All words: Bryce T. Rudow
I was the impressionably dumb age of 23 when “Treats,” the infamous debut album from Sleigh Bells, was released. I remember being stunned by its brazen uniqueness. I remember playing it as the soundtrack to almost every pre-game I had at my frat-tastic apartment in Woodley Park. I remember not remembering a thing from their inaugural, sold-out show at 9:30 Club because I drank far too much whiskey with my friends beforehand…
But that was years ago and in the time since, I became an old man who hates going out, and Sleigh Bells have released the polarizing follow-up “Reign of Terror” and the more recent, more well-received “Bitter Rivals.”
I got a chance to chat with lead singer Alexis Krauss recently and we delved into how they made it from “Treats” to now. And while the first few answers parroted the talking points that she’s mentioned ad nauseam in other interviews, we eventually hit on things like their embracement of commercial licensing and their potential legacy as the soundtrack for a hyper-specific era in 2011. Enjoy, and if you’re not one of the 1,200 or so with a ticket to their sold-out show at 9:30 Club tonight , or at Terminal 5 in NY on Nov 22nd and 23rd, you can stream “Bitter Rivals” on Spotify here.
BYT: After a debut album explodes as much as yours did, there’s always tons of pressure on the second album, which you’ve admitted you felt, but with a third album, is it even more pressure or is there a different mindset with it?
Alexis Krauss: I think there is a different mindset. I feel that Derek and I are more confident now than we’ve ever been. We certainly don’t feel cocky or arrogant by any means, but after making two records and after dealing with a lot of buzz and a lot of critical response, you go through a period where you feel the need to kind of please everyone and fulfill expectations, and that begins to be a bit damaging. You can never make music for anyone but yourself because you’re never going to make music that is going to make everybody happy.
After the second record, we just became more confident in who we are as a band and as collaborators. We decided to disregard all of the noise, and by the noise I mean the Internet and blogs and critics and whatnot, not that I’m speaking poorly of that because the Internet has been crucial to our rise as a band, but we chose to block it out and make a record that made us both incredibly happy. I feel like with this record we took a lot of risks and made a lot of music that initially we even questioned if we could get away with it.
There were times when we’d be in the studio and we’d record a song like “You Don’t Get Me Twice” or “Lovesick” and we’d turn to each other and ask ourselves, “Is this our band or is this another band?” and ultimately we decided our band could be anything we wanted it to be. We weren’t going to feel in any way constricted by genres or others’ expectations of us. So in that sense, I feel like we’re more free to do what we want to do. And it feels great knowing we have a fanbase. We have kids all over the country and even the world that support us and are looking forward to us releasing new music. That definitely gives you more of a sense of security about what you’re doing.
My next two questions were going to be, “You took a lot of risks on this album…what encouraged you to branch out to these places?” and “How much of a mindfuck was the creative process for ‘Reign of Terror’ because of external factors?” so I’ll just go ahead and skip those…
Oh good! You know, for songs like “You Don’t Get Me Twice” and “Young Legends,” they’re much more experimental and they, in terms of arrangement, jump all over the place, but they’re very much anchored by ’80s/’90s pop and R&B. From a production standpoint, Derek was listening to a lot of Quincy Jones records, a lot of Michael Jackson. I was obsessing with the singing and the melodies of records like Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson. I think in terms of pop music, they’re incredibly bizarre. They’re very strange. They’re quirky and have an almost unexpected moment in them. When we were writing songs like “You Don’t Get Me Twice” and “Young Legends” we tried to take pop music but subvert it a bit and make it strange. That’s always the music that I’m most drawn to. I’m drawn to music that is hooky and melodic and accessible but also a bit twisted.
I think that’s the best way to describe it; you guys have strong pop sensibilities, but you’re very much rock stars, especially on stage. And you and Derek both have strong personas and stage presence. How important is it for you to impart those strong senses of self in your music and especially your live shows?
