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Wednesday, Nov 12, 2008
Words by Chris Catania and Pictures by Colleen Catania.

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
—Aldous Huxley


There’s a reason why they have that quote posted on their website. New York rock trio Secret Machines are apt guides for those wishing to seek and find the truth expressed by Huxley who was challenging readers and music fans to ponder the inherent power of music.


Before their Chicago show, I had a backstage talk with Brandon Curtis (vocals/bass/keys) and Josh Garza (drummer). Even though first formed in 2000 and are seasoned indie-rock warriors, I was still wondering how they’ve managed to soldiered on when so much has happened since 2006’s Ten Silver Drops. In roughly two years, they’ve left Warner Bros., weathered the departure of original guitarist Ben Curtis (Brandon’s brother), added guitarist Phil Karnats to the mix, and self-released The Secret Machines in October.


During our chat, both Brandon and Josh explained how they’ve continued to make the music they’ve always wanted to, while adjusting to the creative challenges of being independent and making music on their terms.


They sat on the couch across from me. Curtis calmly sipped a beer while Garza warmed up his drumsticks, tapping them on this shoes and the floor, wrapping them with grip tape as if preparing for war.


The Secret Machines have appeared to come full circle. And our conversation confirmed that they’re ready for the next wave of challenges.


Can you explain the new rhombus stage set up and tell me how the visual effect is working with the tour so far?


Brandon: During this tour we’re figuring out how our playing works with this new stage set up. We’re exploring the nuances and subtleties of different lighting schemes, figuring out how the songs fit together. We’re really enjoying the process.


What type of impact do the new songs have on figuring out that process?


The visual presentation of our music has always been something Josh and I have enjoyed doing. We love putting the energy into figuring out how our music can be represented visually. It’s something we’ve always be enthusiastic about; just as much as the playing and writing music. We also like the challenge of finding out how to experiment visually with the means we have right now. Our design on this tour is very stripped down; but it still has a lot of character for what it is.


To create the rhombus structure you called on the award-winning set designer Es Devlin who’s also done work for Kanye West. Was there any inspiration from other live shows you’ve been to that made you want to create a particular atmosphere during a Secret Machines show?


Brandon: I don’t ever want to duplicate an experience. We both have had some significant [concert] experiences as fans that made an impact on us and made us want to do our own version.


Josh: It’s one thing if you’re Def Leppard and can afford to do production, or if you’re Radiohead and have the towers of blinking LED lights. But when you’re at our level it’s more like something we want to do. It’s also our way of fighting laziness. It helps us to expect something from each show. We could just set up and play and that would be great. We saw spiritualized play in Dallas. The show wasn’t even sold out but they did a very simple light show that was mind-blowing.  It was so simple but so effective. It inspired us to try and say something because for us it’s more than just being a band; it’s about saying something.


How has it been going since you left Warner Bros. and put the new album out on TSM label?


Brandon: It’s been a learning experience. We chose to put this record out ourselves. We’re still discovering what that means, figuring out the benefits and limitations. It’s a challenge this day and age to figure out how to make things work. It’s a different matter when you’re counting every penny. Nobody at Warner Bros was a completely different situation when it came to budget affecting everyone.  TSM recording is a closed, close-knit system. We’re working with what we have and it’s exciting. It’s also very grounding.


Josh: It’s also a Catch-22. When you have an endless budget you can be as creative as you want. But when you have a limited budget you can’t be willy-nilly about spending money. Having a limited budget also forces us to be creative. And that’s a challenge we’ve sort of been used to. On this tour that creative challenge is showing, which I think it’s a good place for us to be.  I want to inspire the other [bands] out there trying to do what we’re doing. I don’t want a medal for trying but at least we’re trying.


Has this budget challenge revealed anything new to you about making music or changed your creative process?


Brandon: Not directly, no. This new challenge hasn’t impacted how we make music because our music has always been about and stemmed from dealing with what’s right in front of us. I’ve never felt any limitation that changed my perspective on music. My music is the filter through which I view the world, and that filter changes as the world around me changes. The only limitation that I have to deal with are more practical; like how do you deal with the fact that you want street advertisement in New York City but at the same time you want listening stations in city? It’s all a part of the record business.  It’s not that we didn’t care about [these decisions] before; it’s just that no one asked us about them before. We’re very enthusiastic students about whatever world we’re thrown into.  We’re up for challenges that force us to prioritize choosing between a sold out show or a high-guaranteed show. I’m glad, though, that all this ‘business of music’ hasn’t seeped its way into the pleasure of making music. We love adapting to whatever situation is presented to us on stage and we take that same approach as we navigate this tour and being independent. Playing, writing, thinking about music, our goal is to have more time to do all of those things as we go along.


