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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."
Blenkinsopp also custom-built a few filter boxes -- misfires and all. "Everything the guy does is a work in progress, so you can't actually depend on it," Curtis says. "You have to find other ways to make the sounds come out of your head more reliably. In the studio, we're trying to create the live sound more than the other way around. We tried not to synthesize a lot of tones. We'd use the rhythm of a bass drum to trigger a tone on the guitar and make that a track rather than doing an overdub. So there's a lot of texture, but it's not actually a lot of parts being played."
Paring down the production to just 23 tracks might sound skimpy to the Wayne Coynes of the world, but it still makes for a wildly dense listening experience. Swarms of roaring guitars crouch behind ominous drums placed front and center as the nine-minute opener "First Wave Intact" launches into a monster beat reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." It's enough to blow out the woofers in your '74 Pinto. But for all the technical razzle-dazzle, the Machines still adhere to melodic two-chord songs that could be strummed rather easily on an acoustic guitar.
"We have a reputation for being progressive," Curtis admits. "But any King Crimson fan is definitely gonna be disappointed if they come to a Secret Machines show. Honestly, we make pop music with experimental arrangements; it's really basic and visceral from the neck down. All this stuff that people are calling so 'far out' these days -- Prefuse 73 and Boards of Canada -- is rhythmically complex. But honestly, I think a monkey can do that on a drum machine."
It obviously took a smarter simian to come up with the video for the album's single, "Nowhere Again." Picture three floors of a building with strobe effects in each window that encode brief, pulsing messages -- the kind that Stevie Wonder might understand if he could see.
"It's one of those beautiful, pointless things that we do sometimes, like writing Braille in flashing lights never to be seen by any blind person," Curtis explains. "It's so absurd. It's actually influenced by this artist, Pierre Huyghe. He did a piece with dancing light in windows."
Further advancing the album's overall thematic ambiguity are vague lyrics about singing seraphs, soldiers returning from war, and a woman in a mirror, lifting her dress in a fiery state. Pop gem "The Road Leads Where It's Led" offers one explanation: "We communicate by semaphore/No language/We've got flags of our own." Stylistically, however, the tune dabbles in the anthemic new wave of Modern English as much as Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning."
"I'm sure a lot of music like that is an influence growing up," Curtis allows. "You hear it all the fucking time -- it's gonna be in there somewhere. After a while, all these comparisons seem a bit shallow to me. It's all just marketing."
Even so, the Machines are humming along nicely with a three-record deal and enough commercial muscle behind them to consider gigging in Pompei or under the pyramids someday. Not that any of it came as overnight success.
"We know everything we've been doing to get here, and it wasn't luck, and it didn't happen quickly," Curtis insists. "And who's to say it's happened? I don't know how far this thing is gonna go, but things keep growing. It's really cool to be working on this level."
It's even cooler with a little Ambien pumping through your skull. Although amid the background noise of the doctor's waiting room -- phones ringing, kids screaming -- it doesn't sound like Curtis is any closer to scoring his prescription. When asked to declare his drug of choice, the young connoisseur hesitates.
"I think it's tequila, honestly," Curtis confesses. "Really dark, aged tequila. You do that for a couple hours, it puts you in a nice spot; you stay up all night without the drugs.
"But if push comes to shove," he adds, "I would not be opposed to taking a bit of MDMA. But you don't have to tell anyone that."
Shhhh. It'll be our little secret.