Interview

Out Of The Desert: School Of Seven Bells’ Final Chapter

When Benjamin Curtis died, it seemed like the end of School Of Seven Bells. What began in 2007 as a trio composed of Curtis and twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza had become a duo of Curtis and Alejandra Deheza by 2012’s Ghostory. In 2014, Alejandra Deheza was the sole member of the band. Curtis passed in December 2013 at only 35, from the rare T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, less than a year after the announcement that he was undergoing treatment. In summer 2014, Deheza released the last bit of music that Curtis had worked on. It was a sprawling, seven-minute cover of Joey Ramone’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” a song Ramone had written when he was dying from Lymphoma himself. The track was titanic in its emotion, fully bringing Ramone’s original into the band’s dreamscape universe, cascading toward an extended outro of Deheza repeating the song’s title over and over, incantatory and defiant, giving voice to Curtis. It seemed like a final note. As gorgeous as it was devastating, it would’ve been both a fitting full stop and an apt tribute to Curtis’ memory. But at its core, School Of Seven Bells were always the story of Curtis and Deheza, of their friendship, then relationship, then friendship again; of the music that traced their lives intertwining with one another for almost a decade. And there was one final portion of that story to finish telling: SVIIB, a self-titled release in reference to the common abbreviation of the band’s name, the album that had been waiting in near-completion at the time of Curtis’ diagnosis. It will come out in February 2016.

SVIIB were always based in New York, but Deheza moved out to Los Angeles last year to finish the new album with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen. When I first meet Deheza, it’s April 2015 — nearly a year after “I Got Knocked Down” came out, approaching a year and a half since Curtis’ death. We’re in a studio where she and Meldal-Johnsen are finishing SVIIB. It’s getting close now. Curtis had completed all of his parts before getting sick, and Deheza’s vocals had been tracked. What Deheza and Meldal-Johnsen had been left with was an album that needed finishing touches, that would have been released in 2013 had things gone differently.

Today, they’re working on a song called “A Thousand Times More.” Meldal-Johnsen is dissecting the track’s bridge, trying to decide what to tweak so that the dense layers of synths don’t overwhelm each other, so that they move in ways that achieve the subtle drama customary of SVIIB’s music. “I just don’t think Benjamin would’ve wanted that choir-y one wall-to-wall,” he says, singling out one synth part. “He would’ve wanted placement.”

Deheza looks over Meldal-Johnsen’s shoulder at the computer screen, a dizzying network of different tracks. “Oh, yeah, you’re right,” she responds. “He definitely wouldn’t have wanted that one all the way through.”

school-of-seven-bells

They continue making their way through the list of edits on schedule for the day. Some work needs to be done on a recurring hook, which Meldal-Johnsen keeps referring to as the “’90s rave synth.” He considers muting it in the bridge. “It’s obviously charming, but I’m trying to make the mood more appropriate,” he says to Deheza, who seems to agree. Later, he takes one of Curtis’ drone-y parts and chops it up, makes it more rhythmic. “I’m trying to feature Benjamin as much as possible,” he says. Collectively, they appear to be working toward bringing the songs to where they should be, but always considering how Curtis would’ve envisioned the finished product, always moving carefully so that SVIIB will be as close as possible to the album Curtis and Deheza would have arrived at together. Eventually, they get it; the song is done. Meldal-Johnsen turns it up so that it throbs through the walls of the studio while he dances around, satisfied.

On Ghostory’s successor, the 2012 EP Put Your Sad Down, there were hints that SVIIB were beginning to move in a synth-based, electronic direction — one based on brighter tones and dancier rhythms than the moody cross-section of krautrock and shoegaze the band had achieved on its 2008 debut, Alpinisms. The completed SVIIB makes good on the promise of Put Your Sad Down. “A Thousand Times More” has bits of it — that “’90s rave synth,” its New Order bassline — but is actually one of the more traditional SVIIB tracks on the record, bursting into a bridge and chorus with quintessential Deheza melodies and walls of what sounds like distorted air reverberating around those ’90s synths. Before that, though, are several tracks where SVIIB get as poppy as they’ve ever been. Opener “Ablaze” is triumphant, riding on a vocal hook that recalls “Windstorm” — the first track on SVIIB’s 2010 album Disconnect From Desire, and still one of their finest songs — but situates it in the kind of ebullience that previously would’ve been uncommon in SVIIB’s music. That and the song that follows, “On My Heart,” both emphasize groove and infectious hooks amongst all the wall-of-sound; “On My Heart” uses a processed vocal hook as its intro, too, augmented by a big synth melody and countered by Deheza’s talk-sing vocals in the verses.

At first, the album represents a striking change, even if it had been prefigured by the band’s most recent work up to this point. All of SVIIB’s music has that indiscernible emotional quality where it could be perceived as melancholic or uplifting depending on what you bring to it and what you need from it in that moment. SVIIB has all the usual elements of the music Deheza and Curtis made together in the past, with a few songs that could’ve fit in well on previous albums. Mostly, though, it’s re-contextualized. There’s a song called “Music Takes Me” that has all the weird rhythmic shifts and idiosyncrasies that populated Alpinisms; now it just sounds like it’s been filtered through Madonna’s “Ray Of Light.” The overarching feeling, though, is that SVIIB departs from the band’s other work in that, through most of its running time, it’s unhinged and unmitigated in its joyousness.

