Interview: The Secret Machines (w/ Brandon Curtis)

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MP3: The Secret Machines – Atomic Heels

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MP3: The Secret Machines – Dreaming of Dreaming

I was very lucky to get some time to chat with Brandon Curtis of the Secret Machines this week.  With 2, soon to be 3, stellar albums under their belt, they have proven they can create distinct, independent soundscapes from album to album while still retaining signature and identity as a band.  Though the departure of founding member and brother Benjamin Curtis (now in School of Seven Bells) was obviously disorienting, it appears the Machines have bounced back, remaining vital and true to form while still progressing their sound and artistry.

Aural States- So could you tell us what you guys have been up to since the last album and touch on Ben’s departure?

Brandon Curtis- Well we released the last record, Ten Silver Drops, in 2006.  The beginning of 2007, January or February, Benjamin left to concentrate on School of Seven Bells.  I had already been writing music…for what I wasn’t exactly sure.  It turned out to be the next Machines record.  I was working on that with Josh in the spring of 2007.

Then we started playing with some other people, friends of ours here (in New York).  Blasco and Phil Karnats who’s an old friend from Dallas.  We kind of hit it off with Phil and he felt like he fit in the group so we just started recording at the end of 2007 and worked on it til the end of the year…still with Warner Bros at the time.  The decision to continue working with them seemed like the right one at the time.  When we turned in the record at the end of the process, they decided the record was something that they wouldn’t be able to pay its full attention to.  So they gave us the option of licensing the record back to ourselves, so we licensed it and started working with World’s Fair group and we are now releasing the record ourselves on Oct. 14th.

AS- World’s Fair kind of empowers artists, then, to self-release material?

BC- Yeah they have an infrastructure set up and dealers who arrange the back-end of the label…manufacturing…distribution, sort out those kinds of agreements to accommodate retail support, managing administration, advertising and publicity.  At the same time, we get to be involved in how those things are put to use.  It’s a more collaborative process than at Warner where you just turn in the record and one day it’s out.

AS- Did you find yourself changing the record from what you presented to Warner, once you gained more control?

BC- Yeah when we were finishing the record, they had asked we work with a couple of other mixers, a very specific mastering engineer.  When we regained control, we put back the mixes we had done ourselves and used a mastering engineer that was more to our tastes.  I think sometimes they just want things that are a little more plain.  While we were with Warner, we always tried to be open to their input.  But as soon as they were out of the picture, any input they had we pretty much took out.

AS- Nice.  On this album, when I first saw it was self-titled, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Wasn’t sure if it was going to be a re-invention, how drastic an effect Ben’s departure had made on the sound.  I think ultimately though, the record is a good progression.

BC- I always felt like what we were doing was a progression.  I never intended self-titling the record to be something like a re-definition.  But we did want to make it clear that we ARE the Secret Machines.  This record Josh and I, and Phil, the whole point of the process and the way we went about working on the record was to get back in touch with what was the initial attraction to music…where were our heads at when we first started playing music…what did that feel like?  That’s why it was self-titled, because it was kind of like going back to the beginning without retracing our steps.  It’s more about a feeling.

AS- Definitely.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense in that alternate light of a re-assertion.

BC- Yeah that’s definitely in line with what I was feeling.  And Ben leaving the band…it was difficult.  It’s difficult in any kind of relationship for something like that to dissolve.  He’s my brother still, we’re still friends and everything’s cool now.  But for a while, it took a minute to be what we were without Benjamin.  But we’re still a band and we’re still the Secret Machines. And with Phil coming in, getting used to his personality what he brings to the table, I think it’s been really rewarding and exciting.  We have this chance to continue and for it to work so well, I think we’re really lucky.

AS- I was lucky enough to catch you guys in one of your few live shows when you stopped in DC at the Rock and Roll Hotel in October.  Phil was with you and he definitely seemed to change the balance of the band; his guitar style felt much more prominent.  How do you think he has changed the balance of the sound?  Has he enhanced it in any way?

BC- I think that’s a good question.  The way I hear it is Ben and Phil are very different people, and in the way they approach the instrument.  Phil has a different feeling about tones and the way he approaches melodic structure.  Both are very talented musicians but they have very different approaches to the instrument.  I think they are actually really compatible with each other and especially with Josh & me’s playing style.

But how has Phil really impacted the sound?  Well he plays really dark, a lot more pointed, specific melodic lines.  He’s a guitar player.  It becomes obvious he plays more in that style.  Whereas Benjamin plays more in atmospherics and tones and textures that are more difficult to put your finger on.

AS- How much of the record had you tracked before you knew Phil was going to be a fixture in the new configuration?

BC- Oh none of it.  We started recording in fall and Phil started playing with us in the summer.  We did some shows, we went into the studio with Phil…for me, it isn’t about putting stuff down then getting Phil into the studio to put stuff down on top of that.  It’s about recording a band.  Most of the tracks we did live take rhythm tracks, like bass and drums, or guitars, keyboards, bass and drums.  I’d say 85% was recorded that way.  That was another part of the process; we wanted to record as a band.

AS- How do you view the album and the progression of your sound?  I feel like you’ve found a balance you were searching for between the atmospherics and bombast of the first album with a pop sensibility that kind of comes out in the second album?

