Essay

Remembering 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.