Wednesday, April 18, 2012
School of Seven Bells New Record, new live format, new sound!
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.