School Of Seven Bells
CREDIT: Eric Bumatay

Given Curtis’ passing, most fans probably expected there would never be another SVIIB album at all, and certainly not one this uplifting. But the writing all took place in summer of 2012, before Curtis’ diagnosis. It’s a time Deheza remembers as one of the happiest summers of her life. “We were finally in this place of just perfect peace, just being best friends,” she recalls. They would hole up in New York, working for 12 hours a day. It was a prolific time. Had SVIIB come out when they originally intended, it would’ve meant that it, Ghostory, and Put Your Sad Down would have all been released in the span of a year. They had struck a perfect rhythm together, and they were following it wherever it led.

There’s one song that breaks from that joyousness of SVIIB. It’s called “Confusion,” and it appears towards the end of the album. Sparse by SVIIB standards, it’s a few synth layers and no drums, and a searching melody from Deheza as she was countering Curtis’ sickness.

“That particular song is so of that moment,” she remembers. “Doing the vocal, I kept getting choked up. That was the last song we worked on in the same room together.”

But even here, Deheza’s more about remembering her friend than dwelling on the grief of those moments. She recounts a story of how Curtis had charmed all the nurses enough that they essentially allowed him to break out of the hospital when he wasn’t supposed to; they recorded the organ for the song that day. Like most times she tells specific stories about Curtis from 2013, it’s with glimmers of sadness mixed into the laughter.

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Even though it’s not the ending it initially seemed to be, “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)” is still a crucial installment in the story of SVIIB’s last three years. The song had become very important to Curtis, but he was too sick to be in the studio, so he’d conduct vocal sessions via Skype, issuing instructions to Deheza and his brother, Brandon. When they finished the song, Curtis’ condition deteriorated.

“That took the rest of it out,” Deheza remembers, choking up. “And then he was just really, really sick from then on.”

As the last bit of music Curtis ever worked on, it is, in its way, its own final chapter of SVIIB. At the same time, it’s the beginning of this one, where Deheza became able to return to SVIIB. There was a turning point while filming the video for “I Got Knocked Down,” a day where they went out to Joshua Tree, about two hours outside of Los Angeles. She said: “I’m going to need to be out here right now.” That’s when she decided to move to Los Angeles, to finish the record with Meldal-Johnsen.

The second time I see Deheza, we decide to drive out to Joshua Tree, to revisit the place that had been so revelatory for her last year. We stop first at a saloon/restaurant that comes off like some kind of Wild West tourist trap leftover from something that never existed. Given that it’s August, the whole plan starts to seem ill-advised. Being outside feels dangerous. As if your skin is going to start to smoke and peel off if you linger in the sun longer than two minutes. Still, the desert has a sort of ancient, undefinable power, a pull you can’t resist once you’re in its orbit. Soon enough, we find ourselves driving into the park proper.

My iPod is on shuffle, but as soon as we cross past the guard and down a winding road through Joshua Tree’s alien landscapes, “I Got Knocked Down” comes on in the car. I notice; Deheza notices. It opens up a conversation about how we both find something mystic in deserts. Something that acts on your perception and memory in ways that aren’t legible. “It was the first time I felt any kind of peace in a really long time, being in the desert,” Deheza explains. I ask her why she felt it took being here, in a kind of serenely desolate expanse, to get back to that feeling after Curtis’ death. “It’s got to be a past life thing, because I feel so connected to it,” she says. “And I know Benjamin did, too. I don’t know, I guess I felt connected to him by being there, too.”

Past lives are one of many unexplainable, mysterious things that captivate Deheza, that have influenced SVIIB’s music throughout. “It just always felt natural to me,” she says of the notion of past lives. “When you meet someone and you’re like ‘I know you already.’ Especially with Benjamin, I was just like — this is definitely true.” When you consider the mythic fabric of SVIIB’s music, it makes a lot of sense. Deheza also has a history of lucid dreams, relating how she began to figure out how to get out of the frequent nightmares she had as a child. The band was named for a supposedly real, maybe-fabled pickpocketing school in South America. Around the time of Disconnect From Desire, Deheza became fascinated with sigils, hence the album’s cover art — of which she and Curtis eventually both got tattoos.

The idea that mythic things attract Deheza isn’t a surprise. The way she worked with Curtis, they always made music that seemed to capture impressions and feelings in ways that have little to do with the lyrics themselves. As in, little to do with human words. It’s in the parabolically swooping, then gliding structures of their melodies, in the way that their synthesizers sound like different shades of wind. It’s that dream logic of their work, present in otherworldly tracks like “Iamundernodisguise,” “When You Sing,” or “Secret Days.” They always captured something elemental with synthetic means. Standing in Joshua Tree, the importance of this place to Deheza this past year resonates. There is real, expansive silence. For whole minutes, you can hear completely nothing, and wonder how far a single sound could travel out here. The wind begins, and it seems to come from some place and time very far away. It’s a fitting setting for SVIIB’s music, and how it draws whispers out of places like these. It all sounds like air, manipulated.

