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Interview with Brandon Curtis: MAX / MIN , Secret Machines and Life in Pandemic

Interview with Brandon Curtis: MAX / MIN , Secret Machines and Life in Pandemic

Jesse Beaman (My Empty Phantom) and Brandon Curtis  (Secret Machines, Interpol) have joined forces to create, MAX / MIN , a project where artists can produce, distribute and market passion projects that might fall outside the purview of conventional labels. As the music industry has come to standstill during the pandemic, MAX / MIN is giving artists an outlet for their music. We spoke with Brandon about the new label, Secret Machines and pandemic life in Vermont.

Interview by Lee Ackerley 

How are you doing? Are you in Vermont right now?

Yeah, I live in Vermont. I'm about a half hour North of Burlington.

It's pretty nice. My wife works in the medical field, and so we've been pretty strict about social distancing, and wearing masks, and stuff like that. So we haven't really gone to any of the trails. But I know they're mostly open. And yeah, I mean, the town I live in, you wouldn't know there's any kind of ... I mean, people are pretty diligent with the masks. But for the most part, just business as usual. The weirdest thing is the protests that are going on, that is just nonexistent here for the most part. And so there's this sense of being a spectator. You know what I mean?  I can't get off Twitter, because I keep looking at police videos.


It's nonstop, and it feels like an echo chamber of just misery, pain, and outrage. It's a lot to handle if you get sucked into that vortex for sure.

It really is. Although, I think there's a part of me that's, I'm trying to just not look away, I've been trying to diversify my follow ... I mean, I've always kind of followed some political activists, or I've been a fan, or a supporter of prison abolition for a while, and the defund the police thing is a new add on to that. A lot of progressive people, and union organizers, and things like that.

But then add to that these kind of black educators I've started to follow, and just trying to learn more about what racism ... You know what I mean? Because I think you know what racism ... I started reading this book, I can't remember the name of it, I'm on chapter three. And it's just basically blowing my mind about the concept of racism, the concept of assimilation, the concept of anti-racists versus non racists. It's a lot to take in, but it feels necessary. I feel like people need to learn that. I know I need to learn that.


Yeah, it's good for people to actually take the time to investigate, look into things, and not just take it off as this is a surface level type of protest, and this is the same thing we saw four years ago. A lot of people just file it under, "Oh, I've seen this before. Let's just get through this."

Yeah. I mean, for me, I grew up in a town that was segregated in Oklahoma. I mean, it was literally, there were railroad tracks, and people would go on one side, and other people would go on the other side. And it was never explained to me what that was. And it's just only in my adulthood, I'm like, "Oh, that's because the bank wouldn't loan people money to buy houses in these neighborhoods. Oh, that's because ..." You know what I mean? So it's re-characterizing things that I took for granted as a child, and understanding what was really the driving force around that stuff has been pretty eye opening.


Yeah, so I know you and Jesse came up with Max / Min  before the civil unrest started taking over the media. But where did the impetus for Max / Min  come from with Jesse?

I'll say mainly, okay, so Jesse and I met a few years ago. He was seeing a show up here, and I did a performance opening for him just being on the road. And we hit it off. And then we just stayed in touch. And then as it came time for him to do another record, we worked on it together. And then I just enjoyed collaborating with him. And it's just been one of those things that, it's something that I didn't expect, I wasn't really looking for it. I kind of was. I was kind of looking for people to co-write with.

But it just happened. And so I mean, Jesse, he's got so much energy, and so much ideas, and all this stuff. And we just started talking. And just, as some of the ideas of his about being involved in the release of his own music, and him questioning about labels, and this kind of stuff. We just started talking about what if we worked together on this. And then it just evolved in the sense of, well, what does that look like? And then I mean, we're still figuring it out. But it's been this very natural evolution. And I got to say, the main impetus is Jesse's energy, and vibrancy, and the intensity that he approaches his art, it's contagious. And I feel he inspires me. So that's kind of the basis of it.


So you guys met after playing together in Burlington. So he was in Vermont at the time?

