The problem with Sleigh Bells is timing. The noise-pop duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller arrived at a time when difficult-to-describe bands were written off as quirky novelties rather than championed as innovators.
Of course, anyone who’s still subscribing to that narrative clearly hasn’t been paying attention. As the first notes of the band’s recently released new album Jessica Rabbit make abundantly clear, four albums into their career, Sleigh Bells have created their most expansive and ambitious collection to date.
No one has ever combined the gritty pep of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” with the locomotive rage of metal and snapping drum machines of trap-rap like Sleigh Bells. And as their songs have increased in complexity over time, initially enthused reviewers have largely begun taking the group for granted, a fate that has sadly befallen a pattern of brilliant artists: Liz Phair, M.I.A., Rilo Kiley. (Guess the pattern.)
While they once crafted their songs entirely around one heavily distorted riff and a few repeated lyrics, the band’s songwriting has evolved on Jessica Rabbit toward multipartite epics (“Rule Number One,” “Unlimited Dark Paths”) interspersed with the occasional minute-long vignette (“Loyal For,” “Torn Clean”) or Pat Benatar-sized pop anthem (“I Can Only Stare,” “I Just Can’t Stand You Anymore”).
In its most unpredictable moments, the album’s closest referents are K-pop at its most experimental (“Crucible”) or someone penning toplines over the glitchy death metal of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete (“As If”).
Initial reviews have been marked by frustration, which is understandable on first listen and unfair by the fifth; per usual Sleigh Bells have made one of the most exciting and bracing records of the year.
With all this in mind, the Observer recently spoke to Alexis Krauss at Brooklyn’s Sweetleaf café about how the new album is worth fighting against your own preconceptions to enjoy—even for her.
Sleigh Bells projects toughness in these interesting ways, like the way you guys use images of violence. I feel like your music is intended to evoke violence without actually being about it.
That can be tricky, right? If you make a video with a woman jumping on a bed holding a rifle, then people might assume that you’re pro-NRA, which couldn’t be further from the truth. So it’s a fine line. I think Derek has more of a penchant for violent imagery, and initially I felt uncomfortable with that, because I wasn’t trying to incite any violence; if anything, I was trying to protest it in its absurdity.
I grew up going to hardcore shows, and I often felt like as a woman who wasn’t the most extroverted, I didn’t feel like I had a space to engage with that culture. I’m not as uninhibited as I want to be; I think that’s why I love performing so much. It gives me that space to step outside my insecurities and my least favorite parts of myself.
That’s why Bikini Kill was so successful, because ultimately they created a space where women could get that out but also feel safe. I’m more psyched when I see a 15-year-old girl totally going for it at one of our shows, but can still feel comfortable telling her parents she’s going to a Sleigh Bells show, and they’re like, “O.K., that’s cool.” [Laughs] I think we’re always towing the line between raucous, extreme music and visuals, but I want there to be a moral compass there. I’m interested in creating a positive space.
You guys do radiate positivity, and at the same time it’s some of the most jagged music I’ve heard in years.
Well, that’s what our world feels like to me. Jessica Rabbit is an album of extremes. Without getting too deep into it being part of the zeitgeist, because that’s not how we make music, it does kind of seep in.
Have you had any fans write to you with the wrong message? “Yeah, guns!”
Thankfully, no. I mean, I’m sure that’s existed. I’m sure people have watched the video for “Infinity Guitars” and gone, “Yo, I want to light shit on fire or beat someone up with a baseball bat.” I’m sure. That’s always the risk, right? You put something out and you hope that consumers can handle it responsibly. That’s an interesting conversation my mom and I had to have: “Why do you want to portray yourself as…this?”
“Mom, it’s not me. Like, it’s me but it’s not me.”
I was listening to an interview with Terry Gross where Bruce Springsteen was talking about his almost magnanimous stature like, “I wish I could be that guy. I’m not that guy all the time.” When I hear that, I don’t feel betrayed, I’m like, “Oh, thank god.” I’m sure some people will find it disingenuous.
How did the abrupt tempo switching on “It’s Just Us Now” come to pass?
That tempo change really threw me. I had this initial violent reaction against it. And then when I started writing to it, I started to love the emotional dynamic: the idea of taking that verse and having it rip apart in the chorus. It’s sort of an affront to everything you want a pop song to be. We’ve always been a polarizing band and I would rather encourage that than any type of complacency: “Oh…it’s pleasant.” I want you to listen to it and feel something.
