I first met singer, guitarist, keyboardist, and lyricist Alejandra Deheza outside Cameo Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her School of Seven Bells comrade Benjamin Curtis. They were filing in for a DJ gig. I was sleepy and killing time in Brooklyn, sick as a dog from a trip to Mexico City where I had just seen U2 two nights in a row among a crowd whose native language wasn’t English, yet were screaming every word of every song.
I stopped Deheza and Curtis to tell them how much I loved their music and share pictures of the U2 show with them. I showed Deheza a small slip of paper printed in Spanish given to me by Catholic missionaries outside the U2 show. Deheza, half-Costa Rican, half-Bolivian, and born in Guatemala, translated. Without getting a close look at it, she picked out the phrase, “Feel the spirit coursing through you.”
We exchanged a few laughs and pleasantries, and I asked what time they’d start spinning after some opening acts. I went to get coffee to stay awake for their set and, as a polite follow-up (and, yes, a humblebrag to my Twitter followers), I tweeted at School of Seven Bells, “They’re good peeps.”
Their account tweeted back, in classic Bill Murray fashion, “They’ll never believe you.”
Reflecting on that fleeting interaction in terms of the duo’s new record, Ghostory, so much of that silly little moment gains greater significance. So much about School of Seven Bells and Ghostory, particularly through the lens of Deheza’s lyrics, is about belief, spirits, and the moments, experiences, and people that stick with (or haunt) you.
I sat down with Deheza months after that first meet to talk about Ghostory, her superstitions about the supernatural, dream interpretation, and the music scene in her native South Florida.
School of Seven Bells’ music through your lyrics feels intensely spiritual, romantic, and devotional to me. Where do you pull that intensity from?
I remember when I was first experimenting with writing, I would never notice that it was any more emotional than, say, something that I’d read or whatever. It wasn’t until I would give people [my lyrics] to read, and they’d feel like they walked in on something and they’d be like, “Whoa. Girl, what are you going through?” I wouldn’t even think twice about it. I never really noticed that it was more emotional than maybe usual.
It’s kind of hard to say where it comes from because it’s just very natural to me. I feel like I’ve always been like that, for better or for worse. Writing lyrics and melodies is a really good way for me to keep balanced. I tend to feel things really intensely, and I feel like writing kind of evens it out.
Where did the lyrical fixation and theme of ghosts come from for Ghostory? What brought you to that?
For me, ghosts are what I call those people and situations that you carry with you everywhere. Because they remind me of ghosts. They’re these entities that are whispering to you constantly and reminding you of things. Sometimes you’ll go into a situation, and it’ll remind you of five different people at five different points in your life. Maybe the situation is you run into someone that you’re uncomfortable being around or even somebody that you miss, you know? It’s just the way that I see those kind of mixed emotions. They do remind me of people that follow you around everywhere.
A friend of mine has a huge aversion to ghosts, so much so that you can’t even say the word “ghost” to her come nightfall or before she goes to bed. She normally keeps a rosary or some kind of religious object by her bed as a way to ward them off. Do you have any superstitions like that? Does anything haunt you in that way?
I remember growing up that my parents were intensely religious, so there’s a whole mess of superstitions that comes with that. When I was little, I remember being intensely terrified of mirrors. Oh my God, God forbid I had to go into any room that was dark and there was a mirror in the room; it would just freak me out. I guess I’ve always been like that. Growing up in a religious household, it’s all about demons and “Oh, the Devil’s going to make you do something!” I do remember that affecting me a lot. I was really, really scared of the dark as a kid and probably even into high school. I always thought there was some demon out there waiting to pounce on me or something.
Now, I don’t have those feelings. [That’s] not to say that I won’t watch something like Paranormal Activity and it doesn’t scare the shit out of me, for sure. But it’s fun now, you know? Now, I’ve kind of translated those things into being extra jumpy or extra scared of something I can’t see; it’s usually rooted in something emotional. I kind of relate it to some part of myself I don’t want to see or some situation I don’t want to look at. And more often than not, that is exactly the case.
So, you’re more willing to trace it back in a psychoanalytic way?
Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely a way to sort it out. And, you know, with dreaming–every aspect of your dream: the location, the mood of it, this scary person in it– that is all you. I’ve definitely been able to sort out a lot of things in my head and in my life through my dreams. Like, “Why am I having dreams about this room? What’s in that room that I’m so scared of? Is that room a certain part of my mind that I’m scared of visiting right now because maybe there’s some emotions there right now that are really hard to deal with?” I analyze things a lot that way.
Which has a lot to do with the record. The fact that ghosts are such a strong way for me to describe things–these things that you can’t see but that obviously affect you, that you can hear, that will enter a room and wreak havoc or calm you. It has everything to do with that.
The ghost fixation as a theme on Ghostory is so integral to the record, I kind of equate it to goth music. I definitely see that influence a lot on this record. The title “Lafaye” sounds like something out of a Neil Gaiman graphic novel or a Sisters of Mercy song. Can you talk about the goth influence?
