School of Seven Bells
Interview by Alexander Laurence
School of Seven Bells is one of the most interesting bands this year. They
are based in New York City. They met in 2004, when Secret Machines and On
Air Library both played with Interpol on tour. They quit those bands, to form
a new one. In the band we have Alejandra Deheza (guitar/vocals), Benjamin
Curtis (guitar/effects), and Claudia Deheza (keyboards/vocals). They have a
definite original sound, and create an interesting atmosphere. I spoke to them
recently on their US Tour, with the band Warpaint. I spoke to them in Los
Angeles in early October 2009. Their album is called Alpinisms.
AL: Secret Machines and On Air Library are often associated with the New
York scene that started ten years ago. What do you think of New York today and
the new crop of bands?
Ben: Yeah. The difference is the new bands in New York are a lot better.
It’s really exciting. I feel more in touch with the music right now than I did
ten years ago. When I first came to New York, everything was raw and
stripped down. It was very basic. Guys wearing jeans and rocking out.
AL: Back in the 1990s, there was Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And there
were all these bands like Toilet Boys and Lunachicks. Then you had Blonde
Redhead and Calla, then The Strokes.
Ben: It was very retro. I feel like now it’s very progressive. The styles
are very disparate. It’s more exciting now than it was ten years ago. Maybe
it’s not rocking the establishment as much.
AL: There are some new bands like Chairlift and Amazing Baby. What do you
think of them?
Ben: I am not familiar with them. There are too many bands now. I can’t
believe how many bands there are now. There are some great ones. When we first
heard Magic Wands we thought they were incredible. We like Phantogram. We
would be in Paris doing an interview and they will ask us about New York bands.
Who is that? They’ll tell us “Oh, they are from Brooklyn.” We were hanging
out with a French journalist. He interviewed us and he thought he was going
to get the grand tour of New York. I know there are a lot of bands here,
but many of them are on tour. There is no secret room where they all hang out.
AL: I just ran into David Sitek (from TV On The Radio). Some of those older
New York guys are moving to Los Angeles.
Ben: There’s an LA exodus. There are a lot of artists in New York. The
value goes up. Things get expensive and they get priced out.
AL When did School of Seven Bells start happening?
Ben: We met in 2004. We were supporting Interpol on the US tour. We met in
LA. That was the first time we had heard of each other. It’s another example
of New York bands not knowing about other bands. We didn’t quit right then.
We kept going, doing what we were doing. We just synchonistically stopped
what we were doing, and started doing something else. At that moment, School
of Seven Bells was a good idea.
Alejandra: January 2007.
AL: It all happened very fast?
Ben: It happened pretty fucking slow.
AL: Was it a studio project first?
Alejandra: It was a studio kind of thing. We were experimenting. We were
seeing how we wrote together, and how it worked. And the chemistry was just
immediate. The way we wrote the first song, all three of us, was bizarre. We
sent something to my sister. It was really informal. Check this out. Claudia
came up with something immediately. Then we thought: “Hey man, it should be
the three of us.”
AL: What was the first song?
Alejandra: The first song we all wrote together was “Conjur.”
Ben: Yeah. But the first song we made as School of Seven Bells was “White
Elephant Coat.” We had a lot of tries that are buried in history. We had a
lot of false starts. Many of the songs on Alpinisms were song ideas that have
been around since the idea of the band.
AL: Some of these songs seem to have complex rhythms. It’s not
straight-forward rock drumming. You never thought of having a live drummer?
Alejandra: We tried it out. The beats are electronic. So there is no reason
to throw in a live drummer into the mix, just to appease those purists.
AL: A few songs sound like live drumming.
Ben: We have one song on the record with Simone Pace, of Blonde Redhead.
Until we can get Simone to come on tour with us, we are going to do it like
AL: What is Blonde Redhead up to?
Ben: I think they are doing a new record. It’s an aesthetic decision. If
you do a whole album on French horns, there is no reason to do it on guitars.
If we have electronic beats, why are we appeasing some old men who need to
see sticks moving?
AL: I know that I am old. Don’t have to rub it in.
Ben: You don’t care because you are a music fan. Mentally there is that
thing where they say, “That’s not real.”
