19.08.2010, Words by dummymag

Sleigh Bells interview: "Start at your feet, end at your brains."

On their debut album's release day, Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss talk song-craft, space, and why simple is best.

The human race is doing all right, you know. We’ve come a long way if a band like Sleigh Bells can legitimately describe themselves as pop. On their debut album ‘Treats’, Brooklyn duo Derek Miller (guitar) and Alexis Krauss (vocals) really bring the loud. Big guitars. Big beats. Hardly Take That is it? And yet…

They come down hard to be sure, but their noise isn’t destructive, not about smashing the listener into submission. It’s a celebration – and what could be more pop than that? The euphoric rise and rise of Crown On The Ground, the body shifting beat of Infinity Guitars. They take the hummable, and add the harsh. The entire breadth of pop music, from doo wop to Black Sabbath, to Fleetwood Mac, to hip hop, set on a collision course and turned up all the way. The Big Bang in reverse, as separate floating entities of genre and style come crashing back together. It is Pop. Pop misbehaving, going off the rails.

Fitting considering where both band members are coming from. Derek did time as a member of post-Hardcore boys Poison The Well, while Alexis was part of a teen girl group that never really took off, and has since worked as a teacher in the Bronx. The two met in New York, got on, recorded, signed to M.I.A.‘s N.E.E.T. label, recorded some more, and now here they are, on the day of their album’s UK release, sat on the outdoor terrace of Shoreditch’s Crowne Plaza hotel. Alexis is all smiles, Derek appears a few minutes later, Ray-bans on, decanting a drink into a glass. Both seem worn out – they’ve been answering questions all morning – but perky with it. A widescreen East London vista, choppy midday breeze, sunshine. On top of the world, looking down, it’s a metaphor begging to be used.

So when it comes to songwriting, how do things work with you?

Derek: Well, up to this point I’ve done most of it. But we’re definitely going to collaborate more. On the next record. I’m re-learning how to collaborate really because, out of necessity I ended up doing everything on my own, because I didn’t have a songwriting partner. I had some of these songs before Alexis was here. So yeah, I got sort of obsessed with that.

Was that strange for you Alexis? Having someone else dictate what you do?

Alexis: Umm, not necessarily. When we first started working together I was very used to taking direction in that way, because that’s how I’d chosen to work as a singer, to sort of step out of the writing process and do more of the session work. So that was something I was pretty comfortable with. That’s where I sort of liked it. Being in the studio and having the challenge of working with somebody else.

Derek: And like, I could get really really specific, and she always understood exactly what I meant. Things can get really sort of abstract in the studio.

Alexis: But, that’s where I took pleasure. I hadn’t been working, and Derek had been working all these years on that. And I hadn’t been. So it didn’t make sense to sort of, jump in.

Would you want to be more involved in the future?

Alexis: Yeah… I mean we started doing more collaboration towards the end.

Derek: Yeah, she’s more than capable of bringing a lot to the table. I sort of, it was kind of a goal. I wanted to write a record front to back and I said that to her at the beginning. I said to her, you know, this isn’t me being like, a controlling ass hole. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. And we did end up working on a few of the songs together, but I think I really liked the idea of it being like ‘Words & Music: Derek Miller’. But it turned out that my favourite songs were the ones we ended up collaborating on, so there’ll definitely be more of that.

I like the story of how you guys met. Derek, was there anything about Alexis that made you ask her to join you?

Derek: I mean it was actually her mum. Her mother and I were having a conversation. I’m waiting tables and she was asking me what do you do besides wait tables, why are you in New York? And I told her I was a musician and I was looking for a female vocalist, and of course Alexis was right there and she was like, oh shit Alexis sings! And it sort of went from there.

Alexis: There were, sort of, combinations of different factors. I had the summer off from teaching, we hit it off in terms of personality and then, when I heard what he was working on I was intrigued and interested at the time. We got along. And as it developed it became clear that we were making something that was worth making.

I kind of like the fact that your whole partnership is based on music. That’s the foundation.

Derek: Absolutely.

Alexis: Yeah, it was cool. There was no bullshit. We got together to record a song.

