School of Seven Bells Chimes In
The members of School of Seven Bells wear matching watches. These aren’t just any watches. As guitarist Benjamin Curtis explains, they were made by a friend searching for new ways of telling time. Curtis’ does so by means of digital bubbles. The one worn by bandmate Alejandra Deheza employs vertical bars. Deheza’s twin sister and co-vocalist Claudia is out, but Deheza assures me that hers is equally esoteric. Says Curtis, “I’ve been wearing this thing every day, and even now, I’m not sure what time it is.” As an analogy for the music on the band’s debut LP, Alpinisms, the watches are too good to pass up. Songs such as “Connjur” and “Half Asleep” manage the mean feat of making the familiar mysterious. They lean on the sounds of Krautrock, vintage Cocteau Twins, and Warp Records-inspired electronica without falling into any of those exact grooves.
Indie rock fanatics who know Curtis and the Deheza sisters from their previous bands, Secret Machines and On! Air! Library!, may pick up hints of those sounds, too. But the similarities shape-shift almost as soon as they’re recognized. Alpinisms, in short, is music that tells its own time. Last night, School of Seven Bells kicked off a national tour opening for M83, and on Friday, they return to New York for a hometown show at Webster Hall; in the meantime, Curtis and Deheza talk to Style.com about falling in love, building houses, and making a surprising amount of noise.
You were both members of bands with decent followings. How did you wind up exiting those projects and starting School of Seven Bells?
Benjamin Curtis: Our bands toured together in 2004, with Interpol, too, and we all kind of fell in love with idea of making music together.
“Fell in love,” how? I mean, there must have been some particular thing you, Ben, or you, Alejandra, were responding to in each other’s music.
Alejandra Deheza: For me, it was the way Ben played guitar. You know, Secret Machines was a rock band, but the way he played, it wasn’t rock. There was no blues there. It was more like Neu! or something. A lot of repetition and build.
BC: I’d say two things. I’d watch Alejandra play every night, and her demeanor really impressed me. She’d face down the audience in this very stoic way, like it was a staring contest, and that always struck me as brave. And then the other thing was I loved the way she and Claudia sounded when they sang together, but they hardly ever would. I think there was only, like, one song.
So, that was back in 2004—why did it take so long to get the first record out?
AD: I had the name and everything really early on, but I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to embark on a new project until I knew what I was going to do differently. I mean, I was writing songs and writing songs, all in an effort to break old habits. And in order to do that, I mean, I don’t want to say that what I came up with was a set of rules, because that’s not quite right, but I came up with the idea of approaching songs from the point of view of these different characters. The seven bells, essentially.
Characters? As in, dramatis personae?
AD: Not exactly. It’s more like, we all have these various selves knocking around inside us, and what if you could write from each of those perspectives?
That’s an interesting concept in the abstract, but what’s your process like in practice?
BC: The songs all come together in different ways, but usually what happens is we play around until some scrap of music comes along that feels right, somehow. And when I say scrap, I mean scrap—a short loop of something, or some drone-y hook. We build out from that and fill in the colors. By the time we finish the song, as often as not, the original element we liked isn’t even included anymore. But anyway, there’s this one thing, and we build a house around it.
I get the sense there’s a lot of production on these tracks. How does the music change when you play it live?
AD: You’re not wrong, there is a fair amount of production. The funny thing is that playing live actually got us to the finished versions of most of these songs. We’d been tweaking and toying around with the music for some time, and then the opportunity came up a little while ago to tour. That’s really when we found our sound.
BC: Playing live kind of pried the songs out of our hands. They went off and found themselves. If we hadn’t been asked on that tour, I’m not sure we’d have a record out now. Personally, I’m someone who has a hard time saying something I’m working on is done. But anyway, to answer your question—live, the songs sound like the songs. We play them straight. Maybe they come off a little more muscular.
AD: It’s just the three of us on tour. Two guitars, electronic beats, synths. We keep it minimal. For a small band, though, I promise—we make a big sound.