School of Seven Bells’ Benjamin Curtis: The Mystery of Being a Popular Band

With the release of their second album, Disconnect from Desire, School of Seven Bells has added a little bit of an edge to their delicate brand of dream-pop.

The airy harmonies and drone sounds are still there, but on many tracks, lead singer Alejandra Deheza‘s voice stands alone and without the layers of effects that were a trademark of the previous album, Alpinisms. New song “Windstorm” is the best example of this, with its bold vocals and bright, sharp drums.

Now on tour, School of Seven Bells are delighted with the positive feedback they’ve been getting about the album, and the huge turnout for every show. While on the road, they’re constantly brainstorming and writing new music — the same thing they did on their first tour, which provided them with much of the material for Alpinisms. Perhaps some of this tour’s written-on-the-road songs will wind up on Album #3?

I talked with Benjamin Curtis, School of Seven Bells’ instrumentalist, about the band’s current tour and how strangely accessible their music is.

SCR: How goes the tour so far?
Benjamin Curtis: So far? It’s good. It’s really busy. Probably the busiest tour we’ve done yet. But it’s really great. The reaction we’ve been getting is better than it’s ever been before. Not sure why, but there are a lot of people coming out to the shows.

Yeah. It looks like you’re hitting a lot of really big venues.
Yeah. Well, we’re going to a lot of cities that we weren’t able to go to when we were touring on Alpinisms, you know, especially in the States. We only really hit the major cities then; we didn’t really get a chance to hit everything in between. So this is the first time we’re going to a lot of places.

Right, like coming to Houston. Not a lot of people do that.
Yeah, yeah, true.

What were you trying to do differently with Disconnect from Desire? From Alpinisms, I mean.
Oh, well, for starters, it was written and recorded in a much more narrow period of time. You know, the first record, we just started writing it when we met, and then it was a year, year and a half, before we even started recording our first record. So there’s a really big chunk of time that all of the songs were done in, and Disconnect from Desire was written in a really specific period of time, recorded in a really specific period of time. So I think that the point of view is a lot more specific.

And also, it was written while we were touring, which was a conscious decision on our part — to write from that perspective that we have when we’re playing every night, trying out new songs. It’s just a completely different energy from the first record.

So you wrote a lot of Alpinisms while touring. Are you writing stuff now?
(laughs) Yeah, yeah. Not as much, because it’s a lot more hectic now. But it seems like when we’re on tour a lot of ideas come. So many things occur to us, and… I don’t know. It’s really inspiring because we have that connection with the people, and that satisfying feeling of playing really really loud.

So, from everything I’ve seen and read, it looks like you guys have a pretty good connection with your fanbase. Have they approved of the new album? You’ve gotten good audience response?
Yeah, yeah, mostly. There’s always, one or two people who aren’t so sure about it, but I think that’s true of any band out there; that there’s gonna be a couple people out there who are like, “Na, man, the first album — that’s the really good shit,” but that’s just a particular type of person.

But the people who’ve listened… it seems pretty unanimous — we’re really happy with the reaction. We had no idea what people were gonna think. When we were making it, we were so close to it, we had no perspective. We didn’t know if this was a radical new direction, if this is what people are going to want to hear from us — there’s all these questions.

In a way, there’s nothing we can do about it, because that’s the music we’re writing, that’s the music that’s coming out of us, so we’re not going to try to change it to what we think people might expect from us. But when you put something new out there, there’s always that question: is this what the world’s expecting from School of Seven Bells? And then, the reaction has been so positive — it feels so great. It’s like an affirmation that we’re on the right track.

Great. So, are all you guys really happy with it?
Yeah, totally.

Cool. So, on this one, you decided not to mix it yourself, unlike the last album. Why?
I just think we put a lot more thought into the production and recording process, and I think it’s a matter of perspective. We needed another perspective to kind of help us prioritize the sound. You know, when we wrote it, and then it was recorded, and then we performed it, and we go to this point where we loved everything so much that we couldn’t really put it in the right place. Does that make sense?

It’s hard to tell what works and what doesn’t, because it all came out of us. I think we needed an objective perspective to help us make the songs the best they could be. I mean, the mix wasn’t radical, it didn’t reinvent our record. When we started making the record, we wanted every idea to be really clear, every melody to be really clear. Almost naked. I think we just needed someone else to do that.

Yeah, I can kind of understand how going back and messing around with what you just recorded could be kind of painful. So…you guys have a pretty broad audience. There’re 40-something Cocteau Twins fans and teenagers listening to your music. Did you have any idea that your music would be this accessible?
No, no. I don’t really understand it. I still don’t really know who listens to School of Seven Bells. It’s always really different, every city we go to. But it’s cool. I’m always really happy to hear what people have to say, what their reaction is. Our intention isn’t really to alienate anyone. We’re making songs, we’re being creative with it, we’re just making the music we love. Whoever likes it, it’s fine. It’s really strange. Some people surprise me when they say they listen to us. I’m like, “Really? You like this stuff?” I can’t really complain. I’m happy that anybody likes it.

Yeah. Obviously, a lot of people have different ideas of who your influences are. Like I said, a lot of people have compared you to the Cocteau Twins, that kind of thing. So, what artists do you feel have influenced you and your music?
Um. That’s a good question. It’s kind of everything. I’m really influenced by… I love New Order. And I love all of that kind of folk period of music, but I also like modern electronic music, and I like pop, funk; we like everything. Probably to a fault. It’s really hard for me to pinpoint a certain influence, because I hear billions of influences.

And also, when I hear us get compared to a certain band, it’s always a little difficult for me. But I can’t say that we don’t sound like any of the bands we get compared to, because there’s probably a similarity.

Sure. What are you guys listening to right now?
We’ve been listening to a lot of really cool ambient music right now. A band called Emerald… I dunno. We were just listening to Brian Eno and David Byrne. That’s really good. We listen to a lot of techno, which is weird. We listen to hip hop. We also do a lot of Top 40 Radio. We probably shouldn’t. We should probably stop. But we can’t help it.

Do you have the new Brian Eno and David Byrne album? The one they did together in ’08?
I don’t have that one. We were listening to the older one. I haven’t heard that one. Is it good?

Yeah, yeah, I like it a lot.
Cool. I’ll check it out.

So, I’m gonna wrap it up now. You just finished your second album, and now you’re touring for a few months — do you have any plans for after all of that? Are you going to settle down and record again or…
Yeah; I mean, there’s a lot ideas coming, so I think we’re gonna have to see what happens. We’re probably gonna be a little less driven to get something finished quickly, but you never know.

Sometimes, when the music starts arriving, there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to make sure you catch it all. We’re always writing, we’re always recording. It’s hard for me to say, because it’s so mysterious to me why it happens and how it happens. I’m sure we’ll get into really deep stuff if I talk about it too much… (laughs) But I’m sure we’ll have a lot of new music sooner than we all think. END

(Photo by Abbey Drucker. Music courtesy of Vagrant Records & School of Seven Bells.)

[School of Seven Bells is playing 10/10/10 at Warehouse Live, along with Active Child.]
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Interview by . Interview posted Friday, October 8th, 2010. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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