Wednesday, April 18, 2012
On April 7th, 2012, I got the opportunity to go backstage at The Earl and chat with Benjamin Curtis, lead guitarist of indie rock group School of Seven Bells. The band has been through some major changes over the past year, as Ben reflected in his answers.
In late 2010, School of Seven Bells went from a three piece to just two members. How did you guys react and deal with that transition? Is it something that most bands end up dealing with?
Ben Curtis: Life is change, that's for sure. Just because your environment changes doesn't really change what you're passionate about. And truth be told, its been that way from the beginning with Ally and I. Gone through so many different ways of trying to manifest this sound that we come up with between the two of us. I don't wanna say its in my head or in her head, cause its really the sound that happens when we write music together. We started out with this vague idea of what it is, and we've had better luck sometimes bringing it to life than others. When we started, it was us and this guy James Elliot, and this drummer. Then the drummer left, and Ally's twin sister Claudia came. James left, and then it was just me, Ally, and Claudia. We've been through a lot of transformations over the years, but Claudia was a really high profile one. I just think the notion of twins is really powerful to people. There's something romantic about family making music together. And that's cool, and we realized there's that perception. So I think the biggest change for us was really knowing that whatever we did from that point on would be perceived as this sort of surreal change and inner sound, which we were actually really excited about. We can make whatever kind of music we want!
Tell me about the themes and overall mood that went into making the new record Ghostory. A lot of the lyrical content seems to be about trust and betrayal of trust.
That's a great observation! You're the first that's really seen that. It's definitely a thread there. We just really wanted to get deep into it. Ally and I were both going through kind of transformative periods in our lives. For more reasons than just the way the band was changing. Personally, we were going through all these different things. Ally started coming up with this lyrical motif. We were writing music, and we just knew how we wanted everything to sound. We didn't have to talk about it, it almost felt like the music was written, and we just wanted to get it recorded! So she started singing these words, this whole lyrical motif. And at a certain point, maybe a third of the way through, we realized that this is really heavy. And I asked her "Are you sure you wanna sing this to people?" Cause this is real shit were talking about! Its kind of brave, and I think what we realized is the more raw we got, the better the music sounded. Were just trying to uncover it all, as much as possible. Make it as open and bleeding, sore, uncomfortable as possible!
When it comes to the live setup, I think this is the most people you've had on stage. Do you feel like having more musicians on stage with you give off more energy, like a collective energy to feed off of?
I love playing music with people so much. It really does, and its not just anyone. Its really hard to find musicians that are really into it. We have a couple of people with us now that love the music just as much as we do. But its from a different perspective. Were sort of stressing out about "x" and "y", and there looking at "x" and "y" and just trying to bring it to life from a more objective standpoint. And they do it with love, and its really cool! Its actually really great in a way, to have someone who can listen to the song and they're saying "Oh you know what, I really like this about the song," and its valuable feedback. If you have that trust, its great. Its funny, in a lot of ways, were actually able to play a lot of the songs from the first record live. Because we've always made records and then all of a sudden realized "Oh shit, we have to play this live! How the hell are we gonna do that?" And now its not even a problem.
I read on the Facebook page recently that you have been working on a new light show for this tour. How did that process go about, and how does it compare to past light shows?
Well in the past, what we did was a collaboration with this artist Tim Sisenty, who did these video pieces for each song that were really beautiful, chaotic, and immersive sort of experience. I think what happened this time around was that these songs were so personal, that we really wanted to make it about A: Ally singing them onstage. She is singing these words to you, and these are coming from her, we didn't want a big movie playing behind to distract and make it secondary. So we just wanted something to redefine the space were in, and so the way it came about, some of the art that Brian Collins made. And Brian Collins has done the artwork for all of our records. And this idea of these concentric circles, lunar orbits that are floating around the face on the cover of the record. We wanted to bring those to life, and luckily we had friends able to do it. This guy, Steven Crizay helped us with the design. I think its so important, especially here in Atlanta, people come to The Earl every night. What can you do to make it feel like you're in a different space? Cause the music is different, the overall vibe is different. That's always been my favorite thing about going to shows, when I forget what room I'm in. It almost redefines it, its great.
Your brother Brandon worked on producing Ghostory with you. Is there any chance that you would sign him on as a full time producer, or was that kind of a spur of the moment good timing situation?
It wasn't spur of the moment. He's just been doing great work, a lot of studio work. He mixed and produced the instrumental band Russian Circles last couple records. Blackjacks' record, which turned out great. All of a sudden it just hit me that "Wow, he's got great ears!" I don't know why I'd never really paid attention to that before, I've always thought of myself as the studio head. But he's got such a cool way of working. What had happened was, we were on tour with him all year. We were writing these songs, and he was watching us play every night. I hadn't spent that much time with him in years. He's been playing with Interpol, who we were touring with. And then it hit us, I mean, who else would we want there? A: Its a musician I'm a huge fan of, B: Its someone I really miss working with, and C: Someone whose just seen us so many times that has that respect for our music, and the ability to translate it from an objective standpoint. Definitely would like to work with him again. We didn't have any major sibling squabbles this time around, it was actually pretty smooth sailing! With our band Secret Machines, we had a few knock down, drag out moments.
