Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss on the fans, pressure, and adding another guitar
Photo by Patrick O'Dell
If popular indie music were a respectable black-tie affair, then Sleigh Bells are the guests who start shattering glasses...on purpose. Since fate joined New Yorkers Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller together musically in 2008, they've developed a sound that's truly their own. It's angry, earsplitting and best performed in front of a wall of Marshall amps. Miller's hardcore roots meshed with Krauss's super-sweet soprano define it all in its loudest, most abrasive glory.
Last time Gimme Noise talked with Sleigh Bells they hadn't even released an album. Now, years later, the duo has exploded into indie-fame and will stop by First Avenue tonight on tour for their second album Reign of Terror. In anticipation for tonight's show, we were able to chat once again with frontwoman Alexis Krauss, who, despite her ferocious stage presence, had very humbling things to say.
Gimme Noise: You're already recording for your third record as you're on tour. Have your touring experiences influenced the new material?
Alexis Krauss: Some bands would be disturbed, but I love the fact that we have such a diverse group of fans. We have young kids who are far more interested in pop music and then we have people who are more attracted to heavier music, and they come to our shows. We have, you know, indie rock kids who just read all of the trendy music blogs. We have parents of very young kids. Our fan base has really grown and proven to be incredibly diverse.
I love the idea of being able to make a third record and hopefully bring in people from more interesting musical backgrounds. Personally, I love performing, you know? It's one of my favorite things to do and I really vibe off of the reciprocity of it. It's an integral part of our show, to have the crowd involved and dancing and having fun and feeling like they are participating in something. We're not a selfish band at our live shows; its really not about us, or our musicianship or about people watching us or, like, staring wide-eyed and being in awe of our craft. It's not about that. It's about the overall energy in the room and about being social and experiencing something that's memorable. Our fans our really important to us and the live show is as much their time to shine as it is ours.
GN:You guys are acknowledged as a band to see live. How have you crafted the live experience that's a product of Reign of Terror?
AK: We're touring with an additional guitarist; It's our really good friend Jason Boyer [who Derek actually played with in Poison the Well for a little while]. He's playing guitar because there's just many, many more guitar harmonies on Reign of Terror. We needed to do the music justice and so we needed to add another person. But it's been really great for the dynamic of the live show. We love the symmetry of it being the three of us up there and me in the middle. It's louder and more energetic. We definitely put a lot of thought into the live show. I like that you used the word "crafting" because that's definitely how we think about it. We don't do everything ourselves obviously because we have a lighting and sound guy but its definitely very well thought out and I think the most successful live bands have shows like that. There's still that element of spontaneity but you also know that you are watching a very well-run machine. That's certainly what I admire when I see bands that I love. So I hope that when people come to see us they feel that balance between everything being very polished but also being sort of reckless.
GN: After such a rapid ascent into prominence, how much pressure was there coming into this record?
AK: [hesitate] Yes. Yes we felt pressure, but the pressure that we felt was internal. We felt self-imposed pressure. Derek and I, we're very hard on ourselves. We're constantly trying to write music that's better than the last song that we wrote. Our standards are very high. Our expectations of what we are capable of accomplishing are high. So, like I said, everything, all the pressure surrounding Reign of Terror and the creation of Reign of Terror was self-imposed. Obviously there was a lot of noise, you know? There are a lot of people -- whether it's the press or people who are part of our label or creative team -- that were asking us "what's it going to sound like? Will it be like Treats? Are you going to veer too far from the formula that seems to be successful?" And then you have people from the media wondering if you'll stay exciting. Inevitably, we can't please everybody.
GN: What's your response to media or people who compare the albums in a negative way?
AK: I know there's plenty of people out there who think Treats is a way better record than Reign of Terror. But I've met multiple people every night who have told me they didn't really care for our first record and Reign of Terror is more melodic and more guitar based and it's something that they're drawn to. I think as a band you just have to stay focused on what your greater vision is, to never lose the ability to take chances. Derek always says that he feels like he's constantly learning. He never feels like he's mastered any thing. That's what drives him to be relentless and to constantly take risks. I think it's the same way with me when I'm writing the melodies or working on songs. I never want to feel changed by the expectations of other people. We try to ignore the noise. Obviously we're not going to make music that everybody loves. But I think it's okay to be a polarizing band. I think if anything it makes the conversation a bit more interesting. Reign of Terror was a pleasure to make and we learned a lot and we're really excited about making our third record. That's what we're fully focused on at this point.
