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Escape Velocity

Let Freedom Ring: School Of Seven Bells On Life After The Secret Machines
Julian Marszalek , February 26th, 2009 04:53

Secret Machines founder and former plank spanker Ben Curtis talks to Julian Marszalek about changing direction, working with siblings once again and what the future holds

The concept of the “radical departure” – once a mainstay of the music journalist’s lexicon – has become something of an obsolete notion of late. Adhering to the time-honoured formula of “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it”, it’s not uncommon to find a band member upping sticks only to repeat what they’ve been doing but this time with the help of hired hands.

Not so with School of Seven Bells. The brainchild of founder member and former guitarist of Brooklyn-based space rockers Secret Machines Ben Curtis and twin vocalists Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, School of Seven Bells have made significant strides away from the guitar-driven bombast of Curtis’ alma mater. Blending dance beats with harmonies and hyponotic drones to create a consciousness-expanding universe of their own making, School of Seven Bells are about to grant the weird and wonderful world of head music a whole new lease of life. With the lava lamp on and the joss sticks lit, The Quietus delves deep as we hit the interstellar overdrive…

What prompted your departure from Secret Machines and the formation of School of Seven Bells?

Well, I guess there wasn’t really any climactic moment, it was just that I felt that what I’d started with Secret Machine was done. I just didn’t feel inspired with that direction and, y’know, School Of Seven Bells was what I’d had in mind. If things are based solely on passion and inspiration with music, then I kinda felt like that not about the music [I was making with Secret Machines]. [Secret Machines members] Ben [Garza] and Josh [Curtis] disagreed and they felt there was more to do with Secret Machines and so they continued.

So you actually discussed a change of direction with Secret Machines?

Yeah, yeah and I guess they kinda thought that my change in direction was probably too severe for them. And I totally understand but we were coming from totally different places. It was also a little bit weird to leave something that you put so much work into and to watch it go on without you. It’s also weird to hear other people play your songs but it’s also cool because a lot of people wanna hear those songs being played.

Have you seen Secret Machines play since you left?

Yeah, I have. Actually, a couple of times! A couple of the early shows [with the new line-up] but I haven’t seen them lately. But it’s cool because I haven’t been critical about them. I really thought that I’d be overly critical, but I just thought, wow! That’s cool!

Did you not think, oh, they’re great - I’d like to play with them?

[Laughs] Actually, I thought to myself, great – there’s another band that I like!

School of Seven Bells is a marked stylistic departure from Secret Machines. What moved you in that direction?

Well, when I got together with [vocalists] Claudia and Alesandra, things kinda kicked in on a different level but on a basic level for me, it feels a lot more contemporary and a bit more free about when, where and how I can make music.

There’s been a lot of misguided talk about School of Seven Bells being part of some shoegazing revival when it sounds like you’ve got a lot more dance grooves going on there. Are you aiming for the head, hips, feet or anywhere else?

It’s very much about the hips, y’know? That’s where so much of the inspiration starts from. Obviously what we do isn’t for the dance floor but it’s a big inspiration for us. The shoegaze thing, I guess, for us I don’t entirely agree with it but I don’t entirely disagree with it; it’s not the whole story. I mean, if there was a Chapterhouse record that sounded like School of Seven Bells then I’d wanna buy it, but I don’t think that exists. I always ask, “Which shoegaze record do we sound like?” Because I want it!

I’ve read reviews where you’re mentioned in the same breath as My Bloody Valentine but I don’t see that.

Well, I think it’s natural for people to want to put things in a box. I don’t wanna be reactionary but maybe it’s because Ali and Claudia are women and singing in a band with guitars; it’s funny, because whenever a woman is singing it’s described as ‘angelic’ or ‘soothing’ or all these really weird things by male journalists. Y’know, as soon as two women are singing in harmony it’s always described as ‘angelic’. But the comparison [to MBV] doesn’t annoy me.

So would I be out of line if I described your music as ‘ethereal’?

No, I don’t think so. But at the same time, I think it’s very much on the ground. There’s a rhythmic sensibility that keeps it from floating away. But again, it’s kinda useless for me to argue against descriptions and any description of our music is fine. There are so many different ways to listen to our music, so many different places, and so many mindsets. Some people say we’ve made a really happy record and some people say that we’ve made a really sombre record but it makes me really happy that it’s so hard to pin down.

It’s almost like you’ve made a record of specific ambiguity, if such a thing exists.

Well, I think that over time the musical role that we occupy will be really clear. It’s kinda hard to judge from only eleven songs what we’re all about. I think that over the course of a catalogue of music people will be able to say what School of Seven Bells is all about.

You previously worked with your brother and now you’re working with two sisters. So is there something to be said for working with family units?

I think so. It’s hard, in a way, because there’s no politeness. There’s a special level of politeness that exists between musicians that will never exist between siblings. But, at the same time, the benefit is that there’s a very strong intuition and there’s so much less discussion taking place.

I understand that Claudia and Alejandra are lucid dreamers and that they use this as inspiration for lyrics. How does this work?

Yeah, they’re both lucid dreamers but I think Alejandra does it more often; she’s got more control over it. They both started doing it because they both had nightmares and they developed this technique to get out of scary situations. They can dream whatever they want and on one occasion they controlled each others’ dreams. They were both asleep and they both dreamed they were in the same car together!

The lyrics appear in a very loose sense; it’s usually the vocal melody that appears first. We just find that when we’re overlaying on the vocals, there’s no competition from existing music.

Looking ahead, how do you see the sound of School of Seven Bells developing?

I don’t know how we’re going to do it but I can imagine it getting more radical yet more approachable at the same time. But I don’t how to do that! But I think it would sound amazing, right? But if we don’t do it then I don’t know who else will.

School of Seven Bells’ debut album ‘Alpinisms’ is released on 23 February on Full Time Hobby. They then play a headline UK tour calling at Dublin Wheelens (23 Feb), Glasgow Captain’s Rest (24 Feb), Leeds Cockpit (25 Feb), London Cargo (26 Feb) Manchester Night & Day (27 Feb), Bristol Star The Bus (28 Feb), Brighton Audio (1 Mar)