Bowie-Loved Band is back. So much has changed.
By Jeremy Gordon
In the fall of 2004, an amateur music blogger named David Bowie logged on to his website to rave about the debut by an up-and-coming band called Arcade Fire. “Nothing else (and yes, I’ve heard the new U2) comes close,” he wrote, before adding a caveat: “Well, maybe ‘Secret Machines’ and their CD ‘Now Here Is Nowhere.’ ”
At the time, New York City was thick with weird, hip bands, but Secret Machines stood out with their entrancing combination of propulsive rock ’n’ roll, droning textures and winding arrangements. The band’s three members — the brothers Brandon (bass, keyboards, vocals) and Benjamin Curtis (guitar), and drummer Josh Garza, who’d first met in Dallas — would settle into a hypnotic groove before abruptly kicking off into the stratosphere, an experience magnified tenfold in concert.
“I literally felt it was like a spiritual experience,” Paul Banks, the lead singer of Interpol, said of Secret Machines’ shows in a Zoom interview. “That’s worth many, many concert tickets, to be able to experience something that visceral.”
Sounds great, but sounding great has rarely dictated a band’s success alone. Their best songs were melodic but not exactly catchy, and they never made the stylistic or attitudinal compromises required for a move to the mainstream. In 2007, Benjamin Curtis left to start the ethereal synth-rock band School of Seven Bells. After three studio albums, Secret Machines unofficially went on hiatus in 2010.
A lot changed in the past 10 years. Weird, hip rock bands declined as a cultural force. Bowie, who went on to interview the band for his website — “You’re not supposed to meet David Bowie,” Brandon Curtis recalled with some awe — died in 2016. And after a short battle with an aggressive form of lymphoma, Benjamin died at the end of 2013. He was just 35 and had been collaborating with Brandon on new music.
“Until that moment, deep, deep down I always thought we’d do something with him again,” Garza said in a separate Zoom interview.
Now Brandon Curtis and Garza are returning with “Awake in the Brain Chamber,” the first Secret Machines album since 2008, out this coming Friday. The band — essentially now a duo, though other musicians played on the record — has shed its jammier tendencies on the album, recorded over nearly a decade, without losing any sonic density. Dreamy harmonies hang in the air without resolving into conventional structures; guitars thrum and crackle with hair-raising energy; crystalline synth lines pierce the noise like spotlights shining through the fog; Garza’s powerful drumming sounds capable of bludgeoning an elephant into submission. They still don’t sound like a fit for rock radio, but that matters less in an era where “mainstream rock” is essentially an oxymoron.
Though the album was finished in 2019, the band didn’t have any firm plans to release it until the pandemic hit. “We didn’t have to answer the question about doing shows, about what’s your future plans,” Curtis said over Zoom. “It can just be about music.
That wasn’t the case during their first run. Despite critical acclaim, two albums recorded for Warner Bros. failed to catch on, and the band started its own label for its third LP. A planned fourth album called “The Moth, the Lizard, and the Secret Machines” was scrapped when, during the mixing process, Brandon decided it was too depressing, mirroring his broader feelings about the group’s fortunes.
Around that time, he was invited to become the touring keyboardist in Interpol, one of Secret Machines’ contemporaries that had blown up into a globally famous, professional rock outfit. Garza moved to Los Angeles to be with the woman who became his wife. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to be without my band and without my girl,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Not long after, Brandon started work on a batch of original songs, some of which would end up on “Awake in the Brain Chamber.” But in early 2013, Benjamin learned he had lymphoma.
“His approach to death, the way he lived his life, I was just in awe of it,” Curtis said, pausing frequently to collect his thoughts. At one point, he excused himself to wipe his face. “He just gave me so much love and confidence.” After his brother’s death, Curtis considered whether he was done writing music, but slowly the creative urge came back. “It’s not like the grief fades, but you get more comfortable with it and maybe it informs some other energy,” he said.
Curtis had been playing with a psych-rock band called Cosmicide for a few years, and Garza was in town with his wife when the group had a residency at Pianos, a Lower East Side club, in 2016. After Secret Machines went on hiatus, Garza had played with other bands in Los Angeles and done session work for producers in his orbit without finding a permanent musical home.
“I was actually hoping just to watch him play, because I heard he might do a Secret Machines song,” Garza said. Instead, he was invited to perform that song — a spacey 2006 track called “Alone, Jealous, and Stoned” — onstage. The experience opened up a gradual conversation about reviving Secret Machines, and the next year Garza rerecorded his drums with Curtis’ existing material.
Transforming those recordings from Cosmicide songs into Secret Machines songs required some fine-tuning. Garza is an uncommonly forceful drummer — he described his style as “just simple bashing” — and the band’s experimental instincts used to leave him room to fill the air with his playing. “If we each give ourselves that space, that magic really does happen with this band,” he said.
Some of the original mixes were finished when Benjamin was still providing input, and “a part of the conversation with Josh as they started to become Secret Machines songs was, ‘I can’t lose that part that represents his contributions,’ ” Curtis said. Apart from the myriad sonic details that make up a record, Benjamin’s guitar playing is featured on “Everything Starts,” a twinkling track where Brandon essentially duets with himself about the uncertainty aroused by loss, and the passage of time: “When all you see are photographs/And everything moves so slow/Everything starts to, I don’t know.”
The making of the album was partly informed by grief (and inspired by Bowie’s two final albums), but Brandon’s writing blossoms from the openhearted perspective required to come to terms with significant loss. “I think he’s one of the people who have really spent time in a meditative state — really made an effort to raise their spirits to a high level of Zen,” Banks, the Interpol singer, said.