Combining the driving rhythms of Secret Machines and the sonic textures of the now defunct On!Air!Library!, School of Seven Bells produces ethereal pop that invokes both mountaintops and clandestine operations. This year, the band opens for M83 in the North American stretch of its tour, playing songs from their brand-new debut album Alpinisms. Founder and guitarist Benjamin Curtis took time out to chat with me about his new project and the band’s motivations, and tells us what inspires the dreamy quality of Bells’ music.
Derrick Teo: Is there any reason in particular why you named your band after a training school for pickpockets?
Benjamin Curtis: Um, well apart from the obvious reasons of it—sounding cool [laughs]—I think we just like the idea of people making something really ceremonial and taking care with something really everyday that they do, even if it’s death or whatever. I mean, we take a lot of care in the music we make and I guess you can relate it that way...not death or anything like that but that would be the attraction for us.
DT: How do you usually write your songs? Does any one of you do most of the writing?
BC: It’s very collaborative. It can start in a lot of different ways: From any little fragment of music, any Bells song can come from there. That fragment can really be from any of us; it usually starts to sound more like Bells than one of the three of us. Lyrics are written by Alley and Claudia; they don’t really collaborate much together on words, but they will collaborate on making lyrics for an entire song...they don’t really edit each other’s work, but they do write together. Musically, it’s extremely collaborative and probably the most truly collaborative environment I’ve been in.
DT: Do you get any input in the lyrics?
BC: It’s funny—when they write it’s very much personal experiences, it’s very much things going on in our lives. We all live together, we work together, we have a very close familial relationship. It’s always things that are reflecting things we’re discussing, things that are happening, and the songs are all very much moments in time that the three of us relate to.
DT: In your lyrics there are a lot of references to dreams, illusion and perception—songs like “Connjur,” “Half Asleep.” Was this inspired by anything in particular?
BC: It’s something we talk about a lot. We discuss our dreams a lot...it’s something we’ve always paid attention to, and it seems to me that a lot of people get bored hearing about it but we’re always...it’s just that the notion of it is very interesting. For example I know that Alley and Claudia are very good lucid dreamers, they kinda make decisions and things like that. But me when I’m dreaming, I don’t realize I’m dreaming, I think it’s real, a lot of times I kinda walk around and act things out and I don’t realize it, I feel like I’m awake. We all have these—well, some people would call this sleep disorders. Other people would just say we’re great dreamers [laughs].
DT: Which comes first—the lyrics, or the music?
BC: It’s weird. Sometimes it…it comes from cadences and melodies a lot, and then the words come after that, but we do very much start with a kind of rhythmic idea or melodic idea, and the first thing we really focus on is the vocal arrangement. And the song and the production and the approach all come from there, and it’s always inspired by the voices.
DT: Was it a conscious decision to sign on to a label called “Ghostly”?
BC: Well, I don’t know! There’s a lot of weird synchronicity we have with the label. But we really felt in tune with them because they seem really progressive. Musically they have such an eclectic roster of musicians that are all very much forward-thinking in all their respective fields. It’s very contemporary and it seems like there’s a focus on a really contemporary aesthetic and I think that’s what attracted us.
DT: Does the label “dream-pop” mean anything to you? I was wondering this because the music you make sounds so accessible, and also so dense and intriguing at the same time. Also because I was curious at Face to Face being shortened from 9 minutes on your EP last year to four-and-a-half on Alpinisms. Was there a conscious effort to make things sound more direct, more immediate?
BC: Yeah, well—I guess in a way there was a conscious effort for that. I think we really intended to make a real connection with people. Our intention isn’t to be easy for people to digest; that’s very different than trying to make a connection. In relation to that song, I think we just made a conscious decision to throw away what was extra and keep what was really essential. In a way the songs remain melodically dense but I think that everything that was there was very deliberate...I think we’re very good at deleting things, erasing things, making progression seem more like a path of subtraction than addition.
DT: It does sound very meticulous on record, which I guess you guys did with computers. In your previous bands [On!Air!Library! and Secret Machines], you guys also made music that was quite computer-oriented, so to speak. I was just wondering, if you had to not use laptops, what kind of music do you think you would make, either individually or as a band?
BC: I don’t know! It’s funny, I think it would just be our voices with very minimal accompaniment.
DT: Like choral music, chants?
BC: Yeah, it almost would be! The thing is, I think we like the electronics just because of the abstract nature of it, just the instruments and the rhythms can become so disembodied from the source of the sound, so that’s why we choose to make decisions that way. But the one thing that is always very human about our music is our voices, so I think if that process was taken away that’s all we’d be left with.
DT: I see where you’re coming from, as in—I find the meaning from your music in the juxtaposition of the intimate and the clinical.
BC: Yeah, thank you, I mean, that’s totally the intention.
DT: You’re now on tour with M83—how has the tour been for you so far?
BC: It’s really great. It’s such a good match; I think it’s really complementary. We were fans of theirs. We get along really well. On the personal side, it’s fun, we’re sharing a bus and collaborating together, but for the audience, it’s great. Where their music is really linear and open, there’re lots of instrumental passages and all of those things. I think we kind of take a similar approach in a different way with more emphasis on our voices and the harmonies. It’s kind of more intricate...I think it’s a really great show. I wish I could go see it! But I can’t. If I wasn’t in either of these bands I would definitely go see it [laughs].
DT: Like your current tourmates, your music conjures very visual images; they’re almost like sound vignettes. They’ve had their music used in and with various modes of film. Do you see yourself writing for film or TV in the future? Or perhaps move into visuals yourself?
BC: I think so. We’re working on a project with an artist, who’s actually a photographer that’s doing this video piece. It’s very short—we’re composing a score for it. It’s really fun; it’s the first time we’ve ever really done that and we’d love to do it more. It’s just fun to make music for something else. It completely changes the way you approach the project.
DT: What about commercials?
BC: We wouldn’t be opposed to it...I mean, no one’s asked [laughs]. It seems like it’s becoming more and more normal, I guess we’ll just see when it comes up.
DT: You all used to be in bands with a very distinct sound and pretty devoted followers. Do you get many familiar faces in the crowds with SVIIB, and how do you think they’re responding to your new direction?
BC: Some people like it and some people don’t. But on the other hand, in my opinion, it’s possible for more people to get into it. It just seems a little more free. A lot of people that didn’t like either of our previous projects are really getting into School of Seven Bells, so we were really kinda playing for a new crowd. And when we do see people that were into us before, it’s really touching that they’ve followed us and are appreciating it as well. It’s not something that we’re really worried about or trying to cultivate. We’re not trying to salvage fans from other bands. We really feel like we’re starting new, starting from nothing. So at this point anyone that gets in touch and says they love our music, we’re excited.
DT: What about your ex-bandmates?
BC: I don’t know—it’s weird! I’m sure they appreciate it. I mean it’s hard—I’m sure they like it. We’re all still on good terms. I haven’t really asked them, I don’t think I ever will ask [laughs].
BC: Yeah he’s always been really supportive. He sent me a text message saying that he bought our album when it came out, which is nice. So I guess I appreciate the support!
DT: Haha. Well I guess that’s the interview. Thanks so much for your time.
BC: Thanks for getting in touch!