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School of Seven Bells

Facing the Days Together

Aug 05, 2016 Photography by Ray Lego Issue # 57 - M83
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Sitting in her home in L.A., her face framed by a curtain of bangs and sharply straightened black hair, Alejandra Deheza is filled with memories. Of her former life living in New York City. Of her band, School of Seven Bells. Of the group’s newly released final album, SVIIB, and what it took to finish it. And of course, the man, the musical partnerBenjamin Curtiswho was such a dominant part of her life. Of how he continues to be even after his death.

“Every day is different,” says Deheza. “I feel like I’m at a point where I can talk about the recordso that’s good. It’s honestlyI know this sounds so tritebut it’s seriously one day at a time. That’s just how it is. There’s good days and there’s bad days.”

SVIIIB is filled with its own kind of memories. Trembling with muscular synthesizers, drum machines, and Deheza’s phantasmal voice, the nine-song LP can often feel as though you’ve plugged into an exposed nerve, one left tender by an outpouring of emotional honesty. While there is indeed tragedy in the context of its making, SVIIB is something celebratory. It is alive with what it means to share a connection with another person, and how we choose to carry that connection with us as long as we can. “I want the people who listen to it to feel how much love was there,” says Deheza. “And it’s not necessary the love that we had, but just this love that is there, that exists. It really does exist. And if that’s it, I’m happy.”

Deheza and Curtis first met in 2005 when their own respective bands at the time found themselves on tour with Interpol. While Deheza performed experimental dream-pop with her twin sister Claudia as On!Air!Library!, Curtis was alongside his brother Brandon in the space rock trio Secret Machines. On the road and in between shows, Deheza and Curtis felt a distinct pull toward one another. “It was super intense,” recalls Deheza. “I never felt that connection with anyone beforeand it was immediate. It was this immediate thing, like we found each other. From then on we were just inseparable. Honestly there was never a point where music wasn’t a part of it. It was kind of this given that our connection also meant music. We didn’t plan it or anything. It just became a part of the conversation.”

Leaving his band, Curtis joined the Deheza sisters to form School of Seven Bells in 2007, releasing their debut album Alpinisms the following year. The band’s 2010 sophomore album Disconnect from Desire and 2012’s Ghostory would follow in relatively quick succession. In between these latter two releases, two significant changes occurred to the band’s interpersonal dynamic. The first was Claudia amicably parting ways with the group. The second was that Deheza and Curtiswho had been seeing each other romantically for five yearsdecided to end that part of their relationship. Despite the mix of emotions associated with their new dynamic, Deheza and Curtis were hopelessly anchored to each other through the songs they continued to create. “We didn’t really have time to think about it,” says Deheza. “From the moment School of Seven Bells started writing together and putting out music it was just nonstop. We didn’t have really any breaks. So we were still working even through the break-up and even after the break-up, we never had this chance where we got to separate from each other and deal with it and process it. We just kept going. There was never really any easy transition. It was just like, ‘Keep your mind on the music.’ Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the hardest things ever. It was devastating and heartbreaking but we had to just channel that through the music somehow because that always came first.”

In the summer of 2012, during a break between tours supporting Ghostory, Deheza and Curtis began writing and recording the material that would inevitably make up SVIIB. In the midst of their long hours of work Deheza’s lyrical contributions started showing evidence of a common thread: the emotionally complicated history of her relationship with Curtis. “It was almost a physically painful need to keep it inthis need to document our entire life together,” says Deheza. “I didn’t understand why.” Aside from the track “A Thousand Times More,” which she openly admitted to Curtis was written for him, Deheza says she never discussed the particulars of the content she was infusing into the music. Still, says Deheza, “He had to have known. There’s just no way.”

At the end of December that same year, a noticeable change started to occur in Curtis’ health. Described as “the kind of person who would be walking around on a broken leg and wouldn’t even notice” by Deheza, his sudden ill condition and weariness was rather alarming. By February, Curtis was officially diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system, over time weakening the body’s immune system and its ability to fight infection. While Curtis went from just feeling a little tired to being unable to get out of a hospital bed in a short amount of time, his attitude toward his whole condition wasn’t one of despair, but making the best of a badly dealt hand.

