The Secret Machines: A Band Reborn

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By: Andrew Bruss

The Secret Machines
It’s been one rocky year for The Secret Machines. Following the departure of founding member and guitarist, Benjamin Curtis, The Secret Machines’ future was uncertain. Further solidifying this uncertainty was a lack of support on the side their label, Warner Bros., who didn’t exactly see the changes within the group’s camp as a cause for optimism. Fortunately, the group managed to break away from the politics of major labels, and as of today (October 14) has released their third LP, the self-titled Secret Machines, via the newly founded TSM Recordings.

JamBase had the opportunity to discuss the group’s future on several different occasions over the past few months. Prior to a below-the-radar performance in Allston, MA, the band, including new member Phil Karnats (guitar), spoke with us in depth about their difficulties getting the new record out. Additionally, following the announcement of the album’s October release, we caught up with Josh Garza (drums) to get an up-to-date understanding of where things are at.

Back in April as the Machines finished jamming their way through a sound check at Great Scott, they talked over a plate of Mexican food about the recent developments within their group. Brandon Curtis (brother of Benjamin), the group’s multi-purpose vocalist, bassist, keyboardist and sole lyricist, was unmistakably the quietist member. Very much the tortured artist, he tore into his plate of rice from behind his Mastodon t-shirt as his cohorts answered questions that you could tell hit close to home.

“We recorded another record, and other than that, not much else is new,” Curtis says. “Phil’s playing guitar but that’s about it.” His subtle, almost-passive attitude towards questions regarding the band’s current situation resembled his stage persona – on the shy side, but clearly on point.

The Secret Machines by Rich Clarke
Garza, the strongest physical presence within the group, followed up, “We’re starting our own label. It’s going slow, but it’s going to happen.” As the conversation ensued, what truly intrigued was how far from expected their group dynamic is on a social level. The drummer, a role notoriously held by the shy, less public member of the group, stood out as the most vocal and verbally articulate, while their frontman, a job generally synonymous with a charismatic, larger than life persona, remained relatively quiet as he took in the conversation that built around him.

The difficulties with putting out the record were only the tip of the iceberg for Phil Karnats. Aware of the complexities he faces (i.e. filling the shoes of a beloved guitarist related to the vocalist), Karnats says, “It’s tough man, I think there are a lot of people that want me to fail – the rabid fans. If they don’t think I can keep up, they’ll hate me. I haven’t felt any of the wrath from the Benjamin fan club, but it’s out there. They miss Ben, and I don’t know what to do about that.”

Garza shot back, providing support to his new guitarist, saying, “Obviously they miss him [Benjamin] now because there’s no record. But once they hear the new record with Phil playing on it, I think people won’t be worrying about Ben. I think by the end of the year, fans will know Phil, and people will be fine.”

Garza’s words couldn’t have been closer to the truth. Secret Machines kicks off with “Atomic Heels,” a tune that features a simplistic-yet-edgy guitar lead that spits out of the speakers like a burst of machine gun fire. Karnats’ style is a lot more chord heavy than his predecessor, but within his leads and his rhythm riffs is an undeniable sense of technical proficiency.

Phil Karnats – TSM by Rae Holtsbaum
“Dreaming of Dreaming,” a tune available on their website that will not be on the album, finds Karnats getting underneath the surface of the tune in a way that demonstrates a far more intimate comfort with the material than the group’s work that came before him. “Dreaming of Dreaming” is a throwback to their pre-Warner Bros. EP, September 000, offering meat-and-bones basslines layered over some hard-hitting drums that provide ample space for the guitar to work around. The end result is a bit like My Bloody Valentine doing a cover of The Grateful Dead‘s “Dark Star.”

When it came time to discuss the process of replacing Benjamin, Karnats was the first to respond. “I don’t think these guys really wanted a Ben clone. Even on the old songs, I play the key parts, but they told me to work to help make them my own. Nobody is going to play Ben’s songs better than Ben, so I’m just trying to be Phil.”

Breaking from his silence, Curtis adds, “We definitely wanted someone who could take a creative license to the older stuff.”

Later that evening, they performed a decent chunk of older tunes like “Sad and Lonely,” “Alone, Jealous and Stoned,” and a set-closing “Nowhere Again” that did pretty much what the group was aiming for. Karnats stayed true to his predecessor’s riffs while taking them in a personal direction that was more his own.

