R.I.P. Benjamin Curtis
Photo By Benjamin Grimes
This past Sunday, Benjamin Curtis, the guitarist for School of Seven Bells and onetime member of Secret Machines, died at the age of 35 after a year-long battle with cancer. Curtis was an inventive, original musician who not only helped form the core of Secret Machines' dynamic sound, but he was able to stylistically switch gears when he left the band he founded with his brother Brandon to form the ethereal School of Seven Bells with Alejandra and Claudia Deheza.
This past February, Curtis announced that he had been diagnosed with T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a somber revelation which caused musicians from all over the country to pledge their support during numerous fund-raising events over the past year. Sadly, Curtis lost his courageous battle against cancer on Sunday night, leaving behind a stellar musical legacy that regularly touched us in the Twin Cities, as well as a community of musicians and fans who will miss him dearly.
The first time I had the pleasure of seeing Secret Machines live was in 2004, when the Dallas-based trio opened for Interpol at First Avenue. The buzz surrounding their amazing debut full-length, Now Here Is Nowhere, was just staring to build, and their spellbinding opening set only reinforced the distinctive, enthralling sounds featured on the record. The deft musical interplay between the Curtis brothers was born out of years of playing and performing together, most notably in the mid-'90s band, UFOFU.
With songs as potent and sprawling as "First Wave Intact" and "Nowhere Again," Secret Machines fluidly blended hazy psychedelia with modern shoegaze and krautrock influences, and boldly announced a refreshing new musical direction that continued on their underrated follow-up, Ten Silver Drops. It was their 2006 show at First Avenue in support of that record that provided me with one of my favorite local shows of recent memory, as the band delivered a memorable In-the-Round performance that found them set up on the floor of the Mainroom, with fans encircling the stage.
The unconventional set up and subsequent performance created a unique intimacy and immediate connection with the music that was distinctive and special, with the group even bringing in their own soundsystem which was tailor made for the in-the-round set up -- allowing their immersive, penetrating sound to wash over all corners of the room. It was a brilliant performance, and one that anyone who was there won't forget anytime soon.
When Benjamin announced his departure from Secret Machines following the Ten Silver Drops tour, I was saddened, knowing how much of a key role he played in the band's striking sound. But Benjamin's new project, School of Seven Bells, proved to be a welcome departure from his previous band, as Curtis and the Deheza sisters crafted a dreamy, textured soundscape that was at once enthralling and exciting.
School of Seven Bells clearly loved playing Minneapolis (and touring in general), as they played here nearly ten times since 2007. Their pair of Entry shows with Fujiya & Miyagi stand out, especially their enchanting '09 show, which found both bands delivering soaring, textured sets that swept me away.
SVIIB's brief opening set for M83 at the Triple Rock in 2008 was another perfect match for the band, as the trio effortlessly won over the sold-out club with a seven-song set drawn exclusively from their stellar debut, Alpinisms. Curtis consistently gave their sound a twisted but graceful sonic edge, layering guitar effects on top of the pulsating rhythms of the songs, while ceding much of the spotlight to Alejandra, clearly comfortable playing in the shadows toward the back of the stage. My lengthy chat with the affable Curtis following that show now takes on an added poignancy following his sad passing.
They frequently returned to headline the Entry over the years, including yearly shows in '09 (with Warpaint in support), a slow-starting but ultimately enjoyable set in '10, and '11, as well as another memorable opening slot for Black Moth Super Rainbow at the Triple Rock in '09. The band didn't really miss a step when Claudia left the band following a tour in support of their second record, Disconnect From Desire, and their follow-up album, Ghostory, proved to be the best album of their career.
Their stellar show in support of that brilliant record, at the Triple Rock with Exitmusic in 2012, was sadly the last time that I had the pleasure of seeing Benjamin perform. But if that show has to serve as a mournful but enchanting goodbye, I'll gladly take it, as the band, and Curtis especially, was in fine form throughout the captivating set.
Benjamin Curtis had an outstanding ear for music, and clearly knew what sounded good throughout his career -- and thankfully he was a talented enough musician that he could capture those sounds in his head and graciously share them with his fans and audiences everywhere. I can't help but feel that both Secret Machines and School of Seven Bells deserved to be much bigger and more successful than they were, but the imaginative music that Curtis has left behind will certainly be cherished by his fans, and left to be discovered by generations of music fans to come.
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