On past albums, you’ve used a mix of strong, swift and somber psychedelic blues-rock to tell stories and communicate feelings. Any changes this time around?


We aren’t doing anything that we haven’t done before. We’re just trying to do it better. I approach songwriting on a very personal level. I try to tell a story through my own eyes and use the lyrics and music to explain how I feel about whatever is going on in each song.


Sounds like you guys are still having fun and taking each day as it comes.


Brandon: [laughs] Somewhat…


Josh: [Laughs] We’re working on it!


Brandon: [chuckles]  It’s a work in progress.


Josh: When it comes to the arts, nothing’s a given. I’m not going to take anything personally. It’s about the arts. And the reality is that nobody gives a shit most of the time. Everybody just wants to be entertained. Whether it’s a movie, a book, photography, or whatever.  Most people just want to be seduced by entertainment. Most people don’t understand that it’s hard to be writer, a photographer or in a band. It’s not like going to college and you’re guaranteed a job or a certain amount of money a year doing whatever you do. It’s an uphill battle and you can’t bitch too much about because everything I just mentioned is part of the gig.


Yeah, we’re having fun but that’s because you have to look for the fun and remember the fun. The funniest thing about being in a band is that that fun time is the music, but that’s not the only thing that goes with [being in a band]; there’s business side, touring, and the business side of touring. When push comes to shove, we just want to be playing music and writing songs… but they don’t make it easy.


No they don’t.


Josh: They never have and never will. But this is our dance and it’s what we do.  It’s not the best dance but if you look close there’s a lot of subtlety to my dance. We’re ready to go a kick ass and take names tonight!


 

As the band hustled away to set up, I headed towards the main stage area thinking about Josh’s last two “subtlety and kick ass” comments, wondering what exactly they had planned for tonight.


I hadn’t seen a stage set-up quite like this before. Just watching them set up this strange rhombus structure was nothing short of mesmerizing. The crowd watched in anticipation, getting a visual feast of curious stimulation before the music even started. The band positioned their instruments inside the rhombus structure, working with and around the stage crew who wrapped thin plastic straps around the rectangular pipe structure and connecting multi-colored light fixtures to the side of the structure.


The house lights went down.


A thunderous tidal wave of crashing cymbals, snarling guitars and psychedelic fuzz erupted surging back and forth between the stacks of stage-side speakers.


Curtis and Garza weren’t kidding. They did what they’ve always done. With great force and intricate intensity, weaving in old and new tracks, they descended to the fiery depths of Dante’s inferno and ascended upwards to dreamy psychedelic heights.


Emotion was there on every note, wrapping around your heart and ears at every melodic turn. “Sad and Lonely” dripped metallic blue tears over Garza’s liquid rhythmic thunder. Fear and pain poured from “The Walls Are Starting to Crack”, a new mini-opus filled with growling guitars and machine-gun tom blasts. As if in the center of a glowing red-hot furnace, the trio reflected the scorching sonics of “The Fire Is Waiting”.


The show was building to its final moments, reaching cathartic crescendo on the last number, “First Wave Intact”, a vintage Secret Machines nine-minute anthem from the debut Now Here Is Nowhere. Like an army seconds away from battle, the crowd pumped their fists in unison and roared the three-word chorus “First. Wave. Down!”


It was a sensational resonation that flowed through the Metro, out on to the streets of Chicago’s north side and hopefully rages on to the next city as the tour continues.


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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2008
Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Landing in Chicago for his debut U.S. performance, Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru started the Saturday night show at the Empty Bottle before a sold out crowd deploying an acoustic version of “Parachute,” a song busting at the seams with blissful sunshine and a perfect lead single from Exithis third album and the first to be released stateside.


He bows humbly, sits down and wastes no time going right into a furious mix of arpeggio pop and classic jazz fingerings with beaming with Beatle flavors. But it’s all Tokumaru in the interpretation as he stops and starts the chord progressions on his own terms, swiftly with playful agility and pure ease, sending the crowd into a hush of awe.