The new album’s release date is a great source of frustration for The Secret Machines, and for good reason. The album was completed in January of 2008. Garza felt this delay had more to do with their label than their own productivity. “The label slowed things down a lot,” he says. “Record sales are bad for everybody, and when we went to Warner Bros. and said, ‘Yeah, we want to record another record. Oh, and by the way, Ben quit.’ That to them was enough reason to make us wait all year before we could go and record.”

Continue reading for more on The Secret Machines…

 
I think there are a lot of people that want me to fail – the rabid fans. If they don’t think I can keep up, they’ll hate me. I haven’t felt any of the wrath from the Benjamin fan club, but it’s out there. They miss Ben, and I don’t know what to do about that.
Phil Karnats
 

During a more recent conversation with Garza, he commented, “I feel like major label goals are to hit home runs, and in a nutshell that’s their [whole] plan. Fuck that! We want to prolong this inning by getting on base, by walking or even bunting. Usually, at the end of the day, [the business is] black and white. They sign a singer-songwriter or a pop act. They market it, and if it sells a million [copies], cool, and if it doesn’t, [then] fuck ’em. Next.”

The Secret Machines
As angry as he seems with his old label, Garza doesn’t feel as though The Secret Machines were ever seen within that formula through the eyes of Warner Bros.

“They saw us during a brief moment in time where the label said, ‘Wow, this is some cool shit. This is cool music that could sell a million units, and [at the same time] could not.’ Once they realized that the first record couldn’t sell a million, they realized that we weren’t the big platinum act that they wanted us to be,” says Garza. “But, they could have just said, ‘Fuck ’em. Next.’ [They didn’t do that] because we represented their attempt to reach out, and to get [new] bands and help nurture them and all that shit. They were caught in a dilemma where they wanted to sell a million copies but they didn’t want to just drop us.”

Although frustrated, Garza seemed vindicated by the album the group made. During the first interview, he said, “They sort of messed with us, but the proof is in the pudding. We make great records. We don’t sell records.” More recently, he expressed a better understanding of the label’s situation and what they did for them, in addition to what they didn’t do. “They could have screwed us over really badly, but they helped us out as much as they could have,” he says. “Helping a band start their own label isn’t going to be at the top of their agenda.”

Brandon Curtis – TSM from thesecretmachines.com
However, understanding as Garza may have been, the group’s reception from Warner Bros. still seems to be a scar that is unlikely to heal any time soon. “The day [Ten Silver Drops] was released, the attitude from Warner’s was that it was dead in the water, and that’s heartbreaking,” recalls Garza. “The record just came out and it’s already dead?”

During the interview in Massachusetts, Curtis says, “I don’t think just because something will only sell 5,000 of something that it’s enough reason to not do it. If 5,000 people want to hear a song, you should be able to put that song out there for 5,000 people.”

When asked about the group’s next step, Garza says, “I’d like to see us pick up where we left off. I mean being active, playing music, doing our own thing, as opposed to being at the mercy of some suit that keeps saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait, hold on, give us a second.’ We want to get back to making music. What I’m trying to do is make a living. I’m not trying to get rich and famous. I’m just trying to make a living. The best way to do that is to be consistently working. This record is a good start at getting things caught back up to speed.”

Understanding the challenges they have faced, and the fortunate outcome they’ve produced, Garza comments, “At this point, we have the opportunity to get a second chance, which a lot of bands don’t get. We get the chance to start our own label with more control.”

The Secret Machines
Curtis adds, “Putting this record out is what we want to do, and I don’t have any expectations for that or what it’s going to bring. I just want to do what it is that we want to do, which is put out records.”

When looking to the future, Brandon Curtis found insights in looking into himself.

“We’re still the same band. A lot has changed. Our perspective has changed. Ben leaving helped us see things a little differently,” he observes. “We’ve gotten a lot more interested in the nuts and bolts of things. I guess in some ways we’ve re-examined the whole situation from the ground up. But, with that said, I still play the same way. I write songs the same way. I sing the same way. I’m still the same person that I was.”

With all the red tape they’ve had to cut through to get this album released, it’s fair to say The Secret Machines have a lot riding on its success. But as they’ve pointed out, their definition of success isn’t based purely on numbers. In fact, the album itself seems like a success Garza takes pride in, regardless of its commercial appeal.

“What I love about this record is that it sounds like us. We didn’t create it on a computer. We created it in a studio. I think we’re doing a modern rock record, and I think people will get that.”


The Secret Machines Live

The Secret Machines begin a massive tour on Thursday in Washington, D.C. Complete tour dates available here.

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