In Conversation: Sleigh Bells

Clash catches up with Alexis Krauss...

Few come louder. Back with an ear-splitting bang, Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells release their third studio album, ‘Bitter Rivals’, on October 7th.

The new album follows 2010’s ‘Treats’ (Clash review) and 2012’s US top-20 hit ‘Reign Of Terror’, and finds the pair – Alexis Krauss (vocals) and Derek E. Miller (guitars, production) – on perhaps unexpectedly melodic form. Sure, they’re still making a mighty racket. But this time it’s different. This blistering rock has got some sugary pop to it, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Clash catches up with Krauss to talk zesty sing-alongs and dance routines…

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Sleigh Bells, ‘Bitter Rivals’, from the album ‘Bitter Rivals’

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‘Bitter Rivals’ feels like a pretty summery album, a lot easier on the ear than some of your harsher material. Does it feel right to get this out before the sun completely disappears for the winter?

Well, I’ve never really thought of music as being suitable for specific seasons, but it’s true that there are always certain songs that remind you of summer, and stir inside you a celebratory feeling. And I do feel that ‘Bitter Rivals’, the song, has a sense of empowerment about it. I think it’s a song that people will want to put on in their car, with the windows down.

I think we could have put the song out at any time, but as we were getting this new album ready, I thought that it’d be good to get it out for the end of summer – when everyone is going back to school, and back to work – so that it hopefully becomes this sort of anthem for the beginning of something new, in that sense. It has a lot of energy to it, so in that sense it’s more of a summer song than a winter one.

So what is this zestier album sound down to, then? Compared to your last album, ‘Reign Of Terror’, ‘Bitter Rivals’ is so much… well, I suppose brighter. It’s less dense, if you see what I’m trying to say.

Absolutely! Musically, and lyrically, ‘Reign Of Terror’ was a very dark record. It was extremely dense, and heavy, and a lot of the lyrics were bleak, reflecting a period in Derek’s life of extreme personal loss, and personal tragedy. So that record was a kind of musical therapy, I think. This time, though, we’re definitely in a different place, with newfound strength, and energy, and joy and excitement.

This album is a true collaboration, too. Derek and I were working together in a way we’d not done before, and we found a lot of new excitement just through that collaboration. And this might sound silly, but we started boxing, pretty seriously, during the making of this album. Neither of us is getting in the ring any time soon, but before we went into the studio we’d go and box. And there’s something really inspiring about waking up and having that natural serotonin release and then having a really productive day in the studio.

So the way we were living our lives, and the excitement we were feeling, that definitely inspired us to make music that’s brighter. We’re not ashamed to say that this record is poppier than what we’ve done before. Sonically, it tends towards R&B more than before, but there are still lots of aggressive moments, as showcased on the song ‘Bitter Rivals’.

I think this record is more in the vein of ‘Treats’, as hopefully people will feel strong and empowered when they hear it. Maybe it’s something they put on with friends and let themselves go to. ‘Reign Of Terror’ was definitely harder to listen to without being distracted by the darkness of the lyrics. This record still feels like a fight, it still has that pugnacious energy to it – but it feels like a fight we can win this time, rather than a losing battle.

You were touring ‘Reign Of Terror’ until the start of 2013. ‘Bitter Rivals’ must have come together fairly quickly, then, for it to make its release date. Were you working on a lot of this material while on the road?

It did come together quickly, yeah. It was a very quick turnaround. We started actually working on this material midway through the touring cycle for ‘Reign Of Terror’, and whenever we had more than just a day off we’d book some studio time in Brooklyn with our engineer, Shane Stoneback, and we’d work on some new songs. That was getting us really pumped, and really re-energising us.

We had a long, rigorous touring cycle – but we officially came off the road after The Big Day Out in Australia, and went straight into the studio full time. That was from early February until June. We took our time with this – even though it was quick! It didn’t feel rushed.

We recorded 14 or 15 songs, and we loved them all, but decided in the end that we’d go with those final 10 songs that are on the record. They were the most fitting and appropriate tracks. All of our records are pretty brief, so I think that’s pretty consistent, and ‘Bitter Rivals’ feels really compact.

We’re already working on new songs for a fourth record, actually. We don’t like taking breaks, y’know! We’re constantly working on material, instead of waiting to work on material because it’s not what our record label wants us to do. Maybe it’s more intriguing when a band does go away for a while between records, and people start to wonder about them. But that isn’t really our style – we’d rather put music out and get on the road again.

You have to be careful, going away for too long. Absence might be said to make the heart grow fonder, but in music, chances are a New Favourite Band will come and take your place with the fans…

Yeah, there’s so much music out there, so it’s really hard to make it as a lasting band. But, y’know, some of the time bands are their own worst enemies. I know bands that have let internal turmoil destroy them. Derek and I have been very fortunate. It’s just the two of us, and we’re very close friends. We get a lot of our issues out there on the table, with a lot of open communication. So I think that a lot of the reasons why bands need time away from each other, we don’t feel them. We live our lives, our musical lives, in a way where we want to keep working together.

