?
It’s been the same type of method. Brandon shows up with some chords and a melody line and a song. I think, to sum up our relationship in terms of writing, we are allies. We work well together, though we don’t always agree. Left to himself Brandon’s songs would be completely different. They wouldn’t be as drum heavy and they would be more Goth oriented. I like that stuff and he allows us to be a part of that, the composition and the structure. So he writes the lyrics and the melodiesPhil has his two cents with riffs and I have my two cents with the beat. Brandon gives me a lot of latitude. It is not quite like he shows up with a finished song, but he shows up with the ideas. He knows we’ll have input and he’ll stop and get the song to a point so everybody can get involved. We appreciate that, and we all help each other. He’s not Pete Townshend. He’s not going to show up to Keith Moon and say, “I already have the melody and the arrangement and the tempo.” That’s just not Brandon’s style. I think it’s a good relationship.
One of the things that struck me listening to these songs, both live and on the album, is that they retain the feel of your past albums despite a major lineup change. It still feels like a Secret Machine album. I assume that’s why you decided to self-title the album?
We didn’t want a title, we wanted it to be called Secret Machines. It’s a statement. In terms of our fans there’s speculation if it’s worthy to be called Secret Machines. I always felt like that. Press rewind to when Ben quit: We didn’t kick him out and we didn’t push him out, he was interested in doing his music. Brandon and I were still interested in doing our music. Initially we felt like it was still Secret Machines. We spent the last year and a half already convinced of that. It’s wild that our fans haven’t heard the album and they’re still on the fence. I think they’ll love it. If you like Secret Machines you’ll like this record. It is not mediocre, it is not a compromise, I think this is one of our strongest records.
Was there a point where you realized the Secret Machines would continue, even without Ben?
When we recorded song “Dreaming of Dreaming,” which is the first song we made available before the album came out. Ben quit and Warner Brothers freaked out and we were screwed. And a friend of ours offered his studio at home, so Brandon and I showed up and used whatever was there. We didn’t have shit. There was nothing. Brandon started jamming on this riff and I started playing a beat. We just kept playing and playing and playing. Next thing you know we have “Dreaming of Dreaming.” That song represents the turning point of today’s Secret Machines. We determined that we were going to keep going. Once we heard “Dreaming of Dreaming” I said, “That’s Secret Machines, I don’t care what anybody says.” That was the moment of “fuck yeah, we got it.” It was a real confidence booster.
We went into a room with nothingno rehearsing or anythingand ended up with “Dreaming of Dreaming” and we rerecorded it with Phil. That song opened the gates. And then you fast forward to these other songs that made the recordthey owe a lot to “Dreaming of Dreaming.” Songs like “Daddy’s in the Doldrums”earlier versions of Secret Machines, especially with Ben, songs like that wouldn’t be what they are now. We would have overthought them, made them a little weirder and a bit shorter. I think “Dreaming of Dreaming” doesn’t do that as much. It has a cool hook, and we felt like we can get out of this attitude that we have to have it be a certain way.
Sometimes you can get too smart about rock and roll. Some of the best songs are ones where you don’t know what you’re doing. You experiment with chords or timing or arrangement. I think the whole record represents that. “The Fire is Waiting,” that’s the next song that had an impact on us. We were really debating whether to put that song first and for a while we did have it first. But we realized it was better for people to “kind of get to that song.” “Dreaming of Dreaming” and “The Fire is Waiting” are massive bookends that tie the whole thing together. All the songs fall in-between because of those two songs ended up being very individualistic.
“Underneath the Concrete” was a song that barely made the record. We weren’t sure if that was the kind of song we wanted on the record, but it really just depends on where you put the song. It was on the back end but you move it forward and it works there. If you fast-forward three records from now I think we will still have songs like thatwhich are very bass and drum heavy with good melody.
If “Dreaming of Dreaming” was such an important song to you, why did you choose to leave it off the album and instead release it online?
That’s what’s available to do now and you should take advantage of that. “Dreaming of Dreaming” is one of my favorite song, but we felt like we don’t always have to put that song on your album. That’s what you go to, that’s our bread and butter. It is not a diss to the song, but you have to find a balance. We didn’t want it on the record but we wanted that to be the first song people hearto hear about us being back. Most people start their album with the single and it might even by the first song on the record.
What I wanted to avoid waswhen I was growing up Spiritual Life released Pure Faith, and before that they released an EP with “Medication” and some live songs. I listened to the shit out of that and “Medication” is a long song. Fast forward a couple months then they released the record and the first song is “Medication,” a song I’ve been jamming on the past couple months. So when I got the record I felt like I wanted to skip song one.
Did you try to play any of these songs live before recording them?
