Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

School of Seven Bells: Not Too Close for Comfort

Written by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Jason Rodgers
Prop styling by Ethan G. Whitney
So, what kinds of music do three friends who share a bathroom, fridge, and electric bill make together? Imagine the orgasmatron from Woody Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper, where you enter into a futuristic cylinder (large enough to contain one or two people) and you are suddenly and rapidly induced with orgasms.

You probably won’t get an orgasm just by listening to School of Seven Bells’ full-length debut, Alpinisms, (out on Ghostly International since 10/28/08), but you might come close. Their spooky, sinister voices reach their crescendo after riding the (metaphorical) waves of sound just to topple over and break off into the deep black hole of an other worldly universe. At least, that’s what it feels like when you’re listening to it.

Three bandmates who are also friends, living in an apartment together in New York City, walking the line of rude and friendly and comfortable, and making music together in the same kind of way. Ben Curtis, (formerly in Secret Machines) fits snugly into twin sisters Alley and Claudia Deheza’s (both ex-On!Air!Library) pea pod, and their closeness is what makes the Seven Bells’ music work so well.

They are the kinds of friends who build igloos and tree houses together; who talk across second story windows on walkie-talkies made of tin cans. Well, not really, but they do have the kind of camaraderie and collaborative setup many look for, long for, and dream about.

While they all play instruments on the album—Alley, guitar; Claudia, keyboard; and Ben, guitar—it is Alley and Claudia who are responsible for the complex vocal harmonies and cogent lyrics. Mixing deep emotion with familiar stories together, they create sentimental yet phantasmal vocals. In their already-hit song (it was all over the web even before the album came out), “Connjur,” the twins fade out repetitively chanting, “And you’ll see what we see, nothing more.” Simple, but after a couple of times in a row, it kind of gives you the chills. Alley says about their writing process: “Claudia and I both contribute lyrics. There's no method to it. Some songs are my lyrics responding to hers and vice versa.”

But there’s something else quite appealing and intrinsic about their vocals…the way they sing them. Sure, they have angelic voices, and not all ladies can harmonize like they’re in a professional church choir—certainly not every set of twins—but it doesn’t end there. The breaks in the lyrics happen at odd times and the emphases are such that it basically seems like each lyric, each song, is part of one long, never ending licorice lace that you could slowly unravel or roll back in by winding up your fishing reel. What Alley has to say about it: “Ultimately, the Seven Bells are seven facets of one entity communicating with each other. They each sing about where they're coming from.”

The idea of the seven minds working as one first stemmed from a legend about a South American pickpocket academy that is thought to have existed in the ‘80s. But in reality, there are just three players that make up the backbone of the School of Seven Bells. And where they’re coming from goes back to where they started. Like siblings playing music together for as long as they can remember...

Before they could even speak, Claudia and Alley had memorized an entire song in Spanish, which they constantly sang when they were little, and are currently trying to re-learn as a band. But we can’t help but ask these sibling collaborators (coincidentally, Ben too was in a band with a sibling, his brother, in Secret Machines), can they possibly get along and play music together at the same time?

Alley talks about why it’s actually much easier to be in a band with a sibling. She lays it out: “There aren't any formalities to get around, any honeymoon period that suddenly and unexpectedly ends. It's honest from the get-go. No frills. No fuss.” Alley and Claudia have that kind of sisterhood where one can nod and the other one knows what that means. “But at the same time, there’s that closeness [where] you have to make a conscious effort of keeping the respect,” Alley adds. She sheds some light on the subject of partnership: “In any creative situation, whether there are siblings involved or not, it's important to be working with who you want to be working with.”

The feeling of importance is most likely magnified when you lock yourself in an apartment with your bandmates for a chunk of time in order to write a record together. But SSB don’t practice, eat, and live band twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week like Black Flag did, or any of the members of Elephant 6 bands did/do at any given moment. Maybe they do sometimes, but they also know how to take breaks.

Ben paints a picture of what recording is like for them: “We totally swim in it, and then we stop. Because you have to stop, you know. …You have to or else you just spin and spin and spin and you can never really finish anything.” Listening to Alpinisms, it’s sort of apparent that this kind of finished product comes from complete immersion day in and day out. Alley adds, “I think when we were writing the record, we were always doing it.”

They started writing songs for the album in the beginning of ’07, and from there, they wrote, recorded, experimented, turned things around, toured, and then, basically, in March of this year, they pretty much deleted everything they had done. After scrapping all of their songs as they knew them, they recorded and mixed a fresh batch in a matter of only about three weeks.