BC- Well, I think pursuing sounds and development are all things we’ve been doing and want to continue doing.  I don’t necessarily think we’ve arrived at something like a destination. But it’s definitely a station along the way.  This record is a summation of the first two records, then hopefully the next record will be the next chapter.

AS- What are you happiest about with this record?

BC- I’m happiest about how well we played as a band.  How everything came together.  It’s one thing to have played for years and worked together for years.  But Phil had only been with us for a few months and we didn’t know how well it was going to work in the studio.  How, under pressure, the personal dynamics might work.  But at the end, it really did work well and it sounds like a band and is fully formed.  It sounds like I hoped that we would be, which I guess is exciting.

AS- Can you pinpoint anything that you’ve pulled from previous records into the new one?  What were you happiest with on the first two records?

BC- Well I really view them all as works of their own.  I don’t see them as a continuation.  The first record I was really happy with the songs we put down.  It was the first time we’d ever really heard ourselves and that was really exciting.  The second record was us stretching and finding new areas.  Us responding to the new dynamic that we had developed of being a band.  Each record is a very specific time and place.  When I hear music from a specific time, I hear various aspects of my life at that time.  The thing I’m happiest with all three records is how well they represent the personal feelings I had at the time.

AS- What were some of the big influences on this record’s sound?

BC- The influence when we were in the studio is to capture the feel of each instrument.  When Josh is playing drums, the one thing we’ve always done is we’ll stand in front of the drum kit and listen to what it sounds like while he’s playing it.  That kind of feeling is what we try to put down on the record.  This time, we were really cognizant of that all the way through the process…to the mixing session.

AS- Could you comment a little on some of the tracks from the album, like the first single “Atomic Heels”?

BC- That song is a funny one.  I haven’t written very many songs like that.  It kind of represents a strange state of mind.  There’s a sense of humor in it that makes me laugh when I hear it.  I like the way when listening to some bands, they are saying something really serious but they say it with a smile.  That was the kind of feeling I was trying to really reach.

AS- Why put that track as your first step forward off the new album?

BC- Yeah, the album is sequenced in such a way that it should start relatively normal.  “Atomic Heels” is definitely the most normal, straight-ahead song on the record.  By the end of it, it’s dissolved into such a strange state but you’re OK with listening to a couple minutes of noise and static.  It kind of makes sense and represents some kind of de-evolution.  “Atomic Heels” is kind of like the lights are on, everything’s normal…but by the end of it the lights are off and you’re just seeing shadows in the dark.  But you don’t know how you got there.

AS- I think one track, probably my favorite, that really captures a lot of what you just mentioned is “The Walls Are Starting To Crack.”  Could you say a little about it?

BC- It’s kind of a story experiencing self-doubt and doubt about the world around you.  Feeling like the only thing you have is the insides of your own eyelids.  And sometimes, that isn’t enough.  Especially if the light’s still breaking through and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It’s a terrible feeling but at the same time, stepping into that, floating in that kind of emptiness or fullness of fear…it’s an empowering journey, even liberating in a way.  Being able to enter into that state fearlessly is one of my biggest inspirations.

AS- Do you have a favorite track from the album?

BC- I don’t have a favorite.  Every song is important to me or has a special meaning for me.  I mean, there were even songs we recorded that we couldn’t put on the record.  These definitely work the best together and kind of relate to one another.

AS- What about live?  Are there some you prefer to play live over others?

BC- Not really.  I mean, there are some tracks that are inherently more difficult to perform live, and that’s the nature of them.  And there are some tracks where, just getting one take to take is enough, there’s no real need to revisit it.

AS- Are you excited for the new tour?

BC- Yeah definitely.  Being able to perform one of the main reasons why I do this, it’s a great pleasure and a great honor to be able to get up in front of people and do this.  We’re in a new situation with a new record, and the opportunity to get it out there and present it to people, play for people who want to hear our music.  It’s a rare opportunity.

AS- What do you have planned?  Will the visual aspect still play a major role in your live show?  Especially on tour after the first album, with the extensive silhouetting and brilliant lighting and the round stage tour, I feel like that has always been a big focus of your shows.

BC- I love the theatrics of performing.  The way stages can be manipulated to adjust the feelings of the audience.  We’re definitely working on something, but you’re going to have to come see it.

AS- One of the biggest things you guys have going for you, I think, is the rabidness of your fan-base; they have been starved for live shows so I know anticipation for the tour is high.  I can say this with certainty because I’m definitely one of them. Ten Silver Drops, really got me through some rough personal times. It seems that people who like you, really adore you.  How has this affected you?

BC- It’s affected me when people tell me a particular personal experience with a song, they go out of their way to tell you something difficult or tragic or complicated for them and that listening to Secret Machines’ music has really helped them.  That’s really humbling.  To me, that’s the greatest.  Knowing some good is coming out of it.  I mean, we’re not curing cancer but…maybe we’re offering something more than just pure entertainment.  Something else, between those.  I mean, that’s probably all there is to really say.  I know there’s music out there for me that I put on that saves me.  I feel lucky to have that in my life and that I can offer that to others.

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