Closure is an extremely ambiguous term – difficult for anyone to even define and nearly as impossible to truly achieve. And even if this mystifying state of gaining closure does happen, there are no guarantees it will remain. That said, sometimes life presents us with opportunities to come closer to reaching what could only be considered a sense of closure; following the passing of Benjamin Curtis in December of 2013, his School of Seven Bells partner Alejandra Deheza was given such a chance. After taking some time to step away to process and grieve the tragic death of her talented band-mate and best friend, she paired up with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen to complete what would become a most-fitting and frankly triumphant swan song for School of Seven Bells and Benjamin Curtis, their fourth and final album, SVIIB.
The previous year, before Curtis was diagnosed with lymphoma, the two members of School of Seven Bells created a wealth of music and ideas. In fact, Deheza has described it as the most fruitful period of her career, bringing in flourishes and influences from their earlier discography and incorporating them with brand-new songwriting ideas. Despite the fact that Curtis was consistently undergoing treatment for his illness, he diligently worked alongside Meldal-Johnsen and Deheza to put as many ideas to tape as he could. What the producer and remaining band member were left with was the foundations, albeit quite disjointed, to build the record that SVIIB would become.
“By the time Benjamin was hospitalized, we had studio time booked in New York, which we went ahead with anyway, and Benjamin basically escaped from the hospital to come work there with us,” said Meldal-Johnsen in an interview with mxdwn. “So Alejandra and I had several musicians on tap and engineers and equipment we had borrowed and we decided to go ahead – with Benjamin’s blessing – even though he was in the hospital. But he clearly busted out of there, [and] he joined us for half of the whole session.”
The material that had been created over the previous summer by Deheza and Curtis was intensely personal, and she even refers to SVIIB as “a love letter from start to finish.” On this album, the two took a direct approach to songwriting, particularly lyrically, which was a bit of a departure in comparison to their other records like Ghostory, Alpinisms, and Disconnect from Desire.
With the other records you can tell what they’re about, but they’re not as direct,” Deheza told mxdwn. “And I love the fact that [the listeners] are going to be able to know this is clearly about Benjamin and my relationship. It’s clearly about the both of us and I want people to see that. It’s one of the first times that I actually felt comfortable being so direct and open about it. Usually – and I don’t even know that I’m doing this – I would do a sketch of some lyrics and he [Benjamin] would always tell me to write things a little more clearly. It was definitely a challenge, and there were times that I would think, ‘Ugh, I don’t know if I want to!'” she said with a laugh.
“Also, writing stuff in front of him was really hard, because it was about us. It was really strange; it’s kind of like writing in your diary and having someone reading over your shoulder. That’s what it felt like the entire time, and we never talked about it. I think he knew not to talk about it. It was just something pure that we both wanted to preserve and we didn’t want anything to interfere with it. And I am actually really happy and sad about that at the same time.”
Anyone with a loved one that has endured a battle with cancer will attest to the roller-coaster the disease’s path can take. One day a patient might be feeling great and walking around, able to work as normal – but a particularly rough round of treatment or even a minor health setback can occur at any time, causing them tremendous pain or simply leaving them exhausted. Curtis was constantly in and out of the hospital during the first phase of recording SVIIB with Deheza and Meldal-Johnsen. Sometimes these stays would last a great deal of time, and other times they were short stints. No matter the situation, Curtis worked as much as humanly possible.
Deheza explains, “But as Benjamin sort of, began to not do as well, we started doing things in a more piecemeal fashion, where I would do things on my own or Benjamin would do things on his own. Even to the extent of setting up a portable studio in the hospital, in his bed. Then there were times, where he was well enough again and he was released [from the hospital]. He could go home, and he got together with his brother Brandon in New York, who helped him record a large body of live material, like guitars and things like that. Things like that were able to occur as well while I was back in LA doing various things. So that’s how we kind of went. It was piecemeal and scattered and it was really challenging.”
Photo Credit: Ray Flotat
The recording process of SVIIB with Curtis is a bittersweet memory for both Deheza and Meldal-Johnsen. There is one particular moment that stood out vividly for both of them, and that is the recording of “Confusion,” a track towards the end of the album.
“We wrote it during one of the times he was actually able to leave the hospital,” said Deheza. “And he was really, really sick. He always wanted to do music, for him it wasn’t work. It was just such a beautiful thing to watch. Of course he wanted to go straight to the rehearsal space. He just started playing the melody and as usual, I would just immediately start writing to whatever he was playing, that’s how we wrote this record.”
She elaborates, “It was just such an emotional thing – just one of those things where you just turn a mic on, record it. It was really hard to get through, but we kept it. It was – yeah, it was really hard, I was crying the whole time. It’s crazy because I see those people in that room so clearly in my head and sometimes I just wish I could go there and tell those two people that this is the last song that they’re going to write together. I always have that in my head, I just wish somehow I could go back and do that, and just be like, ‘Guys, this is amazing – this is it, this is such a special moment.'”
Meldal-Johnsen has a very similar memory of recording the elements that would become “Confusion.” As a professional producer his recollection has a slightly more analytical bent, as he appreciated one of the most incredible and powerful moments in both Curtis’s and Deheza’s lives. “When we made ‘Confusion,’ the entire intensity of the experience and the bittersweet aspect of it was personalized in that one moment,” he said. “When we made that song, we were in a studio in Brooklyn called Rare Book Room, which isn’t there anymore. It was the last thing we recorded all together, and this was in April of 2013. It was crazy because we had this idea to record the organ. That ended up being the core of the song, this organ part. The studio has this very beautiful live space, and there’s this old organ in the corner. He started jamming on the chords and we start talking like, ‘Wow this is a nice texture for the song. We should just have this be the backbone of the song.’ Old organs like that often have an accompanying speaker, and this one had a speaker that was a very large rotating horn, that you basically just placed somewhere and put microphones around it. It spins around at a rate that you decide, and that creates this sort of, interesting, vibrato/tremolo effect of an organ and that’s a really important part – the sound of the accompanying speakers.”
