What I’m Listening To First Installment: Benjamin Curtis SVIIB

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For a while now, I’ve been thinking about starting a simple “what I’m listening to” weekly feature on the blog to bring it back to life. And now I think I have just the piece to kick that off—focused on highlighting one particular life.

Last year at some point early on, I read an announcement, full of optimism yet tinged with a soberness, that School of Seven Bells’ Benjamin Curtis was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Finally able to get up the nerve to check on the band today, I was extremely saddened to read that Curtis lost his battle to cancer in December 2013.

Back in 2009, “SVIIB” as they’re called popped onto my radar with their outstanding debut record Alpanisms. The beautiful harmonies and instrumentation immediately caught my attention in a summer filled with post-graduation and recession-driven despair, and I happily caught the band’s performance at Austin City Limits festival after becoming quickly hooked on their sound. The subtly beautiful and talented sisters caught my eye at the show—inspiring the “I want to be like them” feeling so typical of watching bands.

But this article isn’t about them. This is about Benjamin Curtis. When I saw SVIIB in 2009, what I noticed about Curtis was his bright orange hair, his acne scars and his absolute ease playing guitar in an exciting but not overly showy way. What I didn’t know then was that Curtis was a former member of Secret Machines, who I’d seen open for Interpol at my very first proper concert in 2004. Secret Machines played an incredible set at Gypsy Tea Room, a now defunct club, and I remember how I swooned over their big sound and the expansive feelings it conjured for me.

In 2006, I would listen to their debut record on a very long train ride setting off from Thurso, at the northernmost tip of Scotland, on through the highlands and finally, once the sun had set and the glaring train car lights beamed unrelentingly, down to Glasgow. After the loud, drunken Scotsman who’d stunk up the train car and staggered down the aisle had finally recessed into the background or perhaps gone off to cause drunken mayhem elsewhere, I settled in with my Sony CD player and MP3 discs. In that train I thought “how have I neglected this amazing band for two years?”

And then time is cruel and unforgiving and I forgot again. That is until I decided I wanted to know more about SVIIB’s exotic singers (Alejandra being the main source of my intrigue). At some unknown point I looked them up and realized that I’d somehow managed to skip over the whole aspect of Curtis being from Secret Machines. That meant that I’d seen him already years past and marveled. No wonder I loved his new project! The man clearly had skill, and I’d known this without knowing this since 2004.

Years went by and I bought everything SVIIB’s put out. I caught them on tour with Active Child supporting, and I remember as they played from 2010’s Disconnect From Desire, staring transfixed at Curtis’ tattoo, the same as the design on the CD cover, so dark and thickly outlined on his bare chest. I’d brought friends who enjoyed the show at one of my favorite outdoor Austin venues on a balmy but windy night. Watching Curtis and Deheza play, they looked like they’d been through something since I last saw them and had come out smarter as a band. As for the music, many a bus ride to work was set to tracks I L U and Dust Devil in particular.

Ghostory (2012) came out the year I moved to London, and I mainly remember listening to it on my iPod and in my room on my speakers. Their sound was evolving, and I really liked where it was going. I felt like they were becoming more consistent as well and looked forward to the future, even without Deheza sister Claudia in the picture. Then they put out a minialbum Put Your Sad Down (2012). I don’t know the exact timeline, but as I experienced it, the minialbum came out about the same time that Alejandra announced Curtis’ illness on Twitter. I remember the fear I felt when I read that because her words, while measured, did nothing to minimize the threat I could see was there—a threat to Curtis’ life and his art. The minialbum felt like an attempt to reassure everyone music was still forthcoming while also serving as a reminder that there may not be time for a full length album.

I went about my life and have memories of enjoying the much more drum-machine driven sound of Put Your Sad Down on a long train ride to English seaside town Weymouth and on the stuffy underground, specifically walking through the multi-color tiled Tottenham Court Road tube station on my way to meet my boyfriend. I didn’t want to look SVIIB up. I wasn’t ready.