Tokumaru albums are one man bedroom symphonies created and produced on computer in his bedroom as he plays fifty plus instruments on Exit’s ten tracks, blending electronic, folk, blues and Japanese pop into a dreamy transcendence that melts the language barrier to almost nothing, leaving only the sweet melodies of Tokumaru’s gentle emotive croon to tie the finally knot firmly around your heart. 


Sometimes he plays with band but tonight it’s just him and his guitar, a different listening experience that what you hear on Exit but just as engaging if not more as his fingers fly across the frets, as he sings of abstract thoughts mined from his dream diary.   


Though his 11pm set ended way too soon, I did have a chance to sit down with him afterwards, as Saturday night ticked away and Sunday morning rolled in.


In the Empty Bottle’s musty basement green room and its graffiti spattered walls as our backdrop—and with a bit of translation help from his manager Koki Yahata—Tokumaru revealed the details behind dream diary inspired songwriting, his jazz influenced trip to the US a few years ago, and why, though he’s happy to play live, he still doesn’t want to have his parents come to his shows.


This being your first time playing in the US, what are your thoughts so far?
It was raining a lot in Japan when I left I was expecting some change in weather but it hasn’t really changed at all. [chuckles] so I guess it’s kind of disappointing [chuckles].


Normally it pretty nice this time of year but with Hurricane Ike we got tons of rain the last few days. How did you feel during the show?
The reaction from the crowd was better than I expected. I was very happy with the response.


So after your first US show how would you compare playing before a Japanese audience versus a US audience?
In Japan people usually come to the show to hear the music and concentrate on the performance, so comparing with the bar being so close to the stage, it was loud in the back and it was difficult to play by myself on stage.


You did do a great job of overcoming the crowd chatter, though. When I see that happen I often wonder what people could be possibly talking about while the show’s going on and they apparently paid money for the show.
But I was very happy with the large part of the crowd who was enjoying the performance.


You play a lot of different instruments on the album. How do you decide what and how the songs get played live?
When I started making music or even playing the songs from Exit, I had no intention of playing them live on stage in front of an audience.


Your performance tonight was very different from what first time listeners would hear on the album or vice versa. Seeing your play your guitar is just as fun as it is to listen to the album. Is that intentional? Because it seems that fans would be in for a surpris whether they first hear you at a concert or on record.
Yes. And when I play other shows I sometimes play with other band members but tonight it was just me and my guitar. But it is almost impossible to recreate what I do on album, so I won’t usually recreate the whole album on stage and just sound simpler and I try to find a way to present the songs.


You had a stay in Los Angeles from 1999-2001 learning jazz and it was obvious that you’ve melded that with other guitar styles to create your own style.
I didn’t have any intention of going to Japanese college so I tried something else before I had to start working at a regular job in Japan. I really had nothing else to do so I started studying jazz [chuckles].


Tell me about your dream diary.  Your lyrics are all sung in Japanese but the way your melodies are sung the language barrier is almost eliminated.
I don’t think that much about how to write lyrics form the dream diary, but I have been writing my dream dairy since my childhood and it was a very natural thing for me. Then when I was a teenager I started making music, and I looked back at what I wrote and took some hints from the pages to begin making the music. 


So first came the dream dairy, then the music and then at some point you came across the Beatles…
[playfully chuckles] Yes.


They have a significant influence on your music. Was there a specific song or album that had the biggest impact on you?
There’s not a certain song, necessarily, but because I have been listening to them since I was kid, there are certain melodies and chord progressions that unconsciously influence me and it certainly shows up in my music.


I can see the influence but you’ve certainly made it your own.  What is it like for you when you recording the albums in your bedroom?  Are you surrounded by the instruments?
I am always surrounded by a lot of different instruments. So I can start recording them at any moment. My writing process is more like making a song up in my mind, like an image of the song, and once it is completed in my mind, then I begin recording it.


So you see the song first in your mind? Do you see the song and notes in colors like Jimi Hendrix allegedly saw music?
Yes, very similar.


What is inspiring you to make your music?
I don’t really like the lyrics to have a certain meaning. I don’t want a song to mean something specific. I try to stay away from that and that’s why I go to my dream dairy for inspiration. I always want to create something that I haven’t heard before or would like to hear by myself.


