Hypnotic beat distortion, rambunctious guitar riffs and candy-sweet vocals are but a few of the key elements that make up the sound of NY-based outfit, Sleigh Bells, comprised of Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller. “They say opposites attract — as cliché as it is — but the fact that we have such compacting, yet complementary personalities serves the band extremely well,” states Krauss. She’s right. The duo’s lively stage presence coupled with their equally boisterous records highlight the distinct, cohesive synergy Krauss and Miller share. Last year saw the unveiling of the band’s latest EP entitled Kid Kruschev. This mini-album is a blend of raucous rawness, emotional vulnerability and of course epic guitars that continue to woo long-time fans and win over new listeners alike.
Krauss states, “Texas is one of my favorite places to play. I’m looking forward to the next few shows.” Sleigh Bells will hit White Oak Music Hall Wednesday, Feb. 7, as part of their tour in support of Kid Kruschev. We hopped on a call with Krauss ahead of their return to H-town to discuss the importance of maintaining a signature sound, the intricacies of Kid Kruschev and what she admires about Miller as an artist.
Free Press Houston: I was reflecting on my introduction to Sleigh Bells. It was of course Treats, your debut album. It’s going to be eight years old in May! It’s aged very well. What’s helped you as a team to maintain a signature sound without getting caught up in the trends over the years?
Alexis Krauss: I wish I could tell you that we had a well, thought-out strategy, but we don’t. (Laughs) I think for us, we’ve never really thought of longevity. It’s always been the result of feeling very restless and wanting to continue to put out music that is compelling and quality. It’s not saying that we don’t think about our aesthetic, but for the most part it’s a pretty insular process creatively. We’re not great thinking about marketing, nor do we care much about trends and what’s going to be commercially viable.
FPH: Well, kudos to you both for being able to maintain a signature. I’m sure it’s hard in this atmosphere where artists hop on the trend bandwagon.
Krauss: Thank you! Yeah, I think it’s so hard for artists because there’s so many distractions. You’re constantly being pressured to engage, make money here by working with this corporation or get your song playlist here, collaborate with this person because this person is hot right now. It’s really easy to get pulled in so many different directions. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think a lot of people manage that extremely well. They’re able to manage their aesthetic and their own sound, yet they diversify in really respectful, brilliant ways. I think it’s really important now more than ever for artists just to learn to say “no” — learn how to forge their own identity and make decisions autonomously because if not, you just end up becoming this very fragmenting thing. That’s never as exciting as being original.
FPH: That’s true. I’ve always admired you and Derek because you’re not rock and you’re not pop. You’re Sleigh Bells. So, in what ways did Kid Kruschev challenge your songwriting skills in ways you haven’t experienced before?
Krauss: Good question. There would be no Kid Kruschev without Jessica Rabbit because Jessica Rabbit was obviously a longer process for us. It took us about three years to release that album. Through that learning process, we made a lot of music that we loved and we made a lot of music that we ended up really not liking. We stumbled and we tried things. We put ourselves far outside of our comfort zone. With Jessica Rabbit, we felt like we settled on something that would work for us. So, Kid Kruschev is kind of a continuation of that momentum. So, the actual writing and recording process with Kid Kruschev was pretty seamless. We made seven songs that I’m pretty proud of. The process was also so enjoyable because we didn’t feel the amount of pressure that we would going through the entire album cycle.
From a songwriting perspective, the songs are full of lots of different ideas. To me, they feel a bit more — I hate to use the word “cohesive” — but there’s a flow to those songs that feel better and sound good to me than the material on Jessica Rabbit. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just too fragmented. Derek and I really locked into our strengths — me with melody and him with production and lyrics. There would be no Kid Kruschev if it wasn’t for learning so many lessons throughout the creative struggles of Jessica Rabbit.
FPH: Wow. So, Jessica Rabbit prepared the way for Kid Kruschev, correct?
Krauss: Definitely. That’s not uncommon with our albums. Every one of them has built on the other and I think would not exist without the other. So often it’s like you work on an album and you finally have to say, “It’s done. We’re going to mix it. We’re going to master it. We’re going to immediately see these glaring flaws.” Those frustrations fuel the next batch of material. For us, it’s about besting the prior album, like, “Okay, we should have done that on the last album. Not that we regret it, but how can we move forward from there?”
FPH: I look at songs like “Blue Trash Mattress Fire” and even your new protest song, “Our Land” — which I want to get into as well. There’s definitely a risk with speaking out on social issues. As an artist, do you feel like you have a responsibility to do this and what risk does that run?
Krauss: I don’t really feel like it’s a responsibility. Every artist has a choice whether or not they want to engage in social justice or politics. Some of my favorite artists are political and some of my favorite artists don’t say anything about politics. For us, we’ve never considered ourselves to be a political band, but there was something about writing this album in the climate of Trump being elected president and just so many feelings of frustration and questions. That just really pervaded the writing process for this. Derek and I are both pretty outspoken about political issues. Then, I come from the background of social justice and education. For me the environment and education have always been two of my passions. So, I’ve been trying to figure out ways in which I can connect music and those passions. So, the “Our Land” project really just came out of that. It was a very spontaneous thing that I started working on and then recruited friends and other really inspiring people to help me out with it. I don’t think we have an obligation to do these things, but I certainly think we have a unique platform to raise awareness. I think when that’s done smartly and creatively, it can be really wonderful.
FPH: I know you relocated from Brooklyn to upstate New York. How did the change of pace affect the tone of the album — if at all — and the way that you work?
Krauss: Yeah, I think it definitely influenced the album because Derek would come up to my house and we have this new studio space we can work in. We were outside of the city. We didn’t have to worry about neighbors or working in the confines of an apartment where you have to be quiet. He would come up for the weekend and we would work long hours. Some days, we’d work for a couple of hours and just hang out. It was just this very flexible, relaxed schedule and at the same time it allowed us to lock ourselves in the room and be very focused. There was something very exciting about the new recording set-up. I think for Derek, he really enjoyed the experience of getting on a bus and getting to the house. It was like a retreat for him.
FPH: That’s awesome! My last question deals with the topic of the musical chemistry you and Derek have. What do you admire about him as an artist?
Krauss: So many things. This is obvious but, there would be no Sleigh Bells without Derek. He has forged from the beginning such a clear creative vision and strong sonic aesthetic. That’s not necessarily the product of overthinking or strategizing, it just comes out of him. It’s a product of years of playing music and obsessively pursuing music and paying such close attention to detail, learning and reading. It all just kind of swirls around in that strange brain of his and comes out as Sleigh Bells. It’s always an honor and a privilege to see him work and realize his ideas. It’s been an incredible journey being his collaborator and learning how to write with him and learning how to step up to the plate and deliver in a way that makes him proud and makes us both proud.