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From a doctor's waiting room somewhere in Manhattan, Benjamin Curtis sounds upbeat for a guy who can't get an Ambien prescription. The Secret Machines singer/guitarist isn't having trouble sleeping. He just likes taking the neurological sedative because, he says, "It makes your brain think that you're dreaming."
Given the heavy, narcotic sound of the Secret Machines, it's not surprising that Curtis has more than a passing familiarity with recreational chemicals. He and his bandmates -- older brother Brandon on vocals, bass and keyboards, and drummer Josh Garza -- specialize in psychedelic space rock that recalls a place where cellophane flowers grow eight miles high and the clouds taste metallic.
"I did an interview online once, and I'd taken Ambien and forgot I did," Curtis says through a cell-phone signal that, fittingly enough, fades in and out. "I stayed up really late, writing like mad. All of a sudden, the words were floating off the screen while I was typing. I'm trying to catch 'em and put 'em back. I woke up the next morning thinking, 'Please tell me I didn't send that e-mail.' It all made sense to me at the time."
Since forming four years ago, the trio of New York transplants has gone from witnessing the horrors of 9/11 firsthand ("I've never seen so much fire in my life," Curtis recalls) to earning major-label success and national exposure on Late Show With David Letterman. Ballyhooed by publications large and small, the act, whose sinister-sounding moniker conjures black helicopters and fixed voting booths, can claim the likes of David Bowie and kraut-rock legend Michael Rother as fans.
Long before the outfit shared European stages with the former Kraftwerk member, though, the Curtis brothers were killing time in their home town of Norman, Oklahoma. In addition to being the distinguished birthplace of country star Vince Gill and Nim Chimpsky, the first chimpanzee to learn American sign language, Norman is also renowned for having some crazy weather.
"I have a youthful memory in the car with my dad, chasing Brandon on his bike 'cause he and his friends were trying to catch a tornado," Curtis recalls. "My dad was freaking out, screaming out the window, trying to get him to go home. It could've been the end of him. That's a good memory."
After their family relocated to Dallas in the early '90s, the brothers dabbled in various trance-rock outfits, including UFOFU and When Babies Eat Pennies. They made their biggest splash with Tripping Daisy -- which later morphed into the Polyphonic Spree -- but soon left to explore darker territory with Garza, a former hide-beater for Captain Audio and Comet. After meeting engineer Brian Deck (Red Red Meat) and Califone's Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella, the Machines spent eight days at Chicago's Clava Studio putting together an EP. "They were in town, so we just asked if they could record our band," Curtis says. "It's kind of funny, because at the time, we hadn't even played a note together."
Even so, 2002's September 000 is a cohesive slab of journeymen-fueled head rock drenched in layered effects and repeated patterns, bookended by tunes dedicated to radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi. "We didn't want to shoot it in the foot and tell everyone not to take it seriously," Curtis says, "but it was essentially our glorified demo tape. The reception it got gave us a lot of confidence to make the next record."
Now Here Is Nowhere finds the Machines retooling the gearwheels of their monolithic sound for Warner/Reprise. The band's first major decision was passing on the services of Bob Ezrin, a studio ace whose dossier includes Kiss's Destroyer, Lou Reed's Berlin and a certain conceptual monstrosity from Pink Floyd.
"The Wall is my least favorite Floyd record," Curtis admits. "That's the only one Ezrin worked on. And God knows what he's gonna do with us. I mean, he doesn't know what the Secret Machines are; no one knows what your music should sound like. He wanted to do it for free, but we also had to put him up at the Four Seasons. It's kind of like you've got to kill your idols. That's why I think every band should make its own first record. You can't let someone else establish your identity for you."
Enter Jeff Blenkinsopp, a technical wizard with similar Floyd connections. Once employed by Brit Row, the light and sound crew for Roger Waters and company, Blenkinsopp designed the huge pneumatic arm that helped build and tear down the wall during Floyd's ridiculously ambitious '80s tour.
"I think he's been working with T.O.N.T.O.'s Expanding Head Band, too," Curtis says. "It's like this massive modular synthesizer that takes up an entire barn. He went underground and hadn't heard much music since around 1980. So he's a bit of a time capsule. Another Rip Van Winkle, I guess. He's definitely got his own take on sound, that's for sure. It's cool that he's gotten back into it."
Like Brian Eno charting a course for Roxy Music, Blenkinsopp earned a co-production credit on Nowhere, even though he pretty much stayed out of the way. "His role was more like backing up our ideas," Curtis points out. "Or saying 'Don't listen to anyone. Do what you want to do.' Which was really good advice. He just gave us a lot of confidence."