Benjamin Curtis of School of Seven Bells on using Oblique Strategies to Disconnect from Desire

With a dreamy, uplifting sound reminiscent of bands like Lush, Curve and Stereolab, School of Seven Bells creates deeply atmospheric music that explores the inner reaches of the human psyche with a surprisingly colorful yet concrete flair. Sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza came from the experimental band On!Air!Library!, while guitarist Benjamin Curtis brought along his own musical expertise as a drummer and guitarist for Tripping Daisy and Secret Machines, respectively.

Taking its name from a mythical pickpocket academy that Alejandra heard about late at night while watching documentaries, School of Seven Bells makes the subject matter of its songs seem larger than life with the perfect blend of expansive dynamics and a true sense for finding the deeper meaning in everyday situations. In the last few years, the School has toured with Blonde Redhead and Bat For Lashes, garnering critical acclaim and popularity at a steady pace. We recently spoke with Curtis about the band's songwriting, his unique musical background and his own development as an artist.

Why is it that words preceding the music is so important to your songwriting process?

It was an interesting way for us to work, because I think when you're approaching things instrumentally, it's easy to have a lexicon of go-tos in your musical vocabulary -- certain habits and certain places you go, which is cool, and all of that adds up to a style in the end. We were looking to expand upon that or maybe avoid it altogether. But we knew vocals were going to be a centerpiece. That was the idea from the start: Record words and melodies, and we found out, as a band, that it worked better from there.

It's almost like writing a track by producing it from the top down, being really aware of melody: You play around it, and you're hyper aware of subtleties and nuances in the vocals. Most of the time, people put vocals over music. I find we play differently that way. It's how we arrived at the sound of School of Seven Bells. We don't do it every time now, but it does help us get out of a rut now and then.

Disconnect from Desire, the title, sounds like it comes from Buddhist thought. Is that true?

The intention has probably been around in Buddhist thought for a long time, but we found it in a deck of cards called The Oblique Strategies, that were made by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. If you're stuck in a creative problem, you draw a card, and it's sort of an oblique statement, and you apply it to the situation any way you want. It's kind of like adding this element of chance to help you out of a jam. We pulled it, and seemed to resonate with the music we were writing. It was kind of about letting go and the music was coming out that way. It seemed to encapsulate a lot of what we were writing about so we borrowed it.

Why was sharing the stage with Killing Joke at All Tomorrow's Parties such a big deal for you and your band?

We're all big Killing Joke fans. They're really genre-bending. They have that sense of melody and a power that's delicate in a way. It's really ecstatic music, which we really love. We're always jamming on that song "Requiem." We like so many different kinds of music, and so little of it sounds like what we make together.

You're the lead guitarist of the band. What kind of rig do you use, and what type of guitars do you most favor, and why?

I've been playing Hagstrom guitars for years. It's really strange. I've had people come play through my set-up, and they say it sounds horrible. The way I hit it, it works for me. I think that's the same way with anyone's guitar rig. I got to play through The Edge's rig in a studio once, and it's the same thing -- I didn't know how [he] did that music with his stuff.

I do a lot with very little. I've never been great with technique. I know music theory but I've never been able to express it quickly on a guitar because it's not my first instrument. So I'm more interested in tones and textures and a lot of stereo effects bouncing around. For me it's more the sensation of the sound than what I'm playing particularly.

Have you always used electronic drums? What about electronic drums do you like and do you prefer them to a live drummer?

We use both. It's an aesthetic decision. The thing is that there are some 808 hi-hats just doing sixteenth notes, and it's metronomically perfect. That sound gives me a certain feeling and it's a certain color in the palette. It puts the song in the perfect place, so we go there. Sometimes it's not what we need, so we'll play something live. I was a drummer first, so I end up playing a lot of things, too.

There's no rule for what makes the rhythm in a School of Seven Bells song -- it's really up in the air. In the beginning, we had a drummer we did away with it because it was an element that didn't fit for a while. When we started putting together Disconnect From Desire, it was a bit much for a drum machine to replicate, so we have a drummer again.

You played in Tripping Daisy and Secret Machines. How did you join those bands and what was the music climate like in Dallas back then?

I was really young; I started playing with Tripping Daisy when I was eighteen or something like that. I was playing drums around town, and I got to know Tim DeLaughter, and both he and his wife Julie are people that really encouraged me at an early age. They're my biggest supporters out there. For some reason, they took an interest in what I did. It came time to make a record, and their drummer was no longer in the band, and they called me up. I ended up making two records with them.

Dallas is such a small town, and if you're playing music, you're going to run into each other because it's such a small community of people. It's a cool little scene, and everyone kind of knows each other. After Tripping Daisy wound up, I moved to New York with my brother and we formed Secret Machines. We wanted to start this thing and Josh was already played drums. And I never cared what I played; I just liked playing music -- I played everything equally poorly. So I bought a guitar, and I've been doing it ever since.

How did you come to work with Prefuse 73?

Claudia Deheza did a tour with him, singing in his project Savath y Savalas. Around New York, we were just around each other. He was really up on School of Seven Bells from the first things we were ever recording.

He called us up when he was making this album and asked if we wanted to work on a track. We had something that was going to on our record and just sent him over parts, and he did his thing to it.

It's really bizarre that a lot of people heard us for the first time through Prefuse's ears, but I feel really lucky we're one of the only bands that Robin Guthrie, Prefuse 73 and Justin Broderick remixed.

As an artist you learned a lot of things about your craft up to this point. What would you say that you learned along the way that most informed or lead to what you're doing now as separate from your previous projects?

I just think, at every moment, when I'm making music, sometimes the hardest thing to do is be sure that you're happy with what you're doing every step of the way. It seems like that when you're writing with someone, or when you're putting things together, sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of collaboration.

What's been really great about this band is that we've always taken our time and made as much or as little music as we want, and we've done it our way. We're just really happy with it. It seems so simple, but figuring out how to record our music and how to make a record at home and figuring out our own way of doing things has put us in this place where we can stand behind the music 100 percent.

It takes a while to get there, and it definitely takes some courage, because, at times, people like to second-guess you. At some point in your life you have to stand up and say, "No, this is exactly what I want." You shut off outside opinions.

School of Seven Bells, with Active Child and DJ Peter Black, Friday, September 24, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $14, 303-291-1007.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.