With Me, Your Love Is Safe: An Interview with School of Seven Bells
On the day David Bowie left this mortal world, I was scheduled to talk to Alejandra Deheza about the new School of Seven Bells record, SVIIB. Other commitments arose and the interview was rescheduled for later the same week. In the days leading up to the call, a sentiment resounded with me in light Bowie's passing and his Blackstar album release. SVIIB will be the band's final record, following the death of the band's co-founder Benjamin Curtis. School of Seven Bells originated when the two met whilst touring with their respective bands in 2004; an inextricable bond fused them together and immediately began making music.
In 2012, they began making their fourth record, before Benjamin received his lymphoma diagnosis and continued to write and record throughout his cancer treatment. Deheza recalls how that the time before his diagnosis was the greatest for them personally and as a band. "It's definitely the most jovial music we've ever made. That summer was amazing! We had a blast together - it's beautiful but so intense at the same time. Recording all day, going out at night and recording again the next day. Honestly, I was at a point where I felt my life was perfect. Our lives were perfect. I really feel the music captures that."
SVIIB is undoubtedly the pair's most opulent record, regardless of the shadow that was cast over its creation. Alejandra wrote its lyrics in reference to their enduring creative and romantic relationship. The songs became a musical document of their time together - from the moment they met until the final song recorded. Sonically, the songs were more synth-driven than previous albums with a more pristine production in collaboration with Justin Meldal-Johnsen. "Basically we wanted to write in a way which we hadn't before. That was the goal for every record but this time, in particular, we went in a different direction. Other people might think it sounds exactly like School of Seven Bells but it was a super different approach; musically, lyrically and rhythmically."
The lyrics in particular pushed Alejandra out of her comfort zone, as they embody a direct dialogue to Benjamin, about things she felt unable to say to him.
"This one is way more direct - more so than I was comfortable with. I'm usually comforted by having a veil over my words. This was more difficult because the person I'm writing about, and writing to, is sitting next to me and these are all the things I couldn't express to him at the time. It's crazy saying all these things that you can't say to their face but you have to because the song needs it."
Following his diagnosis, there was never a question over whether or not the record would happen. He and Alejandra stole away moments in the studio in-between chemotherapy cycles and brought instruments and recording equipment into the hospital to keep the album's momentum going. "We both knew what was going on. We realized to get past it, we had to focus on the music. We couldn't address it at the time. These songs are so literal, they're all from our lives together." Both musicians were compelled to keep creating right up until they could no longer physically do it. They also made a poignant cover of Joey Ramone's 'I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)', who died from the same cancer-type.
Curtis became terminally ill during his treatment at the end of 2013 and passed away that December. Months passed before Alejandra could even consider approaching the music they had made, as she lamented the loss of her closest friend. New York was once their home had become a place of unrest and pain, as everything reminded her of their relationship. To give herself time to grieve, she decided she needed to get out of the city and relocate to Los Angeles:
"In New York, it was impossible to work on music because there was so much sadness. Our story was imposed on New York. I couldn't see the streets the same, couldn't go to bars we went to or even listen to our music. I needed a completely new context. It was impossible to have clarity in New York because it was so muddled by everything that had happened. When I got to Los Angeles, I could take a walk in the morning again or I didn't feel like a wave of images were drowning me every day. It gave me the headspace to finish the record and hear the music for what it was."
After some time had passed, she felt ready to approach the studio to complete what she started with Benjamin. She entered the studio again with Justin Meldal-Johnsen who they had initially recruited to co-produce the album. He became a touchstone for Deheza, as they set out to finish the songs knowing how Benjamin would have wanted them:
"We only worked on songs that were pretty much done. I didn't want anything on the record that wasn't Benjamin and me sitting in the same room together. Nothing is a departure from that. Justin is an amazing friend and musician who had so much respect for everything. He was always there for us and for me when I wanted to complete the album. He's an angel. We had plans to record together before but that ran into Benjamin being in hospital. It's amazing to me because we had never worked with a producer but yet we met him when everything was fine and we were making demos and naturally decided to work with him. Why? Now I completely understand: he was there before and he was there after to help us finish this record because I couldn't have done this by myself."
Although returning to what they had created before Benjamin died proved incredibly difficult but she sees it as a trial she knew she had to undertake. "It's crazy when I think back on it and the need to express things in this way. The need to actually write about what happened between us. I understand it now - before I wondered why I was doing this to myself. It felt like torture to reveal my innermost thoughts to another person every day." Alejandra's twin sister Claudia, who was originally in the band and departed in 2010, joined them in the studio to help write the verses for 'Music Make Me'. It comes as a nod to the band's history and a sense of coming full-circle. "I had an insane mental block when it came to that song. I didn't want to use any song on the album that the verses weren't done but I did it with this one because Benjamin adored the chorus so much. Working with her again shook me up in my head again. I couldn't have done it without her."
There is an apparent dialogue between the final record's final two songs, 'Confusion' and the celebratory 'This Is Our Time', with their perspective of their lyrics written before and after his diagnosis.
"'Confusion' was written during one of the times Benjamin was home from the hospital between chemotherapy cycles. He always, always wanted to make music - it didn't matter how sick he was. He was so weak, we made the walk to the studio and he went in started laying this synth part. We were so shell-shocked by what was happening, I wrote down some lyrics and just sang them. It was all one-take, completely improvised. It was hard for me to even get the words out, since we were both crying. I always think back and wish I could've known and said 'This is the last song we're going to write in the same room'. I just had no idea. It's so insane the relationship between those two songs since 'This Is Our Time' was the last song we wrote when everything was perfect - that was our pinnacle. It's crazy that they're both together on the record but it wasn't deliberate."
Reflecting the band's development since their 2008 debut, Alpinisms, she cherishes what they achieved. "I just think it's amazing that we got to write all that music together. When I look at it, I'm so proud of him. I understand why we had to work so hard. There were points when we were on tour all the time, like 300 days out of the year. Whenever there was a break either driving or in the hotel room or a week off, we'd just be writing, writing, writing. It was relentless and at times overwhelming but our time together was unstoppable." On this point, I bring up the idea of potentially touring the record. "It's delicate. As much as the musician in me is dying to do it, I don't know how I would feel to be up there without him. That being said, the wheels are turning."
Since completing the album, the life-changing experience they went through has become somewhat clearer. School of Seven Bells is not simply a band, a musical idea or a career - it was a life together. The pink planet that fronts SVIIB album cover is the emblem of it:
"Bryan Collins who designed all of our artwork made it. Every time we approach him, we just give him a little bit of an idea. He meditates on the concepts and we give him the space to come up it. The making of this artwork was around the same time as the Blood Super Moon last September. I remember watching it while on the phone to my mom and I was just crying. When me and Benjamin met we started making music instantly, our life was School of Seven Bells - we created it. The image of the moon really burnt onto my brain. It's called SVIIB, using Roman numerals, because it represents a block of time that has been definitive in my life. It's like a planet, an entire planet - it's our world that we made together."
School of Seven Bells' final chapter lyrically and musically captures the spirit of an intuitive relationship between two people. After our phone call ended, the link between Bowie's and Curtis' death resonated once again. They were two artists who shared an intrinsic, spirited belief in the transformative power of music and the ability to communicate human experience through art and sound. A faith that nothing, not even terminal illness, stopped them from believing and continued to create right up till their time to leave this world. Their lives are a reminder to reviewers, critics and writers everywhere that artistic souls are something immeasurable, unmatched and indefinable.
SVIIB is out on February 26th via Full Time Hobby (Europe) and Vagrant Records (US)..
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