Halfway through making their last LP, Benjamin Curtis passed away from cancer. We talk to Alejandra Deheza about past lives, love, and moving through grief into the light.
There’s a white brick building that squats on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it houses a J.Crew which opened at the tail-end of 2014—not long after the area welcomed Urban Outfitters and Madewell just a few blocks to the north. The building used to be a rehearsal/recording space for TV on the Radio, and in the early 2000s, just around the corner, stood another rehearsal spot frequented by everyone from Battles to Interpol to Black Dice. You know the deal: Back then Williamsburg was bleaker, cheaper, and lacking a coffee spot that served flat whites, but even as recently as four years ago there were still artists living in the area. In 2011, TVOTR’s old HQ on Wythe was home to School of Seven Bells’ Benjamin Curtis, Aaron Pfenning (formerly of Chairlift), and for a time, Dev Hynes. During the summer of 2012, in the downtime between touring behind School of Seven Bells’ third album Ghostory, Benjamin and the group’s other member Alejandra Deheza had fallen into their regular routine—working side-by-side, ten to 12 hours a day.
“I would wake up every morning to muffled looping sounds or sometimes Alley’s voice,” remembers Pfenning. “The kitchen was right next to where they were recording so I’d make breakfast and tea and linger and listen to what they were doing. They’d work for so long. I’ve never met any other band that worked as hard as they did.”
Sometimes, after Alejandra had gone home, Benjamin would work a little bit more, although perhaps neither would really call it work. They were in constant motion, creating—first separately with their siblings in the early aughts, as On!Air!Library! and Secret Machines, respectively, and then together, as School of Seven Bells. Although the duo had already released an album in 2012 and their Put Your Sad Down EP was slated to come out in the fall, in those summer months, they were already deep into writing and recording their fourth record, titled the shorthand for their band, SVIIB. Alejandra says that when she starts writing “it’s usually me emptying every corner of the contents of my brain.” The words pour out of her and only latterly do the lyrics come into prescient focus. In the case of this record, Alejandra found herself writing the story of her and Benjamin, a story that spanned a decade, half of which was spent as couple. Alejandra never explicitly discussed the lyrics of this collection with Benjamin, but every line pieces together their history and shoots straight to the heart.
“When we were making this record we’d gotten to this amazing point where the hurt was gone,” recalls Alejandra. “Not that we weren’t close before that, but it was this moment of purity, like when we first met, where there was no history and I almost felt like I didn’t have the right to interrupt the peace we had. Now of course, I wish I’d told him but he must have known, and that’s my comfort: He just didn’t want to say anything because he wanted to protect it too.”
On December 31, they rang in 2013 at their manager Ryan Gentles’ apartment in the East Village. He always throws a great party. “I have a picture from that New Year’s Eve and we’re all so happy,” she says haltingly. “We were having the time of our lives—that moment where everything was perfect. No indicator—nothing—that something was going to go terribly wrong the next year. There was no easing into it. Just, boom.” In February 2013, Benjamin Curtis was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma and that December, just a few days shy of seeing 2014, he passed away. He was just 35.
Dropped into the musical landscape of 2008—when the likes of Vampire Weekend, Santigold, MGMT, and Lykke Li were having their moment—School of Seven Bells' arrival was heralded by Alpinisms, a debut that layered ambient textures, chiming guitars, and enveloping, core-quaking synth lines. The beats were exacting, but combined with the hazily entwining vocals of Alejandra and her identical twin Claudia, they sounded like none of their peers. The spell was cast. The story of how an Oklahoma-born boy and two Guatemala-born sisters came together begins in 1999 when the twins moved from Miami, where they were raised, to New York, driven by Alejandra’s romantic aspirations of being a poet in the city. She ended up forming a band on a lark after someone mistook her for a musician and offered her an opening slot on a bill of three acts. Alejandra called Claudia and told her they had a month to write some songs and On!Air!Library! was born. A year later Benjamin Curtis and his older brother Brandon migrated East, via Dallas and Chicago, as Secret Machines, but the two bands paths didn’t cross until Interpol’s 2004 tour across the States. “By the end of it we felt like a gang and I was sad to see it end, which is rare—it felt like the last day of something,” recalls Interpol’s Daniel Kessler. But really, it was just the beginning, both in terms of these artists’ individual careers and the bonds formed and cemented between them which survive to this day. By the end of that tour, Alejandra and Benjamin were inseperable. “We had this moment where something in my head exploded—like wow, I’ve known this dude, we are connected, we’ve met in a past life, and I know it was the same for him,” remembers Alejandra. “Eyes and bodies didn’t exist. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s so true. I just knew it. This is my soulmate, the love of my life. Still is.”