That's right. He was on a tour with My Empty Phantom and he had a couple of buddies with him that were filming. And yeah, it was actually, I think it was in Winooski that we played, which that's another town, not that that matters. But yeah, basically Burlington. And yeah, that's where we met. And then we hit it off. And it's just been, as time has gone on, we've just become closer, and the lines of collaboration have increased. Starting out just like I was saying, co-writing on songs, and working on music, and then it's maybe he'll release his music, and maybe the idea about helping other people release music.

And it's helping me figure out a place to put out things that are just ... I work on shit all the time, and I just sit on it. And it doesn't fit maybe Secret Machines, or it doesn't fit anything else, I don't know, it's nice to have an avenue, or a place that, maybe together we can support each other in our music. And maybe that's something that you can do for other people as well.


Do you think MAX / MIN  is filling a need for a lot of independent artists who don't have the conventional way to get that music out?

I think that might be a way of looking at it. I think, for me, I never really viewed, when I write music, I don't really view it as, "This is my real gig, and this is not." When I'm doing a piece of music, or working on something creatively, it's just that, it's just what it is. And I feel like that's probably true for most people. That said, you get a group of material together, and then you're like, "What do I do if this doesn't fit my, whatever, day job?" Whatever that means as a musician.

And you can call it a vanity project, or a side project. But in a weird way, it's just an outlet for people that have, maybe it's ... I aspire for it to be an outlet for people with creative ideas that just don't have a home somewhere else, obviously within reason. We're very infantile at this moment, just beginning stages of what this is.

But just, Jesse has talked to some people, and I've talked to some friends about stuff. And it's been generally enthusiastic about, "Well, holy shit, I can just put this out like that?" And it's like, "I think so."

I mean, so there's been that part of trying to figure out what that looks like for, how do you engage with a distributor? And how do you maintain the finances so that you can afford to do promotion without getting in over your head, or ahead of yourself with expenses. So that's kind of where we're looking at right now, is just the nuts and ... At least, for my part is looking at the nuts and bolts of, how do we make this work for what we want it to do?

And I think starting with Jesse's record, and then there's a couple other artists we have in mind coming next, it was just going to forge the path for what MAX / MIN does.


Are you with Interpol right now? I mean, obviously nobody is on tour, but is that on hold, everybody is just doing their own thing for the meantime?

Well, I mean, without speaking for them, just the general cycle of the way that band works is that they put out a record, and then they do a very intensive tour schedule. And so we just finished that in November. And that would have been about a year and a half of touring straight. And then six months before that, we were doing the Turn On The Bright Lights thing. So it's been from November previously, we were very busy for maybe two years.

And so what they normally do will be go their separate ways, we all go our separate ways. And then at some point, the three principle members of Interpol will kind of begin ... I mean, they'll begin to start writing together, and working together. And then it just slowly ramps up into recording, and then the record, and the tour, and then we're back out on the road again for a year and a half.

So right now, we're in that break period, that down time. I know Paul just put out his Muzz record, which is really great. And I think that's where he's at. The other dudes are living their lives. And everybody is still creative, it's just, I think when Interpol is on a break, it becomes a, maybe people get involved in more personal projects, and more things that are close to them.

I know Sam is really super into modular synths and connecting that with percussion, and all these weird things. And he has this crazy setup. And he's been making music, which is something we were talking about with him with MAX / MIN putting out. Because it's just really unusual sounding. I mean, I think Jessie described it as cold wave ... Oh, shoot, what did he say? Like a cold wave John Carpenter, or something like that. Maybe that's too reductive. But it has this energy and vibe that's, it's really, really cool.

And I mean, I'm hoping that we get to put that record out. I know that's something that he just does with because he loves it. So that's the kind of thing where I feel like maybe that's what MAX / MIN can do, is ... He loves this stuff. And I think it's good, and I think maybe people should hear it. And maybe that's something that we can address, and do with a certain amount of style, but also at the same time, with a sense of, again, just being mindful of, just being within the resources I guess. You know what I mean?

 As far as the Secret Machines, I know you guys did Live at the Garage, and released that. So there's been signs of life as far as at least the group coordinating together. But are you still talking with Josh Garza, and I'm not sure who the other members were at this point?

Right now it's Josh and I. The official announcement is going to come in a couple of weeks. But we have a series of releases that we're going to put out ourselves, starting with a new record that we finished recording last year.

