After a warm welcome from their fans in Tokyo, and gearing up for their first ever show in Osaka in just an hour, Benjamin Curtis allows the jetlag to catch up with him. As one half of School of Seven Bells, the electrifying dream pop duo from Brooklyn, chats about their impending trip to Australia, the new album and why three can be a crowd.
School of Seven Bells, also known by the common abbreviation of SVIIB, have released their third album, Ghostory, and taken straight to the roads for a worldwide tour. Originally from the south-west of Oklahoma (“seriously, the middle of nowhere,” Curtis laughs), Benjamin has been living in New York for the last 12 years, where fellow bandmate Alejandra de la Deheza also resides – but in no way does he see himself as a native New Yorker.
“I’ve been there longer than I have been anywhere else,” says Cutis, “I miss the people down in Oklahoma but at the same time I’m so inspired by this city and that inspiration is so much a part of who I am right now. It’s hard because people – your friends and family – make up so much of the place you know; but on the other hand some places can be so stimulating you can kind of forget that. But if you can have both, it’s perfect,” Curtis muses.
SVIIB were last in Australia for 2010’s Splendour in the Grass and Curtis is particularly looking forward to their tour this time around. “(Festivals) kind of throw you up there and expect you to go and it was kind of hard for me to do that in 5 minutes.”
“It’s hard for me to do anything, really, much less set up a show!” he remarks, “I do love festivals though, because they’re these open spaces and I think it can be great for our music. I think we work better after dark, though” he laughs, only half facetiously.
Playing all three of Australia’s East Coast Hi Fi venues, they’re undoubtedly in good hands. “These are going to be our best shows there. It took us a long time, and it’s always been hard to play our music live, but we’re finally at this place where we’re really, really proud of how we’re sounding and we can stand behind it 100 percent.”
Their foundations as a band were certainly shaken and tested as Claudia de la Deheza, Alejandra’s twin sister, abruptly jumped ship in the middle of a tour at the end of 2010. Ghostory is their first effort since her unexpected departure and it proves quite the turning point.
“In a lot of ways, this approach to the new record was really inspired because of that,” concurs Curtis. “All of a sudden, it was as if I was hearing Ally sing all these songs she’d written for the first time. When it’s just her on stage, it’s just so interesting and completely different.”
The collaborative spark the two of them hold is undeniably bright and it shows as Curtis continues to speak so fondly and respectfully of a situation that could have been potentially catastrophic to the close-knit musicians.
“For example, “Half Asleep” has very personal lyrics. It’s one person’s perspective but it can be skewed a lot when two people are singing it to you. It kind of diffuses the poignancy of that singular outlook. We felt it was the right time to really explore that fully.”
The duo’s exploration has landed us with an immensely layered collection of grave trance tracks. The different tones and textures stand out beautifully, while underneath are the stylistic traits fans have come to know and love from the shoegazing duo’s music – which remains hard to define.
“I don’t really identify us completely with pure electronic musicians,” Curtis wonders aloud, “that’s not really what we’re about. We’re just trying to paint a picture around the vocals and words to make a more complete story.”
“Luckily, we’re in the position where we can do that. We’ve never really put ourselves into a corner in terms of what kind of band we are and I’ve never been interested in being fully identified with any genre. It’s detrimental in a way because we’re a little bit harder to pin down. Some people like to keep music on separate shelves and they don’t know what shelf to put us on.”
“We see School of Seven Bells as this big world with infinite possibilities in it,” he continues, “we write a lot of music; too much to put out, really. Change for [us] really is the norm. We want to remain a really free project. We came from really traditional bands and when Ally and I started writing together, we had no interest in that again.”
Curtis goes on to describe the new album as, “something that’s a little bit more upfront, a little bit darker, with a fast tempo. It’s emotionally a little more simple – not the emotions themselves, but more simple to define. If it’s a sad song, it’s sad; and if it’s an angry song – it’s angry.”
Instrumentally, SVIIB rely on layers and contrasts to their sound, the collision between guitar and keyboards as well as resonating, manufactured tones to flesh out their dimensions. Their compatibility continues to develop as they chop and change the creative process.
“At this point in our collaboration we know that how we write is almost as important as what we write. We figured the way to get that sort of simplicity was to sit down with each other and just write really fast and not really worry about it. We’ve never really done that before,” says Curtis.
“This record is where we were at the time. We were just playing a lot of shows and I guess listening to a lot of goth music,” he says with a laugh.
Before now, the emphasis was always on the creation of the record, but for the first time the duo had the foresight to consider their live shows when writing Ghostory. “Now our sound is fuller than it’s ever really been,” explains Curtis, “we’ve never written anything with the thought of having to perform it; it’s never been a concern. It’s funny looking back: this whole time all we’ve really wanted is the stability on stage with having people we really love to play with!” Curtis laughs.
It may have taken them three albums, the singer/guitarist confesses, but “we finally got there! I don’t really know what to contribute it to but I guess it’s a lot better when everyone’s having fun on stage,” hinting again at the departure of their third member.
In times of need, the love from fans can spur even the most disheartened of situations. Curtis’ voice drips with the warmest sincerity when the conversation turns, “we feel so lucky to do this, we love it so much.” Claudia was an original member of the band and was something people gravitated to but never did we have that moment of, ‘Well how much are people gonna be hung up on this? Will they still listen to our music in the same way, are people even interested? Are they here for the novelty of having a twin sister in the band?’”
He continues, “So many fans understand and really appreciate the evolution and give so much encouragement to us and then there are so many people who found out about us who never knew much about her (Claudia) being in the band in the first place! It’s been really great, the feedback has been hugely inspirational to keep us going, that’s for sure.”
Ghostory is available now through Inertia music and School Of Seven Bells’ Hi Fi Shore Series Tour kicks off tonight in Melbourne, before playing Sydney on June 22nd and Brisbane the following night. Full tour details here.