Modern Time Machine, "Cocktails"

Modern Time Machines Travel Back to the Beach Boys

Ben Golomb of shoegaze band Modern Time Machines sees whole worlds in old things. Beachtime gazes dreamily into the Beach Boys.

Modern Time Machines
18 August 2023

Modern Time Machines is a fitting name for Ben Golomb’s Los Angeles-based shoegaze gang. Inspired by the likes of the Beach Boys, Lush, and My Bloody Valentine, the band crafts an ethereal, production-heavy sound that places their sound neither in the past nor the present. Rather, it comes from somewhere in-between, a Phil Spector-style “Wall of Sound” with a 21st-century flair. Golomb (guitar/vocals) has worked since 2007 to realize this vision, and his bandmates Michael Morgan (drums) and Chris Caputo (bass/vocals) round it out with steady beats and plucking riffs that ground the band’s power-poppy boy/girl harmonies. 

Off the heels of their latest studio album, 2021’s Practical FX + Physical Media, Modern Time Machines have put a new spin on old songs for their latest Summer 2023 release: Beachtime, a tribute to the Beach Boys. The EP, which consists of deep-cut covers of “All I Wanna Do”, “Feel Flows,” and the Dennis Wilson track “Cocktails,” is a dreamy love letter to the band’s work in the 1970s, most recently re-released in 2021’s Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions

The artistic conception of Beachtime reveals it to be a self-conscious interpretation of the Beach Boys’ sound and history. Golomb carefully selected the EP’s tracks to showcase the work of each of the Wilson brothers: Brian, Carl, and Dennis. “All I Wanna Do” reflects the new direction Brian’s production took with Sunflower (1970), “Feel Flows” the sonic experimentation Carl embraced in Surf’s Up (1971), and “Cocktails” the path Dennis charted as a solo artist.

A second historical parallel wasn’t even intentional. The Beach Boys originally composed this music in a time of professional crisis, rediscovering themselves and their sound in the wake of the scrapped SMiLE album and Brian’s abdication. The Modern Time Machines crafted Beachtime throughout another age of turmoil: the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are intrigued by how the Modern Time Machines realize the creative potential of their name through their sound and just where Beachtime fits into their artistic development. What exactly are “Modern Time Machines” made of? How do covers of old music bridge the gap between the past and the present? We spoke to Golomb in an exclusive interview to think through these questions. 

The cool detachment of the Modern Times Machines’ vibe belies Golomb’s down-to-earth geekiness, which led him to the band’s sound, to begin with. As a latchkey kid from Santa Monica raised by a single mother, Golomb spent his days watching Gilligan’s Island, designing his own Garbage Pail Kids cards, and admiring everything vintage. “I’ve always been drawn to old-school stuff,” says Golomb. “It’s just a form of escapism that is tangible… this was real, this stuff. This happened, and things were different and odd and bizarre.” As a self-proclaimed “pop culture history freak”, he takes old stuff seriously. 

But that’s not to say this reverence prevents him from having fun. Our talk with Golomb is less an interview than a conversation. His eyes light up every time he shares a new Beach Boys fact with Grant, and he responds to Potter’s questions on music production with aww-shucks enthusiasm: “Thank you so much for listening. I really, greatly appreciate it.”

It’s revealing that his band is perhaps best known nationally for their appearance on the debut episode of the madcap talk show parody The Eric André Show. The bit is that André’s booked two musical acts at once. The Modern Time Machines play a few seconds of chilled-out shoegaze before being drowned out by the screams of punk rockers. They’re the butt of the joke. But far from being offended by the skit’s bent, Golomb was honored to be a part of it. 

Beachtime draws from this mix of admiration and willingness to enjoy playing and performing music. The band looks back to the ‘70s-era Beach Boys with a distinctly fresh vision, both in the creative choices behind their production and in accompanying music videos directed by Golomb. 

