School of Seven Bells is bringing textural back

Tell Benjamin Curtis that the music he makes with his band, School of Seven Bells, sounds like something that could have come out on the 4AD or Creation labels in the 1980s or early ’90s, and he won’t deny it. Yet, when reached at home in Brooklyn, the guitarist insists that he and his bandmates, siblings Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, don’t take direct inspiration from the likes of Cocteau Twins or Slowdive when crafting their own brand of lush and swirling hymn-pop. Curtis does, however, acknowledge an appreciation for the recording aesthetic of that time, which favoured the heavy use of studio effects to build dreamy textures, but which inevitably fell out of fashion as the lo-fi paradigm became ascendant in indie music.

“It seems like that era of music was right before things got so realist in the ’90s,” Curtis says. “There was a kind of backlash to that, which was very dry production, and everything had to be very ”˜real’. Once you get over that, people realize that making something more textural, and trying to make something sound more beautiful, or more ugly, or like it’s not supposed to sound, is okay again. And I think that’s where we’re at, so maybe that’s the similarity.”

In fact, School of Seven Bells’s debut album, Alpinisms—which layers the Deheza twins’ silver-plated vocal harmonies over electronic beats and the purple haze of Curtis’s guitar work—sounds uncannily up-to-date, given the popularity of like-minded artists such as Asobi Seksu and M83. (School of Seven Bells is currently touring with the latter.)

“That was the weird thing when we were making our album,” Curtis says. “When we finally just made it, and did it exactly the way we wanted to do, that was a very conscious decision. We were like, ”˜You know what? Fuck it. We’re gonna make this sound like we want it to sound like. We don’t care if this is out of step or whatever.’ And we just did it that way, and our album comes out, and apparently we’re part of some shoegaze resurgence. We had no idea.”

If School of Seven Bells gets lumped in with the so-called nu-gazers, that’s probably thanks in large part to Curtis’s six-string contributions, like the distortion-strafed swaths of noise that cut through the surface of “Iamundernodisguise” and the slightly seasick churning of “Face to Face on High Places”. It’s a surprise, then, when Curtis reveals that the band was originally conceived as a strictly electronic project. That notion was scrapped when the former Secret Machines member started longing for his guitar. “I really missed the chaos that you get from the physical object vibrating,” he says, “and the kind of mysteriousness of the tones that happen when I do play guitar. ’Cause I’m not exactly sure why, when I play guitar, it sounds that way. Everyone does it differently. Everyone does it their own particular little way, and it’s cool. I guess that’s why people still play guitars.”

School of Seven Bells plays at Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (November 26).