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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."

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John La Briola

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