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School of Seven Bells

January 1, 2009
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Claudia Deheza (far left), Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis

Claudia Deheza (far left), Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis

Just because you're in a band called School of Seven Bells — the New York City electronic trio named after a mythical South American pick-pocket academy — doesn't mean you're a thief. It just means you find this academy extremely interesting. “Our ideas came out of the notion of studying crime as art,” says SVIIB co-founder Benjamin Curtis. “Life is artistic. Even stealing can be artistic, if you want it to be.”

That's all the more interesting coming from a collaborator on one of last year's most original albums, Alpinisms. The group came together when Curtis' band, Secret Machines, and twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza's group On!Air!Library! met on the road — a tour convergence that led to in-studio alchemy and the record's 11 startling songs that are as adventurous as they are beautiful. Led by the entrancingly precise vocal pairings of the Dehezas, the tracks encompass claustrophobia and soaring joy, rhythmic motion and lush layers, inner spirituality and outermost space.

Working in their Brooklyn home-based studio Painted Lady, SVIIB flipped the typical recording script by laying down the vocals very early in each song's genesis. The twins were recorded either together or separately into a Neumann U87, Universal Audio SOLO/610 preamp, a Focusrite interface and MacBook Pro running Logic. “A lot of times we'll record the vocals before doing anything else,” Curtis explains. “That's because we don't want them to be too limited by the harmony or the cadence of the rhythm. It's fun to voice the song under the chords of the vocals. It's a different way of doing it, but it's good to be really free that way.”

With the germ of a musical idea down and the Dehezas' hypnotic duets setting the pace, the group would go to work building the spiraling soundscapes that follow using a minimal toolset to achieve maximum sonics. Composing almost exclusively with an Access Virus Indigo, two guitars, a drum set, a Boss SP-303 and the Logic sampler, SVIIB created the tense brood of the opener “IAmUnderNoDisguise,” the thick uplift of “Half Asleep,” the sparse psychology of “For Kalaja Mari” and the glorious send-off of closer “My Cabal.”

Alpinisms is an arresting battery of beats that are at turns perfectly simple and deliciously different. “A lot of it is performed on the kit and then chopped up where we would end up using one random channel,” Curtis says. “It's very much the approach of putting a lot of stuff down and muting it until it sounded right. When it comes to beatmaking, I think you have to have as much chaos in it as possible. I love and hate electronic music for that reason — the lack of chaos and when the chaos becomes deliberate. It's tricky how you let that chaos seep in because you can't intend for that to happen.”

In each song, a common thread is doubling, tripling or octupling anything in earshot that isn't kick drum or bass. “We re-perform things to get them twisted to a surreal spot,” says Curtis. “When I worked with [producer] Alan Moulder on a Secret Machines record, he showed me how for every performed guitar part, there could be a resampled version over it. We used the sampler in Ableton Live a lot for that, rewiring it into Logic — it's really easy to sample in Live because you can drag things in quickly and you don't have to intellectualize the process too much. Resampling parts gives everything this cool glassiness that feels really chaotic.”

A decidedly unjudicious use of convolution reverbs and guitar pedal effects also act as a thickening agent for synth, guitar, drum or vocal tracks on Alpinisms. “We had an Orange amplifier set up, and we'd put the reverbs through that and an octavia whammy pedal,” Curtis recalls. “To me, it's just about doing more than one thing at once, at all times. Using technology doesn't have to be so discreet.

“I've realized that everyone who creates electronic music does it so differently,” he continues. “Everyone is doing the same thing, but the way you're doing it is the way you choose to do it. You don't always have $1 million or every MPC, so it's more of a D.I.Y. attitude: You do it with what you have, and this is the music you make.”

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