November 29th, 2008 | Interviews

ian o’phelan

Download: School of Seven Bells “Connjur”


(from Alpinisms out now on Ghostly International)

School of Seven Bells split off from Secret Machines as a comet splits from the Oort Cloud and they bring their cosmic-krautrock sound to L.A. today with a ghostly tail glowing behind them. They speak earlier from tour. This interview by Thomas McMahon.

How did it feel to have Michael Rother call Alpinisms ‘amazing’?
Benjamin Curtis (guitar, keyboard): It’s cool that he said that in public. [Laughs.] I met him a few years back, and I actually started to play live with him a little bit when he does solo shows. He’s been busy with Harmonia this last year. It’s crazy when someone you’re so obviously influenced by turns around and appreciates what you do. And from him, it’s a huge compliment because he really, really doesn’t like a lot of music.
So he’s a tough critic?
Not so much tough as that he just doesn’t make time for other people’s music. He’s so consumed in his that it seems like it takes a lot for him to appreciate something. I made him stay up really late for My Bloody Valentine at All Tomorrow’s Parties. I was like, ‘Michael, I promise you’ll love it.’ He made it through about a song and a half.
Was he familiar with My Bloody Valentine before that?
No, he wasn’t at all. But he knew that I was a really big fan. And I actually introduced him and Kevin [Shields] there at the All Tomorrow’s Parties. I felt like I was in this crazy Bermuda Triangle of awesome guitar players. I was like, ‘It’s very different than what you do, and you have to watch it.’ I think he just couldn’t believe how loud it was.
They were giving out earplugs, right?
Yeah. It was good, though. I think I opened the door for the possibility of him liking that stuff.
In reading what others have written about School of Seven Bells, I see a lot of references to shoegaze and krautrock. But something that jumps out at me is a sort of tribal quality.
For sure. It’s really where we start. Our main deal is to merge this love we have of these really primitive rhythms and these really primitive sounds that are just so basic to us and what we like about music, and seeing if it was possible to make that work in a kind of spacious environment. And it seems like it’s really tricky. It can go wrong in so many ways, so we were happy to see that it worked.
Where are you right now?
Atlanta, Georgia. We just got here yesterday, and this is the first day of our tour.
Is this the first U.S. tour for School of Seven Bells?
Actually, no. We did something in December of last year with Prefuse 73, and we did something in October before that with Blonde Redhead. But the way we’re operating now is much, much different from how it was then, so it kind of feels like the first one.
What’s different now?
Just the approach and the number of people. We started last year, and we immediately got the idea that we needed to fill it out with all these other people and kind of made it something different than it needed to be. And we knew people, and we had been in bands before, so we were immediately asked by our friends to go out on tour, which was good, but I’m not sure we were really ready. But it helped us out a lot when we got home. We had a clearer picture of how things needed to go. So this is phase two.
The term ‘alpinism’ has to do with mountain climbing. Do you do any mountain climbing?
Actually, no. It came from this book by Rene Daumal called Mount Analogue. It’s this incomplete novel—he was writing it before he died. It’s about this group of people that go out on a climbing expedition to this mountain that doesn’t exist at any point in space but does exist. The whole book is a metaphor for life and the way you climb as a metaphor for your conduct. And from that we got into reading about Hermann Buhl. We were kind of interested in how ideological they were about something as common as just climbing, you know what I mean? It just happened to coincide with how we were feeling about a lot of things. And the songs we were writing seemed perfect. So the title—we borrowed it and changed it slightly.
How did you start working with Claudia and Alejandra Deheza?
They were in On!Air!Library!, and they were the first of three on a bill of On!Air!Library!, Secret Machines and Interpol. We were on tour in the end of 2004. I had never heard them before, but I was just blown away, especially when they sang together—although they didn’t do it that much at the time. They had a few little parts where they did that, and I was just deeply impressed. Talking to Alley on tour, she had this idea for School of Seven Bells, and I was like, ‘Please, count me in whenever we get around to doing that.’ It ended up being a few years—the beginning of 2007—until it actually happened. But the seed was definitely planted on that tour.
Is On!Air!Library! still going?
No. That was the last thing they ever did. After the tour, I did a few more things with Secret Machines, and Claudia made a record called A Cloud Mireya—kind of a solo thing and collaboration with Prefuse 73. And Alley didn’t really do music at all. She kind of focused on writing and developing that. I think that time that the three of us spent doing our separate things had a lot to do with what happened when we did get back to together.
Do you think that many Secret Machines fans have gotten into School of Seven Bells?
Some have, some haven’t. There’s this contingency of really orthodox rock and roll fans that I’ve never really related to that well. So there are some people who are like, ‘Fuck School of Seven Bells.’ And it’s weird, because it’s so different to me. It’s just like apples and oranges—and intentionally apples and oranges. The people that genuinely seem to like it, I’m always really impressed by. And I’m really flattered that some people have followed what I’ve done. It’s really cool.
What exactly is Night of the Gifts?
It’s kind of under the School of Seven Bells umbrella, but it’s this other way of writing. It’s kind of like an exercise. We write these songs, and the limitations are that there’s no beats, no meter. And it’s vocal-centric. The idea is like a subconscious blurry version of School of Seven Bells. They’re kind of meant to complement each other. It’s something we’ve been working on, and we have a Night of the Gifts record done, but this was all before we had so much to do. [Laughs.] But it’s an idea that we’re gonna develop and explore for sure.
So the record hasn’t come out yet?
No, it hasn’t come out yet. It’s sitting around. We’re thinking of just burning it on CD-Rs and selling it at our shows, but we’ll see.
What is your ideal situation for listening to music?
Definitely not headphones. I really like to hear music in a room. I don’t really like when it’s too separated, with the subwoofers and the systems that are too ornate. I just like something really simple. A couple of speakers in a quiet room. Not blasting, but just loud enough so you kind of feel absorbed by it. Not so loud that if you want to lean over to your friend and say, ‘This song sucks,’ or, ‘I can’t believe they did that—this is amazing,’ you can still do that. My best memories of listening to music have been like that.
So the community element is a big part of it?
It’s different doing that, especially if the people you’re listening with are on the same wavelength with you at that moment—it feels like a special moment. It’s these moments with friends where you’re like, ‘Remember the first time we ever heard this? Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that the perfect record to put on?’
Do you ever listen to mainstream radio stations?
Yes, all the time. That’s all we listen to when we’re touring—pop radio. I’m gonna sound like such a dick, but we don’t listen to college stations because I really have little patience for college radio DJs. They do that thing where they just start talking, and they just go on and on, and they kind of shuffle the papers. And it’s always between two really good songs, so something about it just gives me too much anxiety. On pop radio, they just pummel you with music and loud commercials. So we’re pretty up on what’s on the charts at the moment.
What’s a great song you heard recently on one of those stations?
That new Beyonce song—that’s pretty good. ‘Put a Ring on It’—is that what it’s called? ‘If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it,’ or something like that. So here goes whatever cool cred we had: we are super into that David Archuleta song. I don’t know why. Something about it. It’s, ‘And I know this crush ain’t going away.’ I like David Archuleta. I don’t care what anyone says. He came in second place in American Idol. They had the two Davids. I didn’t watch it, but anyway… He’s the kid with the really overbearing dad that apparently was banned because he was too aggressive and rode his kid really hard. He’s a really timid kid, but he has this deep, soulful voice in a really kind of teen pop way. It’s pretty good. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, because I’m sure that no one else would like it. But there’s something about that song where you want to just completely crank it up in the car.