An Interview With Benjamin Curtis of School of Seven Bells
    • TUESDAY, MARCH 06, 2012

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    Dream pop outfit School of Seven Bells (SVIIB) released their newest LP, Ghostory, on Vagrant Records 2/28. A week before the album dropped, we had the chance to chat with Ben Curtis, one half of the duo along with Alejandra Deheza (formerly a trio but Deheza's twin sister Claudia is no longer with the group), about some of the challenges the group faced performing as a duo, translating their electronic and ambient nature to live shows, and the band's unique approach to song-writing. For all fans of their music, you need not worry that Claudia Deheza's absence would negatively affect the band's sound because this newest album might be SVIIB's best yet.

    While Curtis acknowledged that losing former member Claudia Deheza impacted the music, his explanation of its change was unexpected. "It's a little bit different but the difference is more in the music than how we worked," Curtis explained. As he says, he and Alejandra Deheza were the primary writers and the ones "hashing things out" to begin with, and now, "the difference is the content." Transforming from a trio to a duo led to "a different approach we decided to take through the process," and just one listen to Ghostory shows that to be true.

    Ghostory pops with an immediacy and power that their already strong previous albums didn't have. We got Curtis to open up a little bit about the specific direction they were trying to take with this album and how it relates to SVIIB's growth as a band. Discussing the band's sound, "'s been this slope of discovery for us. We've really been experimenting with sounds... what makes us happy and what sounds tell the story of a song." It's a common trap for bands to play it too safe and just make the kinds of records that make them famous", but Curtis specifically wants to avoid that. "We certainly never want to make the same record twice." One of the most important ideas SVIIB was trying to capture with this album was to capture the energy of one of their live performances rather than "a collage of ideas."

    School of Seven Bells is understandably lumped in with many of the other dream pop/shoegaze acts that crowded the market of the late aughts, but their inspirations reveal some surprisingly honest pop influences. "As cliche as it sounds, some of the simplicity and directness of bands like Joy Division and early Simple Minds," marked the expected answers from Curtis on the band's influences but then he talked about "just a lot of great pop music," and "the economy of ideas" and sound that is present in undeniably good pop music. Curtis discussed an interesting parallel between post-punk and Janet Jackson in terms of "making every idea so massive and count so much for the song," and that's what they're inspired by.

    We even got Curtis to talk about some of the acts that the band is listening to right now, and while some may seem obvious (fellow shoegazers like A Place to Bury Strangers or experimental rockers Bear in Heaven), when Curtis mentioned liking one new (and incredibly, incredibly divisive) album, we were actually shocked. "I liked the new Lana Del Rey record. There I said. I'm not scared to say it." He seemed very excited that "everyone is doing their own thing. The genre has cracked into all of these great bands with great identities."

    Both Curtis and Deheza were part of different acts before forming School of Seven Bells. Hewas part of new prog group the Secret Machines and Deheza was in ambient act On!Air!Library!. When asked if there were any problems putting those two seemingly incompatible sounds behind them to create the very unique sound of SVIIB, Curtis didn't see it as a challenge. "It wasn't hard at all. That's one thing that Ali and I have in common that we both love to be in collaborations." He went on about "that great moment when you have an idea and you present that to someone and it becomes something entirely new." "It's a high when that happens," Curtis continued and because he feels that both he and Deheza have such small egos about the creative process, they are able to work together very well to produce "our combined creation."

    For those that aren't familiar with Curtis' former act Secret Machines, they were featured on three songs on the soundtrack of the Beatles-inspired movie Across the Universe with the most notable number being their cover of "I Am The Walrus" with U2's Bono on lead vocals. Curtis recalled being worried about how Bono's "massive voice" would work in the song as they laid down the instruments before he ever showed up to the recording studio. Yet, anyone who's seen the movie, knows that it turned out great. Talking about working with Bono, "Yeah, that was interesting... that voice exists on the television and radio. It doesn't exist in real life," and went on to call him "iconic," but it's fair to say that Curtis and the rest of Secret Machines more than held their own when performing their part of the track.

    Curtis closed out the interview with gracious and humble thanks to his fans for sticking around giving him the opportunity to make music which "doesn't even feel like work" to him. From the group's early days where they weren't even sure how to translate their textured and layered sound for live performances (which he feels they didn't really nail down until recently) to now making themselves "clear musically, lyrically, and melodically," and falling in love with their sound, he recognized that it wouldn't be possible without their fans who've hung around even in the face of losing a band member. Check out Ghostory, out now on Vagrant Records... it's an intriguing LP.

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