SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS: IT’S SO HEALING
illustration by rachel merrill
School of Seven Bells was less a band than a shared musical world, built from angelic harmonies and krautrock futurism—but it all ended abruptly following the untimely passing of co-founder Benjamin Curtis. But now Alejandra Deheza, the L.A.-by-way-of-New York artist behind the band’s lyrics and otherworldly vocals, has finished their final collaboration: SVIIB, an album full of songs she’d written about the arc of her relationship with Curtis, which endured artistically even after it was ended romantically. Most likely, no one expected to ever hear another School of Seven Bells song, but with help from producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Deheza took the last unfinished recordings from 2012 and made them whole for 2016. Deheza sat down to speak with me frankly about her grief, a life-igniting Joshua Tree visit, a cross-country relocation, and the finality of School of Seven Bells, all with the kind of bravery that comes from confronting the extreme reality of the death of someone you love. This interview by Christina Gubala.
I imagine it’s been an interesting relationship with the press for this album—I can’t imagine what it’s been like to go through public grieving where people ask you a million questions. How has your relationship with the press changed because of this experience?
Alejandra Deheza (vocals): It immediately goes into the really deeply personal things right off the bat, which is … I knew it was going to happen. There were a lot of reasons I waited so long [to do this album]. First, I just couldn’t listen to the music. At all. But it was also because I knew when I actually made the decision, it was going to be a commitment to actually also talking about it, which was something I had to prepare myself for. And being able to be in the right place to do that … where I could get through an interview and not lose my shit? Or just feel comfortable and open enough to be able to talk—that’s some heavy shit to talk about! It’s really personal, you know?
Yeah—you expose yourself as a person. It’s the rawest part of your heart, I’m sure. I read this album is about the relationship arc you had with Benjamin—that you didn’t realize how songs alluded to things until you were looking at it in retrospect. What was it like when you were first writing these songs?
Alejandra Deheza: I just remember when we first started … he’d start with the production, and then give me something to work with. I’ve never been the kind of person who goes, ‘I’m going to make this record about THIS.’ I admire people that can do that. I’ve never been able to. For me, it’s always something needs to come out. For some reason I felt I needed to talk about this story.
Like a signal from the universe?
Alejandra Deheza: I’m telling you! We were working so hard on this and Benjamin was working so hard every day. He was churning this stuff out! I felt the need to keep up. It was probably one of the best most cathartic things I’ve ever done. I never wanted to go back there in my head because … you know, relationships are hard and break-ups are really painful and my break-up with him was probably one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through in my life.
Especially since you stayed so close to each other during the entire process.
Alejandra Deheza: Oh yeah—there was so much love there. One of those things that had to happen, but it was so difficult. I’d never gone back there and I never wanted to go back there cuz we had been in such a great spot as friends. But that was all that was coming out. I had no choice.
That’s really beautiful.
Alejandra Deheza: It was crazy. And a crazy process to bring in songs to the studio and praying that he was so focused on the music and so in a songwriting mindset that he wouldn’t be like, ‘Wait … what? What is this?’
And recognize himself reflected back?
Alejandra Deheza: Right. We’d be on planes and I’d be writing lyrics next to him, like, ‘I know he’s gonna hear these but …’ [covering them up!] ‘I’m gonna sing them eventually,’ but there’s still this sense of … nooooooooo!
At least when you’re singing, you get to put a cloak around your poetry.
Alejandra Deheza: You can put your own theatrical persona into it. When you’re singing you can turn into someone else. When you’re just writing it, it’s like somebody reading your journal.
How did your own creative process change after meeting Benjamin? And how were you making music when you first started making music?
Alejandra Deheza: I was always kind of making up little songs, since I was a really little kid with my sister. And writing a lot of poetry. I was really obsessed with just writing. We started in New York just by accident, playing in a band together. We were learning how to be in a band in front of everyone. Our first show, we had a month to throw songs together and learn how to play instruments. I had never written a real song before. I’d written … I dunno. Never was I like, ‘I’m gonna write out these LYRICS.’
When you write poetry, you don’t have to picture it in the context of anything. It can stand alone. When you’re writing lyrics, it comes with a family, almost.
Alejandra Deheza: Yeah—it was just a learning process in front of everyone.
But I bet that made you brave.
Alejandra Deheza: I didn’t feel brave! But I guess it was. I look back like, ‘I don’t know how I did that!’
I was a huge fan of your early work—I was always really impressed and inspired by it. That’s what got me into Michael Rother and some of the krautrock stuff.