Is that the first time that Derek’s given you something where you…
Didn’t like it? No, I frequently find myself in uncomfortable positions when writing for Sleigh Bells. And I like that because it pushes me out of my comfort zone, and hopefully into one where I’m doing something interesting, when I feel insecure and nervous about it. Whenever I send Derek a demo that I’m really anxious about, it’s generally the ones he ends up liking, and those are generally the ones that end up being our most successful songs.
I love when everything’s on the edge of being totally unhinged. Hopefully Jessica Rabbit makes you feel just uncomfortable enough to enjoy and not totally turn on it. My relationship with it is so manic; every day I hear songs on it differently. I’ll love something to death one day, and then despise it.
That’s cool, though, that it remains this constant living thing you can’t settle on.
I guess that’s true. I feel that to a degree with some of our other records, too, like I fall in and out of love with certain songs. I think Bitter Rivals is an album like that for me: I think it has a lot of really bright spots, and then it has other moments where I’m like, “…almost.” But I can hear the creative evolution on it, which I really like.
Is there a narrative to Jessica Rabbit? I hear bits of a breakup thread throughout.
There are definitely themes of loss, heartbreak and vulnerability. It’s interesting as friends because Derek sends lyrics that he would never talk to me about, so I get a glimpse into his, like, inner workings, and I don’t ask questions. I love the moment when I get to step into those lyrics and become that person, to try and craft a melody and idea that embodies that pain or that elation or whatever it is.
For me it’s a lot easier to write to someone else’s lyrics because there’s that degree of detachment that makes it less personal. And then for him, the fact that he has my voice singing those lyrics makes it O.K.
What you’re describing reminds me of actors in a stage musical having to interpret a script and a book with feeling.
Well, cool! I like that.
If you told me there was a storyline or that it was a rock opera, it would make sense. When I first heard “Rule Number One” I thought, this must be Sleigh Bells’ “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And then it was like, oh… the whole album’s like that.
Both of us love Queen. I would never compare us to Queen, but you read about Freddie Mercury and his creative process and that shit was just…so uncompromising. And it blows my mind that’s as popular as it is. Some of it is just the weirdest music.
Sometimes people just love the most ambitious…like the Who’s Tommy is the most popular thing they ever did. But it’s a fine line between that and something being too much work for people.
I mean…there are a zillion ideas in “Under Pressure.” And every one is good. That was the ambition for Jessica Rabbit, not just putting ideas in songs for the sake of having ideas, but because they felt good. And I think “Rule Number One” accomplishes that. I think the end of that song feels really good, and it does seem like it comes from left field, but it’s not superfluous.
Did you know you were going to be including these interlude tracks on the album?
If there was ever an initial concept behind the album, it was to be longer, more meandering, and to include more cinematic interludes, moments that weren’t fully executed songs or fully arranged ideas, like “I Know Not to Count on You” that are just these pauses or palate cleansers.
We had a lot more of them, but some didn’t make it onto the album because we fell in love and wanted to flesh them out beyond little one- or two-minute songs, so we’re holding off on them for album five. And some ultimately didn’t stand on their own. It’s easy to fall in the trap of loving something because it’s different from anything else you’ve ever made, but ultimately it’s not actually good. [Laughs]
How did you decide that Jessica Rabbit the character embodied this record?
Well, it’s less about her as a character than the relationship Derek had with her as a child: being infatuated with her and not really recognizing that she was fantastical and made up. Having this intense longing and desire for something that was totally unattainable. That just became an interesting symbol for the ambitions and process of this album, being in pursuit of something to the point of delusional, and still charging forward, immune to all the potential fallout and disappointment.
Is it more difficult to do the new songs onstage with all the sudden shifts and complicated structures?
It’s actually easier! The way I’m using my voice on Jessica Rabbit is mostly how I like to: I’m belting and singing in a chest voice. It’s easier for me to keep up the energy. With Treats, I struggled with how to use my voice onstage. “Tell ‘Em” is this huge bombastic song, but the vocal is like [sings] “All the kids, all the kids these days…”
Trying to maintain this whispered, soft vocal, it just didn’t work. You have this like, storm of sound, but the vocal just stands still and it was hard for me to keep my pitch. But “Rule Number One,” I can just get it out there.
I know you guys recorded music with Beyoncé years ago that didn’t see the light of day. But Lemonade has collaborations with a bunch of indie-identified artists who emerged around the same time as Sleigh Bells, and it sucks that didn’t end up being a home for it either.
Man, I wish I knew. We never met her; it was Wes, Diplo, who played it for her. It was “Kids” [from Treats] that she wanted to sample, but I think it just went in the Beyoncé vault, with supposedly hundreds of songs from each album. It makes me happy to know that somewhere in there is a Beyoncé vocal with us on it.