March 2012

Ground Shift

SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS mines the seeds of change and finds a renewed vision for its brand of indie pop

DANIEL
SIEGAL

PHOTO: JUSTIN HOLLAR

The success of School of Seven Bells seemed built on an unshakable tripod, as the group founded by Benjamin Curtis and identical twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza released two acclaimed discs of haunting shoegazey pop and earned a reputation over four-plus years as a must-see live act.

But on its new third album, Ghostory, only a duo remains in the band whose name is said to refer to a legendary South American training academy for pickpockets. Claudia left in October 2010—“personal reasons” is the company line—a mere three months after the group’s sophomore CD scored an 8.0 from indie kingmaker pitchfork.com.

The third album, a concept disc based on “Lafaye,” a young girl awash in the specters of past relationships—and the first single off the album—Ghostory is a deeply personal narrative of heartbreak, a theme that seems oddly fitting for the first release since the upheaval. When Claudia exited, the rupture forced Curtis and Alejandra to take stock of what School of Seven Bells meant, and the response was a resounding affirmation. “After last year, it just completely reignited [us],” he says. “There’s no way in hell we’re ever going to stop doing this.”

The new album bears the resulting dynamism. On noticeably uptempo, danceable songs like “Lafaye” and “The Night,” signature ethereal harmonies, enigmatic lyrics and lush electronics feel uniquely invigorated. “We wanted something that was just going to connect immediately,” Curtis says. “We’ve been playing so many live shows, so we were kind of rediscovering the energy that was already in our sound.”

The Deheza sisters and Curtis met when their previous bands—On!Air!Library! and Secret Machines, respectively—were slotted as openers on a 2004 Interpol tour; last year, they toured with Interpol as School of Seven Bells, despite having such different sounds. “It’s the beauty of that feeling,” Deheza says, “when you’re in a big room, watching as everybody’s jumping up and down, yet you still feel the emotion of the lyrics—it’s genuine.”

She says the emotions imbued in the character of Lafaye harken back to years of wavering friendships and romantic entanglements—and she wanted to give voice to the inner part of her that felt it all. As for the loss of Claudia, “Maybe there was something I needed to express that I didn’t feel I could in such a close situation. In a weird way, it’s harder to express yourself to your family than to someone else.”

Whether or not the arguably less gauzy Gho-story lyrics specifically address Claudia’s absence, there’s no denying the band has had to adjust. For Curtis, seeing Alejandra perform on her own was a water-shed moment: “Just listening as a fan of what Alley does...Suddenly I was able to hear her sing with this singular emotion, and that shed new light on everything she’s ever written.”

Another change on this album is that, after self-producing previous releases Alpinisms (2008) and Disconnect from Desire (2010), Curtis brought in his brother Brandon, a former Secret Machines bandmate and Interpol’s current touring keyboardist, to help with the mastering. “I’ll never [be able to observe] a School of Seven Bells show,” Curtis says. “Brandon’s seen us play many times on tour, so because [on the album] we were trying to go after the energy of our live shows, that was the strength in having him.”

No matter the cause, Gho-story is clearly School of Seven Bells’ most efficient effort. Deheza sees it as the work of a more mature band. “The sounds on the other records were always such a surprise to me,” she says. “We went into this knowing exactly what we wanted. There’s a sense of authority.”

With no guarantees that a new audience will come into the fold, Deheza says the duo is more than happy to bare their hearts and take their chances as they embark on a worldwide tour, hitting L.A.’s Echoplex in April. “There’s no way you can control what people are going to think, but I’m really proud. I hope people can relate to these characters. The whole experience of just writing it has been huge—very cathartic.”


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