We tried to. We played the Highline Ballroom for the High Line Festival with David Bowie. We introduced a lot of the songs there. I know there are some bootleg recordings of the songs from the show. I bet if I heard it now I would be surprised how different they are. We spent all year getting them in shape. We did a residency at [New York’s] Annex last year leading up to the recording, trying to get these songs played, trying to get into the groove. Some songs didn’t have as much time as others, but it is good to let the songs be their own thing and let them evolve before we tracked them. If you just walk into the studio with an idea, and try to record a song immediately before you leave, a song will morph into something else. It evolves a lot quicker than three years down the road. Once you find a good spot for a song, you leave it there. But you don’t find the g-spot right out of the gate.
You’ve continued to play a lot of back catalog material without Ben. What has the process of reworking your older material for the new trio been like? Have you seen a dramatic change in the catalogue songs since Phil’s addition?
I think we’re in a unique situation. We aren’t so popular that there’s an expectation that we have to have to play certain songs as part of our set, which is very lucky for us. There are only a handful of songs people expect to hear. Our approach was to pick the songs we felt we could attack the easiest like, “Nowhere Again,” “Sad and Lonely” and “Lightening Blue Eyes.” We tend to still play those songs like we did with Ben. We felt like a lot of the older songs tended to be more experimental, and we felt that instead of trying to learn an old song in a new way, why don’t we just apply that energy to the new material and let the new material stand out? And we’ll just carry the songs from the back catalog that we feel we need to play for our fans and for ourselves.
It’s a good balance. It’s turned out a lot of these older songs were more straightforward. When you do stuff like that you can’t bite off too much. I’ve read a lot of reviews of our shows and they want to hear older songs. When you play a lot of new stuff it is hard to digest. All the songs that we play from our back catalog are all songs we learned to play. It’s not even that we don’t want to. But it takes time to sit down and learn it. Not only learn it but to play it and be able to reinvent it. It takes a little bit of time. We didn’t want to do a set and be those guys trying to play old songs. We felt like there was a lot of confidence with the new songs and that they would help the older songs. In terms of Phil on this last tour, he was really on fire and starting to connect and own the older songs more. It just takes a little bit of time and, if you don’t have a little bit of patience, you end up playing a lot of your older songs like shit, and I think fans would notice that.
Phil definitely brings his own creativity, structure and tone. Something would sound off if he just tried to replicate Ben’s parts.
People would notice it. They wouldn’t specifically know why it doesn’t sound right but they would sense it and we’re trying to be careful with that.
In terms of popular bands who do have those expectations, you played a few shows with U2 last year. Can you talk about that experience? Were you able to hang with Bono and the guys?
I mean, I wish. Growing up U2 was one of my favorite bands to the point that I should have been in U2 rehab and or had U2 intervention or some shit. Fast forward now I’m in the band and we are opening up for them in Mexico. We played Monterrey, Mexico, as well as Mexico City. Monterrey is where my family is from. For me, playing in Mexico with U2 was a magnificent time for me. I get validation that I have the proper job for my family, they all get to have fun while loving me too.
It was good to not be star struck by U2. I really don’t get star struck, and I wondered if I would geek out or care. At the end of the day, I realized I would hope that these guys really listen to our music. I feel like, hopefully, people like the Edge, more so than Bono listen to us. The Edge loves music, loves guitar. More so than just opening up, I was really hoping maybe these guys would know our music and have heard it and that’s why we’re on the bill. It was exciting to touch base. It was a hit in run with them. I sat down with Larry Mullen Jr. He showed me a few tips and he let me borrow his drum stool for the second night. It was awesome. Word got around that Larry wanted to meet me and we would hang out with him and his entourage and a few of my friends. And everyone was watching us. Me and Larry just talked about drums and everybody got bored [laughter].
It was me and him just talking. I didn’t get any documentation of it, but it happened. It’s really cool to get down with one of your idols. He’ll never go down in the books as one of the greatest drummers, but he influenced me growing up.
U2 is a great example of how a band can evolve its sound, but essentially remain the same band.
I wish they would do what they haven’t done in a while and that’s make a rock record. They haven’t done that since the success of The Joshua Tree. They ended up being an experimental band in the 90s. I would love it if they went back and did a rock record and you can tell it’s Larry Mullen playing the drums again. And they got so Joshua Treed’ out and they never went back. And that was always the one thing about 90s U2 that freaked me out. I grew up in the 80s knowing them as a rock band. I had a hard time with Achtung Baby because they were great songs, but I was thinking where’s the drummer? It’s a drum machine. A lot of people thought that was cool. But that was the exact moment I really dove into drumming. I grew up thinking I wanted the drums to sound like drums and I started totally getting away from the synthesized drumming of the 80s and the new wave. I was more “old school” and that’s what really bugged me about U2. But that’s the weirdest thing: I still remained a big fan because they still have good songs.