He continues, “So we basically take this rotating speaker and place it in the middle of this giant room and put microphones on either side of it to create a very wide stereo image. It was eerie, he just – played it for us. At one point, I was filming him and I have footage of the whole experience. There are four or five of us around, and Alejandra and I are lying on the ground, spread out way in different corners of this giant room. I don’t know, it’s just a thing where you feel such intense – I don’t know how to put this…he poured everything into it. It was so visceral and impassioned that it’s one of the moments where you realize, wow, if that’s the last thing that someone ever did creatively, it would be a very fitting moment to have be your final missive in your creative output. It was really powerful and it was a transcendent, soulful experience that is very hard to explain. He was just laying it all out.”
“Then we did vocals on it, which was frankly, completely heartbreaking because it was Alejandra’s response to Benjamin’s organ performance. And then it became a dialogue between the two of them. You know, this was way before we even had any expectations that Benjamin was going to die. But something about it spoke to the feelings of loss that were hovering over the whole session. It was a way to sort of express it and put a fine-point on it. It was a very intense moment. Maybe loss isn’t the right word – maybe it’s more about love, a really profound explanation and statement of the love between the two of them happening in one very beautiful, minimal moment. And also, being the final recorded ensemble piece for the record. It was heavy. Then the session ended and that was it. That performance was the last time I would see Benjamin in the flesh ever again.”
Photo Credit: Ray Flotat
Less than a year later, Curtis would lose his battle with lymphoma, dying a few days after Christmas in 2013. At this point, the likelihood of a fourth School of Seven Bells LP seeing the light of day was tenuous at best. Deheza had to take time away from the music to process the madness that had just overtaken her life for the previous two years: writing her most open, honest and intimate music with during the summer of 2012, facing the uncertainty of Curtis’s cancer diagnosis in February of 2013, watching him battle against a devastating illness while dedicating himself to his music, and finally, losing her best friend. While there may have been a few moments Meldal-Johnsen had doubts about the pair completing SVIIB after Curtis’s death, there was one thing that kept him confident it would eventually come to pass.
“At times I thought it would never happen because the state of School of Seven Bells is so dependent upon the Benjamin / Alejandra axis and their relationship, and their shared ideals, ethos and ambitions,” he said. “Because of that very intensely symbiotic relationship between the two of them – the likes of which I have never seen before, and I’m not sure I’ll ever see again – the intensity of that relationship made me wonder – for instance, throughout 2014 – if it would ever be workable. But the thing is, we had a mandate. We almost had an order, if you will, from Benjamin himself, which came in the last two months of 2013, right before he died. He told us that we had to finish it. He said it had to be us two, and that Alejandra had to run with the ball. She had to make it her own, and Benjamin was really fine and happy with that. He bequeathed it over to her, and me.”
“So because of that, we always thought, ‘Well then, sure. We have to,'” he explained. “But Alejandra had to disappear for a while. She had to retreat from the scene and she had to reevaluate what she wanted for herself. And she of course, had to deal with her grief, as did I to a much smaller degree. Man, it was a tall order for Alejandra to get back in the studio with me and finish it. It wasn’t an easy thing to confront for many reasons. But it was a mandate, so how could we not?”
What was probably the biggest obstacle or challenge in completing SVIIB was Deheza making the decision to move from New York to Los Angeles to finish the album with Meldal-Johnsen. While in Joshua Tree to film a music video for the haunting Joey Ramone cover, “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Back Up),” (which was recorded from Curtis’s hospital bed) she reached a place where she was prepared to continue on and complete the band’s final LP.
“What [the desert] did was it provided a lot of healing for me, which is the main thing that helped me actually finish it, and want to move here, and be in this space and be out there with him, which is what I really felt was happening,” she said. “I felt like I was out there and it was a place to visit where I could be with him too.”
“The other part of it is, once we started, it wasn’t that hard,” Meldal-Johnsen added. “We felt ‘blessed’ in some way. I know that sounds a little cheesy but we felt like we had a sensation of being carried through something. As if we had wings and we had a freedom, and the blessing of the most important person that wasn’t there. So our momentum built up quickly and we were able to do exactly what we wanted to in the end. To really honor what Benjamin’s aesthetic and ambitions were for the record, while also pushing ahead with some new concepts. But the record is dedicated to him for a reason; it all came from him.”
Despite the recording process being described as “piecemeal and scattered” by its producer, SVIIB is an incredibly cohesive record. The unified quality the record’s songs are a credit to the work put in by Meldal-Johnsen and Deheza in those two months. That said, the producer is quick to point out this is first and foremost a School of Seven Bells record, a result of the unbelievable bond and partnership between the band’s principle members.
“So this record is certainly Alejandra and I putting all the finishing touches on it and doing more vocals and lots of stuff to make it more cohesive,” he explained. “We brought the forensic, deep research and chasing down of files and lost hard drives, all kinds of crazy stuff. But it’s very much a School of Seven Bells record. It would be a School of Seven Bells record and would sound very similar if I wasn’t involved. My point to all of this is that this is still very much Benjamin and Alejandra’s record. It’s their record, and it came out exactly like I would have hoped.”