Q&A: Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss On Touring, ’80s R&B, And What Her Former Students Think Of Her Music
When we talked to Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells, she had come off of a day of press, stage-design meetings, and tour rehearsal, and was kicking back in her backyard in Greenpoint, Brooklyn playing with her dog. “My dog is obsessed with playing fetch,” she said with a laugh. “The day is never over when you have a dog to entertain when you come home.” But anyone who has seen Sleigh Bells’ stage shows, full of over-the-top barricades of speakers that blast the band’s glorious brand of noisy, shouty pop, knows that if there’s one thing that Krauss never seems to run out of, it’s the energy to entertain.
Bitter Rivals, the newest release from the duo, is out this week on Mom + Pop and serves as a showcase for the band’s smooth move into a more collaborative production process between Krauss’ vocals and bandmate Derek Miller’s production aesthetic. The band’s signature blasts of shredded guitar and hip-hop infected drum machines remain, but with the addition of the kind of sing-songy pop hooks that harken more to ’80s pop than the sort of Def Leppard rock ‘n’ roll they’ve been attributed to in the past. “I’ll admit that while it felt natural to me, it was also a bit of an anxious thing for us,” mentions Krauss. “You know, we always feel a little nervous when we’re working on a sound that’s newer to us, but in the end it helps us create some of our best work.” And, indeed, Bitter Rivals is a success due to these risks; the scope of the album proves that Sleigh Bells don’t necessarily need to be screaming at you to get you to listen to them.
We talked to Krauss about the band’s upcoming tour, birthday celebrations, Lisa Lisa, and getting feedback on Sleigh Bells from her old 4th grade students.
STEREOGUM: How is tour prep coming along?
ALEXIS KRAUSS: We have a drummer coming on tour with us for the first time ever so it was a little nerve-wrecking. But he’s amazing and a total machine so it was really exciting to practice with him. We’re a little anxious to introduce a new element but it’s gone really, really well. Then we met with our lighting designer and went over everything as far as that goes. It’s a new setup; our sound has changed and so it’s not this huge wall of sound anymore because we don’t really need that anymore. Now it’s more like everything on the stage is being used, you know? That’s the difference in structure from the past; we call it the aesthetic volume. [Laughs.] But yeah, that’s changed because we think that the new music calls for it to change. We want the stage show to match the sonics of the album.
STEREOGUM: I know your birthday just passed. What did you do to celebrate amidst all the work?
KRAUSS: Well, I live in Greenpoint. So I took a ferry at like 7 in the morning to Wall Street and waited in line at the DMV for two hours. [Laughs.] No, no, let’s be positive. I had a nice little dinner with a few friends and spent some time with my family. That weekend I went on a hike upstate, which is what I’m obsessed with doing now by the way. I try to spend every little break I have getting out of the city. It’s so crucial to get out. There’s so many things an hour or two hour away that there’s no real excuse not to!
STEREOGUM: It seems like Sleigh Bells are constantly on the road, though!
KRAUSS: It’s funny because we’re about to embark on a two month tour. I was actually feeling like we had too much off time and then realized that we just hadn’t been on tour since March. I’m so eager to go back, it always feels like an eternity when I’m not. For me, being on tour is really what gives me my sense of purpose. That’s what we do, you know? We make records and then we go on tour. And touring is such a positive experience for us. This is kind of cliché but I feel truly grateful that I get to go on stage every night and sing and dance and have a blast with a thousand kids who are equally as excited to be there as I am. We don’t really take a lot of time off. Whenever we’re not on tour, we’re back in the studio.
STEREOGUM: After listening to Bitter Rivals, it feels like the name of the album could totally reference you and Derek during the making of the album. It sounds like more of a stretch of ideas back-and-forth of ideas between the two of you.
KRAUSS: Oh yeah totally, more than it’s ever been before.
STEREOGUM: What was your relationship like as far as producing this album?
KRAUSS: It was way more collaborative than it’s been in the past. You know when we started working together, we didn’t know each other at all. We met in a restaurant when he was my server and he needed a singer for some his music. When we started working together I was teaching fulltime and he would come over and we would essentially record sessions. Which was great for me at the time. Reign Of Terror was more collaborative for sure but it was really told through Derek’s story for sure. He had lost his father and he was experiencing a lot of emotional pain at the time. Lyrically it was very much a function of his pain and towards the end of it; when he had worked through a lot of melancholy; there was a sort of turning point. Which is where “Comeback Kid” came from, it was the first song where we kind of pulled out of that and we felt really good. Which really led to Bitter Rivals.
STEREOGUM: This album sounds like a departure from older Sleigh Bells in terms of how melodic it is. In the past a lot of your vocals have been kind of pulling out from the noise that backs them. Was there any struggle as far as your singing was concerned? Did you feel self-conscious highlighting your voice in a different way at all?
