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Benjamin Curtis of School of Seven Bells on Creating His Band’s Mythology

David Bowie booked their first show at the Highline. The Edge claims they inspired U2. Now the rest of the world is finally paying attention to cult heroes School of Seven Bells. Propelled by the sublime guitar fuzz of Benjamin Curtis (Secret Machines) and the ethereal harmonies of twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (On! Air! Radio!), the trio is already earning comparisons to classic alt-rock bands like Cocteau Twins and Slowdive. Just in time for the release of their new album, Disconnect from Desire, we spoke to Curtis about bonding with rock stars, working with twins, and how Brian Eno saved their record.

The Edge says School of Seven Bells has inspired his own music. How did he hear about your band?
We both worked on music for the film Across the Universe, so he was aware of my music. One day we were at a photo shoot, and I got a call from his guitar tech saying, “Can you come over?” The Edge was in the middle of making the last U2 record, and he had our first record [Alpinism] out on the table. It was surreal. We both share a pretty obsessive gear-nerd mentality, so we talked about guitar pedals, but I had no idea my music influenced his. I’m obviously inspired by him, so it’s mutual.

Did he introduce you to any gear that you used on the new album?
I actually got more interested in a pure guitar sound on this record. It’s a general rule in art that every element you add will decrease the significance of everything else in the picture, so I think we just had this desire for each idea to stand on its own rather than get lost in this massive cloud of electronics. It’s the most simple record I’ve ever made.

You and Ally and Claudia all live together and recorded Disconnect From Desire in your home studio. What’s it like living and working with twins?
We lived together from the time we started the group until earlier this year. Now I live on my own, but I’m really comfortable with their family. I played in a band with my brother for so long that I’m used to the complete lack of politeness when you’re dealing with siblings. It’s not that they hate each other, it’s just that they’re allowed to scream at each other. You can get a lot of work done that way. There’s no bullshit.

Disconnect From Desire sounds very Buddhist.
I guess you could say that, but it actually came from this deck of cards that Brian Eno made. They’re called Oblique Strategies. When you’re stuck in a creative problem, you pull out a card and get an open-ended idea that’s designed to get your brain thinking in a different way. Before we even started working on the record, we drew a card that said “Disconnect from desire,” so that idea really informed the music. Some people say, ‘How can you have pop music without desire?’ But to me, it’s about forgetting about the things you need to do and dealing with what you already have.

You made a set of tarot cards that comes with the record. Do those cards act like the Oblique Strategies deck?
I think if we were smarter I’d realize there was a connection, but it didn’t dawn on us at the time. Ally was talking about sigilism, which is this way of reducing words down to a few letters and making an unrecognizable symbol out of those letters. You write down something you want to happen, and then you make the symbol out of it and send it out into the world.

You’ve said that the name School of Seven Bells comes from a mythical band of Colombian pick-pocketers. Now you even have fictional characters on your album. It sounds like you’ve written your own mythology.
Yeah, when Ally thought of the idea of School of Seven Bells, she imagined seven characters, and those characters pop up in songs. You’ll hear her singing about Babylonia, or Camarilla, or Jovian. These characters embody Ally’s personality traits, like Babylonia is a really stormy, conflicted woman who’s dealing with a lot of confusion and a few different personalities happening at once. Singing from their perspective allows her to personify certain emotions she has in real life.

You’re embarking on a headlining tour that should bring you to New York this fall. What can we expect from the show?
We’re working with a live drummer for the first time, so we’re leaving the old drum machine at home. And we’re collaborating with this visual artist named Juan Tapia. He’s created these really wild geometric images that he’s going to project on a screen, and the way the light source looks hitting the screen is almost as interesting as the visuals themselves. It’s really surreal. It’s gonna be a School of Seven Bells odyssey.