Now that I know what happened, I’m glad I waited. January 2014, a month after Curtis passed away, was an incredibly tumultuous time in my life that saw me moving back to the U.S. without choice, with limited planning on my part, because my visa had run out. Curtis passed away in December 2013. At that time I was in denial, struggling hard to save a dream slipping from my hands. And in February, I was torn and raw. The way I just cried reading of his death now, I think I would have felt much more of a pain then. His death would have been fresh and the loss, while still so deep and sad, would have felt like an addition to the bottomless pit I was falling into. Now, I can feel a sorrow that has a limit. It’s a sad loss, but I have a feeling Curtis would want us to all “put [our] sad down” and remember the music.

What I didn’t know until I finally read of his death was that he not only lived in Dallas, my hometown, but he drummed for local band (and 90s heroes) Tripping Daisy when he was a youngin’ and Secret Machines (made up of Curtis and his brothers) was formed in Dallas. Perhaps this geographic musical tie to a city that, at the time of his and later my musical comings of age, was a dried out husk of the former Deep Ellum speaks to why I feel so sad to know that he’s gone.

So in order to pay my respects, this week, I will be listening to the entire SVIIB catalogue and to that dusty 2004 debut from Secret Machines. And hell, maybe even a little Tripping Daisy to marvel at young Curtis’ drumming chops.

Video

Snap! Rhythm Is A Dancer

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http://youtu.be/JYIaWeVL1JM

I’m reinventing what this blog is and what it does. I used to want to write about music. And a few years ago, I contributed to a music blog for a bit, but music is hard to keep up with. The real dilemma is trying to find the new best thing that no one else has seen yet. And basically, the guys over at the stellar music blog Tracasseur already have such a good thing going, I’m just going to muse over tunes as they float my way and please my ears and leave the worrying whether they’re signed or not to the pros. This blog is about the things that I associate with that music–the feeling, the memories, the wardrobe it practically conjures into being. These things I will put here.

Starting this off, I wanted to post something that, to my 5-year-old self, was basically the coolest thing ever. The 90s are back in a big way right now. Both music and fashion were permeated in the last couple of years with 90s throwbacks. In music its dance leads and bass lines, and in fashion its chunky heals with shapeless floral dresses, denim everything, over-sized coats and biker-influenced leather (and now faux leather) boots, hats, gloves, jackets–basically anything that can be leather (or faux leather).

Case in point - "biker coat" H&M

Case in point – “biker coat” H&M

And it probably has some metal detailing to go with it. Detailing is in. Think that’s a normal parka? Think again! The back has a giant eagle print or skull and wings stitched onto it. Lovely. But let’s move on to the fun 90s throwbacks.

I’m not sure I really need to post any other photo – H&M “retro” jacket

This song by SNAP! was released in 1992. I would have been just too young then to be choosing my own clothes, but I never missed an opportunity to sneak into my big sister’s room when she was gone (sorry, sis) to look at her Seventeen and Cosmopolitan magazines. I’d open her closet and admire the bright colours and take out her shoes and put them on, my feet too small for them. I was enamoured with her fabulous things. I thought the perms my family got were so cool then. I almost recall feeling left out, as my mom and sisters had perms. Now I view that exclusion based on my too-young-to-get-a-perm age as a blessing. But at the time, I wanted one too.

Now in my clear-headed present mind (no, do not even for a second think that a perm would have been anything but a travesty!), having such distinct memories of the unflattering jeans, the blocky, clunky heels, I wonder why we’ve so thoroughly re-embraced the 90s in fashion. Is it wise to square the toe on a Maryjane and then make the heel almost wider than the rest of the shoe? Can that ever look good?

A very 90s shoe by a fave designer Vagabond - "Dioon"

A very 90s shoe by a fave designer – Vagabond “Dioon” sold by Urban Outfitters

So, I watch this video. The video is comically bad. Dear me, it is hilarious to watch now! But the song, I still remember what I felt like as a kid singing the lyrics wrong (I’m fairly sure I thought it was “Ribbon is a dancer” for a few years there) as we flew down the highway in my mom’s car–my sister’s having commandeered the radio no doubt–thinking that my liking this song probably made me a pretty cool kid. And honestly, at the time that was probably true. I still like this song. It stuck in my mind over 20 years. And admittedly those memories do make me a bit nostalgic for some of the things of my youth. But even so, I remain fairly happy to pick and choose for myself the best re-tailored and adapted items of clothing inspired by the 90s but with a 2013 update and to leave the unflattering, shapeless garments to the new youngin’s who aren’t old enough to actually remember the originals. Pretty soon they’ll all be getting perms too, and once again, I’ll dodge that bullet. What a blessing.