Is the dream diary something literal as if you write down songs the morning after they come to you in a dream or are the songs pulled from journal entries you’ve written years ago?
It depends. Each song is created differently from the dream dairy and it doesn’t happen the same way each time. Usually I don’t rend to turn a dream into music right away. Because when an idea of a song is half created in my head and I take an instrument right away it will be very different from what I want to make in the end, so I almost intently stay away from an idea until it is fully developed in my mind.


Do you play your music for friends before you record it?
I know exactly how I want to make it the way I want. I like to hear responses, but I generally know what I want when I hear it.


If you had a choice would you rather play live or only record in your bedroom?
Well,…basically…I like to stay at home [chuckles] and I wish I could play at home without having to travel.


Maybe you could just hook up a live feed into your bedroom…
[laughs]


So how did they get you out of your bedroom and out on the road? Did they have to drag you out kicking and screaming?
[chuckles] I don’t really know it happened…


I hope nobody drugged you or hit your over the head…so did you then all of a sudden find yourself on the Empty Bottle stage, asking yourself ‘how did I get here?’
[laughs]


Well, I’m really glad you did come out of your room, however it happened.
I am too, and the experience of playing live show in the states is not that far from what I expected. I’ve toured Europe before, and so far, it’s very similar.

Playing live is very different than you playing in your bedroom. So who was the first person to hear your music when you first began to create it as a teenager?

Various people who were beside me, friend and original members of my first band Gellers. I was in that band with a childhood friend and it was my friend who also did the cover art for Exit and he was a friend since Kindergarten.


How did he create the artwork?
He had a good idea of what he wanted to do since he was someone who first heard my music and he had also done some of my demo CD artwork.


Do your parents play music or support your music?
[emphatically shakes head and waves arms] No.


So you’re going against some family grain and taking some big risks. Do they come to your shows?
No. it’s not their fault because I asked them not to come.


Why?
It’s very embarrassing to have them in the audience and see me live on stage.


Because of the things you’re signing about?
[chuckles] …it just very personal for me…


Do you have brothers or sisters…?
Yes.


Do they come to your shows?
Yes, once or twice.


So do you invite them or tell them to stay away and they come anyway?
[laughs] no, they come to shows when they can. Either way, I’m really happy that I’m been able to do what I love to do which is make music, and I would love to go to other places to make music.


Tagged as: exit, shugo tokumaru
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Tuesday, Sep 2, 2008
A backstage chat at Lollapalooza with Blues Traveler co-founder Chan Kinchla. Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Over the last 20 years Blues Traveler has gone from underground jam-band stalwarts to mainstream multi-platinum success including a Grammy for 1994’s single “Run Around”. In that two decade span, they’ve also founded a festival (H.O.A.R.D.), weathered the death of a band mate and battled other personal issues while still continuing to release music and tour. 


And in 2008 the New Jersey quintet is on a new label (Verve Forecast) and has recorded their latest album in a different way than previous albums. This time the plan on their ninth studio album North Hollywood Shootout released August 26th was to capture what rose the band up from the East Coast underground jam-band scene back when guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Topper (vocals/harmonica) founded the group in 1991. As the title suggests, the effort to harness Blues Traveler’s live ferocious mixing of improvosational blues, rock and singer-songwriter swagger was a new kind of challenge that forced the band to adapt a songwriting style they hadn’t explored before.
 
An hour before their Lollapalooza set on August 3rd, I had a brief chat with Chan Kinchla who took me on a tour through the new album, as he explained the difficulties of working with the new recording and touring approach, what it was like having Bruce Willis contribute and how it feels to play Lollapalooza 2008 as one of the few jammier bands on the bill.


We sat down at a table in the artist lounge backstage with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop as Chan took a swig from his drink, told me that he was excited, smiled a big hearty grin and unexpectedly offered up the interview’s first question jokingly asking who had been my most annoying interview so far over the festival weekend.


I dodged the question for obvious reasons. Kinchla smiled again and confidently assured me that I “hadn’t seen nothing yet.”


Luckily, he didn’t keep up his promise. And our chat was far from annoying.


How does North Hollywood Shootout capture the live show more than previous albums?
Well, with North Hollywood Shootout we wanted to try something different since last couple of records we kind of got in this singer songwriter mentality where we really worked on arrangements, trying to get the songs in a very tight form and then go in the studio and record them like that.