Ben on the songs that made the album: “Some of it is new and some of [the songs] changed and some of them hit puberty and some of them were really new, and then this little kind of collection rose to the top that really seemed like the complete statement, and that was Alpinisms.”

And what’s an album without guest stars? They didn’t want to go overboard and turn their whole album into guest stars (which, according to Alley, “happens, you know”), but they did want to decorate with select special guests, like choosing only a few favorite ornaments for your holiday tree. Simone Pace from Blonde Redhead makes a cameo on “Sempiternal” (they couldn’t fit him in their apartment, so they had to take him to the fancy studio, the only time they took a break from doing it all themselves), and friend Niki Randa from LA band Blank Blue joined the girls to sing on “Prince of Peace.”

And there were other guest roles to play. The Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie remixed the A-side on their “My Cabal” 7” single. Possibly the weirdest thing about School of Seven Bells is that they weren’t huge Cocteau Twins fans beforehand. Alley remembers being surprised when people compared On!Air!Library! to Cocteau Twins a lot, and then later, School of Seven Bells…she had never even owned a Cocteau Twins record. The Bells were soon won over when UK label Sonic Cathedral—originally a shoegaze club night in London turned label who released “My Cabal”—suggested that Robin remix their song.

Ben says with enthusiasm: “I was like, ‘Yeah, of course, that would be amazing.’ But it was weird, ‘cuz hearing it made us realize that we did have a lot in common with that world.” More so than they had thought. Ben adds: “It was cool. It put our music in this different perspective where I think we felt a little more comfortable with that comparison. … We were like, ‘All right, well cool, this is really good shit.’ We loved what he did to it.”

Despite the new album, the Robin Guthrie cred, and the tours, no one seems to believe the Bells exist. Ben elaborates on this phenomenon: “Yeah, no one believes that we’re a band. You know, no one realizes that they [Claudia and Alley] play music, and I don’t know, it’s weird, but we’re actually kind of a band!” Maybe a lot of people haven’t seen them play yet—they’ve just heard the record—or maybe the ghosts of the old bands they were in are so strong, it’s bound to take a bit longer than usual for people to memorize their faces and get to know their music by heart.

But even if they’re nonexistent to some, there are many people who caught SSB live, either when they toured with Blonde Redhead, Prefuse 73, or most recently, with M83. Alley spoke a bit about the different dynamics between the Blonde Redhead and Prefuse 73 tours in particular: “It was crazy ‘cuz you’re in front of two different audiences. Prefuse’s crowd is very hip-hop, so they were really attracted to the beats, and they totally found their way into it. But then, Blonde Redhead [fans], those people, I feel like, gravitated towards the textures, and the vocals. So, it was cool, the fact that we could actually relate to both crowds—I mean, not to think that we couldn’t—I would love to do that, and it worked I guess.”

One of the things that really defines a band (their sound, attitude, and stature) is where they are when they’re in one place. When not busy on the road, the Bells’ home is NYC. New York is obviously known for its amazing music scene, but it’s also a tricky place to be in a band compared to smaller cities where it’s cheaper to rehearse and you can often get away with working less and spending a lot more time on your music. Ben expounds on this: “Bands in other cities are always really good because they practice all the time. …New York bands practice on stage. That’s why they always have this really great energy that people love.” He adds, “You see a New York band’s first show versus another band’s first show, and a New York band’s first show will be a hundred percent more scrappy ‘cuz they have no idea what it’s gonna sound like… That’s cool…that’s why the best music comes from here.”

Wondering what the School of Seven Bells’ larger aspirations as musicians are? Alley sums it up: “The goal with, I think, most musicians I know would be to just do this [make music] and be able to make a living out of it, you know. I just want to pay my bills and be able to travel and get the music out to as many people as possible.” Sounds kind of perfect, huh? Another goal of theirs is that they would like to make enough music to eventually become an entity of their own for critics and fans to use as a reference point when talking about other bands, and making sound comparisons. Like checking out a new band at a small, hidden club and thinking, “This sounds kind of like a mix of School of Seven Bells meets…” You get the idea.

Ben chimes in: “We have a really complete vision for it [the band] and I think it’s gonna take a lot of music for people to be able to experience what it is totally. That’s the goal…kind of complete that vision, however long it takes.”

We’ll just sit around and listen to Alpinisms while we wait.

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