Some talented bands toil for years in obscurity, playing live shows and recording songs without so much as a nod from the press or the local scene. And then there are groups with relatively little experience who seem to suddenly appear with a precocious, original sound that’s fully formed, earning critical praise and a loyal fanbase right out of the gate. The Diabolical Machines fall into the latter category.
Lead singer/guitarist Steph Buchanan, keyboardist/ukulele player Kevin Buchanan, bassist/vocalist Mandy Hand, and percussionist Aubrey Savage specialize in what they like to call “boutique pop.” That’s a catchy label for The Machines’ upbeat guitar- and bass-heavy style, full of the joyful insouciance and sparkling melodies of ’60s garage-rock and girl-group bands. Still, the band has been playing Fort Worth venues for less than a year, had little onstage experience before that, and only formalized its lineup a couple of months ago.
We both turned 30 and were like, ‘Let’s put this out there and see what happens,’ ” said Steph Buchanan, 31, speaking of herself and husband/bandmate Kevin, founders of The Diabolical Machines. “We’d always wanted to write songs and be in a band. The first time we played [as The Machines], it was an acoustic set at a house show. I hadn’t been in front of an audience in, like, 13 years. It was definitely a ‘frying pan’ situation, but you learn faster when you do that.”
Their performance at that house show was ragged,she said. But the Buchanans persisted in writing and rehearsing original material –– she supplies the melodies, he the lyrics –– thanks in part to encouragement from their friends in the pop-rock quintet The Breakfast Machine. Finally, in May,The Machines felt tight and well-oiled enough to record their first EP, a terrific four-song collection entitled Drag You Away.
The band also uses the term “lit rock” to describe its music, a genre label that implies brainier-than-thou lyrics full of literary and cultural allusions a la The Decemberists. Shimmering with groovy Farfisa organ and the chime-like sounds oftenor ukulele, Drag You Away overflows with clever, observant wordplay married to maddeningly hummable hooks. Tunes include the Steph-penned title track (a bouncy meditation on trying to escape a dead-end town) and “The Robber Barons of 7th Street,” the only old-fashioned protest song the Buchanans have written and one of the few by local artists that directly addresses quality-of-life issues in Panther City. But Steph insists that The Diabolical Machines are more interested in creating unique, high-quality ear candy than calling out rapacious downtown land developers.
We’re intentionally writing pop songs,” she said, citing The Beach Boys and Harvey Danger as two of their primary sonic inspirations. “Melody is very important. We have an upbeat, cheerful sound even if the lyrics aren’t always so cheerful.” Each tune on Drag You Away clocks in at less than three minutes. “A lot of that comes from those ’60s pop influences,” Steph confirmed. “The songs were shorter then. There’s no blowing smoke, no filler [in a Diabolical Machines tune]. We always try to be straight to the point.”
With the recent addition of drummer/percussionist Savage, the band feels complete and ready to expand its audience. Buchanan insists that The Diabolical Machinesis not merely a side project created by part-time, well-read millennial musicians. The Machines’ songs have been played on college and web radio shows around the country, including U.C. Berkeley’s KALX FM-90.7 station. The group also performed at this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference as part of the showcase for GoGirls, an organization that supports female indie rock musicians. Steph and Kevin have written a lot of new material they want to record for the band’s debut LP and are contemplating a small tour that would include both out-of-town and out-of-state gigs. But at the moment, they hope Drag You Away will do the promotion work for them.
We just want people to listen to it and share it with their friends,” she said. When asked to come up with a good capsule description of The Diabolical Machines to help get the word out, she offered this “lit-rock” tagline: “We write songs that have long sentences and tell a story. We’re English majors. We don’t have suntans.”
9pm Aug 6 at Club Dada, 2720 Elm St, Dallas. $8-$10.