Anatomy of a Buzz

With the proper machinery in place, a band could remain a Secret no more

"You let me know when we've made it," says drummer Josh Garza, a passenger in a van headed for Cleveland, where his band Secret Machines will perform tonight before a cross-country haul to Seattle. He's not talking about arriving at their destination but rather about the feeling of success that creeps up on an unknown band as its flattering press clippings pile up like snow drifts in the Alps. Four years ago, Garza and Ben Curtis (guitar, vocals) and his older brother Brandon (keyboards, bass, vocals) left Dallas for New York, where they struggled to be heard over the din of the big city. Today, with their new album in stores but a mere month, the band is no secret at all. Secret Machines has become a media darling with praise scattered not only in music magazines, but in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and other publications that actually have the influence to send readers to record stores.

All three men were once familiar figures on the local scene, having been in bands you probably heard of even if you only drove through Deep Ellum: UFOFU, Comet, Tripping Daisy, When Babies Eat Pennies, Captain Audio. But at the end of 2000, they decided they had to lose themselves in New York to be discovered all over again. "What's kind of discouraging about Dallas," Garza says, "is that a few people will care, but after a while you can't be playing shows to the same people, because even they will be like, 'OK, man, I'm done. I got it.'"

They moved to Brooklyn and got a place together where they could live and practice all day and all night. It cost them girlfriends, friendships, jobs. They were broke, sometimes broken. Until, one day, Brandon and Ben and Josh got damned near everything they ever wanted. You know the cautionary tale? Well, this is the opposite.

Can you keep a great rock band a secret? Not when it's Secret Machines, which is, from left, Ben Curtis, Josh Garza and Brandon Curtis.
Walter Novak
Can you keep a great rock band a secret? Not when it's Secret Machines, which is, from left, Ben Curtis, Josh Garza and Brandon Curtis.

On May 18, Warner Bros. Records subsidiary Reprise released Secret Machines' full-length debut, Now Here Is Nowhere. It's far too early to deem it a commercial success, because it has sold a little more than 10,000 copies in the past month--a respectable figure for newbies but still a fraction of what Warners and the band anticipate. Yet sales figures are only a footnote to this tale, which began with a fortuitous phone call and ends, for the sake of this article, with the band's appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman this Thursday, June 24. In between are the star-making stories that appeared well before the album was available in stores. In between is an experiment that proved you could indeed sell music online and build a deafening digital buzz. In between are the executives at a major label who fell in love with a band and didn't cheat on them after the vows were exchanged.

"We've always been so careful who we work with," Brandon says, after the van has pulled into Cleveland. "It's never really been about 'This person's really powerful and can get us this.' It's always been about enlisting people in our crazy vision, which is the Secret Machines...It's a gamble to invest your money on three guys trying to make a crazy record. I mean, rock and roll is on the fringe these days, and we're on the fringe of the fringe. It takes a lot of guts on their part."

Now Here Is Nowhere is not the sort of album majors look forward to marketing. It contains Spiritualized melodies fused with Beach Boys harmonies, Zeppelin drumming pounding over New Order singing; it's a rock-and-roll history lesson spread over nine songs encompassing everything from Krautrock to Britpop to prog. Now Here Is Nowhere bulges with epic pop songs that sound as good pulsing through the stoner's headphones as they do booming from a car stereo's speakers on a hot summer day.

But it's not enough just to make a great record. If that were the case, then Richard Thompson and Nellie McKay would fill arenas and Britney Spears would be hanging off a pole at Silver City while the guys from Hoobastank slip dollar bills in her T-back. The pop charts, which have made room in recent weeks for PJ Harvey and Modest Mouse and Diana Krall and Franz Ferdinand and OutKast, suggest there's an audience starving for something other than junk food. But trying to sell a band like Secret Machines, with its nine-minute CD bookends and anthemic space jams, remains a difficult proposition, like selling eggplant-goat-cheese-and-fig sandwiches at McDonald's.

Secret Machines got lucky, though. Brandon and Ben and Josh stumbled across the secret machinery of the music industry, those invisible players who transform nobodies into somebodies till it feels as though you've always known their names.

Not even two years ago, it appeared as though the band's move to New York might have been ill-advised. Despite some good reviews in the local weeklies, including the New York Press' proclamation that Secret Machines was the best live band in town, no labels had come calling. So the band moved to Los Angeles for a month, and toward the end of their stay, clubs were crowded with label reps eyeing each other.

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