From the look on Kris Wheat's face, he's been waiting for someone to finally say the words out loud: "The Secret Machines." He reacts immediately.
"I'll bad blood some shit at those assholes." The rest of Day of the Double Agent laughs nervously, but Wheat's not joking. The New York prog-rock trio is the subject everyone in the rehearsal space has feared talking about all night--Josh Garza and brothers Ben and Brandon Curtis are former bandmates of nearly everyone in the room, but those groups have been over for years and aren't worth dwelling on. DotDA is an entirely new venture.
Even so, tension, creative struggle and a little distrust weigh on the members of this year-old Dallas supergroup, a who's who of the best art-rock bands from the late '90s and early '00s, including Regina Chellew (Captain Audio, chaoMusic), Daniel Huffman (Comet, Ghostcar), Noa Lothian (When Babies Eat Pennies), Trey Pendergrass (Vibrolux, Slick 57) and Wheat (Bedhead, WBEP). DotDA openly admits to such band strife and shrugs it off--"There's been some slamming of doors and walking out, but the conflicts are kinda complementary sometimes," Chellew says. Just part of being in a band.
But on some level, The Secret Machines' move to New York and rise to international acclaim play a role in that conflict, which fortunately feeds the new band's amazing songs and aural dynamic. DotDA are the musicians who were left behind, and they know it.
"Honestly, several years ago and even now, I really would like to have moved to New York," Chellew says. "It's so inspiring being in that city. But I really needed to be here, and I'm here."
In the late '90s, Dallas music latched onto smarter, not-quite-rock bands like The Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr., resulting in a citywide push toward artier music. Thanks to that scene, the members of DotDA have vaguely known about each other for nearly a decade, but the group picks a Gypsy Tea Room concert in 2000 as a starting point. There, Lothian, playing in WBEP as the opening act for Captain Audio, finally introduced himself to Chellew, and they hit it off.
Years later, Chellew began planning an audio-video art show with DJs, bands, video installations and the like. She'd been in touch with Huffman, an old friend, about collaborating on experimental music for the show, which she tentatively titled "Dallas Hates Art Rock."
"As far as doing art in the city, I don't feel like there've been a lot of opportunities, options and venues," Chellew says. "Sometimes [the city] is what you make it, but since I've been doing music here, Dallas has just not been conducive."
With this project in the back of her mind, she accepted a June 2004 invite from Lothian to an informal jam at Wheat's house--she could add these guys to her art/music show, after all. She dragged Huffman along, and within one day of playing together, the quintet (with Jay Jernigan from The Falkon Project) had already completed a song. The others say that Lothian orchestrated the jam with the intent of starting a full-on band, and he doesn't deny the sneaky motive.
"I just thought Regina would be a good match for Kris as a drummer," Lothian says. "They're at good, opposite ends of the [musical spectrum]. I like to call it 'projectile bandmaking.'"
Though the tastes weren't disparate, their varying takes on space-rock blended into challenging, heavily textured pop music--a surprising, catchy turn, halfway between the feedback and pedals of Comet and the to-the-heart art-rock of Captain Audio. Wheat alternated between bass and drums, a new experience for him, and everyone was eager for the next practice. For these solitary musicians, hiding at home with samples, tape loops and four-track experiments was no longer an option, and that became a reason for concern.
"We got together, and it was so easy, but it was so fast...too easy," Wheat says. "I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want to get a band together and all of a sudden, everybody"--Chellew chimes in and echoes Wheat--"moves to New York!"
This insecurity stretches back to DotDA's earliest days. The 2000 Gypsy Tea Room show wasn't just where Lothian and Chellew met; it's also where Garza and the Curtis brothers, members of Captain Audio and WBEP at the time, first plotted their move.
"It's like our lovers met, hung out and took off," Chellew says.
At this point, Wheat begins to "bad blood some shit" about the Machines. Phone calls have gone unreturned for more than a year. Chellew found out about Captain Audio's breakup in a magazine. DotDA was scheduled to open at the Machines' December 2004 show in Dallas, only to be dropped from the lineup without getting a call from the band. "You know, I will never be like that," Wheat says.
He immediately gives the trio credit for their hard work and success. "They starved for a while," Chellew adds. But for these exes in Texas, disappointment still lingers, and it doesn't help that Jernigan has already moved to--you guessed it--the Big Apple.
"When you're making music, there's an intimacy," Chellew says. "You don't wanna get too attached. You don't wanna get your heart broken."
In that case, why even bother? For an answer, Chellew points to other recent '90s Dallas reunions like Mazinga Phaser and Comet.
"It's cyclical; it's just what we do," she says. "No matter what you do jobwise, [music] isn't something you can stop."
"I didn't really want to have a band," Wheat adds. "Noa kinda prodded me, though, and I thank him for doing that. If all I have is my four-track and my bedroom, I never have to show anything I do to anyone. But I've got you guys. I wanna show you guys."
Trust has been slow for this group, but the combined expertise and shared disappointments are a bonding point. The interviews are full of tension, but between each other, it's not anger or distrust. DotDA's inner battles are creative.
Lothian goes on for minutes about his hatred of American drumsets--"bass drums, high hat, those sounds are played out"--and others offer conflicting views on concert visuals, digital sequences and songwriting approaches. But mutual respect is immense, and everyone agrees that pushing each other is what makes DotDA work. "We're still experimenting in the studio," Wheat says, and while demos are being shopped, there's no rush to release a CD.
"Right now, I'm just making music to make music," Chellew says. "That's really liberating. That's a different attitude."
At the very least, the live show (now with Pendergrass on bass and drums) is as confident as their separate years of play would have you believe. In a June concert, DotDA had a rough start thanks to sound trouble at Fort Worth's Wreck Room, but when the group got its rhythm back, Chellew grabbed the mike between songs: "This one's for Zen."
Chellew dove into the guitar riff that opens the group's catchiest number, "We'll Miss You," and the band followed with tom drums, distorted lead guitars and sky-reaching synthesizers that turned the simple, poppy melody into a speaker-swelling explosion. Chellew sang at the top of her lungs, "What's going to happen now that you're gone/We'll miss you," and the connection to trust issues was obvious. For these five, music is in their blood, but is this masochism? Is risking another breakup worth it?
And then I got a nudge and a whisper in my ear. "See him?" Kirtland Records' Tami Thompson pointed to a teenager singing every word. "That's Zen. Regina's son." She paused to let this sink in--she knows Chellew is private about her family--and added, "He wrote this song."
Astounded, I waited until the end and walked up to Zen. Did he really write it? "Yeah."
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"Your mom just...stole the song?"
"And you're OK with that?"
"Sure." He said this even more matter-of-factly than the other responses and grinned. "Now, people can hear it."