Treats On Display: Sleigh Bells Interviewed

Valerie Siebert talks to Alexis Krauss of American noise duo Sleigh Bells about teaching, secret machines and The Ting Tings...

Formed in 2008 by a former guitarist for post-hardcore punks Poison the Well and a former Disney teeny-popper, Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells have been causing noise-pop scene tsunamis this year with the hype surrounding their debut album.

Treats has might be one of the most buzz-blasted records of the year, but don’t let that put you off. For it’s one of the most exciting records of 2010. It’s just so… loud: cochlea rattling guitars courtesy of guitarist Derek Miller smash against over-compressed industrial thrashings and pop-fairess Alexis Krauss alternates nonchalant silken cooing and acidic shrieks. This is what She & Him would sound like if they just ploughed through all that pesky sexual tension. This is The Ting Tings, but good.

The Quietus managed to catch a moment out of this group’s busy schedule to chat with Krauss about the buzz and the business.

The things that each of you were doing before Sleigh Bells were nearly polar opposites, what parts of your previous musical endeavours have you brought into Sleigh Bells?

AK: I mean, I was involved in music since I was very young – primarily in the pop world. And although that was mostly pop it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t listening to a variety of different genres and different types of music. We both have a lot of experience and I had sung many different styles of music. When we started working together it became obvious that it was working and so we’ve continued and it just all sort of evolved from there.

What did you think of Derrick’s previous band (hardcore outfit Poison the Well)?

AK: Well I’m not really a stranger to hardcore – I’ve grown up around it. I’m a fan of heavier music so it’s nothing that took much getting used to. And I think obviously, that was such a long time ago for Derrick and we’re not regurgitating anything of what he used in Poison the Well to do for Sleigh Bells. But I think what Derrick was working on was really appealing to me because it made me think it was something I wanted to be a part of.

About your production. You sound loud. Very loud. Some have even said obnoxious. What made you want to go for this over-compressed produced sound?

AK: Initially a lot of that sound developed out of necessity because we were working with very limited resources. All the beats were being made on really shitty drum stations so, kind of, freaking it out and pushing everything into the red was one of the only was it sounded good and it was exciting to our ears. Then when we got to the studio and had a little more resources and more equipment we produced a sound that we liked and that was exciting to us. Sleigh Bells is meant to be listened to over loud speakers in a live setting or club setting and that is a trait that we’re proud of and it’s intentional. It’s a very social record, and by that I mean we encourage people to listen to it and dance. I think the dynamic and the loudness is something that works in our favour.

Are you a dance band?

AK: There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, we’re both fans of good rhythm and all our music starts with a beat or a good rhythm. We want people to move, we don’t want them to just sit there in their rooms and brood and be isolated. We describe our live shows as being somewhere between a live band and a DJ set so, yes, we are definitely conducive to dancing.

Out of all the songs on the album, it seems that ‘Rill Rill’ is getting the best reaction. But it’s very, very different from the majority of the album, do you think you would consider writing more songs along those lines – cater to the masses?

AK: We feel strong in the belief that we have the ability creatively for our next album to explore a lot of different ideas and styles. And there are some ideas that are more akin to ‘Rill Rill’ and there are some that are much heavier. We’re certainly going to explore all the options. We have a lot of ideas for the next record and we’re not necessarily going in one direction or another. We’re happy that ‘Rill Rill’ is well received, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to fill the next record with songs that sound like ‘Rill Rill’.

What song is your personal favourite off the record?

AK: I really like a song called ‘Riot Rhythm’. It was the last song that we worked on together and in the end it was the song that got us most excited and pumped for what we could do in the future. I think it combines all of my favourite elements of our music.

