The Secret Machines
from New York
Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever said to a loved one. Now recall the instant you realize you can’t take it back. Your stomach drops; your mouth tastes metallic. What is done can’t be undone. A short time later you’re defiant—feeling that you don’t need anyone and will die alone. That naïve, insolent, singular moment is thoroughly explored and set to crystalline music on Ten Silver Drops, the new album from the propulsive trio Secret Machines.
It’s no surprise that the theme of isolation dominates the New York City-based Secret Machines’ second album. By the time they began working on the songs in January 2005, the band members—bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Brandon Curtis, his brother guitarist/vocalist Ben Curtis, and drummer Josh Garza—had been touring for more than 18 months straight in support of their 2004 debut album Now Here Is Nowhere with only a couple days off at a time. “We experienced a deconstruction of our personal lives,” says Brandon. “Coming home to a familiar setting and being alien to it created a sense of isolation from the people we’re close to. There were all these invisible barriers that were tough to reach through. So we ended up with songs like ‘Alone, Jealous, and Stoned’ and ‘Lighting Blue Eyes,’ about how our emotions propel us toward these conflicts and away from the people we love.”
The band crafted multiple layers of icy synths, alpine guitar, and Garza’s trademark hypnotic, crashing drums, giving the epic soundscapes a three-dimensionality that the band feels was missing on Now Here Is Nowhere. This musical confluence evokes that moment when you realize that things have changed and can never be the same, and is revisited several times on Ten Silver Drops.
“Last time we were interested in creating edges in places people don’t normally create edges, like in the low-end frequencies. It ended up making the songs kind of two-dimensional and flat,” he says. “This time we tried to preserve some of the depth and let other things, like melodies, float to the surface.”
Where Now Here Is Nowhere was tight, spiky, and well-defined, Ten Silver Drops is more spacious—its wide frequency spectrum giving it both frozen peaks and murky depths.
“To stir up the feelings we were trying to express,” Brandon says, “we let things lurk in the shadows without trying to make everything so sharp.”
To retain control over the vision, Secret Machines produced the new album themselves, as they did Now Here Is Nowhere. The band booked itself into Allaire, a secluded recording studio on a mountaintop in scenic Shokan, New York, and worked, ate, and slept there for three weeks in May and two weeks in July. But they had a rocky start. “The first week it was like all the toxins we had gathered from the travel had leeched out and filled up the place with negative energy,” Brandon says. “It was the first time we had been that still for 18 months, in a quiet isolated place, and everything we had internalized came to the surface. We really struggled to wrangle all the energy and emotion ricocheting around the place.”
Over the second two weeks, the band ended up redoing everything they recorded the first week, but they learned some valuable lessons. “Producing ourselves, we came away with the essential nature of preserving the sanctity of the vibe of a recording studio,” Brandon says. “A producer can dictate the terms, set the schedule, and create a sensory feeling in the room by lighting it or making it smell a certain way. When you’re doing it yourself, you have to be responsible for dictating the feeling you want.”
The songs that emerged from the Allaire sessions feature more chords and melodic movement this time around. Longtime fans will embrace the familiar effects-laden, heavily processed guitars and primal, stomping drums on up-tempo tracks like “Lightning Blue Eyes,” “All At Once (It’s Not Important),” and “I Hate Pretending.” As with Nowhere, the music owes a certain debt to the band’s beloved German experimentalist pop groups Kraftwerk, Neu, and La Dusseldorf.
“There was no effort to abandon any aesthetic or embrace a new one this time around,” Brandon says. “But the songs are more ‘song-y,’ perhaps because they were honed out on the road. There’s something about the immediacy of performing in front of an audience, as opposed to a performance in your own head…what you do can be shaped by the reaction you get from the crowd.”
In September, the band traveled to London to mix the album with legendary engineer/producer Alan Moulder, who is known for his work with Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins. Brandon says. “He was present for the engineering of records like Loveless by My Bloody Valentine and Nowhere by Ride—it was comforting as well as intimidating because he’s been in the room when great things have happened. On some level that makes me feel like, ‘Here’s an opportunity for great things to happen in this room, too,’ but it also makes you wonder how your music is going to stand up to it.”
Secret Machines have been preparing for that moment to rise to the occasion since forming in Dallas in July 2000. The Curtis brothers and Garza served their musical apprenticeships in lesser-known experimental rock bands such as UFOFU, Captain Audio, Comet and Tripping Daisy, but knew they were destined for greater things. The trio decided to seek their fortune in New York, first making a stop in Chicago to record an EP, September 000, which was eventually released in March 2002 on Ace Fu records.
They moved into Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood in November of 2000, living in a one-room loft apartment with no hot water that doubled as their rehearsal space. Word began to spread about the band’s fiery live performances and the buzz led to a record deal with Reprise, which released Now Here Is Nowhere in 2004. Last June Secret Machines put out The Road Leads Where It’s Led, a six-track EP of two originals and four covers, including Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” and a moody nine-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.”
There’s an unspoken rule in pop songwriting that if you can’t say it in three minutes, something’s wrong. Nowhere opened with the nine-minute “First Wave Intact” and most of the tracks on Ten Silver Drops clock in around five minutes (though “Daddy’s In The Doldrums” spirals out to just over eight minutes). Brandon says he understands why some songwriters feel it’s important to get to the point, but insists there is room in this world for variety in song lengths. “Some things are worth soaking in,” he says. “If you think of music as a picture or a story, sometimes you want to be immersed in that world for a while. If we get something going, we enjoy the feeling that it gives us and want to let it spin. Just because it can’t be said fast, doesn’t mean it’s not valid.”