The Machines Are Winning

The logistics are enough to discourage any band from moving to New York City. Think about it: find an absurdly expensive and tiny rehearsal space in some borough outpost. (Never mind Manhattan. These days East Village bands are about as common as dodo birds). For load-ins, schlep your guitars and drums into the city on a subway train or park the amp-laden van on the street (eh, where?) and hope like hell no one breaks into it. Face overbooked stage bills that leave you with the miserably deserted slots of either 8 p.m. or 3 a.m. Even meager press coverage means competing with hundreds of other bands--local and visiting--for the relatively few critics' sluggish nods. Rock-press trends are byzantine and fickle. Right now, if you're not Robert Christgau's daughter's favorite new act, or from Detroit, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, forget it.

On the other hand, such hardship calls for the kind of compromise and determination that result in a band as promising as Secret Machines. At the band's live New York performances, even the most hardened club veterans stand very still to watch and listen, wondering at the strange and unexpected sounds washing, and then crashing, off the stage. Audiences may show up for the headliners, but it's the Secret Machines' warm-up that leaves an impression. Who are these guys, with their spare, future-kill Neuromancer attire and hard-edged backlighting?

In shadowy silhouette, the slender trio--with the guitarist in the middle back, flanked by the drummer to one side, the singing keysman on the other--builds a riff or a rhythm into an eventual bloody murder. The band defies easy definition. We hear Can from the relentless, machine-like drums, Syd-era Floyd from the loopy effects of the guitar, Eno in the melodic wanderings of the electric piano. This is New York at its hidden, mysterious coolest, though thankfully the band also passes on the city's ongoing penchant for Velvets/Dolls nostalgia. But to this writer, there's an unmistakable Texas bent in there: the harmony play in the vocals, the spaciness in the sound layers. I'm thinking the concept-arty Captain Audio and the moonscape of Comet, and with good reason.

These former North Texans, brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis (keyboards and guitar, respectively) and drummer Josh Garza, moved to Brooklyn in late 2000 after stints in the aforementioned Dallas-Denton acts, not to mention UFOFU, Tripping Daisy and the short-lived When Babies Eat Pennies. They didn't all three play in each of these bands, but you get the drift; the idea for Secret Machines hatched one night a few years back in Dallas, at the Gypsy Tea Room, when Brandon and Josh's Captain Audio and Ben's Babies shared a bill.

"That night I found Brandon and Ben standing outside, and Brandon was telling him about our plans to go to New York and asking him to come, too," Garza says. "I wasn't expecting it, but it was great. It made sense."

Just before moving to Brooklyn, the three hiked up to Chicago for a few weeks to record their first EP with engineer Brian Deck; now nearly 2 years old, the self-titled, six-song CD (just released on Ace Fu Records) is a mellow affair. As the band's sole recording so far, it's less assertive than the more developed live show, but relaxed and pleasant twilight listening, and they used it to book their earliest New York performances. And once in New York, they knew how to get around the rehearsal problem right away.

"We've been here since the beginning," says Brandon, the elder brother, lounging in what turns out to be the cozy makeshift parlor of an otherwise industrial space. Drum cases and speaker cabinets loom 20 feet away. This band has perfected the increasingly popular live-work arrangement: beds and living in the front, rehearsal space in the back, jerry-rigged kitchen wedged somewhere in between. It's a luxury in New York, and perhaps now a necessity to get ahead; the band members practice every evening, and they hire a van on weekends. Their subway stop is the fifth into Brooklyn on the L-train, situated on a post-apocalyptic street corner a few blocks from Queens. "We kinda rehearse at half-volume," the younger Ben says. After all, they have neighbors. The band's front door is open during our meeting. A young woman in career-girl attire clicks past in her high heels, home from work in the city. Another pioneer. "See?" He turns down the volume on the stereo.

They say they hope to scrape together the time and cash to return to Chicago in the fall for the recording of their first full-length. Now, on the stereo, they play me two new unmastered songs they'll include, one so poppy and layered it would do Brian Wilson proud, the other loping and disconcertingly twangy. It's all liberating, the opposite of locked-in; this band can move in any direction from here.

But they'll do so at their own pace. Secret Machines compose songs slowly, deliberately. "We could write a new song every day, but we'll leave that kind of thing to other people," Brandon says. "We like to spend time on the same song, just take it around the block." The sonic nuances are partly the result of the quietude of rehearsals; they can unearth and appreciate the beeps and buzzes and sustains that surface in songs like "It's a Bad Wind That Don't Blow Somebody Some Good" and "Marconi's Radio." But for live performances, away from the noise constraints of their Brooklyn space, Secret Machines take advantage of the big sound systems and the band-audience rapport to build songs to a deafening throttle, like a massive approaching steam engine.

Despite the band's "practice-every-night-unless-otherwise-notified" policy, which could easily rehearse the life out of any tune, each live show is something of an adventure, like a formal recital cut with spontaneous tangents and visceral spikes. "No show is the same," Brandon says. "We never play a song the same way twice. We just use songs as forms and try to discover new ways of presenting music." It's true. My first impression of the band, at the Mercury Lounge, was of something searing, darkly organic and bottomless. The second time, at Bowery Ballroom, it built more carefully to a steady, militant scream before burning out with disciplined aplomb. The third time? An agile cross between the two, and no less generous.

And each time, even the most cynical New Yorkers who stood in the back of the room stepped forward in respectful admiration to absorb the heat of it. Nice import. Welcome to the neighborhood, guys.

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Christina Rees