Endgame: 2020. In a world turned upside down, the Secret Machines are back, and looking for light in the chaos. Awake in the Brain Chamber, the band’s fourth LP and first recorded output in more than 10 years, is the sound of things falling apart, with the hope of dawn touching the horizon. If there is a crack in everything, Curtis and Garza are more interested in the light coming in. Curtis’ darkly prophetic lyrics speak of isolation and fear, while Garza’s frenetic, pounding drum beats sound of the four horsemen. But just when things look their worst, the Machines’ beautifully ethereal space-rock takes us away to a different, safe destination: A place with angels, where dreaming is alright, and life blooms from a new disaster.
While the album eerily mirrors our modern age, these tracks have been through many versions and incarnations, dating back to 2010. The sonic DNA of Benjamin Curtis, who tragically passed in 2013, is all over the record. He helped produce and mix with Brandon, and also plays guitar on “Everything Starts,” the second single. “Ten years ago, I was very depressed, sad, and lonely,” says Brandon. “I still relate to the songs I wrote in 2010, but I don’t feel that sense of hopelessness anymore. After losing my best friend, brother, and collaborator, I was able to say, ‘This is what true loss feels like.’”
One of the most acclaimed rock bands of the 2000s, the Secret Machines helped define the sound of the era, alongside contemporaries Interpol, Spiritualized, and TV on the Radio. Laden with sprawling arrangements occasionally pushing the nine-minute mark, the sound of the band has always been grandiose and in their 2008 review of the band’s third self-titled album, Pitchfork made comparisons to Machines influences Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Alternately labeled as prog, Curtis and Garza have always been most comfortable with the term “space rock.” “Brandon’s songs and my drumming meld into the sonic landscape that is Secret Machines,” says Garza from his home in Los Angeles. “I think people will be able to hear that immediately.”
Secret Machines were born out of Dallas, with the first formation consisting of Brandon Curtis on vocals, bass and keys, Benjamin Curtis on guitar and Josh Garza on drums. The band signed to Reprise and dropped their first full-length, Now Here Is Nowhere, in 2004, which began their legacy as critical darlings. The year 2006 brought what many consider their masterpiece, Ten Silver Drops, which won them further critical love and the attention of David Bowie, who became a serious fan and mentor. In 2007, Benjamin left the band to work full time with School of Seven Bells, but Curtis and Garza charged ahead with their self-titled 2008 LP, with Phil Karnats on guitar. And then…there were crickets on the Secret Machines front, and as time marched on, with no official breakup announcement, fans were left wondering if they’d ever hear from the band again.
“After the self-titled album, Josh moved to LA, and I got hired to be Interpol’s keyboardist,” recalls Brandon, from his Vermont home. “I started touring, and Secret Machines just got further on the back-burner. Without ever really talking about it, we both just went our separate ways. It feels totally natural and organic that Josh and I are working together again.”
Their fateful reunion wouldn’t happen until years later in 2016. Garza went to see Cosmicide, a project Brandon originally formed with Benjamin, from which many of the songs on Awake in the Brain Chamber were first conceived.
“Brandon invited me on stage to do a Secret Machines song, and that was the moment that we broke the ice, after drifting from each other for years. We’ve always remained friends, but we needed that moment to spark everything again,” says Garza.
Which brings us full circle to rebirth, and two friends who have nothing left to prove. Despite a loyal following, pop culture has a short memory. If nothing else, Awake in the Brain Chamber is the sound of now, and a tribute to brothers and family. “Since we made this record ourselves, and are releasing it ourselves, there’s a certain feeling that we’re just doing our thing,” muses Garza. “It’d be nice if the fans give it a chance. We’re not trying to convince people with this record. Like I said, we’re just doing our thing.”