Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010

Interview: Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss

By Evan Rytlewski
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Before she grew up to become the tattooed, crowd-rocking singer of the Brooklyn noise-pop band Sleigh Bells, Alexis Krauss was in a much more traditional pop band: the forgotten all-girl teen-pop group Rubyblue, which in 2002 released a lone album that quickly worked its way into dollar bins. After the group disbanded, Krauss paid her bills during college by taking on jobs as a session singer. That background in professional recording made her uniquely suited for Sleigh Bells. Producer/guitarist Derek Miller, formerly of the hardcore band Poison the Well, had been searching for a female singer for his new project, and met Krauss when waiting on a table for her and her mother at a Brazilian restaurant (a stage mom to the core, Krauss’s mother volunteered her for an audition after learning Miller was a musician). It was an inspired pairing: Krauss’s trained voice, girlishly sweet yet convincingly tough when the song demands it, proved durable enough to hold its own against Miller’s blown-out, distortion tracks. Within months of the Sleigh Bells' first gigs last year the band had attracted national buzz, which has only grown since the group released its debut album, Treats, on M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. Recordings this spring.

Krauss spoke to me last month in advance of Sleigh Bells' sold-out show at Mad Planet on Tuesday, Oct. 26.

How did Sleigh Bells' sound develop? Was it something you two had in mind from the beginning, or did it take a while to hone?


Way before I had even met Derek, he had been working on a bunch of different material, though he was throwing out most of it. He was hashing out a sound with a lot of low end and some traditional rock elements, but incorporating more electronic beats, and more hip-hop-related elements. On top of that his instrument is guitar, so he was adding a rhythmic, metal guitar sound, and it was the fusion of those two things that formed the basis of what we’re doing. When Derek and I met and began recording together, the combination of my voice on top of his more abrasive guitar work formed this juxtaposition, giving this pop feel to heavier music. We really liked that, so we kind of worked on that. In some ways, we didn’t really labor over it, it was a natural fit. We met each other very randomly, so there wasn’t that much invested in what we did. So we kept pushing those elements, and when we got into the studio it developed even more. The last songs we did for the album were “Tell Em” and “Riot Rhythm,” if that gives you a sense of the direction we’re heading.

How much is your sound a reaction to chillwave and some of the softersounds that are popular now?

It was definitely a reaction to it in some respects. I love a lot of chillwave bands, and we always end up booked to play shows with Neon Indian, which is really funny. But we saw that there is this gap in independent music, where there are bands like The National, where it’s moody and cerebral, then bands like Major Lazer, where it’s chaos. There’s nothing in between—well there is, but we were looking for something that was a bit jarring, something that people weren’t expecting, that was refreshing. We didn’t want to do something that had been done before. If people have already done it better than we’d be able to do it, why try to replicate them? I think hip-hop has a lot to do with it, too, because that’s one of our big influences. We wanted to try to bring that attitude and that rhythm. Derek always says music should start with your feet and end with your head. With so much music, it’s the opposite.

What was your background in music before joining the band?

As a vocalist, I had spent the last four or five years doing a lot of session work, mostly in the pop world. When I was younger I was in a teen pop band, and I met a lot of people through that, so I did a lot of studio work which required me to sing in a lot of styles and know a lot of techniques; I recorded rock and soul and blues. So when Derek and I got together, we were in his apartment and he started playing me some of his demos, and for me it was like any other demoing experience. You listen to a song and try to capture the energy and assume a frame of mind that’s conducive to that music.

What kind of artists were you recording for as a session singer?

I was doing a bit of everything, from sessions for Britney Spears songs to songs that were used on movie soundtracks. Basically, the artists who don’t write their own music are usually pop artists, and I worked with the songwriters who made their songs. So I would get called in with a writer, record a full demo, with full harmonies, full production and everything exactly as the writer wanted it, so they could pitch it to singers. I did a couple songs for Lindsay Lohan, for instance. It’s funny, but it’s an interesting world and it pays well, and there are no strings attached. You can go in and be creative, you don’t have to deal with the bullshit.

Since it pays well, is it something you’d still consider doing on the side?

No, at this point. I’ve found something that I can be completely invested in. Derek and I have plenty of work to do in the band, so I’m pretty focused on that.

Your vocals run the gamut from very soft to very aggressive. Do you prefer one of the styles over the other?

I’m not really partial to either. In the live setting, the songs that are a bit heavier are more fun to perform, because you can become a little bit more insane with them, and there’s less subtleties, which in the live situation is really thrilling. But I also love harmony and triple tracking and working on sounds you can only get in the studio, singing as quietly as possible.

How do the songs on Treats translate live?

Derek and I want a Sleigh Bells show to be something in between a live band and seeing a DJ set. In a way the performers on stage are almost secondary to the reaction people have to the music. We want it to be a very visceral show, we want people to dance, we want there to be enthusiasm. Our worst nightmare has been people standing there with their arms crossed. So we, in the spirit of trying to arouse that type of reaction, we just jump around like total idiots. I’m really hard on myself and really critical, I want my singing to sound as good as possible, but technically if our show isn’t perfect, that’s not as important as making people move. We’re still a new band, so we’re still learning, and we’re still hard on ourselves, constantly pushing ourselves to get better. We finally have our own front of house guy. I just got my first ear monitor system, which makes a huge difference, so we’re still improving.

Will your next album be as loud and distorted as Treats?

I think that’s always something that’s going to be characteristic of us. That’s the only way we think it sounds good: blown out and in the red, with a volume and intensity to it. So the new songs we’re working on still have that element going for it; that won’t change. Derek and I have joked about making a record that’s really quiet, though. Just me whispering and him tapping pencils.

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