From its inception, School of Seven Bells has always been about cosmic connection. At its core is a pair of star-crossed lovers (Benjamin Curtis and Alejandra Deheza), and much of the band’s music seems to exist at least partially on the astral plane, or in the ethereal dream world between consciousness and sleep. The story of School of Seven Bells has a tragic end, with an untimely death and a posthumous final album, SVIIB. But that it existed at all is worth celebration.
When Curtis died in December of 2013 of T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, he left much of SVIIB already written and recorded. He also left a hole in New York, in the music scene that had been blessed with his music, and in the life of Alejandra Deheza. By the time the two had written SVIIB, they were no longer lovers, but had gotten to the point where they could be best friends, proving that their connection had always musical. It took Deheza both time and distance (she moved to Los Angeles shortly after Curtis’ death) to get to a place where she return to the music, but with the release of this last record, she’s finally ready to lay it to rest. The release of SVIIB on February 26 (Vagrant), marks the final chapter of their story; like the album, it’s both brief and beautiful, at times, even breathtaking.
The story of School of Seven Bells starts on tour; specifically, a 2004 jaunt with Secret Machines and On!Air!Library! in support of Interpol. Benjamin Curtis was playing with his brother Brandon in Secret Machines, a critically acclaimed but commercially middling rock band that carried a coveted co-sign from David Bowie. Twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza were playing in On!Air!Library! with Phillip Wann. By the time the tour was over, the attraction between Curtis and Alejandra was magnetic. “When we got back from that tour,” she says, “we just immediately started working.”
The band took some time to come to come together; Curtis continued to make music with Secret Machines until 2007. But by then, both Deheza sisters had moved from Miami to New York, and into an apartment with Curtis. Deheza says it was mostly out of necessity, trying to figure out how to survive in the city, but it seemed to be a boon to their creative process; harmonies ad-libbed over breakfast could turn into a song by the afternoon. Their line between their lives and art seemed to blur, their mystical connection manifesting itself on that first record, Alpinisms. “It was really this cosmic thing meeting him,” she says. “We were immediately connected…and music was what brought us together, this thing that couldn’t be separate from us, ever.”
School of Seven Bells’ Benjamin Curtis and Alejandra Deheza.
The trio wrote the first two records together before Claudia left the band in 2010, mid-tour, due to “personal reasons.” Fans despaired; Curtis himself had said that their songwriting process started with the words and vocals, and the sisters’ harmonies and tag-team vocal interplay certainly seemed to define their sound. But to hear Alejandra tell it, School of Seven Bells was always her and and Curtis, and Claudia’s involvement had been a marriage of convenience. “She is an amazing musician on her own, and really amazing with harmonies and things like that,” Alejandra says of her sister. “She was there as another creative fire in the mix, and she was there for as long as she wanted to be. And then she had other things she wanted to do.”
Ghostory was their first album as a duo, and though they were no longer a couple by the time they started writing the album, the experience brought them closer together, quite literally. Like many bands, they used to work on their own parts separately, bringing pieces to rehearsal and turning them into songs together. “For Ghostory we were writing a lot in the same room,” she explains. “It was very much a side-by-side kind of thing, which [we] just hadn’t really done before.” They were “best friends” by the time they started writing SVIIB, and even before Curtis got sick, the record was always going to be about their relationship. How could it not? That cosmic connection she speaks of seemed to transcend any romantic notions, the kind of partnership that draws people to create together. “We were in this rehearsal space together just non-stop, pretty much from the time we woke up…. We were in there 12-13 hours a day, just making music side-by-side.”
With most of the record written, the two had booked time with Justin Meldal-Johnsen and were set to finish the record with him when Curtis’ illness necessitated a hospital check-in. Deheza wrote the lyrics to “Confusion” about his illness, and Curtis would record a bittersweet Ramones cover from what would be his deathbed. But his cancer was aggressive, and took his life rather quickly. Heartbroken and visually distracted (“Everything I looked at had a story,” she says), Deheza fled New York for Los Angeles to mourn, reflect, and regroup.
“[New York] was just inextricably tied to all these memories that I had, and I didn’t know how to hear the music in a pure way anymore,” she explains. “Not that I feel like I would ever be able to, but at least in a way where I’d be able to work on it and not have other things cloud my judgement or cloud the way that I saw the songs. When we were writing them, it was such a super bright, amazing, fun, exciting time, and I wanted to keep it in that light as much as humanly possible. I could not do that in New York, there was no way. So I had to move here to completely change the scenery, have a complete change. The context completely changed. I needed it to be as new as possible again because that’s what we felt like when we were making it.”
Within the context of their relationship, and Curtis’ death, SVIIB can sound somber, but — “Confusion” excepted — it’s clearly not the place from which they came as the two wrote the record. It sounds like the next step in the band’s natural progression; you can draw a line from their last record to their first, and they use much of the same equipment, but they all feel quite different. It’s likely what make them so compelling as a band, this ability to express unquantifiable things like dreams and emotions, independent of any literal translation of the lyrics. Their music feels like the embodiment of transcendental meditation, the sound of chakras opening, an auditory connection to a greater consciousness. SVIIB isn’t particularly groundbreaking, or even their best record, but rather a fitting coda for the project that Curtis had dedicated the last years his life to.
When we spoke with her on the phone for this story, Deheza sounded a bit weary. Putting out the last work they’d made together may have provided some closure, but it also signified its end. “It’s just a really strange feeling,” she says. “It’s going back to the past, a little bit. It’s a little rattling. It’s a little bit of a reminder that this is still pretty fresh. But I made the decision to start working on it now, because I knew it came with the decision to start talking about it, so I knew I had to be ready to do it. It is cathartic, in a way. It is a way to have some kind of closure with that huge, huge part of my life. It’s hard to explain. It’s also addressing that there’s so much space now where that was, you know?”
Everyone deals with grief differently; most people cry, some laugh, some retreat, some explode. To grieve publicly, through art, is one of the more vulnerable acts a person can perform; for Deheza to expose her open wounds to the air is generous in a way that commercial music often is not. The music is not just a way for them to tell their story, it is their story. It always has been, and now that it’s immortalized on record, it always will be.
“When we met, we started working on music immediately,” Deheza says. “Our whole relationship was music. It never stopped.”