Wedges in the Wilderness

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I spent a few hours today looking at photos of national parks, longing to walk among tall evergreens in awe-inspiring valleys and on grand sweeping high ranges.  I’m not usually a very outdoorsy person, at least not in a Texas sort of way.  Here, it’s so hot outside most of the year that me and outdoors just don’t match.  But looking at the beauty of our national parks had me thinking about hiking, which I do enjoy, especially in cooler places that aren’t Texas…  As shoes are never far off in my mind, hiking boots came to mind.  I wondered recently whether there are stylish hiking boots.  They seem to all be rather similar.   There is certainly a “typical hiking boot,” but since I like every piece of clothing (especially footwear) to reflect my individual style, I wondered what kind of hiking boot out there could represent me.

Charles by Diesel

Liason by Diesel (black wash)

With hiking in the back of my mind, I felt drawn to the functional, almost blue collar-influences visible in all of these shoes by Diesel.  I see stylistic elements of hiking, biker boots, broken in jeans perhaps worn by a craftsman.  Now, while I wouldn’t recommend climbing the Grand Tetons in any of these high elevation beauties, they did reflect something unpolished and wild to me.  The pair Charles show the clearest hiking boot influences with the two-tone laces, fur accent and D-ring eyelets.

I have to say, I absolutely adore the mini jeans look of the Liason styles.  I associate jeans with my father, who is a carpenter and has probably worn jeans nearly every day of his life.  Thus the handyman association of these makes them all the more charming to me, not to mention they are wedges, which I am currently obsessed with.  Check out the third photo for details of the details in the denim.  Tiny pockets, small version of the waistband, a creative approach to branding.  What’s not to love?  Now can they be a functional member of any wardrobe?  Probably not, but they’ve perfectly married the two essences of this post: versatile, comfortable outdoor footwear and towering dressed down heels.

Liason by Diesel

The cowboy boot meets motorcycle boot Nels exceeds the simple stylistic staples of both by transforming them into something new with a loose, green wash denim upper and thick stacked heel.  These are about details.  Check out the triple stitching on the platform.

Nels by Diesel

Evoking Outerwear

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BB Dakota Bostwick Coat

I. Love. Coats.

A simple fact.  I’ve been stalking the immense collection of Top Shop outerwear for a good 6 years now.  I can’t get enough of funnel neck collars, deep lappels, ruched sleeves, side pockets, tweed wool blends, sculpted hoods, empire silhouettes and wooden toggles.  I simply adore it all.  The better the tailoring, the more I love it.

Outerwear speaks to me of a particular mood.  I probably feel the same way about winter clothing that someone who longs for sandy beaches and sun dappled waters feels about bikinis and breezy sleeveless shirts.  (none of which do I care much for)  I, instead, long for the high, thick collars and soft scarves of fall and the tall boots and heavy cocoon-like coats of winter.  I enjoy arriving at my destination to then shed my often monochromatic layers to emerge a more colorful and sometimes surprisingly dressed up person.  It’s part of the fun.  It could be all business or dance party tucked inside someone’s coat.  And you’d never know it.

It’s also somewhat of a challenge to maintain individual style in the winter, when we mostly don the same coat and maybe switch bewtween just a few different pairs of boots every day.  I enjoy the challenge.  There are small details in accessory choices or highlights in stitching that I think can pop more and make a grander statement because of the lack of options and flexibility to express yourself.  Suddenly a bright color in a scarf, a new oxblood colored satchel, uniquely patterned knit tights, or a sparkly pair of earings become the focal point of expression that style hinges on.  I tend not to like busy patterns, so the stripped down means of expression allotted by winter wear suits me nicely.

And so finding a pretty small brand recently that has been selling to a few big name stores like Mod Cloth and Urban Outfitters and who specializes in coats and jackets made me really happy.  Meet BB Dakota part of the Dakota Collective.  BB Dakota has some great, cohesive style on offer.  I wasn’t all that surprised to realize that the two coats I adored on different websites (Urban and Mod Cloth) were actually from the same designer.  Peruse their line.  It’s a mother daughter duo, which is pretty cool.