He’s so great! We did a song with him for a comp he did. He put a band together [with Ben] for All Tomorrow’s Parties in England and I got to tag along. It was so good! One of those whirlwind things where we flew out Friday night and I think he played Saturday night. They didn’t rehearse. It was a pure jam session. It was crazy cuz they had a long discussion about the song, so Ben had some notes before they went on stage. When we got to the stage, he realized he’d left the notes in our room! He went into another zone like, ‘I’m not gonna panic—I got this!’ But I knew how terrified he was. He was gonna play with one of his heroes! It turned out to be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anyone come up with shit on the fly like that. He was like … no sweat. Not one bead of sweat. And it didn’t come from any sense of cockiness. If anyone could ever tune in so hard to a music zone … he was here playing with other musicians but he was so immersed in it that it was almost like the cues were already there. He could read the room musically—so well. It was a focus thing. Afterward, I think he almost collapsed. He was so relieved! Like ‘Oh my God, I DID that!’ But while he was up there, you couldn’t even tell! He was in that zone. And just grooving.
You met on tour with Interpol with Secret Machines and On!Air!Library!—what changed about making music for you after you started collaborating with Benjamin?
Alejandra Deheza: It’s tricky to explain cuz it happened so naturally. Honestly … automatically things became a lot more serious to me. I really got into it. Before it was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re in a band playing out and I don’t know how the fuck we did this cuz we weren’t musicians before!’ And shows were free-for-all! First, I had the idea for School of Seven Bells before I met him. I was like, ‘This time, I’m gonna pick my musicians. It’s not gonna be a bunch of people thrown together.’ I remember being like, ‘This is my chance to really really write my music.’ I got so much more immersed in it. It was a 24-hour-a-day thing, whereas before for me it wasn’t. I was winging it. But this time it was, ‘No, I wanna make my songs.’
Soulmate inspiration of that nature can really turn you into a real version of yourself very fast. People who get to experience that in their life are so lucky, even though it inevitably comes with an extreme amount of pain, no matter what happens.
Alejandra Deheza: 100%. There’s a trade off.
Also—what is the story on the South American pickpocketing ring the band was named after?
Alejandra Deheza: It’s funny because when I first heard the name, I Googled® it and there were only two hits. There’s not much information, or there wasn’t, aside from what I heard in this little documentary. No one knows if it was real or not. It’s one of those things.
So you got to carry that identity with you, wondering if it really happened or not? Do you think you’re ready to retire that name after completing this project?
Alejandra Deheza: I have to because it’s … Benjamin and Alley, is what that name means to me. That’s what the band is. If it was just him, it wouldn’t be School of Seven Bells, and if it was just me, it wouldn’t be School of Seven Bells.
I know you’ve been through a long doldrum period—a time when it was very difficult to make anything creative. What changed to allow you to start moving forward again?
Alejandra Deheza: When I was in New York after everything happened, I was in such a dead zone. My only goal was to keep myself as numb as possible. Fucked up. I didn’t wanna deal with it. And being in New York, everywhere was a memory I did not wanna have. It scared the shit out of me. I’d try to sit down and write and I felt like I lost my identity. I just didn’t know who I was anymore without being able to sit down and write, and nothing would come out. It was painful! I remember being like, ‘Is it over? Is this over now? I can’t do this anymore. Is that what happened?’ I had so many questions, not understanding why I couldn’t write music—I couldn’t write lyrics! Words were my thing, you know. That’s how I expressed myself. And I was like, ‘If this dies … ‘ It was so scary. There was one moment that clicked where I was like, ‘I need to move to California. I need to move to L.A. I need to be close to [producer] Justin [Meldal-Johnsen]. I need to finish this record.’ When I made that decision, things started loosening up. It’s almost like my mind was like … ‘Don’t get distracted! You got shit to do! Don’t lose this! It has to be finished!’
Had you spent much time in Los Angeles before you moved here?
Alejandra Deheza: Always brief trips. Either in and out on tour, or I was filming the video for the song [‘I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)’] that I did with Ben while he was in the hospital.
I know Joshua Tree played a major part in that video. But there are some redwood forests, there was definitely a beach … how did you choose your locations? Why were they significant to you?
Alejandra Deheza: My friends Alan Del Rio and Toby Halbrooks picked the locations. Toby had been friends with Benjamin since they were 12, and he knew him. They were really close friends.
It’s a stunning video. I watched it like three times this morning. I was just out in Joshua Tree myself.
Alejandra Deheza: It’s so healing. And the birds—there’s something magical about the birds out there.
I couldn’t agree more. When you go back to New York, will you be working on any new projects?
Alejandra Deheza: I wanna work on a record with my sister Claudia.
You have beautiful harmonies together.
Alejandra Deheza: I have to work with her. We had such good chemistry musically. It’d just be a shame … we had to end it, and she had to start with her family and family life, which is very important.
So you’re an auntie?
Alejandra Deheza: Yeah, I am!
Have you felt any ease of the pain in spending time with the children?