I found the progression of the album tracks to be quite interesting… I was wondering how you decided on following the soft pop ‘Rill Rill’ with the respectively heavier and mega heavier ‘Crown on the Ground’ and ‘Straight A’s’. I personally found it quite jarring…

AK: It’s all part of the production really. It starts off with ‘Tell ‘Em’ which is very much in-your-face and builds up very quickly and then you have this come down point with ‘Run the Heart’, ‘Rachel’ and ‘Rill Rill’ and then I guess we just wanted to wake people up with ‘Crown’ and ‘Straight A’s’ . It was just an arc that we felt made sense and was fun. But if, like you say, some people find that jarring and obnoxious… then I guess you don’t have to listen to those songs.

What the hell are A machines and B machines?

AK: It’s a secret.

Well that’s no fun

AK: They’re whatever you want them to be

Fair enough. How about your live shows? As you get more popular how do you plan to fill the bigger stages? There are only two of you…

AK: Well at the moment we have every intention of staying as a two-piece for the time being. We’re working on a bit more production and more lighting and equipment, but Derrick and I are becoming more and more confident on bigger stages and, like I said, our music is conducive to being played over bigger and bigger systems so I think we still fit as a two-piece. Maybe in the future we’ll work on having a bigger show but for now things are going to stay as they are.

Back to the beginning, how did you guys end up on M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. label?

AK: Maya got involved really early on, before we even played a show – she had heard some of our demos that were floating around on the internet and pretty immediately expressed her interest in what we were doing and shortly thereafter she worked with Derrick on a track for her new album (‘Meds and Feds’) and then we signed with N.E.E.T. recordings and released our album through them. It’s been incredibly exciting working with her and having her be interested in what we’re doing because Derrick and I are both very big fans.

Before Sleigh Bells started taking off, you were a 4th grade teacher. If Sleigh Bells didn’t quite work out, would you go right back to teaching?

AK: Yeah, I could always go back are do other things I went to school for. But when Derrick and I met it became obvious that this was what we wanted to do and we resolved that we should be doing it. I think teaching is an amazing career and who knows, maybe I will end up back in the classroom. If that were the case, I’d be fine with that.

Have you heard anything from your former students about your music.

AK: Besides the fact that we had three students come in and do some recording on the album – they’re the voices that you hear on ‘Kids’ – I haven’t really heard from them in a long time. I doubt that Sleigh Bells is really on their radar. They were aware that I was leaving teaching to work on music, but how much they know otherwise, I have no idea.

Because of all the press surrounding you, there have been a lot of comparisons… M.I.A. being an obvious one.

AK: Derrick and I don’t pay much attention to the comparisons, but I’m sure some have been quite flattering, and others… well we don’t think they necessarily relate to us. But I think that’s a part of what people do when they listen to music. They connect it to different artists and that’s fine. Derrick and I have a ton of different influences so it’s completely appropriate to make comparisons.

One song on the album, though, ‘Infinity Guitars’ sounds like it might as well be a Ting Tings song

AK: I really have only heard the one single by them. I guess we’re a boy/girl duo and I guess we have that dance pop element, but ‘Infinity Guitars’ is one of the songs that has been around the longest – Derrick had that song ready way before we met – I think it was even around before Derrick ever heard a Ting Tings song. It’s just one of those things that it’s funny to be compared to because there actually is no connection. But we both like that song of theirs. I guess I can see why people would think that…

Have you started thinking about your follow up to Treats? Is it going to be more instrumental or more electronic?

AK: Well we still have a lot of work to do with the new album, but we’re hoping to get back into the studio probably next summer as that will be our first substantial break, but we’re very excited about that. We were only in the studio for about 2 months on this record and we’ve already got tons of ideas for the next one and we’re very excited to start working on them. I think things are going to remain quite electronic. That sound is just something that we’re happy with.

Do you think you might include any more sampling?

AK: No, actually. The only sample we use on this album is the one for ‘Rill Rill’ [sample taken from Funkadelic’s "Can You Get to That"] and I think from now on we’re going to steer very clear of samples because they’re just too hard to clear and, you never know, it’s a big gamble. So, like I said, I think we’ll be staying away from samples in the future.

Sleigh Bells play Rough Trade Records in East London tonight, and the Oya Festival, Oslo, Norway, this weekend

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