School of Seven Bells

The Hand You’re Dealt:
It’s All In The Cards For School of Seven Bells

There’s a certain amount of raw creativity that must be harnessed in order to fashion truly progressive music, so when electro-pop act School of Seven Bells found themselves at a crossroads, faced with the challenge of choosing a direction for their next album, they asked themselves the question any reasonable innovators would:

What would Brian Eno do?

The trio turned to the Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards created in the mid ’70s by the ambient music pioneer and Roxy Music alum along with renowned British painter Peter Schmidt, intended to guide creators through times of pressure by referencing a basic set of principals aimed at productive thought. From there bandmates Benjamin Curtis (production/guitars) and identical twins Alejandra Deheza (vocals/guitar) and Claudia Deheza (vocals/keyboards) shuffled the deck and drew an open-ended statement – “Disconnect From Desire” – that eventually became both the title of and driving force behind SVIIB’s sophomore release.

“Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt made a deck of cards…designed to get you out of a creative rut,” explains Curtis as the group prepares for their appearance at the Manta festival in Portugal; just one of many stops on a summer-long festival circuit. “[We] took the inspiration from the card we pulled and used it in a very broad sense.”

The result is an album that resonates with more urgency and intensity than the collaborators’ debut work, Alpinisms. “Alpinisms was very much about my mental process,” says vocalist Alejandra.  “I was very much in my head…always analyzing. It was me dealing with situations after the fact.”

Having grown as a performer over the past two years, the songwriter describes Disconnect from Desire‘s content as “very immediate.”

“[The lyrics] are very much ‘in the situation,'” affirms the 31-year-old frontwoman. “I was grabbing, manhandling, and in some cases mangling these thoughts in real time, which is one of the things that made these subjects especially difficult to write about. Time offers you the chance for revision; the chance to make things more acceptable,” she points out, acknowledging that “sometimes time isn’t a good thing.”

The trio, whose synchronicity Curtis quickly tags as “pretty intense,” first met in 2005 while performing in separate, now-defunct bands during a stint out on the road with Interpol. At the time, Curtis, once the performing drummer in Texas-based alternative act Tripping Daisy in the mid ’90s had moved on to play the guitar for rock-outfit Secret Machines and the Deheza twins were performing in experimental post-rock trio On!Air!Library!. SVIIB took shape in 2007, and the seasoned performers, newly signed to Vagrant Records, released Alpinisms the following year.

“The idea [to start SVIIB] came a few years before it actually happened,” details Curtis. “We had absolutely no preconceptions about what we were going to be…other than we knew we wanted to make some music. I think we spent a lot of time throughout the making of our first record figuring out exactly what we loved to do together.

“Ally found the name [School of Seven Bells],” he continues. “It came from a pickpocket school that may have existed in the ’80s…and it seemed to fit.”

For Curtis, who claims to be more influenced by “physical sensations” than other recording artists, he knew his ambient-pop trio had “arrived” last December during a performance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in New York.

“We had an amazing show playing right after My Bloody Valentine,” he reminisces. “Holding your own with one of your favorite bands is definitely good for the old self esteem. I’m proud of how far we’ve come as a unit. I don’t mind bragging. We’re doing great work right now.”

That work includes the first single from Disconnect From Desire, the epic-sounding art-pop song “Windstorm,” a track that seamlessly melds the girlish-yet-direct vocal delivery popularized by femme-frontwoman Louise Post almost two decades ago with presently-hip instrumental textures, bringing a welcome amount of nostalgia and innovation to the table. “I L U,” another standout track that The New York Times lauds as “graceful” and “tersely affecting,” tugs at the heartstrings with aching lyrical content against a sea of warmly-resonating Eurythmics-era synthesizers. Curtis, who admits to producing SVIIB’s debut album without crediting himself, delved into the “slow but necessary” creative process this time around by holing up with the striking brunette siblings in their home studio to create the self-produced collection.

“I like to spend a lot of time on things that I’d probably feel guilty about spending time on if there was another engineer there,” says Curtis, explaining the self-production process for Desire.  “Sometimes it seems like it would be hard to explain why I’m fiddling with the speed of some kind of keyboard effect, but to me these details have a huge impact on the whole. We had a specific idea for this album and another personality would just corrupt it…we just went for it. [We] recorded in Greenpoint, Brooklyn…mostly in a closet or a bedroom on a computer [I built] from scratch.”

An act with classic sensibility and forward-thinking minds, School of Seven Bells earned some latitude with their record label after their last recording; enough to call their own shots this time around.

“Vagrant is totally trusting. They really gave us an opportunity to do something special. I think they weren’t sure about some of our decisions, like our choice of mixer,” he explains, referring to Grammy award-winning ’90s mainstay Jack Joseph Puig who mixed the album at Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles. “But at the end of the day, they trusted our vision and helped us realize it. The situation was totally ideal.”

The real challenge for SVIIB was not creative control as much as their album being leaked prior to release. Citing pirating as the band’s biggest challenge in the music industry, Curtis admits that, “looking up Disconnect From Desire on Google two weeks before our record is out and seeing hundreds of blogs with it available to download for free is pretty disheartening. I am flattered that so many people want to hear it but having spent so much time and money on it; it only seems fair that there could be some kind of exchange from the people that make our music a part of their lives.  Don’t get me wrong,” the guitarist clarifies in reference to the dilemma that has plagued artists throughout the last decade, “I’m not anti-download, but I think it’s easy to see our frustration with this. I don’t have a solution but I do feel caught in the middle.”

Perhaps the band’s new and improved live show, which will finally be on display stateside after they return from summer dates in Australia in early August, will help fill any monetary deficit from the internet leak. Even early adapters have a reason to hand over their hard-earned cash for admittance this time around, as School of Seven Bells have revised, edited, and expanded their stage performance in support of their new record.

“We’re touring with a live drummer for the first time, which so far has been a blast. At first we were really reluctant to change things about our songs’ rhythms just for the sake of having somebody else on stage. Now I think we’re so solid between the three of us that there is room for another personality up there,” explains the ex- drummer, while reminiscing, “I didn’t realize how much I missed reacting to somebody next to me pounding away!”

For Alejandra, there are many ways to package success.

“I’m not gonna lie. I hope it makes millions,” exclaims the vocalist in reference to Desire. “It was a difficult record emotionally for all of us; a real account of our crazy lives this past year. It’s really important to me that it resonates with as many people as possible. Everyone, on the most basic level, is the same,” explains the siren; a sentiment the band committed to full-force when all three members collectively decided to ink their sophomore album’s cover on their bodies. “We aren’t aliens to each other,” she continues. “We know pain and happiness on the scale that we have personally experienced it, but that is something real that we can share. We can always relate to one another [and] never have to feel isolated.”

SVIIB’s sophomore release is intriguing to say the least. To fully comprehend the complexity of the recording it requires a few dedicated listens. Curtis accurately describes the disc as “equal parts mental and physical” if you take into account the album’s lyrical complexity and sonically assertive, instrumental backdrop. Or as he blatantly relates, “I think we love Madonna just as much as [minimalist classical composer] Terry Riley.”

Curtis laughs when asked what he would be doing if he wasn’t performing.

“It’s like asking, what if I was a woman!” he jokes.

Perhaps with the talented, bombshell Deheza sisters at the helm the band already has enough estrogen influence to entice potential fans to give their album a shot sight-unseen, although Alejandra is quick to respond when asked if she and sister Claudia’s unforgettable faces have ever given them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

“When we’re doing shoots for Vogue, then I’ll let you know.”

Photo by Abbey Drucker.