SECRET MACHINES: THEN THERE WERE TWO

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Words by: Richard Clarke


The Secret Machines: Josh Garza & Brandon Curtis
On March 3, The Secret Machines announced that founding member and guitarist Benjamin Curtis was leaving the band. His brother Brandon said:

Unfortunately, I also must share that after 7 and 1/2 years of playing music together Benjamin has decided to no longer be a part of the band. It is a sad day but also an exciting one as he prepares to focus full time on his new creative venture, School of Seven Bells.

The news of Benjamin’s departure shocked fans and sent ripples through the music community. The Secret Machines have been on a steady rise, releasing two stellar full-length albums, including 2006’s Ten Silver Drops. In addition to their vast studio abilities, the Machines have established themselves as a premier live act, so why did Benjamin leave his brother, child hood friend and band? And what does this mean for the future of Secret Machines? Will they forge on as a duo? Will they attempt to replace Ben? These are the questions that fans across the world have been asking. JamBase catches up with drummer Josh Garza to get some answers.


JamBase: First, I would like to say that I was thrilled to see that your band is going to be at the High Line Festival [on May 19 in New York City]. Is Benjamin Curtis [guitar] going to be with the band for that show?


Josh Garza by Richard Clarke
Josh Garza: No, he left the band in January, and since then he’s actually been focusing on his new band [School of Seven Bells]. It’s just rough. We’re on good terms and all, but I don’t know if we’re going to have him appear as a guest in the future.

JamBase: So, are you going to have a different guitar player with you?

Josh Garza: That seems to be the question everyone’s asking, and it’s a hard one because at the end of the day, Benjamin really isn’t replaceable. So, we’ve opted to really use it to our advantage. Instead of saying, “Let’s go find a guy,” we’ve decided to focus on me and Brandon being the main centerpiece of the music. About a guitarist, we might get our friends up on stage or playing on the album. Instead of running to try to replace him we can just say that now the band has entered into this more open thing where whoever is around, whoever we’re cool with, we can say, “Hey, if you’ve got some time you can try to do a couple of shows with us.”

What we really want to do is be open to the situation, almost like taking a page out of [David] Bowie‘s book. Every few years [he] would just get a new band. We want to use that kind of angle, too, instead of looking at it like a big bummer. In any band, if a person leaves, the chemistry changes. But, the chemistry can be kind of the glass half-full, half-empty syndrome. There’s someone leaving. That could be a bad thing, but can we turn it into a good thing? It’s like being open to the new chemistry and the new ways of writing music that are available. It’s nice. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s probably been just as much fun for us as it has been for Ben. We’re such strong individuals. We have such strong personalities. It’s really hard to be in a band with us because we’re really smart. We know what we like. We’re cool with everybody but we’re also really headstrong, and that can be really stifling sometimes to an artist if they have a particular vision. Ben had a vision, and the band he’s doing now accomplishes that. If you look into his stuff it’s the sort of stuff we wouldn’t do.

On the last two albums the whole band is credited with writing and producing. Was everyone in the band writing together or did you bring separate songwriting ideas into the band and then work on it together? What was the process like?


Brandon Curtis by Richard Clarke
There’s never really been a set process. Basically, it always started with Brandon. Brandon always had a couple of chords, a change-up, maybe a melody line, and he was always smart enough to realize that he has two guys in the band that could help him take it to this other place. He would just come in with these ideas and we would just jam. We would work on tempos and beats, then we’d work on riffs. Then, we’d work on the song and decide should it be a long, mellow song or a shorter to-the-point song. We’d make it less democratic and more like a socialist situation where it wasn’t about being right or talking people into it. It was more like, “Does it fit the song? Does the song need it?” It was always fun to write music. It’s still fun to write for Secret Machines. It allows everyone to be involved. If you can’t contribute and be a part of it then you don’t actually have a part in the band. That’s why it’s so hard. That’s why we don’t want to replace Ben. I think it would be hard to find the right kind of person to be thrown into this situation. You have to be able to hang, and I don’t think a lot of people have been in the situation where they not only have to justify their position in the band but actually have to carry their weight.

So then, your process hasn’t really changed much. It’s just the two of you working on the new album?

Yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing this whole year. Going on tour, doing the whole summer festival thing just wasn’t an option for us this year. If Ben hadn’t left, that’s what we’d be doing. We didn’t have that option, so we thought let’s dive back into songwriting and work on the new record and maybe think about recording this summer. If we’re really lucky, it will be out at the end of this year. Knowing major labels, we’ll be lucky if it comes out a year from now. I think in the long run being under the radar this year will help us down the road and we can continue this thing.

 
He [Benjamin Curtis – guitar] left the band in January, and since then he’s actually been focusing on his new band [School of Seven Bells]. It’s just rough. We’re on good terms and all, but I don’t know if we’re going to have him appear as a guest in the future.

-Josh Garza

 
Photo: Brandon Curtis (left) Josh Garza (right)

It will be little different this time. I read that on the last couple albums you tried out a lot of your new songs on the road before you recorded them. This time out I guess you’ll be recording the album before you do any touring.


Benjamin Curtis by Mary Grace Dunn
Yeah, seems like that might be what will happen. That’s why the Highline Festival gig is actually going to be real interesting. It’s going to be basically a show full of new songs. In fact, it’ll basically be nothing but new stuff. We might do one or two old ones just so people don’t get pissed. Do you want to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to play old songs again because you lost a member or do you want to use the same energy to write new songs? Then, once you get the momentum going it’s a lot easier to say, “Let’s whip out that old song we’ve done.”

It was the only idea that actually worked because right now we’re really fired up to do something new. We thought it would be a waste of time to find a guy to replace Ben and rehearse, at least right now. Maybe down the road it would be fun. Right now, we have a lot of new songs we really want to get out because they’re really good songs. In a weird way, we’re going to do something that most bands at our level don’t do. Most bands at our level are still trying to connect. They’ll do nothing but all the hits. We’re actually doing something, like in the old days, when we were a new band and nobody knew who we were. Doing nothing but new songs adds to the pressure on us, but in a good way. Can we write songs that our fans haven’t heard but will like? It’s hard, dude. It’s a hell of a challenge. We may fall flat on our face but we’d rather fall flat on our face than sit on our ass.

That sounds like it’s going to be more refreshing to see a band do that instead of relying on their old material. There’s a lot of bands that spin out the same songs. They have a big catalogue. They change their setlist from show to show but their songs have been around for years. I think it’s great that you’re going to just tear into the new stuff and look ahead and not look back.


Brandon Curtis by Richard Clarke
Yeah, like I said, it’s the only option we thought was worth taking.

I’m looking forward to the new stuff. I think people are starting to look forward to having more variety.

And they should. Keep things fresh, keep things moving along.

In the new Secret Machines, with Benjamin gone, are you going to focus mostly on drums or are you going to be playing other instruments?

Not really. I’ve thought about it. I like goofing around with other instruments. I can fiddle around with the guitar a little bit, but I think with Ben leaving it just opens up what I can do with the drums more. I can be a little more rhythmic or I can be more exploratory because he’s not around. First thing is trying to figure out the space that Ben left, Brandon more so than me. He’s gonna be playing a lot of guitar. There was a time where, to a certain extent, having three people in the band just meant leaving space for the other two guys. What are they gonna do? Then, you take one cat out of the equation and there’s this other space that we have to take. We have to not only leave room for two people to make noise but we have to think about that space that was occupied. Right now, it’s a learning process. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out but we’re having fun figuring it out.

So, Brandon will be playing more guitar in addition to bass and keyboards?


Josh Garza by Richard Clarke
Probably live it will still be the same bass and keyboards. What we’re going to introduce now is maybe have people who will play bass while Brandon plays keys or sings, open up that possibility.

I’m glad you guys are forging ahead. It must feel good that someone like David Bowie has taken notice of your band.

Yeah, it’s great for Bowie to recognize us. We’re still an underground band. It’s good to know that we’re underground but not because we’re not good. People like Bowie [are] telling us we’re good, people like Bono are telling us our shit’s good. We’re not selling many records, but it’s not because the music’s not good.

I think it’s hard for any band, with the internet and so much live music out there, to sell millions of records these days. Anything else?

You should probably mention that for the High Line show we’re playing with these cool bands that you should definitely check out. One of them is the Bellmer Dolls and the other is the Dragons of Kent. You should get out early and check out those bands. I think you’ll dig them.

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