School of Seven Bells
By Aoife Barry
Sometimes I go whole days
listening bored, half asleep
I won’t say anything
that’s worth a thing to me
One day, suddenly, time
took a turn that
once felt so brief
I blinked to see
polite ghosts fading quickly
Listening to School of Seven Bells is like being gently swaddled in soft gauze, caressed by their mellifluous voices, immersed in their beats until it feels like your own pulse…
It’s easy, oh so easy to use over-the-top images and gushing prose when writing about School of Seven Bells (SVIIB) – but listen to them, and you’ll see exactly why their music inspires such verbosity. They generate a beautiful, euphoric noise that grabs you right away, that when it’s at its best thrills you and excites you and makes you want to listen to the same track over and over again.
For me, that track (from debut album on Ghostly International, ‘Alpinisms’) is ‘Half Asleep’ – yes, it’s like the Cocteau Twins, all harmonies and shrill vocals; and yes, it’s like My Bloody Valentine, shimmery guitars layered over beats…but these are no shoegaze wannabes.
The trio are playing a Foggy Notions gig in Whelans in Dublin next Monday (23 February), and as eager as their fans are to see them, they’re just as happy to see us too. “I’m super excited about it ‘cos I’ve never been. It’s just going be fun because I’m gonna go around like a tourist for half a day,” Alejandra (Alley) Deheza, guitarist/vocalist with the group, is giggling down the phone to me from a van somewhere on the road in east of the United States, speaking of her excitement about the band’s impending visit to Ireland. Joining Alley in SVIIB are her sister Claudia Deheza, and Benjamin Curtis, ex-member of Secret Machines.
Legend has it that the Deheza sisters met Curtis when they were on tour with Interpol – Alley and Claudia were playing in the band On! Air! Library! at the time – but when the three met, it was the catalyst for them to each leave their respective bands and form a band together. They moved into an apartment, began creating music in that shared space, and named themselves after a mythical South American pickpocket training academy.
“It’s very natural for us,” says Alley of this arrangement, which still exists nearly two years after the band’s first meeting. “It’s part of our routine. And the fact we were very deliberate about working with each other; we really respect each other as musicians and I think that’s really important.” No doubt the fact that Alley and Claudia are identical twins helps in fostering this atmosphere – they know how to work well together without battling with egos.
“It’s kind of like we know when to give each other space, we know if there’s a criticism about a certain part of a song or something like that, it’s just solely for the good of the song,” outlines Alley. “We want this song to be good and we can all agree on that. So we can just put any little petty things aside, it’s very good because we just want it to be as good as it can be.”
So what’s the creative process like for SVIIB? Reading their lyrics, it feels as though they flow in a dream-like way, and that the music equally flows around them and buoys them – they co-exist so naturally, it’s obvious they are not slapped down without care. “It starts off with the lyrics, and the vocal melodies and the vocal arrangements are basically what write the rest of the songs, if that makes any sense,” explains Alley. “And so that’s basically how it starts – it can start with just a rhythm or something like that, just to have something to build the words around. It always starts with something in a journal or whatever. But once there’s a little piece of music – like me coming up with a guitar line, or Benjamin or Claudia coming up with some synths – that makes all the words take place and creates the rhythm for the words. But it ultimately just starts with lyrics and notes, sketches…I guess like journals.”
Some people have described the lyrics as surreal, but in truth they’re more like stream-of-consciousness, ebbing and flowing, and sometimes have a spiritual edge. “It’s honestly whatever is going on in our lives, and exactly how we see it,” says the guitarist. “For me it’s literally how I see it – I write very literally. A lot of people might think that it’s maybe a little bit surreal, and I definitely get that and I understand. But I think if everyone spoke exactly how they thought, it would sound like that. People don’t speak in proper sentences, punctuation and all that stuff. They just think in what they see. It’s all an image to begin with.”
The moment when the trio realised that things had ‘clicked’ for them musically was when they wrote ‘Connjur’, a track which opens with a piercing loop and features beautiful, almost deadpan, vocals and an infectious drumbeat. “It was basically just this kind of creative experiment that we were doing – Benjamin and I had written some things. It was kind of like a loop – it was so minimal…it was a piece of music that probably, it took, I dunno, however many seconds to do,” laughs Alley at the memory. “And it all began as email – he emailed it to Claudia, she came up with something for it almost immediately and then when it got back to us we were just like ‘Oh, we could really do something with this music, this worked out perfectly’.” It’s easy to picture her grinning as she speaks. “It was cool ‘cos we kind of kept that model for doing everything. When we write we just really want to not worry about anybody’s role in the band. We didn’t know then what instrument Claudia was going to play, no one really thought about that and I think it’s really important that we do what we need to do naturally to express ourselves and then worry if it’s going to go together.”
When it comes to SVIIB’s sound, they’re frequently, very frequently, compared to My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins – but there is more to them than ‘just’ being shoegazers – there’s an emphasis on electronically-created sounds that underpins each track, and on songs like ‘TranceFigure’ the vocals take on a tribal feel. “I love My Bloody Valentine and you know, Robin Guthrie did a remix of one of our early demos, ‘My Cabal’, so I can understand where that idea would come from – [but] we didn’t do that intentionally to be completely honest,” says Alley. “It’s cool because usually the people who say that are people who love shoegaze, so it’s a good thing, you know. But we weren’t really thinking about that when we made the record.”
Alley then elaborates on how their sound came about: “It simply came from trying to make music that was as new for us as possible, pretty much. Just like making decisions, creative decisions that were truly of that moment, not making them based on any habits that we had or what we thought, or any rules or anything like that – we just wanted to make something that was new to us.”
She pauses. “That was important to us, because…we would have just stayed in our other bands, you know what I mean? There’s really no point in going off on your own if you’re not going to do something that’s truly your own, you know?”
So what’s next for SVIIB? First, there’s the extensive tour they’ve just embarked on, where they’ll travel through Europe (touring with Bat for Lashes and then White Lies for part of it), finishing up in London in May. Then they’ll start work on their second album. “We’re constantly writing. We want to record, or at least write and record, the next record in June. That’s our goal,” Alley tells me. She adds, rather mysteriously, that there will be remixes to be released in the coming year, but she won’t divulge who’s responsible for them, aside from calling them “very good”.
The media storm around SVIIB has been gathering for the last few months, with the likes of Pitchfork declaring their love for the group. But as our conversation ends Alley tells me that media praise isn’t something that the band are going to let go to their heads. “You know, I don’t ever read reviews or anything like that so I don’t really know how I feel about it,” she says softly. “I guess just that decision is basically proof that I don’t really need it to influence or sway me in any way.”