GN: Derek is very vocal about the fact that HE is the songwriter and lyricist. He's also been vocal about Reign of Terror being borne out of a very dark time in his life. Though ultimately, you're the face of Sleigh Bells and you are the one singing and performing these songs. How do you develop an emotional attachment to an experience that isn't your own?
AK: There's a few answers to that question. When I met Derek I was teaching for Teach for America. I'd spent a lot of time in the music business as a teenager and I consciously decided that I wanted to separate myself from the music business because I wasn't really interested in pursuing my own career. But when I met Derek he had a lot of the material done for Treats and when we started working together it was very much like a producer working with a session singer. That's exactly what I'd spent the last five years of my life doing. When I was in college that was how I made my living and paid my tuition. I was a session singer. I would go in with a group of writers and run a song and sing it with all the harmonies and all of the backups. I was very comfortable singing other people's music and I love being a vocalist and being able to sort of become a new person for every song.
So I think that with Derek, I thought of Sleigh Bells initially as an extension of being a session singer. And then when it transitioned from a studio project to a band and then, obviously, it started going places that we never expected and the band became my life I said: okay you know what? I can write! I've written music and I want to write music and Derek and I started collaborating much more and we realized that our music was strongest when we worked together. Then I became much more involved in the songwriting. But like you said: Derek continued to write the majority of the lyrics.
Maybe it's because we're so close at this point that I almost feel like I know him so well and I know what he's going through. I feel like I'm almost a partner to those lyrics. But we discuss everything. It always feels like something that's very organic and personal to me as well. I think that our songs are better because we understand what our strengths are. We understand what we're best at contributing to the music. I think some people think that it's less authentic because I don't write all of the lyrics but for me it's a partnership. In my opinion popular music has never really been about singing words that you have written; it's really about becoming the song and bringing life to those words in way that best suits the art.
GN: Yeah, okay. So it's similar to artists like The Kills. In a sense the music is most shaped by the nature of the relationship of the duo.
AK: Absolutely. Yeah and that's what true collaboration is; understanding what you have to offer. That's what's so exciting to me about a duo Is that there is a real intimacy that exists in the creative relationship. Derek and I are not boyfriend and girlfriend. I'm engaged; I don't mean that type of intimacy. There's a proximity because it's just the two of us and it really allows us to get really comfortable sharing our ideas with one another. It is super personal and you're putting yourself on the line and you have to feel that the person that you're working with isn't gonna judge you or shoot you down, but at the same time will be honest with you. We're really honest with each other. We tell each other if we love or hate one another's ideas right away. It's very comfortable.
GN: Do you ever miss the earlier pursuits of your life?
AK: You know I do miss it. But I don't desire to do it right now. I look back on my teaching experience incredibly fondly. Teaching is very dear to my heart and I think that there's obviously a lot of work to be done in that field. But I also love what I'm doing. I grew up in a musical household. My father is a musician. Music has always been an integral part of my life and I'm totally comfortable in the place that I am. I've been really fortunate to be able to make a living and have a career out of it. It's fulfilling me for now but it's never too late to make a career change. Maybe one day down the line I'll be back in the classroom. I'm really open to whatever happens there.
GN: What has been the most rewarding mark of Sleigh Bells' success?
AK: I don't wanna sound cliché but one of the reasons I loved being a teacher was because I loved giving back, that feeling I had after every day, that I had contributed something to those kids' lives and that I was making a difference. With Sleigh Bells it's the fact that I get to be onstage every night in front of a group of people who take their hard-earned money to come see us. They've honored me with their presence in deciding that we were worth coming to see. That right there is exciting enough, but then to have them reciprocate, to come and be there dancing their asses off. That's the biggest reward. I know it can sound a little clichéd but it's really not for me. That's what gets me through tour; talking to kids. I had a kid the other night in Tucson come up to me and say that when he woke up that morning, everything about his day seemed insurmountable, but that after being at the show, his outlook changed for the better. You know so I felt like I had done my job that day, like I had made a fuckin difference.
GN: How could that not make you feel good?
AK: Right? I know some of my darkest moments in life have been hampered by a song or by a record. Music helps you get through a lot of things. The thing about Reign of Terror too--especially for Derek-- he was dealing with a lot of personal family turmoil, death, cancer, just really heavy things. To be quite frank: it was Reign of Terror that saved his life. It was a huge cathartic experience for him. It helped him work through all of the issues. He put it down on paper and now we have this record and can move on and the past is behind us. That's the most rewarding part. We don't see a ceiling to this band. We're extremely ambitious and we want to stay on the trajectory that we're on.
Sleigh Bells play the First Avenue tonight with Araabmuzik at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.
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