For School of Seven Bells guitarist Ben Curtis, his band's Saturday performance at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is a homecoming of sorts. Though born in Lawton, Okla., and based in New York City since 2000, Curtis spent much of his youth in North Texas. The former Lake Highlands resident was a member of two groundbreaking Dallas bands: Secret Machines and Tripping Daisy (in which he played drums).
"I've been to the Modern, but years and years ago," says Curtis by phone from New York. "One of the special things about a venue like this is that it's so nice. And any chance we have to take our music outside the typical rock-club format, we'll do it. And to be able to do that in North Texas, well, of all the shows on the tour, I'm looking forward to it the most."
Certainly, the School of Seven Bells' layered, blissful, angelic indie-pop -- originally featuring the lush harmonies of identical twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, though Claudia now has left the group -- is well-suited to the more rarefied confines of a museum. Over the group's three albums -- Alpinisms (2008), Disconnect From Desire (2010) and the recently released and exquisite Ghostory -- Curtis has moved very far away from the guitar rock of his previous bands.
"I was interested in a different way of working," he says of his exit from Secret Machines, the trio formed with his brother Brandon and Josh Garza. "I love Brandon and Josh, but there was definitely something about that particular format that was a bit restrictive to me. I wanted to be less of a guitar player. Some of the musical ideas that I was having at the time weren't going to be realized in Secret Machines."
Curtis had met the Deheza sisters when Secret Machines and their group, On! Air! Library!, opened for Interpol on a tour. The three felt a musical connection and ultimately formed School of Seven Bells, named after a mythical South American pickpocket training ground.
Much of Seven Bells' appeal is in the soaring and ethereal vocals, an element that would have seemed to be threatened by the sudden exit of Claudia Deheza before the recording of Ghostory. "The fact that she didn't want to be doing music in the long term was not a surprise, but the timing was definitely a surprise," Curtis says. "We had to reconfigure and go through that process of saying, 'All right, how are we going to do this?'"
Curtis says that Claudia Deheza didn't contribute as much to the writing as Alejandra, but that the impact would be felt on stage. "It's hard for us to replicate [the sound] when Claudia was in the band," he says. "A lot of the stuff Alejandra writes is really tricky. We've had trouble bringing that to life onstage, but we're at the point now that it's closer than ever."
Curtis recruited friend Allie Alvarado to handle Claudia's vocal parts. "There was a nice romantic notion of sisters Alejandra and Claudia singing together," Curtis says, noting that there was a bit of nerves when Allie first sang with Alejandra. "The sound is so particular, and that was the big wild card. But we got in a room, and they sang together, and the sound was beautiful."
School of Seven Bells has achieved a level of global success that eluded Secret Machines and Tripping Daisy; the current tour will take them to Beijing, Mexico City and Moscow. And although Curtis likes living in New York, he misses some things about North Texas. "The food and the people," he says. "There's a certain kind of attitude. I really respond to it. There's something about the way you deal with people that is pretty genuine and pretty real. But, in reality, there's something I like about every city I go to."