School of Seven Bells
School of Seven Bells guitarist Benjamin Curtis cut his teeth playing with his brother Brandon in the rock trio Secret Machines. But in 2007, he split from the band to form School of Seven Bells with another pair of siblings: twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. Their debut album proved Curtis had life beyond Secret Machines: Alpinisms was a gorgeous collection of shoegazey pop with electronic beats and Alejandra and Claudia’s angelic, intertwining vocal melodies. No wonder big shots like U2′s The Edge have since become big fans. This month, the trio release their follow-up, Disconnect From Desire, which adds a stronger hook quotient to the group’s fuzzed-out, romantic reveries.
eMusic’s Alex Reynolds caught up with Benjamin Curtis to talk about Brian Eno, meeting U2 and why School of Seven Bells make music that’s kid-friendly.
Your new album, Disconnect From Desire, seems to revolve more around atmospheric, electronic textures, whereas your debut Alpinisms focused on thicker, dirtier guitar riffs. Why the shift?
I hear people say it’s less electronic — or more. I like that it seems to sound different to everybody. I know I was a bit more comfortable this time with using straight electronic textures, whereas before, we just used electronic samples and these scratchy sounding things. This time, we got into using more pure sound waves.
What does the album title Disconnect From Desire refer to?
It comes from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. It’s a deck of cards where they put these pithy things on them that are just kind of obscure things that could mean anything to anybody at any time. The point is that you pull on them when you’re stuck for artwork. It’s a tool to bring out a new outlook or creative strain. When we first started thinking about the record, we found one that said “Disconnect From Desire” and it really resonated with us.
What does the phrase mean to you?
I think the phrase probably means forgetting about the sorts of things that you think you need and getting more acquainted with what you have.
Are you a big Brian Eno fan?
I am. I wouldn’t say that he necessarily influenced us on this album. Well, I can’t even say that — of course he influenced us.
Your music would be typically classified as shoegaze, drawing on noisy guitar riffs and angelic vocals used by bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. What’s so cool about that style of music is that it can be so loud and dense but soothing and delicate at the same time.
It’s something I think about a lot. There’s this mysterious quality in music that if you turn it up loud, it’s crazy and aggressive. But there’s so much beauty and harmonic complexity in there. It’s hard to make atmospheric music that doesn’t just blend into the wallpaper. And it’s equally hard to make music that’s also has an emotional substance. It can go so wrong.
There’s a track on the album titled “Camarilla” — does that refer to the coterie of people who surrounded European leaders like Emperor Wilhelm II, or does it come from the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade?
I can say with a lot of certainty it’s not from vampire fiction [laughs]. Camarilla is the character that Alejandra writes from. She first used it on a B-side to our last album called “My Camarilla.” There’s a character Jovian on the new album, and a character called Babylonia. For Alejandra, it’s a tool to kind of objectify emotion and tell the story from someone else’s shoes.
What do you mean?
Not to get too esoteric, but there’s a really interesting concept in sort of Eastern philosophies about personifying specific emotions to learn more about them. You can objectify that emotion and tell its story. So you can give jealousy a name and a face and all of a sudden it’s a person and you can tell a story about that person. So when that feeling suddenly arises in you, you know why you feel that way.
What emotion is Camarilla?
Well, there’s a bit of a showdown going on in that song. It’s a war of words. But I don’t want to ruin someone else’s impression of it.
Alejandra and Claudia are identical twins. Have you witnessed the phenomena that twins are able to communicate through a secret language they developed as infants?
Well, it’s not really a secret language but it’s pretty interesting. A lot goes unspoken and there’s definitely communication going on that I’m not aware of. But at this point, we’ve spent so much time together that I’ve picked up on the nuances.
It’s hard to say, man. There’s band fights. Everyone has them. Sometimes it’s like…there’s a tight bond there and it’s a beautiful thing.
So you can never take sides.
You definitely don’t want both pointed in your direction. If I fuck up, you don’t want to have Alejandra and Claudia double team.
How does their relationship manifest itself when you write music?
They’re both into harmonizing in the room together. That’s the best example of their communication — that there’s no communication. Their melodies go from unwritten to fully formed in seconds. It’s just because they know where each other is going to go. It just works.
You’ve cited U2′s The Edge as an influence and he also happens to be a big fan of School of Seven Bells. Have you ever met?
We were doing a photo shoot and I got a call from Dallas Shoo [The Edge's guitar tech]. He said, “Are you in town?” and I said, “I’m downtown.” And he said, “Can you be at the studio in 15 minutes?” So I went there and it’s U2 and Daniel Lanois. Our album, Alpinisms, is on the table, and I’m just like, “This is really surreal and awesome.” At the risk of sounding bragadocious, the Edge said we had a unique sound and he was impressed because it’s so hard to do that these days. And I agree. Every new band that comes around — there’s one less new thing that’s possible.
What’s your favorite U2 record?
Boy. And Joshua Tree, of course. It’s part of my DNA. I’ve heard it so many times.
I would’ve thought you’d cite a more experimental electronic record like Zooropa.
I’m a sucker for songwriting, especially their big, massive songs.
The name School of Seven Bells refers to a somewhat mythical band of pick-pocketers in Bogota, Colombia. Are they for real?
Some people say it exists. If it doesn’t exist it’s a good story. Alejandra thought of the name, she picked it because no one was really using it. We Googled it and there were only two or three things that popped up. So we took it. It’s ours. I think that’s OK. If it is real and there are some students learning to pickpocket from these people, I think they’d appreciate having us take some of the heat off them. It’s a better way for them to hide.
Did you leave Secret Machines on good terms and is it possible you’ll reunite at some point?
I don’t know. It’s hard to call any chapter over. You know, I had my own intense dynamic playing with my brother. But I’ve never gotten along with him better now that I don’t play with him. That’s a good thing. I feel like if I kept playing with him our music wouldn’t have been as good. You have to keep moving and not have any regrets. There’s so little time.
On your Twitter, you recently linked to a YouTube video of a class of kids singing the School of Seven Bells song “My Cabal.” What’s up with that?
That’s just a class full of kids that like our music and posted it on YouTube as a class project. A fan of ours sent it to us. It’s the biggest compliment in the world. I got in touch with them and the kids were excited that we saw it.
So your music is kid-friendly?
I’d think so. We don’t glorify violence.