The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
It was February 8th of last year that School of Seven Bells frontwoman Alejandra Deheza took to the band’s Facebook to announce that her musical partner and friend, Benjamin Curtis, was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. It’s a cancer that I knew and many probably didn’t, but with my father being a decade past his diagnosis and treatment for the same illness, I, like Deheza, was optimistic that Curtis would be okay. After all, my dad was in his 60’s when he got sick and he made it (so far). Curtis would surely be fine if he was in the prime of his life.
December, unfortunately, was a reminder that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how special your talents are when dealing with cancer. Curtis passed away on December 29th, with the only clues from an outsiders perspective being an unusual absence from social media preceding that time. At the beginning of that month, the L.A. music scene lost a dear friend in photographer Andrew Youseff to colon cancer, and I couldn’t help grouping the pair together in my mind, remembering seeing them on Twitter communicating with each other about their respective battles. And now, we are left to make sense of why these things happen, and with their art as the testament to the world as they saw it.
I don’t bring up my father and my friend to distract from this story, but to show how I can’t really know how Deheza feels. I can try to relate it to my own experiences, but no one knows how death affects another. Some hurt more and some hurt less, and there is no wrong or right way to grieve. We can try to put ourselves in each others shoes, in fact we should try to be empathetic, but only Deheza knows what it is like to lose Curtis as a bandmate and as a dear friend.
Personally, I’ve written a lot about my friend Andrew and months later, I am still not ready to go through the pages and publish something out of it. That day will come, as it is coming to Deheza, who last week offered up a new School of Seven Bells video, a cover of Joey Ramone’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)”. The lyrics, “Sitting in a hospital bed, I want my life” repeat over and over, and it is easy to understand the appeal of the song to Curtis. It was the last song he would work on, working remotely from his hospital bed while Deheza plugged away in the studio. The image, of an artist creating for as long as he physically could, is inspiring. And that inspiration adds a value beyond tuneful sounds and emotional connections that we normally use to evaluate music. The song is a reminder to live, from a man who didn’t need to be reminded. We shouldn’t need a reminder, either, but often we do.
Deheza agreed to talk about the song and the upcoming School of Seven Bells album that was mostly recorded before Curtis was diagnosed. On the phone, she is still emotionally raw, but with an ease and grace to the way she speaks that lets me know she is okay, that this interview isn’t just a chore, that she actually wants to be there, talking about her music and her friend, even though it still hurts.
Run through what you’ve been doing from Benjamin’s passing until now. Why did you decide to make a new School of Seven Bells record?
Well, when he was taken to the hospital, we were 75% done already with the new record. It’s something that we had been working and planned on releasing. Then he got sick and at that time we really didn’t know what was going to happen. He was still renting studio time and all that because we had no idea… how things were going to progress. It took a little while after everything happened til I could actually open them up and listen to them again. They’re really… it’s even hard to talk about it.
Yeah, I can imagine. I imagine it would be really tough to get into the frame of mind to work on that single that just was put out, the Joey Ramone cover. The lyrics obviously relate to what Benjamin was going through. When you guys recorded it, were you aware of what was going to happen?
No. I don’t think… no. We had no idea. I think somewhere in there we knew, on some level, maybe? But, no. At that point it just started getting worse really fast. When we tracked it, he was still very sick but then he wasn’t able to mix it, so his brother Brandon Curtis helped finish it. Benjamin just got way worse really fast.
With the new songs, it’s probably not going to be just yourself in the studio. Is his brother going to help you out again?
Right now, I still… um… I’m still working on that. I have all the tracks and all the sessions, so some things I’ll know when I’m closer to that time. There is still a lot of work to be done to get to that time, before even getting back in the studio. I have to sort through a lot of stuff right now.
In this time of gearing up for this new record, have you given any thought to what your move might be after this? Would you make music solo or are you interested in finding a new band?
I’m not going to stop making music that’s for sure. That’s what I do. The single coming out has been very… it’s one of those things that let me know that I’m ready for this again. It’s just been really exciting time with people responding, and just hearing it. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.