AL: Since Flaming Lips playing along to the tracks ten years ago, on The
Soft Bulletin, people have become more used to drum machines and computers.
The Flaming Lips played all those recorded parts too.
Ben: My friend Michael Rother used to play in this band Neu! With Klaus
Dinger. He told me the first time he went onstage he had two tape decks. He
pressed play of these two guitar tracks. The audience bottled him offstage,
because they thought it was fake shit. They are playing tracks. His point is:
“I played the music. What is the issue here?” Times have change.
AL: You mentioned Blonde Redhead. Your music sometimes reminds me of the
4AD stuff of the 1980s. Do you listen to that?
Ben: Moreso now when we first started. We got into it more recently.
Alejandra: It was after many people mentioned it. I took it as a huge
compliment. It was usually from people who loved 4AD bands, so they wouldn’t
compare us to bands that they didn’t like.
AL: Your record has been out a while. You have toured all over. This is
like your final tour on this album. What is the plan for the future?
Alejandra: We are recording a record right now. You are going to hear a few
new songs tonight. The new record is called “Disconnect From Desire.” We
want it to be out early next year.
AL: You have been playing all these festivals this summer. How did you like
Alejandra: It was awesome.
Ben: They like us in Japan. In the US, they can’t make their mind up.
AL: As the lead singer, you have to connect with the audience. Don’t you
feel like confronting someone in the audience who is lukewarm. “Hey you,
what’s your problem?”
Ben: We try our best not to insult the audience.
AL: You don’t have jokes in between songs?
Claudia: We are not really storytellers if you know what I mean. It’s very
visual. We aren’t very witty.
AL: It’s just music. Let it wash over you.
Ben: You are just supposed to go to a show, and have an experience. When peo
ple tell jokes, it just snaps you out of that dream state. You should get
in the mood, and glide, and then come back down to earth.
AL: Is the new album more of the same, or a radical departure?
Alejandra: It evolved. It won’t be shocking when people hear it. It’s not
a noise record. It’s hard to separate myself from it.
Ben: It’s a little bit more personal. It’s about specific human emotions.
It’s more sentimental, but it’s also heavier.
AL: Is it influenced by the live show, or is it just a recording of where
you are at right now?
Ben: It’s totally influenced by the live show. We have played so many
shows. Our playing has changed. There is a visceral aspect to our music that we
have discovered this year. We weren’t aware of it before. We are more in
touch with it now, and can bring it out more. We know how it fits in with our
style. So that is the difference.
AL: Are there any bands that you have played with that we all should check
Ben: Killing Joke. Great new band. We played with them at All Tomorrow
Parties. We are also playing this upcoming ATP with Kevin Shields.
AL: How was the tour with Bat For Lashes?
AL: Are you reading any books, beside “The Driven Life?”
Alejandra: You saw that? That is for the cops. We are reading out loud The
50th Law: the philosophy of 50 Cent. It’s written by Robert Greene. It’s
more his take on the life of 50 Cent.
AL: Are there any principles?
Ben: There are many principles.
AL: Can you share one today?
Alejandra: Fluidity. It’s all about developing your hustler side.
AL: These are all things that you should be made aware of in your life?
Ben: It’s boldness, fluidity, unpredictability, and hood alchemy.
AL: Hood alchemy? This word “alchemy” used to be so exotic. Now every
rapper is like DJ something alchemist.
Ben: Hood alchemy is taking a negative and exploiting it to your advantage.
AL: I haven’t been to New York City for a while. I am going there in a few
weeks to go to CMJ. Am I going to be shocked?
Alejandra: Williamsburg looks like a mall.
AL: I heard about the Meat Packing District. There used to be the Cooler
and that Steak Place, and nothing else.
Ben: You know what? It’s great. It’s all changed: boutiques, Apple Store,
high end. You know what stayed: the stench.
Alejandra: I think it’s the rats. It’s old meat and blood, and rats.
AL: Has the rat problem improved? I remember seeing this rat army cruising
down the street in the East Village.
Ben: The rat levels are peaking.
AL: There are news articles about this?
Alejandra: You don’t even need an article. I was walking down the street in
the East Village last week, and I swear to you, there are as many rats as
people on the street. They are bold. They have no fear. It is scary.
Gallery is here. All photos taken by Angel Ceballos.