Name: School of Seven Bells
Progress Report: Benjamin Curtis opens up about the band’s forthcoming spring release, Ghostory.
The first time I ever interviewed Benjamin Curtis was back in 2004. At the time he was playing music alongside his brother Brandon in a band called Secret Machines. After Secret Machines released their second album in 2006, Benjamin left the band to focus on his new project — a shoegazy dream -machine called School of Seven Bells that also featured Alejandra and Claudia Deheza of On!Air!Library!. I interviewed Ben again sometime in 2008 shortly before School of Seven Bells were set to release their debut album, Alpinisms, and he was very excited to be making music that was much more metaphysical—and less riff-heavy—than his work with the Machines. It seemed important at the time, although a little bittersweet, that he and his brother needed to strike out on different musical paths. Since then, the Bells released a sophomore album (2010’s Disconnect from Desire), lost founding band member Claudia Deheza, and played approximately a gazillion shows. This spring School of Seven Bells return with Ghostory, a mysterious-sounding third album that finds Benjamin once again working with his brother, albeit in a much different capacity.
STEREOGUM: Can you briefly sum up for me everything that’s happened to the band since the release of your last record?
BENJAMIN: Ha! Well, so much has happened. We’ve been busy, which is why we’re talking here I guess. We went on a lot of tours, lost some band members. I feel like we’ve grown a lot as a band and I’ve just been really excited about working. We ended up touring with Interpol on and off for almost the entire last year, which was unexpected, and it ended up being a big inspiration for us. We were kind of writing and recording in between those tours.
STEREOGUM: That must have been interesting. What kind of venues were you playing?
BENJAMIN: Like 2,000 seat venues. My brother plays in that band now and we’ve known them for a long time. Alejandra and I met actually when both of our former bands were touring with them. So it was kind of a really strange way for us to come full circle. It’s funny because we really felt that creatively. The reason we initially started to write music together originally was because we met on an Interpol tour…and this year we really felt that again. I think that’s why we had to make this record so quickly. It’s been probably the most fun record to make so far.
STEREOGUM: How was the record made? What is your typical way of working?
BENJAMIN: Typically it’s been very separate. I’ve got an idea and Alley takes it and she works on it in her time and then sends it back to me to work on it. Then everything comes together at the last minute. I think it sounds so funny and obvious, but we finally had the idea to write the music together this time. I know every band probably does it that way but for some reason we’ve never done it. We got together every day when we were home and over the course of a few weeks between tours we literally just sat down together in my apartment and wrote it from scratch. Face to face. The music from this collaboration is where we’re at right now. It’s definitely a much different record than we’ve ever made. We also mixed the record with my brother Brandon. I hadn’t worked with him in years. It’s been interesting turning the process on its head every step of the way. I guess we can’t say we have a typical way of working anymore.
STEREOGUM: With the passage of so much time do you find the dynamic between you and your brother has changed a lot? Do you come at it from a different way than you used to?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, it’s very different when you’re both working on something you’ve made together. Really the appeal this time was that he’s been doing really awesome records and mixing them. I’ve just been watching him get better and better at doing that stuff and he’s watched us play at least a hundred times this year and he loves our music. So it’s been really interesting to work with someone who knows our music inside and out and we’re comfortable with. When we’re sitting around mixing and I’m doing something weird he’ll go, “You know, you guys really don’t sound like that.” Which is cool because I’ve never seen us play and I never will. It’s a cool perspective to have and not many people will have that chance.
STEREOGUM: So this record sounds a lot different than the first two?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, it’s turning out that way. We’re at this point where we’re able to listen to it suddenly. So we’re kinda trying up the loose ends. It’s always been songs we’ve written and Alley’s voice with my playing the music. So it’s us and there’s that familiarity of a School of Seven Bells record. I guess we wanted to have this energy happening, like you see when there is a big, awesomely tight rock band just really rocking. I guess people in different worlds take that sound for granted. We’ve played with so many kinds of bands, including lots of electronic musicians who I love but rarely kind of capture that kind of “big” sound live. I like to see a band interacting and just killing it onstage, rather than going to a show in Brooklyn and seeing a kid stand behind a computer and not really feeling it. We wanted something that felt more interactive and not so constructed this time around.
