This is the transcript of an interview I recently did with Ben Curtis of the rather magnificent School Of Seven Bells for The Skinny. An amiable, pleasant sort of fella, Ben talked frankly about escaping from old ensemble Secret Machines, his new band’s recent record and the two ladies who’ve put a rather large smile on his face...
Hi Ben, how are you?
Ben Curtis [BC]: I’m very well. I’m at home in Brooklyn right now. We’re on a bit of a break but not really, we’re concentrating on recording right now. There’s not really a break.Can you tell me how the band initially came about?
BC: The idea was just to make music; it was just a matter of growth and pushing ourselves and appreciating the situation. We met in 2004 when we were all on tour together in other bands and we started chatting about it then. In 2007, I guess, we eventually got round to making music and it was really exciting and had a lot of energy from the beginning. What is it about Claudia and Alejandra [Deheza] that twirled your head?
BC: I guess it was the different musicality of it really. It’s weird, I don’t feel like I’m working any differently. I feel like I’m making music the same way and it’s really different because our collaboration is really different. They have really strong musical personalities and it’s very different to my ears. It’s weird, chemistry is a really important part of making music with people and their habits are completely different from lots of people I’ve encountered. Making music is all to do with habit: Your here and you need to go here. Other people’s habits are really backwards but with these two it works. Do you play off each other?
BC: It’s a contrast but it’s complimentary. It’s a conversation that works. How different is it working with two pruning ladies compared with two sweaty rockers?
BC: [Laughs]: It’s entirely more pleasant, believe me. Has it been different recording with them?
BC: We’re all together . We start from the top down: With atmosphere and things like that. We record from our studio at home so we’re really immersed in everything we’re doing and it becomes a real part of our lives. We’re all adding different things to the music. Out of these atmospheres so many songs come out of them. It's been suggested that you have a non-too-typical approach to song writing focusing on lyrics first before the music. Is this true?
BC: At the heart our songs are songs. You can play them any way you want or you can dress them up any way you want, but they’ll still retain the same inherent personality. I guess the production idea and sound is totally informed by what is happening in the vocal. That’s where it starts because we don’t want those ideas to be limited or serve the purpose of just spicing up some music. We write them and they’re free to go where they want – I think that’s different from how a lot of people write music. I get the impression that the voice is an intricate part of the melody, as if it’s an instrument itself?
BC: That’s true. A lot of vocals and harmonies and they spend a lot of time on that and the vocal is an arrangement in itself. It stands on its own and a lot of the musical ideas come out of that. It’s a cool way to work, starting from a really human point. Have you found it tough stepping out of the shadows of Secret Machines?
BC: It’s been frustrating doing something new when everyone is referring to another project - I don’t think people realise that. I made two Secret Machines album. When I started that band that was the statement I made and I did it and I feel like it’s done. And they’re there and you can hear it any time. Now I’m doing this and they’re totally different. It’s weird that there’s a comparison but I think that the comparisons have begun to reduce. There are so many people there right now that have no idea what I’ve done before. Has the release of the album cut off the past?
BC: For me, it was just something that we did. It was a year and half of touring and writing and fans of the other things we were doing weren’t aware of that at the time. But I didn’t really thing about that at all. I’m not worried about it. I know that I can control how people confuse what I do. It’s quite tough, I guess, when blogging is so prominent.
BC: Yea, it’s so radical. Music Journalists would write something and that was the definitive word but now any kid in any country can write to a blog and say whatever they want. And this is just some kid who hates his life. We’ve been really lucky though and people have responded so well to it. We’re grateful to get that in such a delicate situation. How's things been for you since the album's release? It's been picking up a lot of praise. Is it something you expected?
BC: In a way you have to expect that but I know you can’t count on it. We think what we’re doing is great and you really have to think that way. But we really had no idea and whether it was going to be out of step. Sometimes people aren’t really feeling a certain kind of music and it’s really arbitrary in this kind of whim-generation. So we’re really lucky because we believe what we’re doing is really current. You’re not trying to tap into a scene though are you? This is organic...
BC: Yeah, for real. You can’t really do that. You have to do what you do. I think it’s quite obvious when people aren’t genuine about something and people will pick up on it. You can tell when people are really serious about something and are into what they’re doing. I think what we’re doing is a valid statement. There’s so much music out there that doesn’t need to be made, so I feel good about where we’re going. Psychedelia /Shoegaze seems to litter the reviews up to now... but I get the impression the album's sound was more organic in creation , in that there was no clear direction from the off. Am I way off the mark here?
BC: Specific genres were nowhere near in our minds when we started off. We can just accept that though because I think people are painting it in a positive way but we’re not trying to achieve those sounds. It’s not really where we’re coming from. You have made a record that doesn’t give any indication of where you’re going...
BC: Yea that’s the kind of band we wanted to be. We were worried about genre definition: we wanted to be open-ended. We don’t really want to make the sort of music that alienated people. But we have no idea what we’re doing next. It’s exciting and terrifying. We’ve been doing some new tracks and remixes for people and it all sounds so different – we really have no idea where we’re going to go. You’re playing with Bat for Lashes in the UK soon. Is that one of the artists you have an affinity with?
BC: It’s one of the bands that we like. I’m not sure how much affinity we have with them but we’re lucky we can play with so many different bands that are all going to be a little bit relevant. BFL is great she’s really amazing live. How does the sound transfer in the live environment?
BC: It’s just the three of us. The beats are all electronic and it’s just the three of us playing instruments so it’s great. It’s a little bit more muscle in the live setting so there’s a little more energy. We didn’t write the record with thoughts of live performance at all, it was really playing music and making songs so it’s a great coincidence to be going out and touring the record. You sound like a content man. Has this given you a new lease of life?
BC: It’s reassuring to know that I can do something like this and it works and it’s going to be a constant. And this collaboration is amazing and really satisfying. I’m totally happy, as you can tell. So, how far do you think you can take this band? Is it a long term project?
BC: For sure.. .it’s a long term project. It’s very much collaboration however, when we make this music something mysterious happens and it totally works. We have no intention of making metal machine music any time soon. I mean, we write songs and that’s what we do. As many people can experience it and love it – or not. We don’t have a ceiling or anything, we want it to remain open-ended but we’ve really not thought about it though. Maybe we should discuss it... Finally, what’s the best thing about being in SOSB?
BC: Hmm.. I dunno. I guess it’s great to develop relationships with people, working and living with them. I don’t envy the people who are making music on laptops at home. It’s probably great but doing something and making a piece of music then someone else adding something on is a really great, great feeling for me. Related feature can be found here