A collaboration between Benjamin Curtis of Secret Machines and twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza of On-Air Library, the School of Seven Bells (founded in name from a mythical South American pickpocket academy) that surprised all with their ethereal, haunting charms that found them in perfect company of shoegaze/dreampop acts like M83 and Prefuse 73. Chris Berkley of Static spoke to all three members of this New York-based act who were in Sydney on their first tour of Australia recently in support of last year’s Alpinisms album.
How are you guys holding up on tour? Are you all still talking and getting on?
Ali: Yeah, pretty well actually.
Ben: As much as usual (laughs).
You guys are on tour for ever now. I took a look at your dates, it’s a kinda military style operation the School of Seven Bells have got going on.
Ben: It is. No one can say that we didn’t go on tour for a really long time.
Did it always feel like School of Seven Bells would be such a live force or did it start out as strictly a studio project?
Ali : Actually, we weren’t even thinking about how we were going to present it live when we wrote the record, it just kind of happened, luckily, in a way that was very similar to the record.
Was it hard to work out how to translate to a live setting?
Ben: It was, actually, it took a long time. It’s just that we knew how it could sound like, but we didn’t know how to do it. It took a couple of tours, maybe about a year before we kinda settled in to something that worked.
So all those people that saw the first tour should be getting their money back?
Ali: Mmm… If they see us again (Laughs).
So I’m guessing, Benjamin for you in Secret Machines and also On-Air Library it must’ve been a thing then, or a process then, of busting out some jams and off your went. The arrangements on the School of Seven Bells record as quite intricate, so you almost have to unravel them to work out how you were going to do it live.
Ben: We had to stop trying to duplicating the music in the same way. We had to start replaying the songs in the same spirit, you know what I mean? It’s a different way to approach it. Stop worrying about this part being exactly this or this part being exactly that. As long as you play the song or feel the song, it will sound like the song.
It seems like such a vocals-led project. Is that where School of Seven Bells songs start out?
Claudia : Yeah, for the most part we build on vocals, but they have to come from somewhere obviously, so you know we take any kind of snippet of music or a loop. It can come from anything, but usually it’s built around the vocals.
Is it always the pair of you two sisters trading off on a vocal with each other. How do you nut the songs out?
Ali: It’s different for each song. Some songs are based on a vocal idea I have, some are based on something Claudia has. I think there’s a couple we collaborated on.
Do you have to be all in the same room to work on a School of Seven Bells song?
Ben: Well, we have to be in the same room, maybe not at the same time.
Ali: Yeah. (laughs).
Is that how it works to make a song of yours? Do you build and build and build?
Ben: It starts in a pile of ideas. Its usually pretty disorganised. We just kinda shape it. We spend a lot of time subtracting parts. We build it up and we tear it down, we build it up and we tear it down. It’s a really long process, making a song. Well, it’s a complicated process. It actually happens really quickly. We just kinda turn off and do a lot of work on mixing. We don’t know how it happens, but it keeps happening.
How precious are you about those songs. You’ve farmed them out in different shape-shifting styles “Iamundernodisguise” started its life as that song on a Prefuse 73 record. Was it good to farm the songs out and see what other people did with them and see where the songs would take themselves?
Claudia: I guess we always do whatever we feel like at the time. He had asked us for a song and we had these vocals and guitar and stuff like that lying around, so we just gave it to him to use, and it ended up a single, but it was always going to be one of our songs.
Even in terms of getting remixes done as well, Jesu has done one of “My Cabal” and Nobody has done one for “Trance Figure“, is it kinda good to see where your songs can end up away from what you’re doing yourselves?
Ben: Of course. It’s really inspiring. One of our earliest home recordings was remixed by Robin Guthrie…
Which must’ve been a big fanboy moment for you…
Ben: In a way it was, but in another sense I never thought about our music in that context. So getting a remix done is a really cool way to hear what we do through someone else’s ears. It can be really inspiring. That was really inspiring for us to hear what he did with that song.
When the three of you work on a song, is it kinda good to take it outside of that room that you’ve all been in and give it to the outside world in a way?
Ben: Yes and no. When we made the record it was just us. I think in the end to make our vision happen you can’t really have too much outside influence.
Tell me a bit more about this other side project I’ve read about called RISIL. Is this happening? You guys with Prefuse 73 and some of the guys from Pivot?
Ben: It exists outside of time and space. In some abstract universe it exists.
Does it only exist in a late night conversation of ‘we should do this at some point’?
Ben: There is music. It exists and it’s cool. It’s weird, really weird music. It’s so weird that nobody knows what they should do with it.
Claudia: It’s on Myspace. I think that’s all that’s been done with it.
Ben: There’s probably like 10 tracks, 12 tracks.
I’m also pleased to see you’ve become keen bloggers. You’ve been spending all your downtime on tour writing journals . Has it been fun to vent about those English industrial towns or whatever else?
Ali: I really love doing it. I’ve always wanted to do it. Ever since it got set up I can’t stop. I think it’s a really good way to have a conversation with you know, not fans, but people checking you out, that want to know what you‘re about.
It will be something to remember where you’ve actually been in six months as well as you might forget.
Ben: It’s cool to check back and see what your thoughts were at a particular time.
And so does that mean that next School of Seven Bells album is even thought about. Does doing all these live shows directly influence how it’s going to sound?
Ben: I think maybe we’ve got about 10 tracks, or tracks structured and everything, and waiting for some time to complete them.
Do you think it might sound more immense now that you’re doing this tour. Do you think there will be stadium-sized songs on the second album?
Ben: Of course. Are you kidding me.
Claudia: Definitely built for arenas.
Next time round we’ll see you playing Australia with Pink.
Ben: Pink’s going to be on the new record (laughs).
First broadcast on Static on 23/04/09. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).