Ben Curtis, guitarist of the band School of Seven Bells, is also a fan. Not in a self-regarding sense, but like any musician worth his salt, he is as much enthralled by other acts as many people are by hiswork—and in his case, New Order is at the top of the list.
“That band was so streamlined; they made pop music that was really unique to themselves,” he says, enthusing over stories of the tour for the English group’s 1989 album, Technique, as well as notable blog projects that have revived and revisited their early work. “I love the ideas, and I also love the fact they seemed impervious to a good remix—the originals were just so perfect. They knew what they did and that they did it really well—I completely respect it about that band.”
It’s a sentiment that could also be applied to Curtis’ group, whose second album is already one of this year’s best. Effortlessly blending electronics and drum machines with rock-&-roll instrumentation, Disconnect From Desire is a sleek collection of songs that resists simple classification while being immediate, in-the-moment pop of the finest quality, with such standout songs as “Windstorm,” “I L U” and “Camarilla.”
After Curtis left the neo-prog rock group the Secret Machines and twins Aly and Claudia Deheza similarly departed On!Air!Library!, the trio formed School of Seven Bells and released a debut album, Alpinisms. They followed that with a string of tours worldwide, with the Dehezas’ coolly sweet harmonies and performances on keyboards and bass and Curtis’s powerful-but-always-textured guitar playing gaining even more strength.
“I don’t think I ever play a show the same way,” he says. “You’re never oriented the same way; the amp is never in the same place. It’s immediate, and it affects your decisions in the moment. If you rehearse and you’re comfortable enough, you can adapt for every moment and be sympathetic to the other people onstage. They’re sympathetic musicians; in that sense, it’s a great collaboration—we’re sympathetic to what each is doing, what makes the chemistry click.”
Curtis notes that the experience in writing the new album was a very positive one, a clear contrast from their debut, for which the lyrics were written first. “There are definitely more traditional songs—chords, melody, things coming together in that way, things I’m more used to. Starting with the lyrics was kind of a tool for us, discovering what music we were going to make in an open-ended way. What eventually happened is that we stumbled across the sound, and now we can approach it from both ways.”
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He ascribes the band’s live reputation, as well as the raves given to Disconnect as being even better than Alpinisms, to a combination of greater experience and evolving interaction with the Dehezas onstage. “We were not a live band when we recorded Alpinisms—I was over the band dynamic from Secret Machines, so it really didn’t matter who did what. But on tour, we realized there was something really exciting about playing live—a space and a power. It informed the way Disconnect came together as we recorded it in between tours, wrote it on tours. The record’s a lot more human, and clearer ideas seem to help to get the point across.”
While Disconnect and Alpinisms relied on electronic percussion, the band have expanded with the inclusion of drummer Zachary Saginaw, an associate of the band’s label, Ghostly International. Curtis is openly thrilled with the results. “I didn’t know Zach personally, but it was one of those rare moments when you completely click with someone—pretty incredible! We were very nervous about incorporating drums since we started without them—if there’s a drummer onstage, the personality of the drums will always dominate. It’s a huge sound, and people respond to it. So I was worried about the injection of a new personality, but we got together and played, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s how it’s supposed to sound! That really works!’”
School of Seven Bells perform with DJ Rob Acosta at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Sat. Call for time. $12. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Ringing Louder: School of Seven Bells develop their live act with their second album."