Benjamin Curtis, who died Sunday at age 35 after a battle with lymphoblastic lymphoma, was the drummer in Dallas bands UFOFU and Tripping Daisy. But he came out from behind the kit to give so much more. Curtis showed what he could do as a guitarist for Secret Machines, fronted by his brother Brandon. The release of their debut album Now Here Is Nowhere electrified the indie rock landscape in 2004 with a big, brave sound. The expansive guitar on that record was just the beginning of his wider contributions to music.
Zac Crain, now senior editor at D Magazine, watched Curtis grow. Crain was music editor for the Dallas Observer from 1997 to 2005, and he covered earlier milestones in Ben's career like the release of Tripping Daisy's landmark Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb. The spirited, wiry drummer could do a lot more that he let on then.
"When Ben was UFOFU and then later with Tripping Daisy, I think everyone recognized he was a really talented drummer. But I think very few people realized he was a really talented musician, period. He didn’t really show off all that he could do until he moved to New York and played with Secret Machines and School of Seven Bells," Crain says. "But even when he was just playing drums, you had to pay close attention to see everything he was capable of, because he wasn’t flashy, he didn’t do anything unnecessary, he never demanded the spotlight."
As a member of Tripping Daisy, it was hard to avoid attention, though. Here's video of "Halo Comb" from a show in 1998, when Curtis had no choice but to sit in the sun for a minute. His thriller of a drum solo starts at the :48 mark.
Secret Machines moved to New York and didn't release its first full-length album until 2004. You can feel the anticipation Dallas music fans and critics had for the album in this Observer piece by Robert Wilonsky, "Anatomy of a Buzz."
There was an intense kind of sonic wonder in Curtis' guitar playing, which was new to those who'd followed him as a drummer. It would help shape School of Seven Bells, a dream-pop project many know by the ethereal hummer "Half Asleep."
"In terms of Ben’s legacy and what he’s left behind, I know I’ll come back to a lot of the music he made with School of Seven Bells," Crain says. "But what I’ll probably come back to the most is the first Secret Machines record. Not just because the songs are so great, but because of what it felt like the first time I heard it. You know, to hear Ben doing all these things that his brother had told me about before they moved to New York. It was sort of a revelation, and I’ll always remember how I felt when I first heard that album, and hearing Ben play guitar."
Crain eulogized Curtis for SPIN. Here’s the essay.