It sounds really good. It sounds like you guys. Like School of Seven Bells. I wasn’t familiar with the original song, so it was all new to me.
Funny thing is, I didn’t know that song either. Ben I guess was listening to it a lot, but I had no idea. Ben was just really into it. For obvious reasons…
I actually met you guys once a few years back. You won’t remember but it sticks out to me because it was the first time I was ever “backstage” at a concert. You and Benjamin were both really nice to me.
Where was that?
It was at the Conga Room?
Oh my God, that venue.
I’ve never been back there. They never have anything there.
I don’t know where that came from, but what a great experience in the strangest room.
Your sister had already left the band then, do you still keep in contact with her? She’s not making music anymore?
You know, she has a family. She has a little boy. So, she’s doing that whole thing. But yeah, we are still really close.
Maybe that is a possibility down the road, you could work with her again.
Yeah, she’s always going to be a musician at heart. But, she is focusing on other things right now.
Is there a timetable or plan to how quickly you want to get this new album done, considering most of it has already been completed?
My goal is … if everything goes exactly like I want, it’ll be out early next year. 2015. And, I figured that everything will go as planned, so that’s what I’m looking at right now.
Do you give thought to or feel a responsibility to preserve Benjamin’s legacy? Like, how he is presented to the world from now on? I don’t know, I think I might feel that sort of duty if I were in that situation.
You know, he’d never really need anyone else to do that. His music is so strong and powerful on its own. It speaks for itself. I just feel really lucky to make music with him when I could.
What do you think you learned most from him as a musician?
Always to trust myself.
Like trusting your first instinct?
Yeah, to always trust my instinct.
I feel like life has taught me the opposite lesson. [Laughs.]
I mean, that’s human nature. To not do it. It takes a lot to learn how to trust your instincts. And, he was always encouraging me to do that.
Part of that is being okay with your instincts when they don’t lead you the way you anticipated.
Yeah, but it’s not always a negative.
Yeah, like, regardless of why it happens, if you are following your instincts, you should be cool with whatever comes of it.
Always. Because you’re just following your heart. You’re just being true to yourself. As trite as it sounds, there is truth to that.
And obviously, you haven’t thought too much about live presentation as School of Seven Bells yet?
I’m just thinking about working creatively on the music right now. But in the future, for sure.
Have you started writing lyrics yet? Do you think the lyrics will reflect some of the background of what was going on?
The songs are written. Like the structures and lyrics, things like that. What’s left to be done is mostly production stuff. But, yeah the songs were written before checking into the hospital.
Do you get a sense of the songs now that is different from when you wrote them? Like, do they take on a new meaning?
Oh yeah. It’s eerie. Listening, I feel like you are picking up on something. You’re aware of your life, past and present and future. And, I believe on the same level, everything is around you at all times. It’s strange looking back at the songs, and how they have been making so much more sense in the future than when I wrote them.
It’s sad that it takes death to make us realize the significance of each moment. But, it does give the moments more significance when you’re around death. I feel that.
I Imagine from a songwriting perspective, it would feel like that, too. Where you could pinpoint the moment in songs when you came up with it and where you were when it was happening and listening — it can take you back to that place.
Yeah, definitely. Now, I just look back at all those memories and they’ll have him in them. It’s really awesome to be able to listen to that again. [Cries.] I’m sorry.
No, I’m sorry.
This is totally normal.
But yeah, it’s a special thing you have, a marker of the two of you.
Yeah, I feel really blessed.
I guess my last question would be in the time since the band was in full swing, maybe 2011 or so, until now, how have your goals as a musician changed?
I remember in 2011 I just wanted to tour as much as possible. I just wanted to go places. Maps for me were a huge focus. Just to be able to see the world. That being said, though, I feel like even back then, the most fun part for me was the writing process. Now, I think…
You know? I don’t think much has changed in that respect. I really still love both of those things. I hear a lot of people complaining about being on the road and I get that, after doing it for years now I can see needing a place to call your own.
But having this time, being in New York, has really made me appreciate the road so much more. I think because I had this break, which wasn’t my choice, it just rekindled all of that.
Sounds like next year will be a lot of doing what you love.