Benjamin Curtis

When news broke that Benjamin Curtis had lost his battle with cancer on December 29, two basic trends seemed to dominate people’s reactions. With a common denominator of simply being crushed at the news of a prolific musician’s life being cut short at just 35, the reactions otherwise divided along generational lines. Music critics of a certain age mourned Curtis and reached back to the past — to his time in Secret Machines. Some referenced formative experiences seeing the band at New York clubs; plenty others acknowledged them as a rock band of the ’00s that never quite got their due. Younger writers, though they seemed to be fewer in numbers, knew Curtis from School Of Seven Bells, his band since his departure from Secret Machines in 2007. In either case, there was a common refrain. All manner of synonyms for “underrated” accompanied our mourning, and none of them were inaccurate. This is the second trend, the one attendant to the fact that people seemed to remember Curtis as having one of two separate and distinct lives and/or jobs. (He also had earlier stints as a drummer in UFOFU and Tripping Daisy.) No matter how we came to know Curtis, those of us who listened to some era of his music knew there was something special there that never got the full appreciation it deserved.

That’s more or less a demonstrable fact. Here are bands that got steadily positive reactions critically, yet never really took off. Never dominated the conversation. But while some of us say that in an effort to honor an under-acknowledged musician who’s no longer with us, it at times still comes off inadvertently condescending or accidentally minimizing. “He was in a very good band,” is a tricky phrase to have to include in a tweet or article serving as an obituary. But, well, it’s tricky when these kinds of pseudo-celebrities die. We already went through this with Paul Walker earlier this year, in a perhaps more awkward way. How do you eulogize an actor who had been a punchline for years, when you suddenly have to deal with the fact that he was a by-all-accounts good guy with a teenage daughter who could easily go on the internet and see, even now, the jokes inextricably linked to his life and death? Not everyone’s a James Gandolfini, who upon death easily turns from man to legend, someone who dominated our experience at some point in recent memory. Somewhere between those polarities, and on a lower tier of fame, are figures like Ben Curtis. Curtis died far too early, but left behind an already substantial body of work that deserved greater critical attention during his lifetime. Perhaps the reason this second trend is attendant to the first is because we feel the need to rectify this upon his death. So, here goes.

When people say these things in the wake of Curtis’ death, it’s not the stereotypical “genius artist who only becomes famous after he’s died.” It’s more like, here’s a consistently excellent musician who was under everyone’s noses for a long time, who may have been taken a bit for granted, and everyone’s now taking a breath to recognize that too late. Because of my age, I came into most direct contact with Curtis’ music when I discovered a new-ish band called School Of Seven Bells during my college years. The name Secret Machines wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but at the time I mainly knew them because the Edge was talking about how their guitarist had turned him onto a new fuzz pedal he’d used liberally on the then forthcoming U2 album No Line On The Horizon. That guitarist, I’d later realize, was Curtis, and the spacey distortion the Edge would utilize on “No Line on the Horizon” or “FEZ – Being Born” had more to do with what School Of Seven Bells were doing with guitar and synth sounds on songs like “Iamundernodisguise” or “Half Asleep” than anything Curtis had done with Secret Machines. Maybe it’s because this moment of first exposure linked up nicely with a period of me being obsessed with shoegaze and dream-pop, but I was floored by School Of Seven Bells’ music in a way that few I’ve talked to seemed to relate to. It’s more common to hear someone say they had some excellent songs and some good albums. I think they got better with each album, and that at least one of their releases (likely 2012′s Ghostory) is essential.

With Secret Machines, it’s easy to say they were a rock band poised for arena tours in an era where new rock bands suddenly struggled to ascend to that level. With School Of Seven Bells, there is no circumstance but abstract ones. More and more, it seems School Of Seven Bells got sidelined because they excelled in a genre that’s easy to write off. When you deal with something like dream-pop, there’s a bunch of factors working against you. The fact that the first part of its name can make it somewhat impenetrable, that you’re getting some glimpse into a person’s interior but it’s clouded over by all the kaleidoscopic layers of guitars and synths. The fact that, when discussing those guitars and synths, there seems to be a finite amount of descriptors applied to the genre — gauzy, pillowy, glistening, shimmering, gossamer. All suggest a delicate and intangible beauty, which certainly is a calling card of dream-pop bands, but the unfortunate side effect is that any band akin to School Of Seven Bells can be (mistakenly) lumped into a general collection of ethereal prettiness that could (mistakenly) suggest that all these bands are ephemeral.