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Sleigh Bells, ‘Comeback Kid’, from the album ‘Reign Of Terror’

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You said earlier on that you hope people are empowered by ‘Bitter Rivals’. I wonder if there are any key themes at play, across the tracks? I read an amusing little MTV piece that drew parallels between your lyrics and the works of Shakespeare…

(Laughs) I didn’t see that! That’s probably a first. Well, Derek writes a lot of the lyrics, and the way that we work is that we’ll do the track and have, like, a Word document full of lyrics. A lot of them are stream of consciousness, just fun wordplay. They’re not particularly deep, always. I’ll take what we have home and naturally gravitate towards what I feel is strongest. And then we’ll arrange the lyrics in a way that complements the melodies.

I’m not saying that our lyrics are secondary, as by far this new album is lyrically the most cohesive one we’ve done, with some of Derek’s best work on it. But we’re arranging them in a way that gives them this spontaneous quality. They don’t represent a narrative, they don’t tell a story. One of the most exciting things about this record is that it’s full of surprises. There are unexpected directions to come – and the title track is one of the most straightforward songs on there. A lot of the other songs, they’ve got these random lyrical moments, which might be a shout here or something that takes the track in a totally different direction.

So, we’re not writing to an overriding theme. One of our idols is Bruce Springsteen, so we appreciate great lyrics and great storytelling – there’s no better lyrical storyteller than him. But for our music, it’s always been about how everything works together, how the lyrics integrate with the music. The lyrics support the kick drum, and the percussion.

A lot of the lyrics here have a sort of singsong-y delivery, and there are some traditional, melodic moments – something more like Janet Jackson or Beyoncé, these classic R&B divas (laughs). I’m trying to use my voice in a way that’s comfortable for me, as I grew up singing soul and R&B, and my idols have always been people like Jackie Wilson and Etta James. There are definitely melodies that you can sing along to on this record, and I think that’s a blast.

You spent some time at theatre school, right…?

Yeah. My father’s been a musician my whole life, and he still is, that’s what he does. I grew up singing with him – but the first thing I ever really wanted to do, with my voice, was sing on Broadway. I auditioned for many things as a pretty young child, when I was as young as nine, and from there is how I ended up getting unexpectedly involved in the teen-pop world. That was my professional entry into music – and I learned a lot from it, but it was not the way that I’d foreseen things going! So I stepped away from that, and took some time out from the music business.

Well, I asked about that as, to look at your music videos, it seems you’ve a thing for dance routines. I wonder if fans come down and re-enact them?

(Laughs) We have a couple of choreographed moments in the video for ‘Comeback Kid’, and there have definitely been some diehard fans at shows trying those moves.

For the video to ‘Bitter Rivals’, I thought it would be hilarious to have me with some back-up dancers. I was watching a lot of old-school Tina Turner videos, with her with two or four girls, and it’s just so magical when it works. I kind of wanted to pay homage to that, to the traditional girl-group formation.

But I think that also comes from… Well, there’s an element to our live shows that’s really over the top, and almost ridiculous. And that’s something we’ve embraced! We’ve never wanted to take this too seriously – that’s not to say we don’t always want to give people the best show that we can, just that we want to deliver that theatricality. When we get on stage, we really want to put on a show. I’m not interested in just standing there, looking at the floor and moaning, or even singing everything perfectly. I’d rather get up there and create this storm of energy and chaos.

Well, I’ve seen that first hand. You say about being on the stage – I’ve certainly seen you off it, too, in the crowd, rather lost in the moment…

(Laughs) Yeah, I do tend to get a little caught up in it, for sure.

I see you’re doing a show with Danny Brown, in New York in November – is he allowed into Canada again, yet? (Clash news here)

I don’t know! But Canada’s so funny. I know so many people in this business, like tour managers right here in New York, who’ve been blocked from entering Canada because of this tiny arbitrary reason or whatever. It’s madness. The border security there… Sometimes you’ll get a routine inspection and they let you right on through, but other times you’ll get someone who just wants to give you a hard time. And I know people who have something really minor on their record, which might’ve happened 10 years ago, who have no problems crossing for years, but then they get that one guard… “Oh, you have this? Oh, you’re not coming in today.” It’s really that arbitrary. Say you’re on a bus, and someone finds this slightest bit of weed dust in a bunk that isn’t even from the touring band in question… They find it, and then it’s like: “$2,000 right now, or you’re not coming in.”

Well, good luck with your tour on that side of the Atlantic…

Yeah, here’s hoping we make it across. And we’re definitely coming to the UK soon. I think we’re going to make that happen in November.

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Sleigh Bells, ‘Infinity Guitars’, from the album ‘Treats’

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Photo: Petra Collins

‘Bitter Rivals’ is released on October 7th via Mom + Pop Music / Republic Of Music. Find Sleigh Bells online here

Read an archive feature on Sleigh Bells, from 2012, here.

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Stream tracks by Sleigh Bells via Deezer, below…

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