Published Oct 25, 2008When Benjamin Curtis left Secret Machines, he not only took the essence of that band with him but redirected it into his new project, School of Seven Bells. Formed in 2007 with twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (members of On!Air!Library), SVIIB released some singles and found an early fan in Prefuse 73, who included them on his Preparations album. With Alpinisms, the trio sought guidance from their extensive 4AD and Morr Music record collections, and discovered an unlimited potential to work without any genre restrictions. SVIIB use obvious cornerstones like shoegaze, dream pop and ambient as models to build their wispy soundscapes from but they never fall into the predictable void that the thousands of nu-gazers out there often vanish into. The perfect example of their control is the nebulous, 11-minute-long "Semipiternal/Amaranth, a shape-shifting voyage that begins underwater with a chugging krautrock motor and ends up morphing into a fluid stream of sparkling IDM. Its an experiment that pays off and fortunately, SVIIB never lose the plot. They keep everything else around the four-minute mark and surprisingly divergent, turning in some clever singles ("Chain and "Half Asleep) along the way.Alpinisms outstrips the material each band member has been involved with to date while simultaneously setting a precedent for the post-shoegaze generation.
Ben, what made you decide to leave Secret Machines?
It was time for me to make music without compromises. Not to put down what I've done, or anybody who has ever enjoyed it, but I just felt it was important in my life to do work that I could stand behind 100 percent, without excuses. I can do that in School of Seven Bells. Also, the other two guys in Secret Machines are very much oriented in the traditional "rock" world, and the sound I feel closer to personally is a little more free and indefinable, and maybe a little younger at heart. It's important to note that they're both a little older than me, so there's a bit of a generational disconnect between our approaches.
I read on Pitchfork that there has been some animosity from Secret Machines fans about your departure. That surprises me. I imagine you didn't expect that?
I don't know what to expect anymore. People always surprise me!
Your album and the new Secret Machines albums are out two weeks from each other. Is there any healthy competition between you and your brother?
Yes and no. I really wish them the best, because I know that it's very important for them to keep that alive, but we're just excited to be making this music. At the moment, the three of us are making what we feel is the most exciting music we've ever made, and are discovering new ways to do that every day, so there's really not much time to look back.
Do you find a lot of people coming out to see School of Seven Bells are discovering them as something new, or are the majority of them familiar with On! Air! Library! and Secret Machines?
A little of both. Honestly, most of the people that we've been connecting with aren't as familiar with our previous projects as we thought they would be. We've been getting great reactions from all of them, really, so I think we've really moved past the comparisons, since what we're doing now is obviously such a progression from that.
How did School of Seven Bells form?
We met while on tour with Interpol in 2004. The seed was planted then, and when the time was right, it just sort of happened.
Was the sound you ended up with something you had envisioned from the start, or did the three of you develop it as you went?
It's what we've envisioned from the start, but it took us a LONG time to get there. It came full circle really. For a while we thought there was something incomplete about doing it with just the three of us, so we kept trying to add different personalities and elements, but in fact all we needed was right there from the start.
Do you see any kind of correlation between School of Seven Bells, On! Air! Library! and Secret Machines?
I think the intentions of all three of us have always been the same, but maybe the difference has just been the chemistry with the people we were doing it with. We're happy with what we've done, but we just continue to move forward.
How do you feel about the shoegaze comparisons?
Being "shoegaze" isn't intentional. We don't really talk about what we think it should be. Rhythm is very important to us, but so are vocals and all of that sort of existing in this really immersive environment, so it just sort of ends up where it ends up.
Do you find there is more freedom to experiment in SVIIB than there was in Secret Machines?
Absolutely. "Rock" people are very particular about whether or not what they're listening to is in fact "rock." It's a funny pre-occupation, really. But all people that associate themselves with particular genres are that way. We've found ourselves in this weird genre limbo, and it's really liberating.
I read that you kept "doing revisions and revisions of the record." What caused the revisions?
We just couldn't get it right. For whatever reason, we had to break a lot of personal musical habits to finally make the music we wanted to make. We were in the studio visiting with U2 the other day, and Edge was telling me they did the same thing with their last record, so maybe it's a common thing to do? When it's not right, it's not right, and if you don't make the call, who else is going to?
I hear what sounds like many layers used in Alpinisms. Did you go nuts with laying down tracks on top of one another for the songs? If so, how does this translate into your stage show?
There's not as many layers as you'd think. We tried to get the most out of what we did do, and we spent a lot of time on that. There are tons of vocals on the record, for sure. I think that might be our one vice. Live, it's a great translation, actually.
I find it interesting that you're touring with M83, because I see some similarities between the two bands. Anthony brings in a bunch of players to flesh out his sound. Is the touring line-up just the three of you or do you use a similar approach?
Live, it's just the three of us. The chemistry just seems to be right that way. He does use a lot of electronics to fill things out, and we do to, but we do make a lot of noise between the three of us.
What made you sign with Ghostly? It took me by surprise when I first heard about it, but once I had the album it made a lot of sense...
They were really genuinely excited about our music. That's all it took for us. We sat down with them, and had an actual conversation about our music, which, strangely enough, is rare for a meeting with a label. We're really happy with them, and we think the context is flattering, because they have such a diverse and progressive vision. That's great to be around. (Ghostly International)