Although it is actually derived from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (a set of cards bearing phrases that, drawn randomly from the deck, can act as guiding principles in creative endeavours), it’s tempting to read shades of Buddhism into the title of the new School of Seven Bells album, Disconnect From Desire. One of the keys to achieving the state of nirvana, after all, is the transcendence of craving.
Reached at home in Brooklyn, the band’s guitarist and producer, Benjamin Curtis, says he can see the connection, but he says it was purely coincidental. “I think it was just really resonant for a million reasons,” Curtis says. “A lot of the music we were writing seemed to be about struggling against this situation that you have in your life and just trying to shake it, and realizing that you create it yourself more often than not. I mean, your bad relationships with people, and your mood and all of these things. I think Buddhists have been talking about that for 2,500 years, but so have group therapists, you know what I mean? It’s pretty universal.”
Indeed, if there’s a theme that runs through the lyrics on Disconnect From Desire (mostly written by Alejandra Deheza, who shares vocal duties with her keyboard-playing twin sister, Claudia), it’s that of letting go. “Bye Bye Bye”, for example, evocatively imagines a departed other as “A standing pile of stones I’ll skip across that ocean we knew/One by one till there’s nothing left of you”.
Curtis says that, in making the album, School of Seven Bells also let go of its former resistance to the schematics of pop songwriting. Which means that the shimmering surfaces and ethereal harmonies of these songs are anchored by hooks and danceable beats. “On this record there are elements that are much more in the foreground than before,” Curtis notes. “Like in ”˜Windstorm’ and ”˜Bye Bye Bye’. And ”˜I L U’ is very much a song, with a beginning and a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus and an ending. That’s the way it came out of us. We don’t naturally write that way, usually, and suddenly we were. So I think we had to ask ourselves if we were comfortable writing a sad pop song. It’s definitely a choice you make in your career, if you’re going to be one of those bands.”
The first School of Seven Bells album, 2008’s Alpinisms, was a lovely pastel swirl of synthesized textures in which Curtis’s guitar work was something of an afterthought—“the tinsel on the tree” is how he puts it. But the new album’s riffs are integral to the songs’ structures. The best example of this is probably “Babelonia”, in which the central guitar part locks in with the looping beat in a way that faintly echoes the shoegazing shuffle of My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon”.
If pushing the guitars to the fore had the effect of making School of Seven Bells a more conventional-sounding band, Curtis has no regrets about that. He admits, however, that the trio’s drift toward pop made for some moments of artistic angst in the recording studio.
“A lot of times we had to ask ourselves, ”˜Are we comfortable with doing this? Can we say that?’ Or ”˜Is that melody completely putting ourselves out there too much?’ ” Curtis says. “And I think after a while we just decided to forget it, and if it made us uncomfortable, then we absolutely put it in the record. That was almost how we gauged the choices at a certain point.”
School of Seven Bells plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (September 28).