It really is no secret. So many bands these days stumble, hard, when trying to take their overproduced, canned studio sound out onto the great open road—consider vocal-track “mishaps” on live TV and such. For the Secret Machines, the dilemma was just the opposite. How, when live is all you’ve got, all you’ve ever had, do you go about capturing that larger-than-life big room sound without losing all its carefully nuanced sonic sensibilities?
“We just never did demos and all that stuff,” explains guitarist-vocalist Ben Curtis “We had live shows. That’s the sole reason anybody started listening to us in the first place. Then you go into the studio and whoa, ‘Why are we making this record again? Because there is this thing that we do that is good and we need to capture it.’ It took some time but we learned a lot in the process of trying to make an abstraction of the live sound in order for it to sound good coming out of tiny speakers or headphones.”
Luckily the trio of friends, brothers Ben and Brandon Curtis and drummer Josh Garner, were more than willing to throw themselves headlong into the challenge, even going so far as moving from the expanses of Texas to the wild world of the Big Apple. And as Ben admits, just the sensory overload alone ended up influencing their music.
“You are really forced to smell humanity, it’s kind of intense. Especially when coming from Texas and everything is so controlled and air-conditioned. Just that change had a pretty significant impact on our sound, mostly rhythmically. The rhythms are much more New York than they are the desert.”
In all actuality, it is perhaps the mix of the two geographic locations that truly informed the Secret Machines’ debut, Now Here Is Nowhere (Reprise). Yes, it’s the driving drumbeats punctuated by loud, striking guitars that propel the music forward with an innate sense of urban urgency. But it’s also the repetitious bass lines accompanied by an ethereal soundscape that lend an epic vastness to the album. It also doesn’t hurt that individual tracks are allowed to follow their own sonic course, often pushing the 10-minute mark, while the album itself is allowed to breathe a cohesive life of its own.
“It’s hard because there’s not a lot of time to do that these days,” says Curtis. “We did our best to make an album that if your iTunes is on shuffle it’s not going to sound like … Tommy. You know if you put Tommy on shuffle, you might get that song that you just don’t want to hear on its own. Sure, it’s a genius album, but you have to listen to it all the way through. That’s not what we wanted to do. At the same time, every night we write a set and it’s just like a record, you know? Things spill over into each other and all that kind of stuff. It’s just the way we do it. That’s what kind of gave our record its sound—playing the s—t out of it every night.”
But just because they pay so much attention to their live production value, it doesn’t mean you should buy a ticket expecting a monkey show with the band freaking out on stage spilling drinks and spitting on fans.
“Sure, that jumping about thing does it for me when Iggy does it,” says Curtis. “Because he kind of invented it. But still, most of the time even that’s incomplete. So I kind of appreciate it when bands put a little more effort into the aesthetic of the presentation.
“I guess the dilemma is that when you do things like that, it’s like you’re watching television going, ‘Oooh, pretty colors.’ We do our best to make it a bit more involved. We want to immerse you; we don’t want to zap you out of the moment, ever. We don’t really stop between songs and we don’t tell jokes and we don’t tell every audience that they’re the best audience. We just don’t do that stuff. It’s more like: The show starts, chill out. If you want to dance, cool, there’s time for that. And then there’s also time for maybe closing your eyes. We want there to be a real chance to do all that, it’s nice.”
Yes, it is nice, and refreshing, for a band to take the time and energy to do what they do well. For the Secret Machines it started as a love for the music and the willingness to take the necessary risks to make that music happen, especially live.
“We kind of respect each other for doing what we did,” says Curtis. “We all gave up a lot to get where we are. We kind of take that with us when we’re making music, playing live. We do care a lot about what we’re doing, but with a sense of humor at the same time. We know that we’re not saving the world necessarily; we’re just a rock band. But, you know, we really care about rock.”
SECRET MACHINES Lo-Fi Café 127 S. West Temple Saturday, Feb. 12 7 p.m. 800-888-8499