A few weeks ago in Soho, the fiercely individual yet roaming-in-a-pack Secret Machines were t.c.b.—takin’ care of bidness: They were busy cramming in a day of record- label obligations after just getting back from doing your, you know, standard young-rock-band-on-the-go thang—like filming a full-length movie! (Uh, more on that later.) In a couple days they’d fly to Florida to play the Langerado Music Festival, then off to South by Southwest, where, according to mouth-foaming bloggers, they pried open a Texas-sized can of whoop-ass—they are originally from Dallas, after all. Then they scooted across the pond to kick off their first headlining U.K. tour. This whirlwind of activity has been pretty much the norm ever since this gossamery New York band of three with the sonic heftiness of 10 got scooped up by Warner Bros. back in ’03. For those who caught some of their infamous early shows—shortly after their arrival in Brooklyn—in crammed, sweaty Williamsburg lofts or the cozily packed Brownies (R.I.P.), their major-label signing came as no surprise. Right out of the gate they blasted a fully developed style: a synthesis of aggressive art rock, atmospheric Pink Floyd–like melancholy, and a dreamy modern-pop sensibility akin to bands such as Radiohead or even recent U2. Their trademark is sound sculpting: using the textures of raw noise to frame a melodically based song the way that most musicians hone riffs. This week they drop their second full length, Ten Silver Drops.
“There’s stuff on the record where I’m like, ‘Weird, what is that?’ and then I remember, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a guitar,’ ” says Brandon Curtis, the trio’s multitasking vocalist-keyboardist-bassist, giving affectionate props to younger brother Ben Curtis’s illusionist ax work. “When he’s playing you see a lot of hand movement and flicking switches and clicking pedals, but what comes out of the speakers sounds nothing like what you’d expect.” Modestly chirping in to his brother’s lead, Ben (who also does backing vocals) adds, “But we did use some new instruments too: There’s a marimba, a vibraphone, and Brandon played a whole lot more piano.”
Brandon’s more reserved and a tad more serious than his sly and enthusiastic brother, or jovial, ornery drummer Josh Garza—the Big Bird Bonham to his bantam Plant, or if you must, Roger Waters. “Most of the projects that we’ve been involved in, dating back to the ’90s, just fizzled out,” says Josh. “We realized, ‘Hey man, this isn’t fizzling out’—there was a level of confidence rising among us, within the writing, the beats, the guitars. It gave us the confidence to try something a bit different.”
Undeniably, Ten Silver Drops is still very much a Secret Machines record—those signature sonar-like, inner-space-exploring echoes and thumpin’ Teutonic beats are intact—but much as on last year’s covers EP The Road Leads to Where It’s Led (actually a collection of U.K.-released B sides), the group’s just as content floating through the spacious outer limits of a tune as digging into the meaty melodic middle. “The production has to suit the songs we’re writing,” says Brandon, maybe just a smidge defensive when asked about Ten Silver Drops‘ apparent pop direction. “It has to be about the songs first. We wanted sounds that would do these songs justice rather than saying ‘OK, we have these songs, how can we make them come out as driving Kraut-rock numbers?’ ”
Surprisingly, their brainy song-craft (with its über-cool esoteric influences) reaches for arena-packed masses. For two nights back in February, they even played in front of 90,000 people in Mexico City, opening for some band called U2, who had personally invited them. Yet they’ve also recently befriended, collaborated with, and gigged with Kraut godfather Michael Rother—mastermind behind Neu! and Harmonia, whom the band covers. And they had a fruitful, tutorial relationship with ex–Pink Floyd–associated technical sound guru Jeff Blenkinsopp, who co-produced their 2004 debut album, Now Here Is Nowhere.
“We did a version of ‘I Am the Walrus’ with Bono for a film coming out in November,” says Brandon (but not his band’s film—we’re getting to that). “It’s a musical using all Beatles music. Bono does the lead vocal. So technically, we had collaborated—even though we’d never been in the same room together,” says Brandon, laughing. “We knew he had heard of us,” says Ben, referring to the soundtrack, “but all of a sudden we were doing interviews and people would be saying, ‘Did you know Bono likes you guys?’ and I’d be like, ‘Really?’ ”
Counterbalancing their cache of cosmopolitan cool is a humbled, wide-eyed amazement at this rock ‘n’ roll phantasmagoria they’ve found themselves twirling in. For such a road-worked crew, these Texan expat psychonauts are far from jaded and unafraid to express their kidlike, music geek enthusiasm—whether it’s obscure Bowie or Pink Floyd factoids (they’ve partially honed a wise-beyond-their-years business savvy from reading rock bios), or their appreciation for the God-sized indigestive rumblings and massive smoke machine churnings of metal druids Sunn 0))). They understand iconic. Hell, they revel in it. Check their mysterious moniker, their live show’s brooding and shadow-generating lighting, or their Hipgnosis-style high- concept artwork. Befittingly they’ve been embraced by a tiny art community in far west Texas, internationally known not only for its art, but for its rich history of unexplained supernatural phenomena.
“There’s ghost towns and hot springs and weird art installations and strange unexplained lights,” says Brandon fondly. He’s referring to the area in and around Marfa, Texas, where the band recently shot a full-length film with the visually complementary avant-garde director Charles de Meaux—ringleader behind the Paris-based production company Anna Sanders Films. Brandon gives the backstory: “Every October there’s a big party there held by this art group, the Chanati Foundation. We played there in 2003 and 2004 and the people we performed for were so varied: artists, ranchers, children, border-town people, just the most diverse and interesting audience we’d ever experienced—it was totally positive and exciting. So we had the idea to try and capture that feeling and talk about what is really going on there.”
“One of the initial attractions was Donald Judd’s legacy,” says Josh. Judd’s the minimalist sculptor that helped launch Marfa’s art mecca. “When we got there,” Josh elaborates, “we realized, the attraction’s not him, there’s something in the air, in the ground, something in this part of the world.” All three Secret Machines excitedly start chiming in. Brandon: “There’s a mystical-like quality, a feeling of something much bigger than humanity.” Ben: “There’s this huge mountain there that’s almost completely made of iron and causes a lot of electrical interferences. The magnetics are really crazy and have a peculiar effect on the plants and the animals— and our equipment. We wrote and recorded a whole bunch of new music while we were there and all of our shit kept breaking.”
The totally ambitious (remember, they’re only on album number two) flick—initially self-financed, until Warner Bros. grabbed the reins early on—should premiere this summer and focuses on the band developing new tunes and hanging around and interviewing illustrious locals. “This project was really good for us since we were starting a new ‘album cycle’ as they call it in the biz, you know, in ‘showbiz,’ ” says Ben, cracking the other guys up. “With the business side of things there’s always a struggle to keep it yours, to remember why you’re doing it in the first place.”
“Doing what we did in Marfa was like going back to the beginnings of the band when we were trying to create something out of nothing,” Brandon summarizes. “We have all of the ingredients, all the ambition, all the tools—let’s see what we can do. That was the best thing to come of this.”