Shred For America:
Sleigh Bells Bring The Noise – And The Sweetness
The high tech world has been governed for years by Moore’s Law, the notion that engineering advancements will allow circuit power, and therefore computing speed, to double every 18-24 months. Our newfangled music era is ready for a corollary, measuring the speed of the hype cycle as it drops to sheer nanoseconds. Call it Blog’s Law.
Bands will be hard-pressed to better the course charted by Sleigh Bells, however. As you’re reading this, the Brooklyn duo is celebrating the one year anniversary of its first live show. Yet in that short span Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller have managed to score a distribution deal with kindred spirit MIA’s imprint, be feted by Entertainment Weekly, sell out its first national club tour in times that would tax Mr. Moore’s microprocessors, play to festival crowds of 10,000-plus, and release Treats, arguably the summer’s breakout hit, forging an unlikely alliance between punishing primitive beats and cooing girl-group melody.
Their rapid ascent has even allowed for the germs of backlash, as some have pointed warily to the major label contract in each member’s past, and noted that one’s resume even includes (gasp) a teen pop act. Contrary to their heady rise and edgy veneer, however, over the phone Krauss and Miller each exude the sweetness that distinguishes Treats along with its blown-out beats, and both proved forthcoming about all aspects of their past and present.
Sleigh Bells’ genesis actually extends to 2004, when guitarist Derek Miller left metalcore band Poison the Well. The Floridian moved cross-country a couple of times over the next few years, but never let go of his vision. “I wrote constantly and looked for a singer the entire time,” he recounts. “I had a very, very specific sound and idea in mind, and I got pretty good at describing it because pretty much every girl I met, within five minutes I’d ask ‘By the way, are you a singer? Do you play music?’ I was after something very rhythmic with an emphasis on dynamics, heavy but also melodic.” With a laugh, he adds, “After a while no one took me seriously, because it just sounds like a pickup line if you live in Brooklyn,” where Miller had landed by early 2008.
Fast forward to the summer of ’08 – Alexis Krauss’ mother has driven in from New Jersey and the two are having dinner at a Brazilian restaurant, where Miller happens to be waiting tables. “My mom and I had this bet going as to whether Derek was Brazilian or not,” she giggles. Ever the matchmaker, mom outs her daughter as a singer when Miller goes into his spiel. Though many years removed from her tenure in the teenpop band Rubyblue (which released an album on a European imprint of Sony in 2001, the questionably titled Beyond Pink), Krauss helped pay her way through college in Manhattan by continuing to work professionally as a session musician and vocal coach.
“What he initially played for me was ‘Infinity Guitars,’ or a very rough demo of it,” Krauss explains. referring to Sleigh Bells’ bleacher-stomping signature track. “That was the first song we recorded together and it just became clear how well my voice fit with his music.” There were other hurdles to overcome, however, involving Krauss’ schedule. Having signed on with Teach for America, Alexis was fully committed to her second year leading a fourth grade class in the South Bronx. “After we met we did some recording that summer but then I went back to the classroom. I was just way too busy to invest a lot of time.” Realizing he had met his match (musically speaking – the pair are not romantically linked), Miller decided to wait out the academic year to realize his vision.
Miller is quick to point out that Krauss is more than a voice plugged into a cookie-cutter template. In fact, he scrapped the majority of the material he wrote prior to their meeting, and most of Treats is comprised of songs written with her input. Ironically, what wasn’t part of his original vision is the explosive, overmodulated sound that has become Sleigh Bells’ trademark. According to Krauss, “It happened out of necessity because he was producing the tracks with pretty shitty equipment. It was the only way we could get the sound we wanted, with the right amount of intensity and volume, by pushing everything into the red.”
“I didn’t see it as permanent, but thought at least it sounds exciting for the moment,” shrugs Miller, who then adds, “It’s only on a couple of songs. None of the newer stuff is blown out.” Sure enough, a closer examination reveals that despite surface impressions, newer tunes like the sunny “Rill Rill” and even the pulse-racing statement of intent “Tell ‘Em” are devoid of such effects.
The bare-knuckles immediacy extends to Sleigh Bells’ stage setup, which consists of nothing more than Krauss and Miller and backing tracks emanating from an iPod – even feeding giant sound systems on outdoor festival stages. “In the live context I think our shows tend to come off a bit heavier – our sets are short, very high energy and a bit brutal, people describe it like being punched in the face,” Krauss reports. “My presence on stage I’d say is more aggressive than I appear on record. On record I think the sweetness comes through a bit more.”
There are no preconceived notions on band configuration, although there are some biases. “It wasn’t written in stone that it would just be the two of us,” says Krauss, “but as we worked together it became obvious we didn’t need more than the two of us. We’ve considered playing with a drummer, but there are certain electronic sounds you can’t get from a normal kit.”
“It was important to Derek to keep the operation pretty streamlined, especially since he spent most of his teenage years touring with like six guys in a van,” she continues, referring to his Poison the Well days. “So he certainly knew the difficulties of having a lot of people involved – it’s a lot of mouths to feed but also a lot of opinions. We’ve both been in projects where there were too many cooks in the kitchen.”
That last statement applies as well to Krauss’ time in Rubyblue, which began when she was 13. “It was pretty much straight bubblegum pop, with a bit more rock to it than, say, Britney Spears,” she explains. “It was cool for awhile but by the time I was 16 I was kind of mortified by what I was doing. It left a bitter taste in my mouth – I was pretty committed to not returning to music creatively until I found the right person to work with and the right circumstances.” Who would have guessed that right circumstance would come in the form of a boy with a professed love for Kylie Minogue and Madonna? Their playlists overlap most heavily in Motown/Classic R&B (as if on cue Krauss namedrops the Shangri-Las, albeit in the same breath as the new Big Boi album), but “Derek’s a little more schooled in metal than I am – he listens to a lot more Slayer than I do.” “Slayer is definitely an influence,” Miller allows, “but I’ve been listening to a ton of Phil Collins lately – his singles were amazing.”
One remaining question had been nagging me throughout – had Alexis been sporting all this ink during her teaching days? “I started collecting visible tattoos after I left the classroom,” she happily explains. “My kids knew about them, the administration was a little less clued in.” Krauss clearly took her teaching duties seriously, and built a real affinity with her students. “Toward the end of my second year I was very honest with my kids, they knew all about my band and I told them I wouldn’t be coming back the next fall. A couple of my girls came to the studio over the summer and did the vocals for ‘Kids.’ Unfortunately I taught at one of those schools that had basically no music program. So any music they got was what I gave them. My dad’s a musician, he would come in and we’d put together Christmas programs in the classroom.”
Sleigh Bells still see themselves as upstarts, which should serve them well in retaining their gritty spirit. Don’t expect any big embellishments to the live show, for instance. “For now, given our limited resources, we’re happy with the iPod,” says Krauss. “It lends a distorted, blown out quality which as you know we like.” Miller adds, “We tried a laptop a couple of times. It’s not as crunchy, and they always crash. The iPod is just so reliable.” Mr. Jobs – please have your marketing department get in touch, I think we’ve found your new pitchman. The duo would look pretty damn cool in black silhouette, too.
Photo by Phil Knott.