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Heavy machinery

Secret Machines kick high-concept '70s rock into gear for today's radio heads.

June 26, 2004|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

When the three members of Secret Machines left the Troubadour after their pre-concert sound check on Monday afternoon, a fan awaited them on the sidewalk of Santa Monica Boulevard.

"Are you going to play the whole album?" he asked, proffering a cover of the band's new "Now Here Is Nowhere" CD for autographs. What he meant was not whether they were going to play every song, but whether they were going to play them in order, as one piece.

It's a question you'd expect for some big rock band from the '70s, the kind that made concept albums and grand statements. Which is what Secret Machines does, on a smaller scale.

And it's something brothers Brandon and Benjamin Curtis and friend Josh Garza are starting to expect. Walking down the street to a nearby cafe, Brandon (who plays keyboards and bass and sings) recalled a surprise at their San Francisco concert the night before.

"There were two girls from Japan there who said, 'We flew from Tokyo just to see your concert.' And they were jumping up and down singing all the words."

That's also the kind of thing that happens to big rock bands like Pink Floyd or Radiohead; this was just on a smaller scale.

But when Warner Bros. Records Senior Vice President of A&R Perry Watts-Russell, who worked with Radiohead in his previous job at Capitol Records; producer Bob Ezrin, who marshaled Pink Floyd's blockbuster album "The Wall"; and former Geffen Records president Bill Bennett first saw Secret Machines play, none of them was thinking on a smaller scale.

"They came on and started playing, and I had two thoughts," says Watts-Russell of the band's October 2002 show at Spaceland. "One was, 'This is so powerful and so hypnotic and at the same time not difficult, not trying to push the audience away.' And my second thought was, 'This would be difficult to capture on disc.' "

Despite the second concern, Watts-Russell offered the band a contract. Bennett offered to manage the group. And Ezrin offered to produce an album. The band accepted the first two, though turned down Ezrin in a desire to produce itself. But the faith expressed paid off with a dynamic debut album that fully captures the power of the live performance.

The Troubadour show did nothing to dispel the initial impression. There was no flying pig, no wall construction and barely any lighting. But the group did play nearly the entire album as a seamless piece, though not in order. And they did so with a grandeur in the tradition of the big rock bands. What the White Stripes is to Led Zeppelin, Secret Machines is to Pink Floyd, with a stripped-down, homemade approach that may start from an iconic template but has its own distinct integrity.

A couple of songs are clearly Floydian slips ("Pharaoh's Daughter" can't help but remind the listener of "Breathe" from "Dark Side of the Moon"), but more often the sonic shapes and rhythmic drive could better be compared to such less known '70s experimentalists as Can and Neu.

It's not exactly the kind of music that's getting a lot of play on mainstream radio these days. But the band members say that's precisely why they are making music like this. They believe something is missing from the landscape, and they want to help provide it.

"We have our theories about what rock can be," said drummer Garza, 32. "We just want to test them out and see if they work."

Those theories started developing in Dallas, the band members' hometown. The three had played in several intersecting bands (Brandon Curtis and Garza together in one, then the brothers in another) before teaming as a trio four years ago.

"I don't think we knew what it would sound like, but we had a plan: Rehearse, make a record and move to New York," said Brandon, also 32.

"We just had faith it would work," added singer-guitarist Benjamin, the youngster at 25.

Following the plan, the three recorded a mini-album, had a few hundred copies pressed, packed the van and headed to the Big Apple in November 2000, with no contacts there to speak of. The band's allegiance to do-it-yourself rock values and adventurous approaches was seemingly compatible with the emerging neo-garage (the Strokes) and electroclash (the Rapture) scenes. But it wasn't so easy.

"You would think that would help, but it was, 'Dude, your songs have four-minute intros,' " said Garza.

The three gave out copies of their CD to anyone they thought might appreciate it, and found themselves getting gigs at several clubs and drawing a following. They then made another leap of faith in October 2002 and headed to Los Angeles for the three-week run of club shows that led to the current situation.

Since the album came out in May, Warners has focused on alternate avenues of promotion -- the album was available for digital download purchase months before it was released in stores -- as well as such traditional methods as tireless touring.

"It's an old-fashioned band in that you've got to come see them live," Watts-Russell said. "And to me they have the possibility to evolve into an identity that is completely unto themselves, and I don't care how long it takes."

That suits the band members, who believe that if people experience their music, they will respond positively.

"I hate being typecast as a band that's left of center," said Benjamin, reminding that Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were also out of the mainstream at first. "This is just music we make -- a drumbeat, 4/4 rhythms, major keys, minor keys. We're naive enough to imagine people's tastes are more open than many people believe. It doesn't need to be a lot wider, just a little."

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