At this point Alejandra had already decided On!Air!Library! had run its course. With Claudia, she wanted to start from scratch, christening the band School of Seven Bells after a Colombian pickpocketing academy which may or may not have existed. It was also on this tour that Benjamin decided he wanted to be a part of this new project, but it wasn’t until 2007, after Secret Machines released their second album, that he left his brother’s band to focus fully on SVIIB.
They began life as an incredibly self-sufficient trio: For a while they all lived together, with Benjamin, a multi-instrumentalist who started off playing drums in Tripping Daisy in his late teens, handling production duties. They created ripples thanks to mesmeric live shows—performing shoulder to shoulder, Benjamin flanked by the half Costa-Rican, half-Bolivian sisters. Their songs showcased the hymnal charms of their twinned harmonies gliding over pulsating synths, like some shoegaze-enamored Wiccans drawn to the flickering lights of the dance floor.
“From my perspective as soon as they started dating it was obvious that it was more than their relationship—they had a creative thing, a spark,” says Brandon. “I know Benjamin was really inspired by Alley and her creativity and both her singing voice and writing, and they were such an intrinsic part of each other’s process. There was a lot of non-language communication that happened between them. Being in the room with them was always really exciting, just to see them work.”
The pair broke up midway through recording their second full length, Disconnect from Desire. Bands have disintegrated over much less, but the idea of not continuing SVIIB never even entered their heads. They continued to work together every day, finishing the record, touring behind it and striving to find a way to function outside of their grief. Three months after the album was released, Claudia decided to leave the band, and then there were two.
Nine songs strong, their forthcoming album, SVIIB, is a slim, but supremely compelling collection, and in so many ways its completion and eventual release in February 2016 is a victory. For the most part, it sounds like one too. For instance, joyous album opener “Ablaze” clearly maps the thigh-tingling thrill of Alejandra and Benjamin’s first connection while introducing the record’s recurrent imagery: embers, flames, fires, the night sky, the stars, awakened inspiration. And of course, love. She calls it her most blatant love song: “Our whole life together is that song.” Similarly, at the record’s close stands “This Is Our Time”—melancholic, yet utterly uplifting too, it’s a love letter to New York in the early 2000s when the city was humming with possibility and all the best music was coming out of dives like Mercury Lounge and Brownies. “That feeling we both felt when we moved to New York is that same feeling you feel when you fall in love, you’re just like—I can do anything, I’m all powerful, this world is working with me. It’s on my side,” she says. She's smiling.
Benjamin’s diagnosis blindsided everyone, not least because, in their ten years together, Alejandra can’t once remember him even getting a cold. Brandon concurs: If Benjamin had a heavy night of drinking and indulgence, while others would wallow in bed, he’d still be up at 8 AM, working on music or doing something productive.
“I think that also contributed to my own denial about his recovery,” Brandon continues. “He was always leading the charge: ‘What’s the plan? How are we going to beat this?’ That same level of energy and excitement that he carried in music was the thing that drove him. Even in weird situations, like in the hospital when they would test the bone marrow or do the spinal taps, he would be like, ‘Let’s get this on film.’ I don’t know what his plan was but he wanted to document it. He was fearless. There wasn’t a point where he conceded.”
Even within the confines of those sterile walls he was making music, having somehow convinced the nurses to allow him two tabletop synths and a guitar in his hospital bedroom. The last song he ever recorded was a cover of Joey Ramone’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)” (who lost his battle to lymphoma in 2001). Alejandra recorded her vocals with Brandon at the Curtis’ sister’s apartment with Benjamin overseeing proceedings via Skype. Benjamin was in the hospital fairly consistently for 11 months, and every day, Alejandra was right beside him.
“I would get there in the morning and leave when he fell asleep, but as he got sicker and I started to realize he might go, I started sleeping there because I wanted to be there when he left. And I was. And it was worth it,” says Alejandra, her eyes widening, welling up, and then we’re both teary. “There was no way I was going to let him go without telling him I was OK and that I was fine and I was watching him and I was happy that he would be at peace finally.”
A couple months after Benjamin’s diagnosis, producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a longtime fan of the band who’s worked with everyone from Beck to Nine Inch Nails to M83, flew from LA to New York to work with the group in Rare Book Room, a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The plan was for the trio build on the tracks laid down that past summer and begin sprinting towards the finish line, but Benjamin encountered complications and went back into the hospital. They knuckled down, but one evening Alejandra got a call from a friend telling her Benjamin was so upset he couldn’t make it to the session that the hospital staff had to transfer him to the psych ward to calm him down. “The friend was like, ‘I can’t do that to Alley, are you crazy?’” says Brandon. “And he was like, ‘You can’t say no to me. I have cancer. This is my Make-A-Wish!’ Really turning the screws of manipulation, but in a funny way.”
