The Secret's Out: School of Seven Bells interviewed

Currently flourishing under the celestial guise of School Of Seven Bells, one-time Secret Machines rocker Ben Curtis educates Billy Hamilton on the unique functionalities of his new girl-fronted band

Feature by Billy Hamilton | 04 Feb 2009

The turn of the year brings with it a clean slate or, as the saying goes, out with the old and in with the new. For School of Seven Bells vanguard and one time Secret Machines axe-man Ben Curtis, such a flush-out can’t come soon enough: “It’s been frustrating doing something new when everyone is referring to another project – I don’t think people realise that,” he says when speaking to The Skinny from his home in Brooklyn. “When I started Secret Machines, that was the statement I made and I did it. Now I feel like it’s done.”

And done it is. Having departed Secret Machines in 2007 to make good on a longstanding promise to collaborate with ex-On!Air!Library! twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, Curtis has morphed from space-age rocker to purveyor of ethereal, tribal rhythms. Released late last year, School of Seven Bells' debut long-player Alpinisms is a master-class in antithetical fusion, combining the twins’ abstract dreamscapes with Curtis’ penchant for sequence and effects to create one of 2008's most spellbinding records.

“The idea was initially just to make music; it was just a matter of growth and pushing ourselves and appreciating the situation,” says the Oklahoma-born Curtis of the group’s formulation. “Claudia and Alejandra 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. Other people’s habits are really backwards but with these two it works.”

Video: Prefuse 73 with School of Seven Bells - The Class of 73 Bells

Reviews of Alpinisms were littered with languid nods to psychedelia and shoegaze, often failing to pick up on the inventive blend of instrumentation and harmonies that made the album such a bold proposition. “Specific genres were nowhere near in our minds when we started off," states Curtis. "We can accept that though because I think people are painting it in a positive way but we’re not trying to achieve those sounds. We were worried about genre definition and wanted to be open-ended. We don’t really want to make the sort of music that alienates people but we have no idea where we’re going next. It’s exciting and terrifying.”

One of Alpinisms' most engrossing features is the vocal interplay between Claudia and Alejandra, where the siblings’ lucid mews seem to orchestrate the celestial nodes of guitar and key. As Curtis explains: “The production idea and sound is totally informed by what is happening in the vocal. It’s an arrangement in itself. It’s a cool way to work, starting from a really human point.”

Video: School of Seven Bells - White Elephant Coat (Live)

Sounding happy and content, this is a man completely at ease with this current project, as if the heavy skin of his past has finally been shed. “It’s weird that there’s a comparison between School of Seven Bells and Secret Machines," he remarks. "But I think they’ve begun to reduce. There are so many people that have no idea what I’ve done before. It’s just reassuring to know that I can do something like this and it works and it’s going to be a constant. This collaboration is amazing and really satisfying.” And the benefits of working with two preening ladies, compared to two clammy rockers? Curtis laughs: “It’s entirely more pleasant, believe me.

School of Seven Bells play Captain's Rest, Glasgow on 24 Feb and return to support Bat For Lashes at QMU, Glasgow on 8 Apr.