I hear it, or read it on a message board, at least twice a week:
"If somebody's serious about making it, they've gotta get out of here and go to New York or L.A. Nobody's ever gonna make it playing around here."
I'm sure frustrated musicians say it every day, in every burg big enough to boast one live-music club but is smaller than, say, Atlanta.
No, really, that's all there is to it. Head out to the big city and you're in, right? Never mind that the big city's already got its own monstrous, fragmented scene teeming with hopefuls, a scene into which dozens of newly relocated acts assimilate themselves on a weekly basis. You're good, kid — you just need to be somewhere someone influential will notice.
The song says that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. What the song optimistically omits, naturally, is that your chances of making it there still lie somewhere between winning the lottery and passing out in a crate on a loading dock, getting shipped to Cape Kennedy and accidentally being shot into space.
Which is not to say, however, that it can't be done.
(The making it thing, not the accidentally being shot into space thing, though that's statistically possible as well.)
Just ask Secret Machines, the latest Five Boroughs alt-rock outfit to achieve Next Big Thing status and the accompanying music-press ubiquity. The trio's intriguing combination of Euro-synth throb and rock dynamics is currently resonating with a startling cross-section of new fans.
They originally hail from Dallas — not exactly a backwoods crossroads itself. "I love Texas, and I definitely feel like a Texan, but I think we just really wanted to participate in international culture, more than isolated Middle American culture," says Machines guitarist/vocalist Benjamin Curtis. "It was just something we were interested in. We like a lot of European music as well, and [New York] was just the best place to do it and still be in the country."
Secret Machines decamped to the Big Apple a few years back, in the middle of Gotham's latest iteration as Ground Zero for cutting-edge sounds. But rather than wading into the fashionable hip-rock present, they found themselves experiencing an enviable up-close encounter with elements of the city's storied past.
"We met this guy Jedi who owned a club called The Cooler. He gave us our first shows. Basically the first gigs in New York were opening for [Sonic Youth guitarist] Lee Renaldo and [poet/author/musician] Jim Carroll," Curtis recalls.
Another early show found Secret Machines sharing the stage with reunited NYC post-punk/no wave/fusion visionaries James Chance and the Contortions.
"We got to play with some really classic New York artists right away," says Curtis, "and they were really welcoming."
All of the aforementioned luminaries, while sounding wildly different from one another, share elements of a certain cultured, artsy and distinctly "New York" vibe. Upon hearing Secret Machines' major-label debut Now Here Is Nowhere, it's easy to imagine the decades-younger band fitting in with any of them on a concert bill. Nowhere radiates some of the same poetic, uptown-meets-downtown cool, albeit tempered by an earnest rock energy and filtered through the influence of the austere, electronic German groups — Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! — that inspired David Bowie and Brian Eno during the '70s.
Had Curtis, bassist/keyboardist/brother Brandon and drummer Josh Garza fallen in with the fashionable up-and-comers from Brooklyn and the East Village, Secret Machines' attention to style might have found them labeled trend-riders by association. On the other hand, maybe not. As Curtis points out, his band's pulsing, repetitive sound hardly resembles that of any group from New York's latest Big Cool Wave. And, for that matter, most of them don't even sound like each other.
"It's all so different. For me, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol are very different bands," he says. "They're both trying to push things forward a little bit, but in their own way."
Media-spawned associations or no, Secret Machines are currently at the center of some pretty serious hype. (Not to dis Entertainment Weekly's writers, but when you show up in the magazine's "Must List" — as the Machines recently did — you've been percolating for a while.) It might be due in part to the New York connection. It might be partly because recent vogues like electroclash and the rebirth of New Wave have reacquainted pop-music audiences with synth sounds. It might just be because Secret Machines have managed to combine familiar hallmarks of different styles with hip, obscure influences — and do it not just well but with moments of genius.
Curtis is just glad it seems to be more about the music than any of the peripherals.
"Longevity is up to us writing songs, you know? It's up to us to do our thing, and continue to progress, to evolve along with the rest of the world," he muses. "At the moment, there has been a lot of press, but at the moment, there's also not a lot to write about [in new music], honestly. So it's cool. It's fine. It's not a soap opera.
"I'm happy, because it's only been about our music, not about how we look or who our girlfriends are. It's just about a record we made, and the live show. I'm really confident in those things. It doesn't worry me. I think we can live up to it. I just hope people give it a chance."
So, are they big back home in Dallas yet?
"Dallas, no one really gives a shit there; we can barely draw 50 people in that town it's why we left," Curtis replies, with sincere equanimity. "The best press we've ever gotten in Dallas wasn't about music, it was about the fact that we were getting press in other places."
Contact Scott Harrell at 813-739-4856, or [email protected].