Naturally, Alejandra was internally freaking out, but trying to hold it together for the sake of the sessions. “And then there’s this fucking knock on the door and it’s Benjamin. He’s cracking up and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I’m gonna kill you!’” She’s laughing uproariously as she tells this story and it’s a memory that’s stayed with Brandon too. “Definitely there were times when we would laugh after that, but being in the studio for him was a very pure experience,” he says. “He could do anything. He was floating in this weird creative bubble and he was just happy, even just being released from an inpatient treatment of chemo."
While most of the lyrics and melodies for SVIIB were penned during the gilded summer of 2012, “Confusion” was recorded live during this session with Benjamin playing organ through a vintage rotating Leslie speaker, while Alejandra and Meldal-Johnsen lay on the floor, silent. “It was immensely powerful, beyond words,” remembers Meldal-Johnsen. Darkly atmospheric like an Angelo Badalamenti composition, yet still ethereal, Alejandra’s lyrics are devastatingly direct: “We spent so much time / Facing the days together / That I forgot / How to be different from us.”
As much as SVIIB tells Alejandra and Benjamin’s story, it’s a tale locked in an embrace with the siren city that called them from across America. New York City is constantly evolving—hot spots have their moments, buildings are dismantled, new foundations laid, relationships form and splinter and leave shards all over the city. New York is never a clean slate, so it’s no wonder Alejandra had to leave after Benjamin passed.
“I was a complete mess,” she says. “I was partying all the time, I couldn’t hear silence and I couldn’t be by myself. I was checked out and it was very self-destructive. I feel selfish when I say that because life is so important and you want to stay alive to honor your friend and his life, but it was just one of those things where I just could not deal with life at all.” During this period, Alejandra’s sister and SVIIB’s manager were the constants keeping her sane. She found it almost impossible to spend time with their mutual friends. She dropped in and out of contact, and her relationship with music morphed under the emotional strain too. “I felt like the only way I could really hear music was deafeningly loud in bars with people,” she says. “That was the only way it took me out of my head a little bit.” Music had been her joy, her solace, and her means of expression, but listening to SVIIB’s material was off-limits for many, many months. Even now there are certain records she can’t listen to: Robert Wyatt, Joni Mitchell, albums they’d listen to by themselves. Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and mixes of relaxing ambient music, which Benjamin made to sooth her insomnia in the early years when he was away touring with Secret Machines.
There’s no standardized procedure for dealing with loss. Almost two years on from Alejandra’s greatest heartbreak, even though our conversation is peppered with laughter and smiles, grief still hovers close to the surface. In an instant she is crestfallen. “I can live, I can function, I can do my thing, but the absence of him is crushing,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. Still. There’s a huge hole. I’ve just started getting used to the idea that it will always feel like that. I was fighting it for so long, like, one day I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be OK, and I just recently started to accept that that’s never going to change, because he’s my soulmate, he’s my other half, and I don’t care how that sounds. I feel so insanely lucky that I know what that feels like. So it’s worth it.” She’s says this last sentence spaced out, her tongue sharpening the T’s for emphasis. You can feel her trying to strengthen her resolve.
In the winter of 2014 Alejandra got together with her sister to try and finish off the song “Music Takes Me.” Her rule for what ended up on SVIIB was that only songs she and Benjamin had worked together would make the cut. “Music Takes Me” was a kind of halfway house—Benjamin was so in love with the chorus that she felt she couldn’t leave it to languish. Full of hypnotic throbs, drum thuds redolent of Secret Machines, and what sounds like stars colliding in the sky, the chorus surges with pure optimism. The verses, however, still hadn’t been dreamed into existence, so Alejandra called in Claudia to help her write, while Brandon recorded her vocals. It was a four-part familial collaboration that she’s thankful for, but the experience of working on that song also showed her it was just too soon. “I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t even write lyrics that whole time, which is my thing, just writing words. Nothing was coming out. I couldn’t express myself at all. I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t…,” she trails off.
Moving to LA not long after was both survival instinct and the first step towards eventually completing the record. She went to Koreatown, eventually settling in Filipinotown (because these parts of LA reminded her most of NYC) and on February 24, 2015, she set up camp at Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s studio, Chez JMJ, near in Atwater Village. After Brandon painstakingly pulled together and sifted through the countless audio files stashed on various hard drives left untouched for over year, Alejandra, Meldal-Johnsen, and engineer Mike Schuppan set to work. As Meldal-Johnsen tells it, in finalizing SVIIB the weight began to lift and Alejandra seemed liberated, working under her own steam, with Benjamin’s blessing. They collaborated harmoniously for six weeks, mixed in May, and SVIIB was mastered by July.