KRAUSS: No, not at all. Just because for me that’s what I naturally want to do as a singer-songwriter; I tend to go in that direction already. I think for Derek, it might be different. You know there are a lot of melodic and sweet moments amidst all the shouting and bombastic moments. Those bombastic moments aren’t necessarily emotive and I think that’s something Derek kind of shied away from; a voice emoting over those riffs of guitar. And I really understand that. If you think of Reign Of Terror, pushing a lot of air and belting out kind of sounded a little too dramatic. I know we referenced Def Leppard and a lot of ’80s arena rock bands but it sounded a little too histrionic. What we have now is just a little scrappier and leaner and I think that kind of emotion works in a way now for us that it wouldn’t have in the past. I think that once we started doing it, we really worked it into a sound that sounds like us and not another band. We still stayed true-to-self. We didn’t think about genre or trying to conform to people’s expectations of what our band sounded like in the past at all. I hope that when people hear it, they feel like it’s a natural progression for us.
STEREOGUM: “Young Legends” is one of my favorite songs from the album. For me it felt like a throwback to certain coy, empowered women of pop in the ’80s. I remember immediately thinking of Lisa Lisa.
KRAUSS: That’s so funny! You have to tell that to Derek. He was listening to a ton of Lisa Lisa when we were recording. We were listening to a ton of weird ’80s R&B too; Janet and Michael and off-kilter R&B and ’90s pop like Ace Of Base. It’s definitely an R&B song. We were really thrilled with the results but we were also at one point like, “Can we do this? Should this be a song we write for another artist? Is this really a Sleigh Bells song?” But when we recorded “Kids” for Treats we had the same reaction. We thought we would save it and it could be someone else’s song because we didn’t think we could pull it off. I think that we do our best work when we feel kind of vulnerable and are unsure how people will receive it.
STEREOGUM: Would you say you were actively trying to make more pop-inspired music on Bitter Rivals?
KRAUSS: The pop world is something that Derek and I have always felt really comfortable with. I guess him, on paper, less so since he grew up playing hardcore. But he musically was always really, really influenced by pop music and so was I. As a vocalist, it comes naturally for me. I guess for us, none of these decisions were calculated; we never sat down and discussed making poppier music. This has more R&B elements and pop elements and more hooks for sure. We kind of attribute that to influences like Quincy Jones and Michael and Janet Jackson. I listened to Rhythm Nation a bunch while working on this. And I really am influenced by that kind of pop; the pop where you can’t get it out of your head. But those people I mentioned are also really bizarre; they’re quirky and all over the place and have moments that come out of nowhere. We were listening to a lot of Beastie Boys at the time as well; we were gravitating to artists that include a lot of different, great ideas in their songs without the songs getting superfluous. The intention wasn’t to write pop music, the intention was to write music that translated all of our ideas better. I know that pop becomes kind of a dirty word, but I think that’s only when people stop trying to innovate. It can be very stifling and very boring; there’s a ton of terrible pop music out there. But when it’s good and weird and bizarre, I think it’s brilliant.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the decision to end the “Bitter Rivals” music video with the message “Be good to each other.”
KRAUSS: We thought it would be great to end something that had an aggressive or violent imagery with something kind of humorous and sweet. You know, I was a teacher before I was in Sleigh Bells so being positive and having that kind of energy has always been a part of Sleigh Bells. We’re also constantly using the phrase, “Work hard. Be nice.” It was the phrase I constantly used as my mantra for my kids when I was teaching.
STEREOGUM: Have you gotten any feedback from your old students?
KRAUSS: You know, I have. They’re older now; they’re big, bad seventh-graders. But they’re way more interested in Demi Lovato and One Direction. You hear them trying to sound like they’re into it though! It’s so cute. They’re like “Ummmmm, Mrs. Krauss, your music is really good but it’s kinda weird!”
STEREOGUM: It feels like you guys are constantly working; even based on your telling me that not being on the road between March and October seems like an eternity. Is there ever a moment where you’re sitting back and basking in the completion of a project? Is there a sense that if you stop you’ll lose momentum?
KRAUSS: I think we try to take time to pat ourselves on the back. We celebrate and we feel accomplished when we’ve made a record that we think is really good. But there is always a restlessness to Sleigh Bells. There’s never been a feeling of, “Okay, we’ve made this. Now it’s time to revel in it’s awesomeness and chill for a minute.” I think that mentality can be a little lazy. It also comes from when we are done and really love what we’ve done in the moment … we’re really quick to tear it apart. We’re not self-deprecating but we definitely feel that we’re a work in progress. Especially now that we have a more collaborative working relationship. We’re really eager to see where our next steps will take us, you know? There’s a lot that we want to accomplish as a band, even if we’re totally thrilled to be touring and happy with what we’ve put out now. I want our music to reach as many people as possible, you know? We want to keep making music that’s better than the last music we made.
Sleigh Bells’ Bitter Rivals is out now via Mom + Pop. Stream it here.