Do you and Alejandra ever trade positions in the song writing process? For instance, do you ever suggest lyrical ideas. And vice versa, does she ever suggest certain sounds or melodies to flesh out?
The line definitely gets blurred there in the middle. I wouldn't say that in music we've released that a completed lyrical concept has come from me, and that any completed musical concept has come from her. Its like I'm from point A, shes from point C, and as we get about halfway to point B, it becomes really collaborative in a beautiful way. That's what's so cool about our collaborations, cause we really love that feeling of when you don't recognize what you've made anymore. It really becomes something else. I think we each write, when were writing for School of Seven Bells, in a way that were ready to react to the other person, which I think is the coolest part about collaboration. Otherwise you're just making a record, and you're not making part of it. Its great when you're willing to dismantle everything you've done, and reassemble it, in reaction to what the other person has done. That's the reason our music sounds the way it does. If I sat in a room, I wouldn't make music that sounds like School of Seven Bells. Its definitely the two of our energies.
Will School of Seven Bells ever see Claudia return in any form?
She's kind of stopped making music. She's got a lot of other responsibilities. She's got a boy that's in school. I wouldn't say no, I wouldn't say yes either. I think at this point in my life that I can't discount the possibility. But its not like were operating right now of this feeling that were at a loss. I'd have to say it would take a crazy fucking turn of events for that to happen. It would be massive, revolutionary! So the odds are slim, but I mean I'd never count anything out.
Are there any other big plans for 2012, or do you guys plan on primarily focusing on touring this year?
We've got this single coming out at the end of this month. Its another song that didn't make it on Ghostory called "When She Was Me", a cover of "Kiss Them For Me"by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Coming out as a Record Store Day single. Seven inch, its beautiful. Its really cool, I'm excited for it! I think there's a few more songs that haven't really seen the light of day yet, I think as we stopped making the record, we've got it mastered. We just kept writing, we were on this roll. So we just kept finishing up songs here and there, without any plans of where they were gonna go. So those could always come up at some point! Were also going to a lot of places we've never been to before. Russia, China, its gonna be really interesting.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Andrew W.K. played a show at The Masquerade on April 5th. I was able to have a chat with Andrew a few hours before the gig. We discussed everything from the latest tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of his debut album I Get Wet, Gundams, what he looks for when producing, and talk of a new record in the making.
You first released the album I Get Wet about over ten years ago. When it comes to Andrew W.K. on a personal level, do you consider that release as your definitive piece of work, or do you feel like there is a lot more to Andrew W.K. than just those group of songs?
Andrew: That's a great question! I would say yes and no to both. Any piece of work that I put out, I hope is definitive to someone. As much as no one can really be summed up in any one way, I can't be summed up by that or anything else I've done, I hope I can't be summed up. And that you can't be summed up, and that any of the readers can't be summed up, everyone is infinite in their depth and complexity. But if I had to be defined, I'd love to be known as the bloody nose, party guy! That's a privilege. I'd like to offer something of value to someone out there in this world, and if they can find some value in any of the work, that's a blessing, hopefully for us both!
So you do kind of see yourself as the party guy?
Over the years, you've explored many different realms of the entertainment industry. Everything from producing, television, owning a venue in NYC, motivational speaking. Is there any aspect of the entertainment industry that you would like to get into? Or would you rather concentrate on the areas you've already stepped in?
There are a few more realms to explore. I think you'll see it as I do it. I think we had a great bunch of fun so far, and I don't see it stopping anytime soon.
What inspired you to record the Gundam Rock? It was only released in Japan. Has Mobile Suit Gundam always been an interest of yours?
Actually no, I had been familiar with it for many years as the sort of original robot superhero animated series. I mean it has quite a proud and influential legacy. But I only found out more about it after having gone to Japan to play concerts and do my works there. One of the main folks, a man named Kimi Kato, who is a higher up gentlemen at Universal. He is a huge Gundam fan, and just traveling around the city, we would pass a store or a vending machine, or some display that had some new Gundam that he had not seen or purchased yet. Or sometimes even though he already had them, he would purchase extras. He was the first real passionate collector of Gundams that I had really gotten to meet and talk with. So he taught me about Gundams, educated me about Gundams, and then almost like divine twist of the tale, the Sunrise Corporation that owns the Gundam franchise, approached Universal and me about doing this rock tribute album. With special new versions of these classic, wonderful Gundam songs. I had already been familiar with a couple of the Gundam songs, having recorded for example Ai Senshi on my other special Japanese covers album. So it was a very natural progression to hunker down into the Gundam material. I gotta say, it was one of the most challenging, but also most rewarding recording experiences I've ever had, just because the songs were very complex arrangements, and I tried my absolute best to be true as I possible could to the original arrangements. In terms of the horns, strings, percussion, backup vocals, really fantastic music. What I mostly did was translate the words in English, add some extra guitar, few different twists and turns here. But the songs are so good that at points its not so much about changing them, its just about reveling in their beauty.
Have you ever given much thought to playing those songs from Gundam Rock in a live format? Maybe take them to anime or comic conventions around North America or Japan?