“When the record label and management came in and we played it down, Alley sat there not really able to speak and I kind of lost it,” says Meldal-Johnsen. “There’s a thing that occurs when something lives in a vacuum for so long and then it’s released and the energy that comes with that is palpable and sometimes overwhelming. Having the music be wrapped up in the energy of other humans was pretty intense for the people in the room, but also by the end somewhat celebratory as well.”
Although SVIIB comes heavy, the overwhelming feeling it leaves you with is one of joy. There’s not one note, turn of phrase, or sonic cadence that doesn’t vibrate with emotion. The songs affect your whole body, like a tuning fork struck, the rhythms shivering through the length of you. They are devastatingly, singularly and unswervingly personal, but like all the greatest songs, they also feel entirely applicable to you.
And yet, and yet, and yet, the more I talk to Alejandra and to those privy to her partnership with Benjamin, the more I'm struck by the depth of their connection. On “A Thousand Times More,” Alejandra sings her comfort to Benjamin in the wake of a breakup, urging him to have hope, and wishing she could take that pain for herself to assuage his own. With the disco-tized synth and a bassline New Order’s Peter Hook would be proud to claim as his own, it’s ebullient. But how many ex-lovers can you imagine singing that sentiment and actually meaning it? "Open Your Eyes” is the first full tune to be shared from the album and in the intro Alejandra intones “moving on,” coming through like an intermittent transmission. Like all the songs on SVIIB, the pair’s relationship is writ large with every word. In lullaby-sweet tones she addresses Benjamin, in the wake of their split: relinquish past hurt and see their relationship as it stands, undiminished, burning bright.
Talking to his friends and those around Benjamin, a figure starts to take shape outside of his rep as a prolific music obsessive. He was a prankster and character who drew you in, one who emboldened people to dig deeper, think harder, be inspired, and just do. Pfenning is full of funny memories, which he shares by phone from a parked car somewhere in Colorado. For instance, during Hurricane Sandy the pair holed up with Alejandra and attendant friends and played Apples to Apples through the night as the storm raged outside. Periodically they’d would sneak out to the East River to stand up to Sandy. “He had a daring quality about him that I found really attractive,” says Pfenning. “‘Let’s walk out onto the pier and into the hurricane,’ because why not?”
Soon after Sandy, they were forced out of the loft (to make way for J.Crew). To give the space a fond farewell Pfenning, Benjamin, and Alejandra broke in to run riot and help the builders with their refurbishment, turning the end-of-an-era destruction of their home into a celebratory demolishment farewell. During one two-week stretch, Benjamin and Pfenning busied themselves calling businesses they found on Yelp!—a Vietnamese restaurant in South Dakota, a motel in Louisiana, a pet store, somewhere—keeping whoever they spoke with on the line for as long as possible. They started off making up stories to tell the strangers on the other end, but it soon evolved, with them sometimes spending up to 45 minutes on the phone taking turns talking, while one or the other would create ambient music in the background with EBows, guitars, and cassette tapes. “It was really just learning about humans and what other people’s lives are like,” says Pfenning. “Benjamin obviously held the record for staying on the phone the longest with some gal in a motel—he charmed her for well over an hour.” Alejandra laughs wholeheartedly when I remind her of this pursuit: “Oh man! I still have some of those recorded calls—they were hilarious!”
Alejandra's still based in LA and she's still making music. She’s also feeling the pull of New York again, hoping to return this coming spring to record with her sister. “Life just kind of happens, it will take you here and take you there, it doesn’t even ask,” she says with a light sigh. “I’m super open—I’m just going to follow where it goes because even making all these plans, it doesn’t matter. You have to follow the path it gives you.”
She thought her and Benjamin would grow old together, but is also somewhat comforted by the notion that they’ll meet again, in the next life, and she doesn’t need a psychic to tell her so. “If the connection in this life is that strong, the next one is going to be even stronger,” she says. “I just wish it could be Alley remembering it, because you know, you have to start again. But I have faith because I did recognize him this time around.”
When writing about someone who's passed away, there’s the pressure to try and paint as accurate, well-rounded, and detailed a portrait of that person as possible. Of course you should strive for that, but does this piece do Benjamin justice? To the person he really was? To how he touched people? No, of course not, not even close. But Benjamin remains, clutched close in memories, some shared, many private. And then of course there's the music.
Ryan Gentles misses watching the late night shows with his friend. Brandon misses talking to his brother every day—his musical sounding board since they first picked up instruments. Daniel Kessler appreciated the way he really, truly listened, and the thoughtfulness in his responses. Aaron Pfenning misses talking for hours while a movie played in the background on mute. Alejandra misses the pocket of time when they’d just moved into their spot in the Lower East Side. “It’s funny to me because there’s nothing really to say.” She adds, “I have it all in pictures in my head.”
Kim Taylor Bennett loves this new album so much even though it makes her cry. She's on Twitter.