What do you get if you cross two seraph-voiced beauties with a guitarist from a cult spacerock band? Well, throw in a dash of otherworldly lyricism, woozy dreampop melodies and fervent afrobeat nuances and you’re halfway to grasping the scope of School of Seven Bell’s musical reach. Named after a mythical pickpocket club which was rumoured to be in operation during the 1980s in South America, the image of seven mystical minds working together as one appealed to the trio; and it encapsulates their approach to music-making perfectly. Ex-Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis and twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza have effortlessly achieved a replete and rounded sound that many ‘vox-guitar-bass-drums’ formations would have difficulty with.
After successfully touring with Fugiya & Miyagi and M83, the band embarked upon their first solo tour with a date in Whelan’s at the end of February. Totally Dublin was there to ask Alejandra how life as one third of School of Seven Bells has been going up to this point.
So, you guys are gearing up for a tour with Bat For Lashes and you have recently toured with Fugiya & Miyagi and M83. How’s the touring life treating you so far?
This is actually our first date by ourselves. We just finished the Fugiya tour two days ago and the M83 tour was in November. It actually went really well. But this is our first tour by ourselves.
You and Claudia were with On! Air! Library! And Ben is formerly of Secret Machines. How did you come to work together?
Well what happened was, our bands were on tour together with Interpol. We did this whole tour across the US and that’s basically how we met. It was weird because both of our bands are from New York but we didn’t really hear each other’s music until we got to California. That’s where we met and that’s where we got to hear each other’s music.
So did you find that you just clicked musically?
Yeah, and actually we didn’t even start making music until two or three years later. So it wasn’t an immediate thing. I knew that we shared the same… I guess kind of like ideas for making music… because if you asked us our influences they wouldn’t sound anything like what we do but we share the same idea for trying to make something that was beyond anything we had done before. Just a different kind of thinking and a different songwriting process than we had before.
Speaking of songwriting processes, I’ve heard that you always write your lyrics first and then compose your music around them. Is there a reason that you write music in this way; do the lyrics hold more significance than the music does to you?
It’s something that we wanted for the band; to be very centred around the lyrics. It starts off as just sketches on paper and then as soon as something happens, whether it be a rhythm or some kind of melody, then the words start taking shape in the song. But it always starts out with a word and just what it feels like to us.
Your music spans a multitude of genres; shoegazer, dreampop, afrobeat, etc. Was there a conscious decision to create something totally unique or was it a natural progression?
It actually just happened. Our only rule with that was just to not make any decisions based on habit and to make creative decisions that maybe we wouldn’t have made before. Just really try to let it go and just write without worrying about, y’know, someone plays bass, someone plays drums, someone plays guitar. Just to let everybody write and then let everything come together afterwards. It always naturally did and we knew that it would if it was a good song to begin with.
A lot of your subject matter examines natural phenomenon, for example lucid dreaming. Being twins, do you find that you have a heightened interest in these phenomena?
To be totally honest, I always forget that I’m a twin! I don’t really think about it because I wasn’t raised with any brothers or sisters aside from Claudia so it hasn’t really played a part in it, I don’t think!
Your harmonies are pitch-perfect, did you grow up singing together or is it something you became aware of in later life?
I think the fact that we’ve been around each other so long, we’ve always sang together. That probably played a big part in our harmonising and stuff like that, but not so much in the lyrics.
How have fans of both your former band and Ben’s reacted to the collaboration?
I gotta be honest; it’s a lot of new fans. I mean, On! Air! Library!, we had our run and, y’know, we were a smaller band, not as big as Secret Machines. So I don’t think that there were really any problems there. I’m sure there were some problems with a lot of his [Ben's] fans for a while because people who are into Secret Machines are really into Secret Machines. I mean it’s almost like a cult fan base. We definitely have people who come to the shows that were and still are Secret Machines fans but I think that a lot of the crowd is new.
I read that Ben has received hate mail from Secret Machines fans…
Yeah, it’s kind of weird but, y’know, some people really care about the band I guess!
Your album, Alpinisms, has been causing a buzz in the blogosphere. Do you ever worry that the speed at which music can get around nowadays and the hype that it causes can make it more disposable or do you think it’s a positive thing?
That’s actually a really good question. I think that it makes things disposable only if there’s not enough there to keep somebody’s attention for very long. I’m sure some people might compare it [Alpinisms] to other bands but I don’t think it’s very reminiscent of a lot of things so I think people don’t get so sick of it or like “oh, I’m not in the mood for that kind of band right now.” And I find that, well it’s the record I made so of course I’m going to think this, but if you hear it over and over again on repeat it still sounds great.
Words by Sheena Madden