It’s just past 9 p.m. at Diner, a dimly lit foodie joint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Slouchy hipsters in plaid button-downs and black schoolteacher glasses talk earnestly over flickering candlelight, while grungy waitresses scribble the daily specials on paper tablecloths. Benjamin Curtis and his fellow School of Seven Bells bandmates, Alejandra “Ali” Deheza and her twin sister Claudia, sit quietly in the corner. Like other fledgling artists, the Bells can’t believe their own appeal. “Our music is so personal, I can’t believe anyone actually likes it,” states Curtis, a former member of space rockers Secret Machines.
School of Seven Bells’ debut album, Alpinisms, is a warm hybrid of ’90s ethereal rock, melodic electronics, and noisy shoegaze guitar; it’s one of the most disarming and lush dream-pop albums this year, but it’s influenced by more than just what’s pleasing to the ear. “Our inspiration comes from what we imagine visually,” explains Ali Deheza, whose wide brown eyes could inspire their own anime cult following. “Like when you’re dreaming of something wet, you’re not really feeling it–you’re just conjuring it up in your head. Our music is like that: It’s the feelings and visions we have moving around in our heads.”
Their music may be full of abstract concepts, but what makes Alpinisms so inviting is the Bells’ keen pop sensibility. One of the album’s most personal songs, “For Kalaja Mari,” is a love letter to a friend Ali lost to suicide–and one of the album’s most accessible tracks. The percussive, freespirited “Face to Face on High Places,” probably Alpinisms’ catchiest piece, also offers one of its simplest themes: how Claudia’s love for her two-year-old son has sharply focused her life. “I would say that our sound is a simple one–we just take a lot of time shaping the atmosphere,” reflects Curtis. “It’s all pop music, we just make it mostly electronically.”
The haunted vocals and eerie atmospherics of Alpinisms aren’t just musical–the Bells are literally living in their dreams. Since they were children, the Deheza sisters have practiced lucid dreaming in response to chronic vivid nightmares, and Curtis lives with a waking dream disorder, which causes him to see things while he’s asleep–although he appears to be awake. “It’s terrifying because he’s both awake and asleep. I’ll have to shake him a lot for him to realize that nothing is happening,” explains Ali, who is dating Curtis. “I’ll see him talking to me but I’m not there. Or he’ll be convinced there’s a bug on my head.”