From love story to cancer: a rock band's final chapter

Studio 360
School of Seven Bells' Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis.

School of Seven Bells' Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis.

Justin Hollar

The band School of Seven Bells started as a love story.

In the early 2000s, Benjamin Curtis played guitar in a band called Secret Machines. At the same time, Alejandra Deheza was in another band called On! Air! Library! Deheza and Curtis met when their bands ended up on a tour together.

“There was a something that hit,” Deheza says, “It was like lightning. And I knew that we were definitely going to do something together. In life, definitely, but also musically. It just kind of immediately went hand in hand.”

Soon after meeting Curtis and Deheza started both a relationship and a band, a group they called School of Seven Bells. 

In the summer of 2012, Curtis and Deheza began work on “SVIIB” — their fourth studio album. 

“It was just one of those things where we were just on this roll,” Deheza says, “We just went into the studio every day and spend like 12 hours straight just hanging out, writing music, recording it. We just had so much freedom. We were so happy that summer. It was just pure creativity, pure life pretty much. We had wrapped it up, we had some demos and we were basically going to tour for the fall.”

The tour and album never happened as they’d planned it. Instead, in the beginning of 2013, Curtis got sick. He checked in the hospital and soon after found out he had cancer. 

“The minute that he got the diagnosis they started him on chemo,” Deheza says, “After that I think there was like maybe only a few times that he could leave the hospital just because — I honestly don't know what made him more sick, if it was the chemo or if it was the cancer. But you couldn't tell at that point.”

Curtis insisted on bringing his instruments, computer, and recording equipment into the hospital with him, and he continued composing. 

“Confusion,” ended up being the last song Curtis and Deheza wrote together.

“That was written during his treatment,” Deheza says, “He just started playing this synth. I'm not sure if I even knew he was recording or not but we always had a mic set up and everything. So I was just kind of like singing into it and the whole thing was pretty improvised … It was pretty hard to even get the words out because we were both crying when we were recording this song. It was like this moment that was so incredibly precious to us. And we knew it and we just kept everything as it was and that's how it came out.”

After Curtis died in December 2013, Deheza, Benjamin's brother, Brandon Curtis, and the album’s producer, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, had quite a task ahead of them.

“We didn’t talk about what his idea for the music would be,” Brandon Curtis says. “He wanted Alley [Deheza] to be in the position to make the kind of record she wanted to make. If that were to happen, he would be happy with it.”

Since Curtis had produced all of the band’s music, Meldal-Johnsen faced a steep learning curve when he tried to finish the work in progress. “Everything was done in Benjamin’s shorthand and it was scattered across several hard drives and had proprietary bits of software to create it.”

With the help of Brandon, who had worked with his brother and was familiar with the “housekeeping aspect” of Benjamin’s digital recording, Meldal-Johnsen and Deheza “took it all apart and put it back together again.”

For Deheza, finishing the record has also helped her rediscover her identity. “It’s taken this whole time for me to stop asking that question: What would he do here?” she says. “We wrote together for ten years, so it’s been a long process to try to get to the point where I can actually differentiate what my voice is. I feel like I’m figuring that out now, finally.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.