Let me tell you why I love this coat.  Well, firstly, just look at it.  I enjoy the flexibility of the silhouette.  Form fitting versus draped.  I like the variation in length, the geometric pattern, and the unusual absent collar/hood.  It’s a very different sort of coat than you typically see on the street, but it’s not so unusual that it wouldn’t fit well in most wardrobes.  As a big fan of grey, black and blue in my wardrobe and geometric patterns, I’m completely biased.  But that aside, I think there is something classic yet new about this one.  They seem to be good at that, over at Dakota Collective.  I look forward to keeping up with their collections in the future, and of course, expanding my winter clothing collection in the process.

Architecture of a Shoe

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Jeffrey Campbell Benched platform oxford from Solestruck.com

I have been inspired, as of late, to discuss my appreciation of Jeffrey Campbell’s innovative, sometimes sculptured, sometimes strange, shoe designs.  Thinking about his trademark platforms, I suddenly found myself drifting back to my childhood.

Jeffrey Campbell Safety platform from Solestruck.com

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I became engrossed with drawing shoes.  It was about the same time that the Spice Girls brought platforms back into every day fashion.  Yes, I’m aware, that dates me a bit, but the main thing is that I started drawing shoes, mostly crazy platforms, during class and showing them to my classmates.  It became a sudden fad.  Before I knew it, everyone was trying to invent new, funky shoes.  I remember it as a short-lived period of flurried drawings and minor competitions.  Then one day, we had a real contest, informally organized of course, by me and my classmates.  I don’t recall whose idea it was, but before I knew it, I was sitting at home working on my drawing for the contest.  I worked very hard.  I had already drawn dozens of shoes, but this one, a multi-layer, graduated platform heel, was, I thought, my most ambitious one yet.  I was confident I would win.  I’d started the whole drawing fad, after all.  We had the contest, and I got second.  I was devastated.  But until this day, I still think that I wasn’t awarded first place because my friends didn’t want the fad starter to get all the glory.  That was arguably the only fad I ever started, and while it’s hard being objective and memory can be elusive, I still do not think a shoe design with an actual spike heel could possibly be the “best” design.  It was no accident that the two most popular girls in the class made that particular design.

With that little flashback, I remembered what it was to ponder new, yet, functional shoe designs.  Here I was, a child who’d never worn heels, drawing towering platforms.  Perhaps it’s not so different from a man designing women’s shoes, and designing them very well.

The Coffee Reward

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Today Austin is blanketed in a kind of oppressive heat. It becomes impossible to breathe deeply as you stumble through scratchy gravel kicked up by endless construction projects and squint tightly against the harsh, bleaching sun. It’s the kind of heat that makes one long for a 90 degree day. Even “hot” would be better than “sweltering.” Anything is better than this. And I’m starting to think “this” isn’t even categorizable. But it’s the drought that has done it, that has made Austin feel in June like it might in an ordinary mid-July. Temperatures rose too quickly and have hovered in the low 100s every day, for hours. There was no spring this year. Evidently the rain has been absent markedly since October, when news agencies report our drought began. It’s hot, all right.

And yet… And yet I have a hot cup of coffee. I just ventured out into the dizzying sun to get, not an iced beverage, but a hot coffee. What madness is this? It’s probably two things. Firstly, it’s always a bit chilly in my office, as it seems it is in every office. (Reports from friends confirm that they too work in igloo-like cubicles where a sweater would cary more weight when bartering than a fan would.) However, I sort of enjoy being a bit chilly. I find the experience of a cup of coffee, the way the warmth traces my fingertips, gradually creeping into my fingers and then warming me from the inside out with each cautious sip, far more enticing than a pathetic box fan spinning hot air into oblivion, hoping to emulate a happy breeze, but seeming more like a breath from a panting dog on my face. Secondly, I simply enjoy the coffee venture for the experience I have, the chance to think as I stroll down the hill and for the reward at the end (the whole point of the journey: coffee). And somehow, iced whatever just doesn’t hold the same eventual flavorful potential that a steaming cup of coffee with frothy milk lapping at the sides of the paper cup does. And I, after all, am very much a sentimentalist.

None of this is relevant to what I hope to do with this blog. But maybe, just maybe, it gives a sense of who I am so that we can begin as though we’ve already met.

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