Then we realized that when we play live there’s so many things we sort of stumble on that we weren’t really getting on to our albums. So we decided to switch it up and try to do a lot more jamming which we did in the beginning of the record. Just playing, having some drinks and getting these cool little grooves going. Basically, we kept the parts that we liked, and sometimes we would take that part and make it the foundation for the a song or stretch it out and groove longer on it.


It took a lot of listening back for a long time and [producer] Dave Bianco (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and Teenage Fanclub) helped us find what was really good.  We ended up having a lot more grooving on an album that we’ve ever had before and the recording process was really different for us, too.


How hard was it trying to capture that live element?
In the past we had really tried to separate playing live from recording in the studio. When you’re playing live you’re improvising, there’s people there in front of you and so much is going on onstage and in the crowd and new things happen every night. When you recording in the studio you’re going for a more precise goal, trying to get things exactly the way you want them. I think we were really trying to wed those two ideas together and I think we did a really good job and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing on the next record.  We had a lot of fun recording like this album because songs would come out of thin air and we could play in a stream of conscience. The technology we have today also allows us to record like this. You couldn’t really do this in the past.


What’s most exciting for you guys about the new album and playing live this summer?
Since we’ve recorded it with a live focus all the songs are really playing great live and the crowds are loving them. People are getting up and cheering for new songs they’ve never even heard before. That’s really exciting because sometimes when you make a record, release it and then six months down the road there’s only like one or two songs that make it into the live set rotation. With this album we already have six or seven. I can’t wait until people have the album and they actually recognize them.


What are some of your favorites so far?
I’ve really been enjoying “How I Remember It”, and the first single “You, Me and Everything” and (pauses) “Beacons”. Sorry about that, I’m having a hard time remember the names of the songs because we always call them something stupid in the studio when we’re recoding them.


You have Bruce Willis on the album doing a spoken word blues rant on the last track “Free Willis”. How’d that come together?
Bruce has been a friend of ours for a long time and he sat in with us. John Topper and [Bruce] are good friends.  They’re were hanging out and joking around and came up with this idea.  That song is a live blues jam. We just played for 20 minutes and then Dave took all the best pieces and college them all together. Then Bruce came down, smoked a lot of pot, and then free-formed over the our jams. It was a fun experiment to try something a little different.


Is Bruce going to be a part of the live show?
Hey, if Bruce ever shows up, you bet your ass we’ll do it!


You guys have had some lineup changes over the years. How has it been working with those changes?
Well, since Bobby died we’ve had Tad in the band, my brother for eight years and the first five years of that was really learning how to build the band back up again and how to stay out of the way. We really feel we’re hitting our stride with this lineup. We’re able to relax and just play. It’s a lot of fun.


This is your second time playing Lollapalooza since you played in 2006.
Festivals are just a total crap shoot. You don’t have any sound check. You don’t know how you line up is going to play with the crowd, so you have to just throw your hands up and see what happens. It’s kind of nerve racking because you don’t have control over your own show. The most important thing is just to go up there and have fun, because the reality is that something will go wrong. You have to just roll with the punches. 


We love playing in Chicago because we have a lot of fans here and I’m really looking forward to playing. Lolla has an alternative slant and the line-up especially. We’re one of the only jammier bands, which might actually work for us because it’ll be something different for the fans.  There are probably a lot of alterny kids out there who have never heard us so it should be fun. We’ll be sure to bring the rock for them.


Now that was a promise that Kinchla and Blues Traveler kept as they fired rapid fire shots from Shootout while slipping in a few crowd favorites and multiplatinum hits.


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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008
by Robin Cook

Louisville-by-way-of-NYC indie rockers Antietam flew to Austin to play four—yes, four—sets. Guitarist/singer Tara Key has branched out into solo albums, but as she explains, Antietam never broke up, even during a 10-year gap between albums. Their new album, Opus Mixtum, is now out on Carrot Top. Here, Tara provides a history of the band and her own musical influences.—Robin Cook



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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
by Robin Cook

Originally, this was going to be an interview with just Mr. Bonebrake, but then Billy Zoom turned up. Two X members for the price of one. What luck! And what can I say about this band that hasn’t been said before? Well, for one thing, Billy Zoom is an amazing guitarist, and it’s great to see him playing again after a decade away from music. And DJ Bonebrake is a phenomenal drummer whose contributions to the band are usually overlooked. And finally, it’s an honor to interview them.—Robin Cook



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