Across the Universe
Rock is dead. Long live rock!
What fad are we on now? 2003 opened the door to the garage-rock revival revival. New new wave crashed onto our shores last year. Ask bomb-blastic NYC psych rock trio the Secret Machines and they might tell you we've hit reset and are back at the beginning. "First Wave Intact," the lead track from their '04 Warner Bros. debut, Now Here Is Nowhere, condenses the band into nine auspicious minutes of steamroller rhythms and spiraling riffage. The song title might refer to the Pink/Zeppelin megadrama that ramrods the song into your synapses, to that old feeling of making love to 15,000 berzerko fans inside a smoky, laser-lit arena. Secret Machines draw from that souped-up, giant-rock archetype, but their ominous, electro-shadowing and intellectual bent render them far more than a throwback band. Besides, lead vocalist/keyboardist Brandon Curtis cites a much weirder, obscure influence.
"People always say we sound like Pink Floyd," Curtis says during a pre-sound check interview from Denver, "but we sound like La Dusseldorf. If anyone is gonna compare us to a band, that would be it, but no one ever does," he laughs. Curtis steers the conversation toward the German techno pioneers -- early '70s krautrockers like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and La Dusseldorf -- his band reveres.
"When we were just forming as a band, just kinda figuring ourselves out, we had just moved to New York, and we were all into that music," he says. "It was a point of discovery for us. We were reaching into the bowels of music history." They unearthed a band called Harmonia, an offshoot of La Dusseldorf, and began covering their "Immer Wieder," a sprawling, German-language dirge.
"It's an ideal form of the way a song could be written," he enthuses, "with significant melody and lyrical content that's intelligent but with so much space and minimal use of instrumentation. But at the same time, the overall effect is massive."
Intelligent, minimal, massive: the words describe not only the sound of "Immer Wieder" but also the Secret Machines. The song is a highlight of their most recent release, The Road Leads Where It's Led EP, which came out last month. It's joined by a troika of other unlikely covers -- Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country," and "Money," penned by Berry Gordy and made famous by Ray Charles. They're all songs the band -- Curtis, his brother Ben on guitar, and their cousin Josh Garza on drums -- considers landmarks. Covering them is a chance to explore their constructs, which helps Curtis better understand his own creative process.
"None of us studied music from an academic stance," he says. "We study it where our heart takes us. To learn about music and history and stuff like that -- it's a self-guided tour. We have to get our lessons where we can."
Stacking those three haunting covers in the middle of a six-song EP evinces the thematic thread that runs through each. "I feel this unrequited love," he says of "Astral Weeks," "love from the imagination that's in passing, something that's over and you're kinda reaching out in some sad mental way, out of pity and fear and loneliness. But I feel the same way about 'The Girl from the North Country.' It's something that's so distant, but it's so close. Close in your mind, close in your imagination and your heart, but it's an insurmountable distance. The 'Money' song is the same kind of thing: such sadness. Talking about the currency of love versus the currency of what actually pays the rent. It's really kind of a complicated analysis in such a primitive and simple way. Those three songs together are kind of examples of how fucked up we are emotionally. Distant and afraid but in love and" -- he pauses, then says with a laugh -- "broke."
That's one reason branding the Secret Machines psych rock is an accurate shortcut: Their music makes you think. But they plumb the mental depths not only through lyrical interpretation. The music itself stretches into interminable distances, methodically paced, slowly flowering into immense climaxes. Watch out, though -- in the live setting, those brilliant explosions of volume and light (mixed "so that the room is like a big soup of experience and you're soaking in it," Curtis says) coincide with frenzied fist-pumping and even an ecstatic dance step or two.
"We tend to stick to a form that's pretty minimal," Curtis says, "but we've played some of these songs for four years, and they're still different every time. But they're different in a glacial sense, you know? Two centimeters every 100 years. But it's still movement, and it's still change."
That kind of patience is unique in the current world of rock revivalism, dominated by three-minute radio-ready howls and quick, synth-funk, dance-punk ejaculations.
"We as a band haven't given up on the notion that it's possible to pay attention to something for an hour and a half," Curtis says. "Or even nine minutes for a song. You need things that are easily digestible, and you need things you have to really sit down and think about. Whether you meditate or you go to church or you space out and look at the clouds for an hour a week, you get it somehow. Humans need that time to sit in front of something and let nothing happen."
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