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School of Seven Bells
dream pop goes lucid
by: Kenneth Partridge - March 31, 2009

Alejandra Deheza capped 2008 with 30 straight hours of sleeplessness, the price of flying all the way to Japan for a one-off New Year’s Eve gig.

She and her School of Seven Bells band mates were booked to play an electronica club, and despite Deheza’s fears that the trio’s swirling, sometimes somnambulant sound would prove boring to those accustomed to techno, the show was an unqualified success.

“It was incredible,” a jet-lagged Deheza says by phone, days after returning to the group’s home base in Brooklyn. “The response was really insane. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I was like, ‘Oh man, this is a lot of people’s New Year’s. This better be good.’”

The Japanese may not do Western-style year-end countdowns—in fact, the show didn’t start until 2009 was already about 30 minutes old—but they do dance and sing along, even to the music of relatively obscure indie bands from the other side of the planet.

Such is the nature of Deheza’s waking life: traveling, making music, occasionally finding out that people thousands of miles away dig her records. As great as it all may seem, the real fun comes at the end of the day, when the native Guatemalan closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep.

She, like her twin sister, Claudia, co-front woman of School of Seven Bells, is a lucid dreamer—someone who’s able to realize when they’re dreaming and use that awareness to control how the action unfolds. This unique skill, which Deheza says she developed in childhood as a way of coping with nightmares, is an essential part of how she and her sister approach their songwriting.

“I don’t really want to be so specific about the lyrics, because I don’t want to take away from anyone’s experience of them, but one thing I can say is that, for me, I’m very direct about what I’m writing about,” she says. “I’ve had people ask me about how abstract or surreal the lyrics are. I think it’s very easy to grasp if you grasp it kind of visually. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s just the way I write.”

Nearly every track on the group’s debut, Alpinisms, makes reference to sleep or dreams, themes that are echoed in the music of multi-instrumentalist third member Benjamin Curtis. School of Seven Bells has earned comparisons to such groups as Cocteau Twins and M83, and while both are reasonable starting points, the trio is far from a copy of either.

Its songs are mature and restrained—intricate blends of cumulus-cloud guitars and tasteful electronic beats. The music is drowsy yet assured, and according to Deheza, it marks a clean break from both On!Air!Library!, her and Claudia’s former band, and Secret Machines, the popular indie-rock outfit that Curtis left in 2007, the same year School of Seven Bells formed.

“We basically just wanted to be as free to be as creative as possible and not really think about where it was going to end up and where the songs were going to end up,” Deheza says, insisting that the band started out with no set direction. “I think it’s pretty much the only way to steer clear of your bad habits and stuff like that. Not so much your habits, but the kinds of decisions you make instead of trying to be as new and creative as possible.”

If she wasn’t sure what type of songs the band would eventually write, she was certain she was working with the right people.

“I knew that Claudia was one of my favorite musicians,” Deheza says. “I know she’s my sister, but that’s not why she’s in the band.”

Though the two grew up harmonizing along with the radio—first in Guatemala and later South Florida, where the sisters developed their eclectic taste in American music—they almost never sang together in On!Air!Library! With School of Seven Bells, their voices are up front, twin specters atop Curtis’ accompaniment, evoking the “traces of something” one might “long to feel again” that are mentioned in the standout track “Half Asleep.”

Curtis, Deheza says, is her favorite guitar player, and since the band’s inception, she’s grown increasingly enamored of his creativity.

“He changed his setup drastically,” she says. “He’s doing very different things, guitar-wise. You can hear that overall beautiful, melodic, washy, kind of rhythmic thing he was doing [in Secret Machines], but it’s still very different.”

In September 2007, not long after forming, the band dropped its debut EP, Face to Face on High Places. The three-song CD came in response to a plea from friend and Table of the Elements label boss Geoff Mullen, who suddenly needed to fill a gap in his release schedule.

“He just kind of was like, ‘I need it by Friday,’ or something like that, ‘Do you want to release an EP?’“ Deheza recalls. “We went over our friend’s house, and we did drums and stuff like that and recorded a lot of it ourselves.”

With Alpinisms, released in October, the band had more time. Because it now operates its own home studio, it didn’t have to worry about the kinds of time constraints that often lead to compromised performances.

“We take a lot of care with everything we do,” Deheza says. “We wanted that to come across. We wanted it to come across as something we really focused on for this specific amount of time. I feel like the whole record and all the instruments that were played and all the vocals and all the beats and everything were very thought out and careful in a way. We really wanted to just be present at every point of it and not just have anything be a knee-jerk reaction to any other thing.”

If 2009 opened on a frenzied note, the rest of the year is shaping up to be just as hectic. As of January, the group had shows scheduled through June, and in addition to touring, Deheza hopes to record and release another full-length before 2010.

Somehow, one suspects, no matter how busy things get, she’ll always make time for sleep, thereby ensuring a run of adventures more strange and wondrous than any the road could ever offer.

“Honestly, it’s so much fun,” she says, describing those nightly trips into her own subconscious.

“I can’t sing its praises enough,” she adds. “Just try it. It can take months. Before you go to sleep just say, ‘I’m going to be in control of my dreams when I go to sleep.’ Just have that mindset.”



 
 

"I feel like the whole record and all the instruments that were played and all the vocals and all the beats and everything were very thought out and careful in a way. We really wanted to just be present at every point of it and not just have anything be a knee-jerk reaction to any other thing."


School of Seven Bells
"Alpinism"


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what it is

Dance music for shoegazing somnambulants, for those who like Cocteau Twins, M83, Air.