It’s something of a quantum leap from the music of Dallas boys Secret Machines to that of School Of Seven Bells.
Yet that’s the transition undergone by Benjamin Curtis, who has left family and musical past behind him to step out with something new.
When we caught up with him he was heavily ensconsed in promotional activity for the School’s debut album Alpinisms, and with a gruelling tour schedule underway.
Despite the occasionally onerous duties befalling press days, he doesn’t appear at all fazed. Even though our first question catches him on the hop. How would he describe the sound of their debut record?
“Wow, that’s a really difficult one to start with!” he protests. “I’m really bad at describing things like that. It’s funny because the process of making it seems similar to how it was with the Secret Machines; it’s just that it’s been with different people. I guess it’s easier to visualise things than verbalise them. I think you can expect a lot of voices and a complex sound around them.” He thinks on. “It’s actually better than I hoped it would be. I honestly didn’t know what it was going to be like, it went through so many preconditions I didn’t think there were any guitars.”
Was it a conscious decision for Curtis to turn his back on the sort of guitar-based musings Secret Machines had plied? “In a certain sense it was, because I’ve always been more into making music and I don’t care what I make it on, whether it’s a guitar or a piano, keyboard, whatever it is. I found myself in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and struck on this sound, and got stuck on it.”
Clearly Curtis is relishing the chance to make more rhythm-based music, not to mention the ‘processed’ nature of his work. “Yeah, it is good. It’s fun to work in a more electronic environment, as everything is so abstract from real life. This time we’re writing songs with production in around, worrying less about the guitars and things like that.”
We move on to talk about the School Of Seven Bells’ genesis, and Curtis recalls where he met the singing twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. “We met on tour with their band at the time, On! Air! Library! They were opening for Interpol and ourselves (Secret Machines). I thought they were amazing, and realized straight away that we had a lot in common.”
And of course, that remains the case. “At the moment, yeah, it’s a lot more in tune with my taste, it’s far more of a mixture of what I’m in to. To me it’s a more contemporary way of working.” He expects the band to build on their initial promise. “Yeah of course – it’s new music, and it’s something else! I don’t think you can expect things to be the same, it wouldn’t be a particularly healthy state of affairs. Five years from now there’s going to be a lot of growth in our music.”
Inevitably talk turns to his former band, though Curtis is of the mind that this was one of the more amicable splits in rock music. “They had to figure out what they were going to do, and it made sense for us to part at the time we did as we were thinking differently.” That’s not to say he doesn’t experience pangs now and then. “It has been strange, being out of it all. It’s weird to let something you’ve put so much in to go, and especially to see someone else playing your songs.”
A constant feature of the Secret Machines’ existence was the interest they received from David Bowie, who remains a fan – but who has also kept abreast of developments with the departed Curtis. “David actually booked one of our first shows,” he recounts, “and he did the Highline festival, our second show, so he’s well aware of it. I don’t know exactly what he makes of it though. It’s like an extra pressure really!”
An advantage of Curtis’s greater freedom is the opportunities to work with other artists, as Prefuse 73 collaboration The Class Of 73 Bells indicates. “That came about through my friend Claudio, who’s been working with Savath & Savalas, one of Scott’s other projects. We weren’t anyway close to doing anything with it, but we were very close to finishing a track together. Really it was just interacting with people, but it was kind of nice to do it.”
Curtis has famously eclectic tastes, so as a poser to finish with I ask him to select two examples of music he has heard recently, and likes, that are far apart in style. He laughs, and considers this for some time – almost audibly scratching his head. “I sometimes wished my parameters were smaller!” he laughs. “But I’ll try and come up with two examples. There’s several more progressive records that drive me crazy right now. I love it. And from the other end of the spectrum – well that’s rather more difficult. Recently we’ve been working on a lot of remixes, and we had on a U2 cover – so for some reason I ended up hearing No Line On The Horizon, which I really liked – they actually played it to us!”
The immediate future for Curtis and the band is on the road, as an exhaustive list of gigs posted on their MySpace site will testify. “That’s only as many gigs as they let you post!” he laughs. “There are actually loads more than that. We’re just booked right through until June, basically. I have to say it’s reassuring though – it’s job security in an uncertain economic climate.”
Not many musicians would look at extensive touring in such a positive light, but it’s a sign of Curtis’s willingness to take everything on board for a good cause. He’s clearly fired up by his new band and their early prospects.