Welcome Back, Curtis

Some musicians who leave Dallas have negative things to say about the city and the music scene. Not Brandon Curtis, though. As the leader of psychedelic space rockers The Secret Machines and the former member of such local luminaries as UFOFU, Tripping Daisy, Comet and Captain Audio, Curtis has only fond memories of his time in the Big D.

"I love Texas, and I love Dallas," Curtis says—without an ounce of sarcasm. "There are a lot of really creative, strong, independently minded, very tasteful people in Dallas. I just remember the bands and the music. I think about bands like Bedhead and how lucky I was to be involved with those people."

Yet despite his affection for the area and the relative success of the last band he formed here (Captain Audio), Brandon and his brother Benjamin decided in 2000 that they needed a change of environment. And, unlike Centro-matic's Will Johnson, who headed to Austin, the Curtis brothers had in mind bigger changes; New York City was the obvious choice.

"I had moved to Dallas from New York, so I always planned to move back," Curtis explains over the phone from Chicago, in between tour stops. "Dallas always felt like a temporary place for me."

Even though returning to New York was always in the back of Curtis' mind, various happenings in Dallas precipitated his departure.

"Starting another band in Dallas and playing the same places just seemed kind of boring," he says. "A new project needed to be done in a new place."

Curtis had other reasons to make the move, and he's not shy about elaborating on them: "There were a number of extenuating circumstances that made me prefer a larger city, a city that has mass transit, a city that has more variety in the weather and in the culture, a place with a different mix of things happening."

After the release of Luxury, Captain Audio's full-length debut in 2000, the Curtis brothers, along with bandmate Josh Garza, headed for New York. Another bandmate, Regina Chellew, chose to stay in Dallas, though, eventually forming Chao and later joining The Happy Bullets.

Curtis, meanwhile, felt that a new start in the Big Apple warranted a new name. And so The Secret Machines was born. Despite the more competitive environment of New York, Curtis says he's never felt intimidated.

"I welcomed the competition of New York," says Curtis. "I wanted to be tested."

And the band has been, albeit mostly from within; not many bands these days can create a dense epic like "It's a Bad Wind That Don't Blow Somebody Good" and sound so cheerful doing so. And Now Here Is Nowhere, The Secret Machines' debut, quickly became one of the most heralded releases of 2004, drawing comparisons to everyone from the Velvet Underground to the legendary German electronic band Kraftwerk. Repetitive, dreamy and abrasive, The Secret Machines is capable of making a unique brand of noise, a sound harking back to the late-'60s experimental band Can, with songs bursting at the seams with sound.

"In my music and my personal life, it's all about overload," says Curtis. And yet he doesn't worry that some might find the band's sound too challenging. "A lot of bands don't seem to make the choices we make."

But it was those choices that helped the band quickly gain a growing fan base and found critics lining up to sing the praises of the debut. Comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, Ride and The Flaming Lips were the most common, but some fans and writers detected nods to the classic rock of Rush, Procol Harum and U2 (for whom the band opened in Mexico City two years ago). Curtis knew the band's mix of genres was what he had in mind, but still, the success was a bit of a shock.

"I was pleasantly surprised that the music we made was appreciated," Curtis says. "But our confidence in ourselves made us believe that what we were doing would always be viable."

Curtis doesn't even mind the "progressive rock" tag that has often been used in describing the band.

"If by progressive rock, someone means King Crimson, then I am flattered," says Curtis. "I like the idea of progressive rock, and I respect that kind of music."

Yet after the 2006 release of Ten Silver Drops, the band's sophomore set, Brandon's brother Benjamin announced he was leaving the fold to focus full-time on his new band, School of Seven Bells. Brandon was, predictably, deeply affected by his brother's departure.

"Benjamin was a key part of what made the band what it was," Brandon says. "Being a three-piece, the personality of any one member is a big chunk of the whole thing."

Ever the opportunist, though, Curtis saw his brother's exit as yet another chance to refocus his aspirations.

"[It] was a hard thing to overcome," Brandon says. "But in some ways, it was a reset button for a fresh start."

That fresh start meant meeting with bandmate Josh Garza and determining how to proceed.

"How well does a three-legged table stand without a leg?" asks Curtis, recounting the decision to ask old friend and guitarist Phil Karnats to join The Secret Machines. "Josh and I had both played in bands with Phil so it was an easy transition. The familiarity was there, and the family aspect was there as well."

Some early shows with Karnats in the line-up also featured guitarist Frederick Blasco, as Curtis wanted to see how the band sounded as a quartet. But since every band Curtis has been involved with has been a three-piece, he ultimately decided to keep The Secret Machines a trio.

"Josh and I even decided to self-title our new CD because we felt as if we were stripping things down to their bare essence," says Curtis. "To me, the music on the new one feels radical, but people tell me that it just sounds like a Secret Machines record."

As he speaks about the expected October release, Curtis' confidence is nearly contagious; he's not bashful about brandishing praise for his own band. To his credit, though, Curtis' bravado is backed up by his band's music.

"The Secret Machines is singular, wherever it would be," says Curtis. "In New York, there is no other band like us, and in Dallas, I don't think there has ever been a band like us."

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Darryl Smyers
Contact: Darryl Smyers