Their cover of “All I Wanna Do” draws out a psycho-sonic richness characteristic of so many of Brian Wilson’s compositions. The original track, a piece of proto-dream pop hailed by critic Jim Allen as “the musical equivalent of a cinematic dream sequence”, finds this descriptor realized even further by its 2023 reimagining. As hazy as the Beach Boys’ version was, it still possessed a clearly-defined sonic structure: Wilson brother harmonies supplement a self-assured Mike Love lead vocal.

The Modern Time Machines cover takes on a life of its own by turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. An altered lead vocal, a hazy bass line, and a shimmering sonic sheen to the whole production tickle the ear with surround sound. Melody and harmony meld together as voices ebb and flow with the breaking waves featured in the track’s music video. 

The video, simple as it is, answers an important question: What does the legacy of the Beach Boys look like in the 2020s? We see Golomb on the beach as he folds a paper airplane and throws it. It glides through the air, flying past signs of “Wilson Ave”, “Jardine Ave”, “Loveland”, and “Johnston St.” He’s written “MTM” in the sand. A wave washes it away. Golomb holds takes an old camera with a “time reversal” switch; before his eyes, the water reverses away from the shore, having never washed away the name in the sand. We see shots of photos interspersed with scenes from the present, and the video closes with an ocean view from the street. In all this, Golomb makes his love of old things clear and reveals a contemporary vision of the vintage. 

Feel Flows” is memory put to sound, an entangled blend of musical abstractions that only hits right when listened to as a whole. If “All I Wanna Do” evokes ocean waves, then “Feel Flows” is a full-on wipeout, as its vocal harmonies and instrumentation confuse and delight the ear. How else can we conceive of lyrics like “Whether willing witness waits at my mind / Whether hope dampens memory”? The original song, conceived by Carl Wilson, moves along beat by beat with chords keeping the time. But the cover sounds on with a more subtle, filtered four-on-the-floor kick that pushes the song through long instrumental sections. Freed from that obligation, the other instruments, including bells and flute, riff off the original’s improvisational feel with a playful sound in its own cerebral and dreamy register.

Its music video stitches together cuts of vintage film recordings from the ‘60s, including clips of animals in the San Diego Zoo. The goats evoke the cover of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds (1966). The clips and the music take us through winding paths under and through the most common images of the Beach Boys presented to us, illustrating Modern Time Machines’ musical depth and possibilities. As Golomb tells us, “The Beach Boys are definitely one of the bands where knowing the story super enhances the appreciation of the art.”

Conceptually, this labor fully blooms in their cover of “Cocktails.” In the music video, Golomb finds a photo album with pictures of the old Brother Studios, founded by the Wilsons and subsequently the site of many Beach Boys recordings. He travels to Santa Monica only to find the studio closed and replaced. As if to correct a cosmic injustice, he goes home, plugs in a string of guitar pedals, and gathers the band to round out Dennis Wilson’s song, a track that Golomb feels deserves a more thorough telling than Dennis, tragically, could give it.

“I was trying to give it a little more wholeness,” he says. “I like the idea of bringing dignity to a song that is so, so forgotten.” The Modern Time Machines follow through to right the wrong: the cover bears the weight of owed reverence, reenchanting the song with standard rock instrumentation, bells, violins, and thick layers of vocals, all, of course, reaching out in all directions in dreamy reverb.

In spite of Beachtime’s creative accomplishments, Golomb is self-deprecatingly humble when describing his craftsmanship. “I’m sure that my versions are inferior to the originals, but they’ll be inferior in my own way, you know?” His creative vision is less concerned with matching the original tracks featured in Beachtime than with trying to capture a feeling. “I didn’t necessarily try to make [the EP] sound a certain way. It just kind of happened.”

Just like their originals, the Beachtime covers aren’t the most mainstream songs. “All I Wanna Do” isn’t “Surfin’ USA”. But for the Modern Time Machines, mass appeal isn’t the point. The band is looking to craft a specific sound for a specific audience. “I’m really trying to hone in on a niche,” explains Golomb. “I feel like not everyone will get it, but I hope the people who do are really going to love it.”