We could spend a whole lot of time disappearing down that rabbit hole, but that’s not the point of this right now. You could say the same things that made School Of Seven Bells further inscrutable in an already opaque genre were the same ones that made them special. Their name comes from the legend of a pick-pocketing academy in the mountains of South America (I’ve seen both Colombia and Peru referenced, but the specificity depends on where you read it). In a 2010 interview with Vulture, Curtis talked about how their sophomore album Disconnect From Desire was influenced by sigilism, was accompanied by the band creating a tarot card deck, and featured continuing references to a set of characters singer Alejandra Deheza had used as stand-ins for different elements of her personality. Their music perfectly reflected dream logic, then — a blend of myth, personal narrative, personal fictions, not entirely distinguished from one another. The fact that the band was fronted by a pair of beautiful twin sisters also seemed elemental — the way they wove their voices together becoming a sort of ghostly embodiment of the power of the connection between siblings. If they’d been a more famous band, this part, too, would be mythic.

Curtis was just 35 when he died, and even though he has a resume long enough for that to make sense, it took me by surprise. Between his slight frame and youthful face, he maintained a sort of earnest boyishness that provided grounding for all the mysticism the band otherwise cultivated. The artistic presence Ally Deheza employed live or on record was a classic one — a petite frame, a steel-eyed gaze, with a raging force-of-nature power churning within. Even though each member of the trio-then-duo had a hand in crafting the band’s sound, it was easy to see Curtis as the architect behind the structure that held up the symbols. Onstage, he hung off to the side of Ally, his shirt unbuttoned just enough to show the Disconnect from Desire sigil tattooed on his chest, his textural guitar work paradoxically the source of the muscularity in School Of Seven Bells’ music.

That’s the contrast at the core of School Of Seven Bells’ music. It had the most crystalline of surfaces — to return to the point about descriptors, the synthesizers in School Of Seven Bells’ music go beyond “chilly,” and into the territory of what you’d imagine instruments would sound like if being coated in ice functioned as an effect rather than an impediment. Underneath that gorgeous veneer, though, was a physicality and a sensuousness. Part of that is the intertwined coo of the Deheza sisters, part of is the dance beats that occasionally propelled their music, but a significant part was also the affability of Curtis.

On the one occasion I met him, he was far more down to earth than you might expect from a musician that makes such otherworldly music. It was right after Ghostory had been released and I asked him if they were going to play “When You Sing” at that night’s show. He explained that a lot of people seemed to hate it, with a self-deprecating but confused smile. Even having read some critics complain of its echoes of My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon,” I was confused, too. “When You Sing” is a colossal piece of music. As the closing song of the last School Of Seven Bells LP, I can imagine no better swan song for Curtis.

It’s a sad irony that Curtis’ death came on the heels of the season of the sort of year-end lists on which School Of Seven Bells were always lesser-recognized than they should’ve been. This has prompted some of us to muse on the fact that School Of Seven Bells always seemed off to the side of what was going on; not part of any sort of indie zeitgeist, or whatever. And, sadly, I doubt they ever will be. I’ve been using past tense verbs throughout this piece, because I can’t imagine how the band would continue on now. It might have been one thing had Claudia not left years ago, but with Curtis’ death Ally is now alone in what was once a trio. Everything specific to the formation of the band’s identity has changed. Narratives be damned, I’ll miss them, and I’ll miss Curtis’ presence in the music world. School Of Seven Bells were a great band, and I’m a grateful fan of what they did in the last half decade. While it may partly be a cliché, even a semi-known artist can bring a far greater amount of peace to others, offer people some shelter along the way, than your average person. I hope Curtis was aware that he did that for a lot of us, and I hope it in turn gave him some modicum of peace in the end.

Comments (37)
  1. as someone whose mother died of the same exact type of leukemia 6 years ago, i can attest to how debilitating and frustrating it is to watch someone you love slowly wither away before your eyes. and not to mention all 3 school of seven bells lps, which i dearly love, stand to reason that benjamin was insanely talented. a real loss.