Derek: Yeah. Exactly. Makes us very focused.

Moving on to the songs. I remember thinking, particularly listening to the early demos, that you have a very confrontational sound. Is that an outlet for anything you feel about the world?

Derek: (chuckles) Er, I don’t think so. I don’t really know. For some reason I just kind of needed to be, really aggressive and confident. I don’t know. I’ve never really listened to it and thought in terms of psychoanalysis. I don’t know. Maybe. That’s kind of difficult to answer…

Alexis: I think it was about making music that was more reactive than cerebral. That sounds very abrasive but, hopefully, there’s a rhythm there.

Derek: Yeah. We always joked that our priorities start at your feet, end at your brains. Dancing, movement. And then the very last thing you should do is to think about it. Maybe a lot of it too was an absence for, like, to my ears at least, of loud music that I listen to. Not just in new music, but a lot of times I’m just like, why can’t it go like THIS! And that’s what you end up doing. The thing that I’m not getting in other places. Well, the solution to that was to do it yourself.

There’s quite a mix of styles there. Do you think genre is something irrelevant in music nowadays?

Derek: I mean, you could say that. It depends. I mean, I’m thinking of dance music, where new genres like pop up everyday… But I don’t really think, I mean for us, it’s very broad, it’s just pop that we make. But there and again anything could be pop. So that could be generic. As long as the records are great then it doesn’t really matter what you call them. It’s just a result of having a real affinity with all the things that are involved, you know? Really and truly loving heavy beat production, but really loving heavy guitars, sweeter melodies. It’s not a surface thing. It’s a real care and an interest.

Some of the songs on the record. Maybe Run The Heart for example, have a more tender sound to them. Do you think people weren’t expecting that?

Derek: Yeah maybe. It doesn’t always have to be like Crown On The Ground, just like, smashing. I think we really want to explore that more in the future at some point. You know, it’s like dealing with space. Creating space within the music. I think I bring up The XX record a lot. It’s one of the things that so many people admire about that record is there’s so much space in there. And, yeah. It’s impressive and I’m jealous, you know? It’s amazing.

So you think you’d move more towards those sort of dynamics?

Derek: I’m sure we’ll go farther in both directions…

Alexis: I think it’s really impressive when a band can make a song or a record with so much space and make it so interesting. There’s nothing boring about it.

Derek: Yeah, it’s very skeletal. I feel in a way it’s almost like the opposite side of the coin from what we do, but, they seem to have a lot in common… I know we’re at the other end of the spectrum, cramming a lot of sound into a very small space. But it’s just as skeletal though. I mean, there’s really nothing going on in our songs. It’s like, Riot Rhythm, there’s a kick and a clap pattern. One guitar riff. There’s nothing. There’s no bass guitar on the record you know? There’s just like pitched 808s and, it’s always just those elements. There’s rhythm, there’s guitar, and there’s a vocal. And it’s very simple. As opposed to like prog rock which is just millions of riffs and thousands of parts…

Alexis: It’s easy to distract someone. We like to just take the essentials.

Derek: Make every part count.

So what’s happening with you guys now?

Alexis: We’re on the road for the rest of the year.

Derek: Yeah, we’re going to be on tour for a while. And then we’re going to make a record. I have a ton of material. But try not to think about it because it might be a while.

Planning any radical upheavals of your sound?

Alexis: (laughs) Yeah! We joked about it. Having a record that was just very quiet.

Derek: Lots of whispering and tapping on tables. Very minimalist. Just to see what people would think (laughs).

Alexis: We’re pushing things in a more melodic direction. And sort of developing lusher sounds, arrangements.

Derek: Yeah. Kind of going back to 4AD bands, who I haven’t listened to for years. Stuff like Cocteau Twins’ ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’. Stuff like that. And the vocals overall are very dry on the record. There’s very little reverb. And I kind of miss that a little. And those records have such a nice, melancholy, feeling to them. I feel like that is kind of working its way back in. For years I was very focused on that type of thing, you know, ‘Loveless’. I think instrumentally it might get a bit harsher, but vocally it’s going to get sweeter.

Sleigh Bell’s album ‘Treats’ is out now.


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