By Stephen CarlickTwo years ago, Sleigh Bells ignited a buzz wildfire with Treats, their debut album filled with speaker-blowing slabs of towering guitar and crushing beats. The Brooklyn duo's sound was as distinct as it was divisive, and detractors were quick to dismiss Sleigh Bells as just another flash in the indie-rock pan. Now, following a tell-all interview in which instrumentalist and lyricist Derek Miller divulged the inspiration behind superb second album, Reign of Terror ― his father passed away in a motorcycle accident shortly after Treats' release ― the band have established that their music is about more than block parties and ear-splitting guitar riffs. Sleigh Bells, singer Alexis Krauss asserts, is in it for the long haul.
Now that the buzz of the first album is over, is it about making music that will last the test of time? Alexis Krauss: I think any artist would be lying if they said that wasn't important to them. Every creative person wants to make music, art, etc. that's meaningful, and that stays with people. I think when Derek and I make music, we're not consciously setting out to make music that is long-lasting, but we're setting out to make music that is current and that is the best we could possibly make at the time. Hopefully, that music stands the test of time in the sense that it's not trendy or capitalizing on a certain sound. It's music that comes from an intimate place, and that's referencing timeless artists and genres. I can only hope that people feel that way about our music. We never thought of ourselves as a buzz band. We were never comfortable being written off with that term, because that implies something fleeting and ephemeral. We feel very differently about our music. We want to write music that's good, not buzzy. We're very ambitious people, and this is something we see as a career. It's not just a phase. We're very passionate about what we do. We want to last and we want to grow, and keep getting better, and I think that's the path that we're headed down.
I know you've gotten more involved in the songwriting process lately. I have. Sleigh Bells has become much more collaborative. When Derek and I first met, I was teaching full-time, and he'd been working on music for years, before he even knew me, so the more time we've spent together, and the more we've learned to trust each other, the more we've realized how well our ideas complement each other, and that we can make good music when we join forces. I think our collaborative partnership will only continue to blossom and grow.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed by "the Sleigh Bells sound"? We don't feel boxed in by the Sleigh Bells sound, because we use very liberating elements; by that I mean we don't have a live drummer, so we're not restricted to live drum sounds. Derek has libraries upon libraries of kicks, and claps, and snaps ― you name it. Vocally, I'm really open and interested in using my voice in ways that I haven't used it before. Reign of Terror was written dominantly on guitar, but Derek has also written songs like "Kids," which was much more influenced by hip-hop and beat production, so we don't feel boxed in. I mean, there are times when we'll be working on an idea, and we'll think to ourselves, "This isn't a Sleigh Bells song." It happened on "Crush," actually. We took a few days off from the studio and Derek came back with this beat, and I had a couple of vocal ideas, and we started working on the song, but it didn't seem right and we put it aside. Then, we went back to it. That was the case with "Rill Rill," as well, so we're constantly surprising ourselves with what Sleigh Bells are, and sounds like. I like the idea that that definition is constantly expanding. I never want to feel trapped by what we do. That's one of the reasons we've never worked with anybody else, you know? Derek does all the production work himself, and we've never brought in a co-producer. We constantly feel inspired by our own ideas, and that's a really good position to be in.
Whose idea was it to have you singing more on this album, rather than shouting and sing-rapping? That was the result of a couple of things. This record was more collaborative, and as a singer, I love melody ― it's why I love to sing. I love to explore range, and use my voice not only as a an instrument, but something that has a lot of note in it, if that makes any sense. So in a song like "Comeback Kid," there's a much more adventurous melody, and it requires more traditional R&B-style singing. I love that. Also, Reign of Terror was written on guitar, and Treats was written using drum machines and Beatstation. When you're writing a record like Treats, and you're starting with rhythm, so the vocals are ultimately going to sound more percussive ― shouting, more rhythmic. It's less about tone and more about using your voice as an instrument to be incorporated into a wall of sound. With Reign of Terror, because the songs were guitar-based, and Derek was writing chords, the possibilities for harmony and melody were seemingly endless, so there was much more space for more sophisticated vocal arrangements. Those reasons are dominantly why they sound so different. Also, a lot of the lyrics Derek wrote were coming from a much different place. He was dealing with a lot of pain, a lot of tragedy, and as a result, the songs are a bit more melancholy, and a lot less outgoing and forceful than they were on Treats. A lot of the vocal delivery on this album reflect that. The lyrics are a little more sombre and mournful, so they called for me using my voice in a different way.
What role did trust play in the making of this album? Derek went through a lot, and then wrote the lyrics ― what was it like being the conduit for those sentiments? Trust was crucial. I probably knew better than anybody in his life how he was feeling and what was going on. He was dealing with his emotions through his lyrics, and through these songs, and it was emotional for me, too, singing songs like "End of the Line" and "D.O.A." I had to get myself into a very specific headspace that was really focused and channeling a lot of pain and emotion. I certainly didn't go through what he went through, but as his friend, and as his bandmate, I certainly felt a lot of that and was able to empathize and feel a lot of it myself. But I also did a lot of session work in college ― that's how I paid my rent ― so when I started working with Derek, that was my favourite part about singing: stepping into another person's world and becoming almost a character, able to represent another voice. I love the idea of challenging myself to use my voice in a way that is not necessarily about something that comes from me. I don't want it to sound disingenuous, like it's not me, but there's an excitement that comes from somebody asking you to represent a different mood, and being able to do that.
Is Sleigh Bells in a place where you feel safer now, free from the "buzz" label and able to channel your influences more freely? It seems like there's more invested this time around. That's an interesting idea, the idea of feeling safe. We do feel safer, in the sense that we don't feel like we have as much to prove to people. I think the conversation has shifted away from us being a buzz band, or a Pitchfork darling, and now people see us more as a band with a legitimate fan-base. We have a second record now, so we're not just a one-trick pony. The pressure from the critical world is not nearly as intense as it was, but that being said, I take the pressure that we impose upon ourselves much more seriously than I've ever taken somebody else's criticism of us. It's not to say that it's not important to me, but I'm constantly criticizing myself as a singer, as a performer; Derek's doing the same as a songwriter. We're constantly feeling restless, and like we can't get too comfortable in our own skin, because if we do, our ideas will suffer. I never want to feel like I've done as good a job as I could have, because if I feel that way, I won't challenge myself to do better. I always want to challenge myself to excel. I think the same is true of songwriting. Once you get too comfortable doing something, it starts to sound formulaic and contrived, and not nearly as interesting as when you stumble upon an idea and you execute it not really knowing how it's going to turn out. I like the idea of feeling safe in that we don't second-guess ourselves to the point that it's debilitating, but never so safe that it becomes casual.
Explain the feeling of finishing this record. It was incredible. It was very cathartic; extremely so for Derek, but for me as well. It was something we had been working on for months on the road, so to hear everything from start to finish was really rewarding. But it also made me feel like we had so much more to do. I definitely didn't hear it and think, "Okay, I'm satisfied." I heard it and I thought, "We didn't have to stop recording ― we could do this, this, and this, right now." So I feel like we made a very good record, but I want very much to continue to the next phase of our development. We're already talking about the third record.
Have you begun to write or record things? Derek uses his phone recorder, and I use my voice recorder, and we're constantly singing and playing ideas [into them]. We have a few pieces of music going. I don't know if you saw the trailer for Reign of Terror, to announce the record, but there was an instrumental piece on that that we're working on. There are quite a few demoes and ideas that we just didn't get to for Reign of Terror, that we might use for the third record. It's definitely a work in progress.