  2. This was as well written, respectful, and thoughtful as the best Stereogum posts.

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  4. I’m not really qualified to speak on School of Seven Bells, but as far as Secret Machines goes, if they “never dominated the conversation,” that is through no fault of their own. Under the initial story about Ben Curtis’s passing, I commented that Ten Silver Drops was among the most underrated albums of the last decade. That was basically just a nice way of saying that music writers (particularly American ones) had failed that band. That is not some revisionist history inspired by sentimental feelings; that is how it was. How many reviews did I read where some genius made a comment about a synth in this song or that song when what they were hearing was actually Ben’s brilliant guitar-playing, a fact that would have been very obvious at a high volume (SM’s music was always meant to be played), where a guitar has far more tonal dimension than a synth? Music writers will turn up their speakers for mbv to hear their magic (and yes, they are the masters, in my top two bands) but not Secret Machines? I loved the Strokes and the White Stripes too, but their music never had as much substance and never had the power of transport and transformation. Who got all the magazine covers?

  5. beautiful egooglizing but I’m kinda bummed the writer was only had a passive knowledge of the secret machines. But I guess considering we live in the ADD world/generation I wouldn’t suspect someone to remember a band that released two of the biggest return to rock shoegaze records of the aughts. Someone at stereogum has to be over 28, right?

    • Tom is, but he knows more about rap and non-spacey rock music.

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          • Except that your blurb on Miles makes you sound like a crotchety old man on his front porch complaining about “The Kids These Days”

            Besides, it couldn’t me more far from the truth. Especially considering your numerical data that preceded it. It’s like you got to the end and said, “Ack! Fuck research!” and threw in yr old man quip. That’s why I downvoted you. You gotta stay factual to the bitter end _.

          • Miles knows I respect him and his writing, as I named him one of my favorite writers of 2013 on Twitter, which he acknowledged.

            If you want to deconstruct what I say here, you have to deconstruct what I tweet and what I write as well beyond this space. And that’s why I downvoted you.

          • Didn’t realize you two were besties.

            Hey, I saw you got a ticket to Coachella this year. I got mine paid off as well. You think Stereogum 2014 is prepared for a collaborative festival review?

          • Shoot, man, that would be fun, but I’m pretty sure I’m permanently blacklisted from everything here.

          • I thought it’d be pretty cool too!

            I figured I’m in the same boat as well. Figured we could cross-cover different bands since I know you’re not a huge hip-hop fan. I mean with the OutKast reunion confirmed, I know I’m going to be wild’n out to that.

            If we get the commentariot on our side then why not?

          • Which weekend are you attending? I am going on the sacrilegious second weekend (seeing that it falls on Easter this year) since the crowd tends to be more mellow after weekend 1 gets all of the press buzz and people who need to call “first!” out of the way.

          • I bought Weekend 1 tix just to get the exact experience you outlined lol.

            After going Weekend 2 in 2012 and hearing about 2Pac all week leading up to it, it made me wish I had already gone Weekend 1. Not to mention the weather change. If Weekend 1 has 5 degrees of less heat than Weekend 2 then consider it a success.

        • Man, I’m 39. Give me this one last year at least before saying shit like I’m “in [my] 40s.” FFS.

        • Wait. Is 33 young to be married with a kid these days? Is that what “a very old version of a 33-year-old for reasons of dadhood and marriage” means?

          • It means that Tom acts older than his age…and he does.

          • What Hanna said. Heading into your late 20s, youth is not guaranteed because of your age nor should becoming “old” be defined by whether you are married and have children. It’s all a lifestyle, a mindset. Some people hold on to it better than others. There are the people who let a kid and a wedding ring turn them into boring homebodies and take every chance on social media to remind us that they’re a parent (and occasionally those people get pissed when someone calls them out on it “because their kids are their lives,” but guess what? That was your decision, so don’t force it on us!) Then there are the people who have kids and / or are married, and they don’t let either of those two things become more important than their needs, staying in touch with friends, having hobbies, occasionally going out on the weekend while the kids stay with the in-laws or that younger sister who is eagle-eying her boyfriend as a potential insemenator of her eggs.

            I know a lot of people who are older than Tom who have very respectable careers, have families, relationships, children and so forth, but he makes them look like the cast of Spring Breakers by the way he’s always playing the proud parent role in his reviews for HAIM or talking about how he wants his kid to grow up to idolize Mish Way of White Lung. During the Chris Ott “controversy,” Tom tweeted out that that the purpose of his job is to support his family and he no doesn’t care if he works for a company that blurs the lines between the content and advertising. To me, that says he stopped writing because he was passionate about music. He writes now because he likes having his bills paid and saving money to put diapers on babies’ asses. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because I am willing to bet most of us work a job for that exact same reason (although, most of us probably have more serious jobs and not fluffy thinkpiece-y ones deconstructing a bunch of irrelevant-to-the-grand-scheme-of-real-life characters like HAIM) but since this is a music site where every word is consumed by readers as something significantly meaningful to “art,” I think it’s important to point that out. This is going to garner a handful of downvotes.

