Photography by Ian Gavan
New York City band Secret Machines have managed to fly just below the radar throughout their career, despite playing with the likes of Interpol, Oasis, and U2. That suits them fine. Over the course of three albums, two EP’s, and one guitarist, the trio has spent the last decade making rollicking, electrified stomps that absolutely shame most of the pablum currently calling itself rock. Fresh off a productive first half of the year, the waning days of 2010 are going to be lazy ones for guitarist Phil Karnats and drummer Josh Garza. Singer/keyboardist/bassist Brandon Curtis is about to head out on the road with Interpol for the next few months, leaving a nearly-completed Secret Machines album waiting for his return.
While they were recently together, however, they did one of the things they do best: record a cover. Having previously interpreted lightweights like The Beatles, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan, the band tackled a song by Mexican legends Caifanes for inclusion on an upcoming tribute album. On this delectable note, Gozamos spoke with Garza, contemporary rock’s preeminent hammer of the gods, about these current events. Memory lane looked pretty good too.
You guys do a lot of covers.
We had a whole phase where all we played was covers. Before we moved to New York, we just learned the whole “Hunky Dory” record and some T-Rex stuff. I think any musician worth his salt needs to dive into a particular artist and learn the songs and get his head wrapped around that.
Talk about the Caifanes song you recorded.
Yeah, we did this bitchin’ cover of “Quisiera Ser Alcohol” for a tribute album that’s coming out in Mexico. I grew up loving them, listening to them. I have cousins living in Mexico, and in the late eighties they turned me on to them. We did some shows in Mexico with Oasis and we played that song live. The recorded version we sped up. It moves a lot with this really kick-ass beat I made up. It’s pretty bitchin’. Brandon sang the song in Spanish, got it down phonetically. He can’t speak Spanish, but I’m pretty sure he knew what he’s saying. We made it completely different but the original song is awesome.
You’ve been together for about a decade, which means you are now getting to the point where you have some really old songs. How do you face being the custodian of a catalog that is becoming “classic” to your fans?
It’s weird, when you make a record, the truth is that you don’t know which one of these songs is gonna be a hit, and which one people going to want to hear ten years from now. They never start off like that, they were just songs you did on a record. You can spend a whole career never having played a song aside from on the record. You look at a band like U2 or the Stones, and there’s even whole segments of their career that they don’t touch. It’s finding that balance where you’re going forward without forgetting about your past. You can’t look back, but you gotta dig into your past and have it be a part of the future.
Some of the songs Secret Machines used to make were very, very slow and/or spacey. You, meanwhile, are one of the most powerful drummers in the rock world. How does that work out?
That’s the challenge, to try to combine those two worlds. The minimalist angle with deliberate action. A lot of times people don’t think about what a band’s angle is. With us, we always just make an effort to play up to our strengths, do what we’re good at. So to a certain extent, a song like “Money” [an EP-released cover] is so spacious, it’s like this other world, but a world that we were able to create cause we’re able to play slow and heavy and hard. We try to not be anything that we’re not. We’re not trying to be a space rock band. We’re not trying to make a long, boring song. I’d rather someone not like our record because they didn’t like where we went, not because we’re still doing the same shit.
Ben left the band at the same time as you guys left your label, Warner Brothers. It seems to me that one of those things contributed to a gradual shift in your sound to a tighter, more muscular sound.
I think it goes in cycles. When we made our first record [EP September 000] we were really pushing the envelope in terms of patience. Not only as a listener, but as a musician. You know, can you walk down the hill without running down the hill? That led to the idea of “First Wave Intact,” “Now Here is Nowhere,” and once you’ve done that, you kind of say, let’s try to move forward. Everything should always lead up to your recent record. This last one we basically went in and recorded live. The next one is going to surprise a lot of people. This next one won’t have anything to do with the third record.
Some bands just have one thing. We have a thing too, but it’s to make a conscious decision about, what have we already done and what do we want to do? Hopefully this can be kind of a reintroduction to people, especially to people who feel they know us.
So much of the impact of your songs comes nothing you could give from a songwriting perspective, but from your drums and the overall power of it. What is the process like?
It’s funny. You look at a song like “Sad and Lonely,” where the groove is the song, and you remember that there was a time when that groove wasn’t there. Like, here’s a song, where do you want to go with it. Music is like food in its basic sense. You got some bread here, some vegetables here, some spices here. It’s real vague, you have all these bits. It’s how you combine them that’s gonna make the dish. Let’s try it faster, let’s try it harder, let’s try a little of this or that. Some songs are harder than others, very frustrating. And some are, bam!, done right out of the gate. There’s never any rhyme or reason.
The beauty of Secret Machines is that the main songwriter in terms of the melody and the lyrics is Brandon, but he’s also the bass player. He’s part of the rhythm. In most bands, the guitarist or the pianist is who’s writing the songs. And Brandon does that, but at some point he switches it over from just being the songwriter to being the rhythm guy too. So there’s this liquid movement between what he’s trying to accomplish with the lyrics, melody, and with the rhythm. I think a lot of bands put a cap on what they are and what they’re able to do because they have to fit into a certain style. We try to do the opposite of that.
You have a very distinctive style. Do you really play like that all the time, or do you sort of put that sound on professionally?
It’s a little of both. You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. I do definitely have a style, and what can help keep it fresh is the songs we write. You try to break out of the mold, but at the end of the day, what’s going to serve the song is being honest.
How do you decide to stop tapping the cymbal on “Bring Your Friends?”
[laughs] You just pick a random spot. It’s not counted, its just a spot where you gotta stop or you’ll just fuckin’ lose it.
When you moved from Texas to New York in 2000, did you have anything particularly lined up waiting for you?
Nah, we just hit the ground running and got jobs there. I got a job selling drumsets at the Sam Ash near Times Square. I just lucked out. They needed a guy who could speak Spanish, and I just happened to speak Spanish. It was awesome being a struggling musician working at a drum store. It kept me focused. From about 2000 to about 2002, we were just struggling, three dudes living in one room in New York, just struggling and playing music and making it happen. And it worked out. Here we are in 2010 and we’re still talking about it.