Album Reviews Q&A: School of Seven Bells
School of Seven Bells is Benjamin Curtis alongside Alejandra Deheza and her twin sister Claudia. The New York-based band has attracted significant praise for their latest (second) LP, Disconnect From Desire - our own review states that they've "reached a confident, polished plateau... [but it still] heaves with all the mysticism of its predecessor". Said debut was Alpinisms, officially released in the UK in February 2009 and, like Disconnect, it was featured as an Album of the Day on 6 Music. Curtis answers our questions.
Disconnect from Desire has been well received across the critical spectrum, with many a writer noting that there's a greater mainstream slant than the debut. Is this a case of you moving into more accessible territory, or merely a sign that the mainstream has become more open to leftfield sounds since the release of Alpinisms?
I've never thought of our music in terms of leftfield or rightfield. It's all the same field to me. I'm not scared of the pop label, and honestly I feel sorry for people who do have a problem with it. It must be a tough life creating all these walls for yourself, and little boxes to live in. We just make the music we make, and SVIIB is the sound that happens when the three of us get together.
On the other hand, I can definitely see what people mean by accessible, to a certain extent. It's never been our intention to alienate anybody. It's the total opposite, actually. We've always been way more interested in the connection that music creates, and that ecstatic feeling we get when we feel a connection with music that we're listening to. So, in a way, I think the fact that people are now able to find an entry point into our music is just a testament to the fact that we're getting better at what we do.
That being said, it's not like radio blasting Windstorm every hour. I mean, I think it should, and I think people would love it. But, unfortunately, the "mainstream" is still as conservative as ever. We'll just keep on creating new music, and pushing what we do forward, and we'll see where that takes us.
The debut arrived in the US before the UK, whereas this time out Disconnect was released home and abroad (fairly) simultaneously. Have you found it easier this way, to cover all territories at once? Or was there something quite nice about working your debut at home, attaining a level of recognition, and then experiencing that process again in Europe?
That's an interesting question, actually. I'm not sure it really makes too big of a difference these days. Our record leaked weeks before it was out, which I guess is just the reality now. I think it's just more honest to put it out everywhere, because if it's not out in a certain territory, they're just going to get it anyway, right? For the kind of music we make, hoping to debut at number one isn't an option, so we might as well just give our fans a chance to hear the new music ASAP. Our label, who are amazing by the way, helped us get the record posted on our site, and a few other places, so people could hear it in its entirety about 10 days before it came out. That was really important to me, and I'm happy it happened that way.
Was the set of songs that makes up Disconnect firmly in place before the recording process began, with the three of you able to play them in full, or did the album largely come together in the studio? The band has made significant live strides since the debut, so I wonder if this album was written with performance in mind, as much as it being a studio affair.
Actually, most of the record was written on tour last year. I remember it started coming to us like a tidal wave in the spring of last year, while on tour in Europe. That was an exciting time. We never had this moment were we had to think, "Well, I guess it's time for the follow-up!" It just started happening, so it was really organic. I think the fact that we were playing every night had a huge impact on the sound. We also split up the recording between two tours, where we were able to try out a lot of what we were doing on stage. There's definitely a more visceral and exciting quality to this music, and that comes completely from playing live. We didn't realise we had this power in our music when we were making the first record. It's something we found on the road.
Does the bracketing of the band, as primarily a shoegaze-styled ensemble, frustrate you at all? There are certain connotations with that term, not least of all a rather pervading sense of glumness, whereas your music can (and does) soar. Or do you simply grin and bear it when reading about your own work?
I used to hate it more than I do now. The whole "genre" trap to me has always represented exclusion more than inclusion. For example, somebody would hear about a band now, and be told, "Oh, they're chillwave", or whatever the latest tag is, and think, "Oh, I don't like chillwave, so I won't like them". That's obviously ridiculous, but I think it's more common that good musicians are written off because of genres than anything else. Same goes for techno, dream-pop, noise, lo-fi, or whatever.
Now, I just see it as a fact of life. It's natural for humans to categorise things, so I guess we just accept that people are going to call it what they call it. I think creativity will always win out in the end, and it won't change what we do.
Does Disconnect..., for you, really mark the moment when the band stops being "featuring ex-members of" and becomes the group that tops your CVs (so to speak)? With the debut many a write-up seemed to start with what you did before; now, it seems, the present is very much of the utmost import.
Yeah, I've been waiting for this. I didn't realise that people would be so interested in the individual history, and I also didn't realise that some people were seeing it as some kind of one-off project. SVIIB has been our lives since the first time we played together, and it was always going to be on the top of our resumes.
I see Disconnect From Desire and Alpinisms as pieces in a puzzle, and our vision for SVIIB is much bigger than anything we've done yet. I'm looking forward to the day when all the comparisons and tags begin to fall away, one by one, and the only thing left to describe us is our name.
Finally, do you have any favourite albums of 2010 so far?
To me, this is a really exciting time for music. Matthew Dear's new one, Black City, is great. Blonde Redhead's new one (Penny Sparkle, out 13 September) is sure to be incredible. They haven't missed yet. Four Tet's There Is Love In You is beautiful, and I've already worn it out. I've been a little less than impressed with things on the buzzier end of the spectrum, but that's okay. It goes in phases, right?
Photograph by Abby Drucker