Brooklyn's School of Seven Bells reinvents itself when a sibling leaves the band
Albums may be on the wane, but they’ve accrued too much mythology to ever die out completely.
The standard rock-myth narrative about album order—the “brilliant, out-of-nowhere debut”? (Take your pick.) The “harder, leaner, even better” sophomore album? (Hello, Elvis Costello.) The “sprawling, eclectic” third album? (London Calling.), the double-live—will likely have a pull on the popular imagination even after performers all just switch to E.P.s, the way half of them have seemed to be doing this year anyway.
The recently issued third album by Brooklyn’s School of Seven Bells, Ghostory, fits a different sort of narrative—the “post-breakup” album, superceding mere order and becoming about emotional trauma.
In this case, it wasn’t a romantic breakup but one forged of deeper bonds. School of Seven Bells began in 2007, a second project for all three mainstays: Benjamin Curtis, then playing guitar in Secret Machines, and twin-sister On!Air!Library! vocalists Alejandra and Claudia Deheza.
“It was very much a reaction,” said Curtis over the phone from the group's tour bus. (The road leads home this Saturday, when School of Seven Bells play Le Poisson Rouge.) “Secret Machines was a guitar band. We made two great records that I’m really proud of. Part of the reason I changed was, I really wanted to try other sounds, sort of shake a habit I felt I was getting into. [With School of Seven Bells], the guitar was an afterthought.
The 2008 issue of Alpinisms changed the group’s status; School of Seven Bells became everyone’s priority, leading to 2010’s Disconnect From Desire. Both were suffused with dreamy harmonies and driving electronics. But between that album and Ghostory, Claudia left the group, citing “personal differences.” Surely this altered the group’s work habits?
“I don’t think it changed the methodology,” said Curtis. “The effect was more streamlined, because we didn’t have to teach somebody else the parts. It didn’t really effect the way Ally and I wrote together; it was the same as we’d always done. The effect it really had was intentional—we decided to mix up our formula, because people were going to be expecting something different anyway.”
Curtis continued, “The reaction we experienced”—he stopped, then restarted: “We didn’t realize how much people romanticize the notion of siblings in bands, whether it has anything to do with the music or not. It’s a story, and it’s something people fixate on. People draw conclusions to how that worked. So we knew that was something people would bring up. I guess the expectation is shaken up a little bit. It’s not just the third School of Seven Bells record. We took that as an opportunity to challenge ourselves a little bit more.”
It’s hard not to notice the absence of the sisters’ spookily close harmonies on Ghostory—in some ways, that singing defined the group’s early work, as on the diaphanous single “I Am Under No Disguise,” from Alpinisms. But it also turned out to be a good idea to play up to those inveitable questions, musically speaking. Ghostory is leaner, freer, and more about songs than sonics.
“We made that choice early on,” said Curtis. “A lot of the lyrics [on the album] are from such a singular perspective. We thought it would be detrimental to the emotion of the songs to have it feel like too big of a group singing these words to you. That’s why we made the decision to focus on a more singular [vocal style].”
That and other reasons, surely. Does Curtis help write the lyrics?
“Ally writes all of them. We do discuss them a lot. They come really early. We try to use the music to drive the story forward and set the scene. The voice and the words to me, really, are the center of the universe of the song. We take a lot of sonic cues from the words. That has always been the case. Each record has been an exercise in getting more raw, more to the heart of the lyrics and the point of view of the songs.”
You couldn’t always tell this on the band’s earlier work, something Curtis acknowledges.
“Starting with Alpinisms, we definitely would spend a lot more time on vocal production, mainly because we weren’t sure what the music should sound like. We’ve taken a different approach with every different record. We’d been on the road for about a year, and Ally and I got used to playing guitars and keys together in a room. We let the record reflect that.”
The best moments of Ghostory pulse with that kind of live-in-the-room interaction—it’s probably the most “rock” of School of Seven Bells’ albums. More specifically, it’s heavily new wave, from the icy flash of the snare sound to the laser-like keyboards to guitars that are metallic like the compound, not the genre.
“It is a little bit more, rock in a way,” said Curtis. “But I’ve heard people say it’s a dance record: ‘Wow, this record’s so much more electronic,’ which is strange to me. [Still], we definitely made the decision to work with faster tempos, and to have things be more in your face, and less sort of set adrift in a dream world. We wanted more contrasts this time around—just to see if we could do it, really.”
They got a few prompts from without—past tours with Blonde Redhead and Bat for Lashes nudged Curtis and Ally to kick up their presentation a notch, and they came to Ghostory, after a long tour with Interpol, ready for action.
“We were inspired not so much by the music directly,” said Curtis, “but that there was a sort of big, energetic, glorious music that was moving these huge rooms but at the same time had a certain character and moodiness and intensity. It wasn’t just a bunch of teenagers playing hyperactive disco beats and losing their minds.”
Speaking of beats, I was curious about a B-side. Ghostory’s first single is “Lafaye,” a shimmering, driving rocker that sounds like a rock D.J.’s dream-segue out from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero.” It comes paired with the non-album song “Blood From a Stone”—a kind of ’90s R&B song, albeit one obviously being performed by a new-wave inflected rock band.
“We were trying to think of a vampire-Aaliyah, a goth-Aaliyah song,” said Curtis. “When we made Ghostory, we kept writing all these songs that didn’t really fit on it,” said Curtis. “We’d gotten our guitar-rock out of our system, and we had a bunch of beats left, and we made a bunch of songs up. Hopefully they’ll all see the light of day.
One Ghostory song in particular, “Scavenger,” is pretty mean: “You only take, ’cause you’re a coward,” sneers Ally. I had to ask if Curtis knew the target, but he wasn't making any insinuations.
“It is about someone in particular, but also a few people in particular,” he said. “We’ve all met that person, where you get to the point where you can’t be cool anymore and you have to call someone out. I can’t think of anything more universal than that.”