Curtis had a way with people, of charming them. The nurses and doctors, including some who weren’t even his attending physicians, were known to come visit his room just to talk with him. He became a beloved guest in a very sterile hotel. This could explain why even against hospital policy he openly smuggled in instruments and set up a recording station, continuing to work on music. The staff just looked the other way. Deheza for her part visited Curtis everyday. “I never wanted him to feel like he was missing out on anything,” she says. “I just wanted to be there. I just wanted to hang out with him. He’s my best friend. There’s no one else I’d rather hang out with. He was going through crazy amounts of tests, procedures and shit, but in between those it would just be the same old thing, talking, watching movies, and whenever he felt up to it we would work on music. If anything, listen to the songs, maybe tweak some things here or there. Just Benjamin as usual. I don’t know how he did it.”

Though she did her best not to show it, Deheza was terrified about what was happening to someone that was such a dominant part of her life. Providing what little distraction it could was their sporadic work on their next album. Even before his illness, Curtis and Deheza had decided that for the first time, they wanted to work with an outside producer. Despite their less-than-ideal circumstances for recording the two managed to recruit Justin Meldal-Johnsen, best known for his work with everyone from Beck to M83 to Nine Inch Nails. Though Meldal-Johnsen mostly consulted remotely from L.A., a rare visit to New York City resulted in one of Deheza’s most beloved memories working on the record.

For several days she and Meldal-Johnsen had been working at Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room studio. Curtis, stuck at the hospital, could only sit and wait with the occasional update or status report. At one point during a particular bit of work Deheza says she received a call from a friend explaining that Curtis wouldn’t be reachable for the next couple of hours. Apparently so upset he wasn’t able to participate in the recording sessions, Curtis emotionally lost it. His ensuing outburst of frustration was so bad the hospital staff had to move him to the psychiatric wing. The call understandably left Deheza completely shaken. “I was totally freaking out,” she says. “And then all of the sudden there’s this pounding at the studio. I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is going to be horrible. Who is this? Is this a doctor? I don’t know what’s going on.’ And I open the door and [it’s Benjamin] and he’s cracking up so hard. It’s him standing outside. My friend calls me back and she’s like, ‘I’m so sorry! He really wanted to play this prank on you.’ It was awesome. It was so mean, but it was hilarious. I was just like, ‘I’m going to kill you!’ But it ended up being such a fun day at the studio. Nobody thought about anything else. It was just him, normal, Benjamin at usual, which was perfect.”

Taking advantage of Curtis’ temporary leave of absence from the hospital, the band wrote and recorded “Confusion,” Curtis providing the track’s plaintive organ drone beneath Deheza’s mournful, reflective vocals. While it wouldn’t be the last song the pair would record together (the two would record a cover of Joey Ramone’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” from Curtis’ hospital bed) the song was the piece Curtis would contribute to a still incomplete album. By the end of 2013, Curtis’ condition worsened. He passed away on December 29 at the age of 35. When it had become apparent that Curtis was going, Deheza just started sleeping in the hospital room. “I was there every day and I was there when he died,” she says, letting a few of seconds of silence pass in the conversation. “Yeah. It was devastating, but I’m so glad I was there, and I was right next to him and I’m so glad he knew that.”

In the wake of everything, Deheza naturally had a great deal of difficulty putting any kind of focus on music. She tried once, pressuring herself to try and record a few verses to a song only a few months after Curtis’ death. Deheza couldn’t go through with it. “Just even recording those verses I was like, ‘I cannot listen to this yet at all,’” she says. Dealing with Curtis’ absence in her own way and in her own time, it wasn’t until Deheza opted for a change of scenery by moving to L.A. that she started to finally feel a genuine upswing in her own state of being.

Finally, in the early months of last year, Deheza started listening again to the music she and Curtis had made together, and started getting back to work. With Curtis’ parts already complete, and her vocals tracked, Deheza reunited with Meldal-Johnsen to bring everything together in its finished form. “I just wanted to make sure [Benjamin’s] vision for the production stayed intact,” says Deheza. “[Justin and I] worked really hard on that.”

Years after those first initial bouts of writing and recording, SVIIB is finally out in the world. Though Deheza will continue to make music, there won’t be any more from School of Seven Bells. That is something that had always been with Curtis. That’s not to say, of course, that Deheza is without him. “He’s always, always in the room,” she says. “You write with someone for 10 years, they’re always going to be there. I can’t put anything down without seriously just feeling him there. He’s always going to be a huge part of it, whether he’s here or not. He completely changed my life as a person, as a musician. He’s forever a part of it.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s May/June 2016 Issue. This is its debut online.]


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In Wisconsin
August 6th 2016

This album is amazing. The worst part of it was I didn’t discover SVIIB until after Benjamin had died. Looking forward to whatever projects Alejandra does in the future.

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