Our music is very bold. It’s very in your face. And I think that’s a reason why we’re a polarizing band. People are either really drawn to us or people absolutely despise us. And I think that’s in part because our music isn’t faceless. It has its identity and it conjures up a lot of imagery. It’s very loud; it’s bombastic. And with the live show and with our live “personas,” and I call it a persona, though I don’t want to say it’s not really me, but the way I am on stage, in my opinion, I’m becoming what the music demands of me. I think it would be a little bizarre if I was on stage and was my natural self, which would be to stand there quietly.
I feel like when I get on stage, I’m just manifesting the energy that is being presented by the music. I feel like our live shows and our records are very locked into one another. When Derek and I go see live shows, the artists that are most exciting to us are the artists that really make the effort to put on a show. I love music that’s pensive and cerebral and more kind of shoegazey, but I much prefer live shows that are almost more of a spectacle.
I heard you once describe it as “crafting” a live show..
Exactly. We put a lot of time and effort thinking about how we’re presenting the music. Some people accuse us of it being smoke and mirrors and just a lot of spectacle and not a lot of content, but for us, we try to bring both. We want it to be an experience that people leave really having felt something different. It’s sort of this cathartic, loud, sweaty, sensory overload sort of experience. And I’m not saying I’d ever want to see us play for more than an hour because I think sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming, but that’s also one of the great things about having three records. It’s allowed us to really diversify our live show. And I think at this point it’s the most fulfilling it’s ever been for fans because it’s not just beating you over the head and going from high-highs to low-lows. I feel like “Bitter Rivals” has allowed us to insert this really fun middle ground that didn’t exist when we just had “Treats” and “Reign of Terror.”
I know I only have five minutes left with you, so I’m just going to go really non-sequitur on this; forgive me. While your sound has definitely evolved and you’ve obviously just put out your third album, Sleigh Bells as a brand was very much aligned with a hyper-specific time around 2011. Whether it be your music basically soundtracking all MTV shows for a year or your renowned status as everyone’s favorite buzz band, was it weird to see yourself not just embraced but emphasized by that cultural movement looking for an anthem?
You know it’s so funny, I never thought of it like that. I think when you’re in it, it’s a lot harder to make sense of it. Hindsight is much clearer, obviously. I feel like we were making music that definitely sounded very different than what was out there, and people chose to use it to represent things that they were hoping would be fresh and innovative and maybe a little disruptive. The music just became a soundtrack for that.
In terms of branding, we never necessarily thought of it like a strategic vision. For us, licensing music has always been one of those things that’s like a perk of the job. We make records and we spend a lot of time on them and then we tour our asses off, but unfortunately, even though we’ve done really well as a band, we don’t really sell records; we don’t make a living by selling records. We’ve been able to pay a lot of our bills by licensing music. And I know that sounds terribly unromantic, but we see it as the opportunity is out there, people aren’t writing jingles anymore, advertising agencies are using songs, so why not let our music be heard by markets and demographics that wouldn’t normally buy our record in a record store?
For us, it’s just been another way to get our music out there. That’s not to say we don’t have standards. We’ve definitely said no to a lot more opportunities than we’ve said yes to, but it’s just another thing we can do to get people psyched about the band. We’ve never felt pretentious about that; we’ve never felt that you have to earn your way into being a Sleigh Bells fan. If you hear our song on an iPhone commercial and then you come to our shows, that’s just as exciting to me as someone who discovered us in 2010 on Pitchfork.
On a more holistic side, there’s a good chance that in the future, something off “Treats” is going to be the thing people think of when they think of that hyper-specific era and movement. Is that something you recognize or ever think about it?
I’ve thought about it, but not really in terms of our band. I think about it in terms of other bands, like Blondie for example, who busted their ass playing relatively small clubs, had success on alternative radio, and in general weren’t a huge band, but now 20 years later, they’re remembered as being the epitome of this time and symbolic of this movement and aesthetic. I don’t know.
History is interesting; it’s always fascinating how people are remembered and what their legacies are. The big difference between then and now is that there are so many more bands and people’s attention spans are so much shorter. I feel like it might be a bit harder to make that association with a time and our music because it’s cluttered with so much other information, but who knows how we’ll be remembered.