Sure, if there's an invitation, I'd gladly do it. I did play some of those songs in Japan as we were releasing and celebrating the album. That was very fun, again challenging, but also rewarding. There songs for me when they first hit you, it was almost like a new color or a new flavor of ice cream that you'd never tasted or imagined before. But then once you get that taste, it stays with you forever. And those songs have become some of my favorite songs, so I'd love to play them even more, live or elsewhere.
In terms of producing, you've been through a wide variety of different genres and collaborations. Ad jingles, Japanese ringtones, noise and art groups, Reggae legend Lee "Scratch" Perry. As a producer, are there any genres or sounds that you would like to help capture in the future?
To me its all spirited, intense music. Spirited people with spirited visions, intense ideas. That's what I wanna be around. Fortunately you find that in all different ways. Different modes, different styles, different instruments, different deliveries. As long as its intense and stimulating, then I'm most likely gonna be drawn to it. I don't really look for a soothing, relaxing experience from culture, music, art, etc. I have to be blown away. I wanna be shredded, I want my mind shocked, freaked out, inspired! To me that's very uplifting. It makes me feel like there's possibilities out there beyond my understanding. Things that I still don't know about. That keeps me in a state of awe, wonder, and joy. So as long as it hits those marks, you will find me there.
Is putting on the live show the thing that drives you the most to be a musician?
No, although that feeling certainly encapsulates all that we've been talking about in terms of intensity, uplifting, and inspiring sort of power. But you can get those same feelings either imaging a live performance, or just listening to a recording. As long as it takes you to a place of extreme joy or pleasure, it counts! Fortunately there's all these different ways to get there. It's true that a live concert experience, where there's a person there to deliver something, an audience to receive it, and then bounce it back...that's a magical space that nothing else can really touch. I like the fact that a recording is different from that, as much as I like the fact that a performance is much different from recording an album.
What type of memories come to mind when you think of Atlanta, Georgia?
Oh geez, I mean we've played here quite a bit! Between Ozzfest, two different Warped tours, at least four of our own tours. Halloween party, last year I guess, and here we on again! Not to mention coming here for my work with Turner television, Destroy Build Destroy. It's one of the great cities of the U.S. And its only seemed to of been booming bigger and bigger! So it's always a joy. I remember the last time we were here at The Masquerade, there wasn't all these beautiful new apartments and houses, so that was really impressive. We came here another time, we went to Little Five Points, because we had a flight that got canceled and we had a night here. So we came into downtown area, went over to Five Points, ate a great meal, and had a great time! Its always been a delightful, special place.
Five Points has really good restaurants for sure!
Yes there is some awesome food. Tasty subs, salads. Very good burritos!
In the next ten or so years, where do you see yourself as a performer?
Hopefully just better, you know? Just better in every way. That's all I could really be sure about. The rest will develop as it goes, I'll just do my best along the way. I'd like to continue to develop more skills, to be able to manifest this kind of feeling I'm going after. Definitely got better since I started, so I'd like to continue that. Maybe there's a point where you just don't get better, but I've got good role models, for example Lee "Scratch" Perry. I think he is a master creator, and has only increased and refined his powers over a fifty or sixty year career.
You've been a performer since a very young age. Would you ever want to try out other lifestyles, or do you see yourself as a lifetime entertainer?
Yes I have no other interests in doing anything else. Sometimes I felt weird about that, a lot of my friends have all sorts of different interests. I just don't have enough space in my brain, or my soul, or heart, just enough energy in my body to really care about anything else. Sometimes I feel weird about that because I have other friends and family members who sort of have their work, and then they go off and do other stuff. Like go fishing, hiking, research certain projects, build things, etc. I just have no interest in any of that. Every interest I've ever had is been able to be put to use in entertainment. So drawing, painting, sculpture, films, TV, radio, music, performing, writing. This includes everything I've ever cared about. It still is sort of like one thing, I guess like your saying entertainment, or performing. But for me its the whole world.
In the next couple of years, do you see yourself touring for I Get Wet primarily or are you guys gonna branch out from that?
This is a special tour that ends in June. And then in June I'll go back to NYC and resume recording the latest album. But this tour is special because it was this idea that snuck up on us that "Oh wow we have this ten year anniversary to celebrate!" Not just our album, but just sort of existing for ten years. Its been exciting to play the I Get Wet album, our debut first full length, from all the way through at these live shows, in order. And then we play songs from all the other albums as well.
You guys have never done all of I Get Wet before right?
Exactly! This is a totally new and very thrilling experience. The shows have been going fantastic and are very encouraging for the future. We've always played, for the most part, almost all the songs on I Get Wet for the show anyway, but just never in this order. So that's sort of the new twist on it. But those songs were the ignition that started this whole explosion. And out of respect for the power that they've given this adventure, we can never turn away from them. We'll always continue to play those songs, as well as all the other great songs we can squeeze into an evening's concert.
Can you give us any kind of time table on when your next album will be released?
As soon as its done, I don't wanna rush it. But I do wanna get it done as quickly as possible. There is a lot of hangups and delays for various reasons. There's an open area right now that should allow us to get it done sooner rather than later.