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.