STEREOGUM: The evolution of how you guys play live has been interesting — do you think it will be a drastic change this time around how you play?
BENJAMIN: It’s probably going to be a lot more of a detailed scenario than we’ve ever had. We’ve done it so many different ways. We started off with two, then added a bass then added drums then Claudia came and did keys and vocals. Then we were two with a drummer and now it’s totally different than that. That’s the great thing about the music we write, we’ve always been interested in doing it so many ways live. We love to do acoustic shows as well. The consequence of that is that we’ve fallen on our faces in front of a lot of people so many times just because we’re trying some new bullshit out and it totally doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s great and that’s always fun. I love the straightforward rock band where you go and see the person on stage that you love, but I’m also inspired by someone like Björk who totally reinvents everything when she goes out on tour. We’ve tried to find a balance between that, but the one thing I’ll say is that I think we’ve never been better. We’re actually a great live band now.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, the other day I was talking to an artist who was like, “I know I’m good at doing this-I’m a good singer,” and it’s so rare that people will admit that. People feel like they have to be really humble — which is admirable — but sometimes it’s nice to be like, you know what? We’re actually really fucking good!
BENJAMIN: Yeah, I guess you need to have a sense of that. People ask me if I get nervous on stage and I say, “You know if I had to go up on stage and fix a car I would be nervous, but this is music — the only thing I know how to do really well — so I’m not.”
STEREOGUM: What is the status of the record right now, are you in the home stretch?
BENJAMIN: Yeah the absolute home stretch, since it’s going to be out early next year. There’s definitely a story happening in this record and it takes a little bit of care to make sure it’s coming across perfectly, so it’s just all the minutiae. At the end of the day this is the most fun … and the hardest part.
STEREOGUM: Now that you are at this stage in the record where you can maybe stand back from it and look at the bigger picture, do you have a sense of what this record is really about?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, it’s lyrically much more — Ally’s never been more honest than this time around. She’s such a great writer and I’ve always known what she’s talking about but some of these songs are so brutally frank that it’s really intense. It’s much more of an intense experience than anything she’s come up with. I think musically it reflects that too. It’s really powerful and it’s faster and frenetic, it’s more real than anything else we’ve done.
STEREOGUM: I’m really excited to hear it.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, honestly have no idea how people are going to react to it. It could be one of those things where people going hear it and react to it and be like, “Wow that’s not the School of Seven Bells album I wanted” … or maybe they wont, I don’t know, but at the end of the day there’s nothing else we could have done. We’re just so completely obsessed with it that we have to trust our instincts.
STEREOGUM: That’s the best way to operate, I think. So after the record comes out in the spring, I expect you’ll spend much of 2012 on the road?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever had as much fun in School of Seven Bells as we did this year, so I’m looking forward to playing a lot of shows.
STEREOGUM: Will the band setup be the same?
BENJAMIN: Well it’s a little different now, we’ve got drums, bass, and another friend of ours playing keys and singing backup, so it’s a bigger band than we’ve ever had. It’s cool and I’m loving having all the musicians on stage. It’s such a great sound.
STEREOGUM: How does it affect the way you go about playing those earlier songs?
BENJAMIN: God, I don’t think we can have enough people on stage to ever play those songs exactly the way we recorded them. Our sound is so dense and it’s hard for us to throw out any ideas but we’re getting better at boiling things down to what’s essential. There are always too many parts; even if we have twenty people on stage they’d all have something to do.
STEREOGUM: You should do that!
BENJAMIN: Someday. I dream about it.
Ghostory is out in Spring 2012 on Vagrant.