          • Mish Way? She’s an awful person. She wrote some big, long article about how she’s cheated on every boyfriend she ever had and found the answer to all her problems by dating a guy who was into cuckolding.

          • Just to clarify, the above is not a slam against Tom. It’s just that he’s a very different kind of writer who adheres himself to a different M.O. than most of the other large site scribes out there (obviously a lot more mature and put-together, as well.) It’s completely fine that he’s figured out a way to make a living out of what he does without getting overly invested with all of the excess chatter of the music writing game. After a year where think pieces, listicles and deconstructions became an insufferable norm to what was being published on web sites, I wish more writers would just stick to the basics of writing reviews, posting new songs and videos and profile features / interviews kind of like the one he did with Patrick Stickles. It’s gotten so noisy with the other kinds of posts that incite social media arguments.

          • Music think pieces have been around forever, it’s not a 2013 trend. Haven’t you ever read Lester Bangs, or at least seen Almost Famous? “It’s a think piece about a mid level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom”

          • Now you’re talking about two different eras in music journalism: Print vs. Online. I’ve indulged in many a think piece through paper subscriptions back when I used to have them, but those were published monthly and easier to digest. The online format has begun to fully embrace that format more so in recent years in an intentional sense on a near daily basis. It’s an overload of thought — So much to the point that by the time you finish reading and thinking about one buzzed-about think piece, a new one has sprung up that readers are already tearing into. Posts on sites like these used to be more news-driven, but there are so many other distractions going on with content now, too.

  6. Maybe I’m wrong about this but Stereogum (or some likeminded publication) had SVIIB in studio to perform two songs, Conjur being one. I was hooked at first listen. I went to my school’s radio station and was excited to see they had a copy of Alpinisms. I stole it. For me, college was a time to get into different styles of alternative/indie music and SVIIB were easily one of the more influential bands for me exploring newer sounds beyond the Killers or whatever I liked in high school. One summer I went to a free show at South Street Seaport (with the xx opening when they were a foursome) and recognized them before their set I remember eagerly telling BC, “Your album cover is the background of my computer!” He gave me a look as if to say, “Wow, are our fans this pathetic?” Haha, but they were friendly. Last year, I made a playlist with songs I want played at my funeral. After a string of anthems like All My Friends or Exit Music (for a film) or the YYY’s Hysteric, it ends with The Wait. I always will prefer Alpinisms to DfD, but that song will stay with me forever. I’m not sure I’ve dealt with the death of an artist who’s music I new really, really well. Strange feeling. Thoughts to his family.

  7. “What begins as an unguarded train of thought slowly can become
    An addiction to the slumber of disconnection and the resonance
    Of memory that no longer has a shape but keeps you numb
    Through the hours till gone is another day” (Half Asleep)

    These are amazing lyrics to put in a pop song. Over the last 10 years no one else I know wrote like this, and no other band made such consistently excellent albums to such little acclaim. Whether or not Benjamin Curtis felt pained by the indie press’s indifference to School of Seven Bells, I don’t know– was it because they were too pretty, too derivative, too precious, too “unexceptional”?– but I hope he found an immense personal reward from his art, and realised how much his true fans loved his music. Disconnect… in particular is quite stunning. It’s such a sad, sad loss.

  8. Secret Machines and School of Seven Bells are two bands whose debut albums I really enjoyed (Secret Machines more so, Pharaoh’s Daughter is a hell of a song) but for whatever reason, I never really felt compelled to check out their later work. Sounds like it’s time to fix that.

  9. I remember Secret Machines on MTV (!) being interviewed and naming The Velvet Underground as one of their big influences. I was looking at the dumb TRL crowd mindlessly wooting and realizing that Secret Machines are just over these kids heads.

  10. I was, and still am, a Secret Machines fanatic. Anybody who was fortunate enough to see them live knows how epic Benjamin Curtis’s guitar playing was on perennial closer First Wave Intact. I’ll miss his talents and those moments in live music that can’t be replicated.

  11. I am a hug SVIIB fan and admired Secret Machines. I really felt SVIIB was just finding their sound with the Purt Your Sad Down EP. I never got to meet Ben personally but his music gives everyone a very small glimpse into who he was and what he was about. Thanks for writing this Ryan.

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