And then we have a record that Josh and I wrote with the guitarist Phil Karnats, who was the guy who was on the self-titled record that we released. And I'm in the process or remixing that. That's going to get released. And then actually, the self-titled record is something that we have the rights to it, the label that originally put it out folded. It reverted back to us, so we're going to release that. And then another EP. So we've got these four or five releases that Secret Machines are going to put out. And that's something that I've also been working on. So all of the sudden, we’re fucking busy.


Where would you be releasing Secret Machines? Or who would you be distributing through?

We're negotiating right now with ... We haven't signed anything yet. But it's going to be basically ... The third record, the self titled record, we did as a basically a vanity label through World's Fair, I don't know if you remember that label. They did Def Jux, and World's Fair were kind of partners.

And then so we did TSM Recordings through World's Fair. And then shortly after we released that third record, they declared bankruptcy. And so I think that was the end. Def Jux folded, and World's Fair folded. And so we were going to continue that moniker of TSM Recordings.

And then what we're doing right now is just working on, hopefully we'll have a deal sooner or later with someone to kind of be the digital and physical distribution, and that kind of stuff. It was just something that I think ... I mean, two months ago, Josh and I were talking about just, let's just post this shit on SoundCloud and be done with it. So we were just going like, "Let's just put it out." Because it's like, It's one of those things like, "Whatever."

And we started exploring what that looked like. It's evolved into what it is now where it's going to be more of a, what would you call it? Strategized and planned release. We'll have initial tracks, and all that stuff. But all this stuff isn't going to be announced until, I think the 22nd is the first announcement. 

We plan on the announcement is going to be on the 22nd I think, as of right now. Of this month, yeah. So yeah, it's been one of those things we've been figuring out how to take publicity photos over FaceTime, and it's been a very unique experience as far as putting the record assets together. And it's also just been really instructive in a sense, we were forced to do it like this, and it's like, "Oh, you can do it like that?" And, oh, it's weird. I don't have to fly to LA to get pictures taken.


Do you ever make it back down to Texas, or Dallas, or Oklahoma? Or are you pretty much in North East Vermont, and New York most of the time now?

Yeah, well, I mean, I don't get down that often. My parents both live in Dallas. So I still have a family connection there. I have family in Oklahoma that I don't get to see very often at all. It's been a long time since I've been back to see ... Well, actually, Interpol played in Oklahoma City, and I saw my aunt and a cousin or two. But my sister lives in Colorado. My youngest brother, Andrew, lives in Los Angeles. So everyone is kind of scattered. There's not a place that we just go home to. Last time the family got together, we got together in Palm Springs. Old folks shit, you know?

Oh my God, well, you know what, that's one thing about living up here, January, February, you feel the deficiency in sun. And so we went in February, and it's good to get out of the deep dark winter for a second.


Vitamin C is absolutely necessary to keep being happy, for me at least. So your wife is in the medical field, and so you guys haven't left Vermont since everything locked down?

That's right. Yeah. It's been interesting, so just the way ... I mean, in Vermont, because of her access, and contacts with the hospital here, she's aware of the cases. And it's just a very, very low population of people that have been infected by COVID, relatively to the rest of the country. So that's fortunate. But at the same time, it's one of things where it just takes one person to be careless. But we're the people wearing the masks all the time, and we try and keep our distance, and we haven't left, we're not going to beaches, we're not going on trips, that kind of stuff.


Is there any place that, as soon as this pandemic ends, and maybe you are able to go out, that you're itching to get back to?

It’s very comfortable here. But I mean, we were just talking about when we thought we would get back to New York, we have friends there, and just ... We both lived there for a dozen years or so. And so it's like I still feel very strong connections to New York City. And that's the kind of thing where, generally, pre pandemic, I would be there, I mean, once a month or something like that. So that routine has been interrupted. And for better or for worse, it's been nice just being planted at home. But it's nice to get down to a different range of culture. And you know what I mean? Vermont is beautiful, but it is low population density.


Yup. And it's a lot of the same people from what I remember.

That's exactly right. That's exactly right.


Published: July 10, 2020 |

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