It took coming out here, experiencing this sort of place, for Deheza to begin moving on after Curtis passed. When Curtis was in the hospital, she went every day. “I didn’t want him to ever feel like he was missing out,” she explains. “I just wanted him to feel like I was always there.” When he died, she tried to work on new music, but was unable to. She only felt grief, of the sort “you can’t articulate.” “I didn’t even know what I was dealing with,” she recalls. But making the decision to move to L.A. after being in Joshua Tree was what lead to SVIIB finally coming to fruition. “It just opened things up,” she says. “It was the right time.” After she had settled in out in California, it took her and Meldal-Johnsen about a month and a half to finish the album from where it had been years ago.

That period of peace when they were writing SVIIB obviously preceded tragedy, but it also followed years of a deep connection between the two. Deheza and Curtis met when both of their old bands — On!Air!Library! and the Secret Machines, respectively — were opening for Interpol; Deheza was already planning to start School Of Seven Bells, and after they immediately connected, Curtis left the Secret Machines to join her. They’d talked here and there backstage, but she recounts a turning point at a party after one of the shows.

“It was this moment where we looked at each other, and it was seriously like I’d known him for a thousand years,” she remembers. “It was like I was struck by lightning. It’s never happened to me since then or before that. But I knew it.”

They did wind up as a couple for five years, but Deheza is talking about a bigger scope than that. The way she talks of Curtis now is in terms of the kind of cosmic connection that goes beyond just this life. Their connection was too intense to stop working together when they broke up around the time of Disconnect From Desire, but that didn’t mean things were easy to process. They never stopped touring, they never stopped working. They forced themselves to be around each other, and went from the collapse of a relationship to best friends who were able to draw creativity out of each other in a way that none of their past collaborators could.

Even before he passed, SVIIB was always going to be all about Curtis. Though she never told him, the songs trace the whole arc of their relationship. She didn’t know why she was writing all of this, it’s just what she found herself wanting to say. Most of these songs were written without any idea of what would happen, but it’s another one of those cosmic things in SVIIB’s existence, the fact that Deheza felt the need to document, at this moment, their history together and, therefore, the history of the band. It’s another instance of how SVIIB’s music always seems to tap into something unknowable, to identify and harness something from the atmosphere itself. “I listen to some of these songs now, and they just seem to make so much more sense now than they did before,” she says.

School Of Seven Bells
CREDIT: Eric Bumatay

As much as she’s making peace with the past, Deheza is also planning what comes next after SVIIB. She’s working on new music, for what will become a project separate from SVIIB. According to her, there are parts that sound reminiscent of SVIIB because it’s her, and there are parts that sound different because it isn’t Curtis; she’s learning how to write without him as a foil and partner anymore. It’s still developing, but she’d want to collaborate with people again — the idea of a “solo project” makes her uncomfortable. Eventually, she’s looking toward moving again.

“I can’t imagine not going back to New York, that’s my home,” she says. “So many amazing things happened there, and I feel like, finally, with this record done, I have closure and I can go back.”

Whatever form her work takes next, she’s undecided about whether she’ll ever play SVIIB material in a different context. “There’s this part of me that wanted it to be this beautiful thing that happened in the past,” she says. “I don’t want to mess with it. I don’t want to try and re-create something that was perfect when it happened. To me, anyway.”

Either way, SVIIB the album marks the final act of SVIIB the group. “The story of our band is our story,” she says. “There was actually a name for ‘Alley and Benjamin.'” One lingering regret she has is that she never told Curtis that the new record was about him. She thinks about it every day. “That’s the one thing I wish I could have said,” she says. “It was my biggest way to tell him how much I loved him as a person.”

SVIIB closes an arc, but it’s also a final piece of art woven to remain, a way for Deheza to say all those things now. Losing a person so crucial to your life as Curtis was to Deheza’s is the kind of experience you can’t process quickly, or maybe ever, at least not totally. Eventually, though, she reached a point where she wanted to return to this record, wanted to mark what she and Curtis had done together and wanted to finish their last project.”I feel like I’ve been holding onto these songs,” she says. “It’s really wild to listen to these on the other end of … of everything that’s happened.” That’s why it’s SVIIB. “When I see those Roman numerals, I just think of an era,” she says. It’s both the final installment, and the sweeping story of everything that had happened up until that final installment. There were a lot of things Deheza had left to say about Curtis, about their time in this band together. The album’s complicated birth, from their best times to the worst, makes it what it is: a celebration and remembrance not just of Curtis as a person, but of a decade of two people’s lives, orbiting each other with the kind of intensity that most of us might not ever find.

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SVIIB is out 2/2016 via Vagrant. Watch the trailer below.