I can definitely talk about that. When I was nine, my parents moved to South Florida. So, I basically did all my growing up there, as far as where I got into music and started to have a social life and things like that. There’s this very big goth scene in South Florida and the cool thing about it is that there’s so much other music that’s really appreciated there. It’s more acceptable there, let’s say, to be into goth and to also be really into hip-hop, freestyle, or Miami bass. It was very mixed. So, if you did go to a goth night, you were also hearing a lot of New Wave. You were also probably hearing freestyle in another room. I feel like it was all very mixed and that had a really huge influence on me. I never had friends that were solely into one thing.
Everybody is really affected by music down there. It’s definitely a Latin thing, which I’m really proud of. Latin culture and music is a huge part of your daily life. I think that has a lot to do with the way that kids appreciate music down there on a crazy, crazy, deep level.
I think ghosts seem like an essential part of Latin culture, too. Would you agree?
Definitely. My family was centered more around Christian ghosts [laughs], but especially in South Florida, you have a lot of Santeria, and even a lot of Catholicism, with the saints, is based on ghosts.
Probably the most haunting moment of Ghostory is “Low Times”, when you spell out “predator” over a punctuated, almost aggressive beat. I’m wondering where that moment fits into the song and what “Low Times” is about?
It’s definitely an aggressive song. It’s realizing that sometimes certain people when they show up in your life, and you think it’s a random happening, you begin to realize in hindsight that those people are sometimes just there to take advantage of [sighs] certain situations. Sometimes when you’re feeling shitty, you may end up in situations you normally would never find yourself in. And you realize that a lot of times, those motives are devious. Which is not to take away personal accountability, but it’s also addressing the other side of it. “If I’m going to be accountable, so are you.” That’s where the “predator” thing comes from.
How do all these songs work into the story of Ghostory? Can you spell that out a little bit for us?
It’s basically Lafaye, and each song is a conversation she’s having with someone from her past. These are all the people that follow her every day. It can be from five or 10 years ago; it can be from childhood. It’s kinda hard to say that all the songs are in an order that way. They are in an order where one story will relate to the next story. It’s the way that these different girls see different situations and relationships that she’s had with people. And not just romantic, they can be any kind of relationship. They all bleed into each other. They all affect every relationship that she has.
Is Lafaye, in some sense, you?
Definitely. It’s all from me.
You mentioned “conversation,” and it made me think of “My Cabal” from the band’s first record, Alpinisms, and “Camarilla” from Disconnect from Desire, the second record, which is two spirits in conversation. Throughout School of Seven Bells’ music, the lyrics seem like a constant conversation between spirits, spirit and self, or talking to yourself. Was that the intent in Ghostory?
With this record, this is the first time I’ve set out to do it. Before, it was just the way that I write, and I guess I never noticed what I was doing. It’s funny you mention those songs. I guess that’s the only thing I really know how to write about 100 percent truthfully, knowing that it’s coming from a place that’s 100 percent mine, is if I’m writing from personal experience. All of those characters are me. “My Cabal”, that’s definitely me. And it is having a conversation with someone… Is that what you were asking me?
What I was really getting at was, are there any conversations with your twin sister Claudia, who left the band while touring between Disconnect from Desire and Ghostory, on this record? Are there any lyrics you wrote for this record that are things you might say to her or think about her?
Not intentionally. I wasn’t really thinking about that. Not on the surface, anyway. I’m not ruling it out. I know the subconscious is really strong. I also know that, in my life, the way I’ve approached any relationship, there’s always some sort of of pattern happening at the same time, whether it be romantic relationship, a relationship with family or with friends or whoever. I didn’t set out to write a song about my sister, definitely not.
Ghostory does sound distinctly different from the last two records. Some of these songs sound like goth-y dance floor fillers, like graver stuff.
[laughs] Oh my God, I haven’t heard that word in so long. Wow.
I’m wondering what brought that sonic change on? It seems like you guys added a whole different set of influences and sounds.
I feel like this is our answer every time, but this is truly the case every time: It’s just from being on tour, the different sounds that come up on tour, the different crowds that inspire different musical ideas. But I have to say, we did write this record in between the two tours that we did with Interpol. The music doesn’t sound anything like that, but I feel like that kind of darkness, that kind of… It’s crazy if you’ve ever been to one of their shows because you have this huge room of people, and they’re all bouncing up and down to the beat. It’s the craziest thing. And they’re screaming back every word. And that energy is really powerful.
I feel like I’m kind of rambling because I’m trying to piece this thought together, and it’s not working out for me. [laughs]
Take your time.
…We were listening to so much music in the van, and I’m sure that affected it somehow. I know definitely the high energy of the crowds that we were playing with every night did affect it. I feel like their energy was really contagious, and I feel like that probably affected the tempo of the record, definitely, as far as making something that kids could dance to and having that conversation with people live, which has always been really important to me.
I know you played in Latin America some of those dates with Interpol, right? Talk about dedication and energy.
Yes! Holy wow, it’s amazing! It’s like a religious experience. It’s beautiful.