Sleigh Bells | Substance Resonates

We asked JJ Brewis to catch up with NYC’s primo noise-pop duo and discovers their ice cool reputation peels back to reveal two down-to-earth people, who want to make music that continually grows and develops, and means something not only to them, but also to their fans.

“If the band is just a pair of sunglasses and a jacket, well then it's worthless,” says Derek Miller, co-founder and one half of Brooklyn noise-pop outfit Sleigh Bells. On the phone from his New York apartment, Miller is relaxing before flying out to Vancouver to launch the band’s North American tour. “There's gotta be something else there. With us, I believe that there is. I think our records have value. They mean something to me, and to our fans. They resonate.”

Miller is certainly not off base in saying so. In just six years, Sleigh Bells has seen immense success, with a streak of three well-received albums, including the group’s brand new Bitter Rivals—a celebratory send-up that both revisits elements of the group’s previous albums, but also makes room for a sharp turn in progression, as well as a dynamic cohesion within the band. “One of the best parts of finishing this [third] record is that you’re supposed to feel worn out and thin, but I felt like the opposite.”

Bitter Rivals surely is a godsend for both Miller and his partner-in-crime, vocalist Alexis Krauss. By now, everyone has been caught up to speed with this band that received major success in the form of their gritty 2010 debut Treats, and the battle within Miller that occurred shortly after. “It was a pretty frustrating time in his life because he was trying to enjoy the success of the band, but was really devastated by things going on in his personal life,” says Krauss. Much has been written of the resulting Reign of Terror, the dynamic sophomore effort, with material that stemmed from Miller grappling with his father’s passing, and the discovery his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Reign of Terror is a very dense, dark, and gloomy record, and I was not in the best place when I made it,” Miller says.

Regardless of the tone, Reign of Terror managed to garner the band even more recognition, propelling Sleigh Bells steadily on their unspecified path to domination. “[Terror] was definitely a record that people really used at times of loss, when they were grieving,” Krauss admits. “I had kids come up to me and say, 'You know this record really helped me through the loss of my mom, or my best friend.'” Sadness aside, Krauss notes that the connection established between artist and fan is monumental even in dark times. “I want people to make strong connections with our records, and I want our records to leave a mark in a way that’s meaningful.”

This time around, Sleigh Bells is setting the stage with a firm upper hand, which has the pair creating music from a lighter place, yet still managing to be just as reflective. “It sounds really boring but I'm just in a much better head space now, and I think [Bitter Rivals] reflects that,” Miller says. “Many demons, of course. Always. But I'm winning the war for now.” He admits that, now he’s had a chance to create from a place of optimism, he actually feels sorry for his old self. “Not for myself, now that I'm in a different head space, but I feel sorry for that guy that made it.”

Krauss notes that, sonically, Bitter Rivals is the product of a team of artists who have grown comfortable with each other, both personally and professionally. A more melody-based, stripped-down effort, this record sees vocal and guitar tracks pared down to singles or doubles, rather than a Wall of Sound-style of immense production. Both members of Sleigh Bells are equally responsible for this effort, in that Krauss was much more involved this time around. “It was great for us because we really learned to trust one another, and open up to one another in a way that we hadn't been comfortable to in the past,” she notes. “There were lots of awesome spontaneous moments that neither of us anticipated, and that's always great fuel when you're working because it helps keep things fresh.”

Krauss attributes the immediacy and streamlined nature of this effort to a natural progression of chemistry between Miller and herself. “Where Reign of Terror was very much a cathartic record, and was a way to work through that devastation, this record was created purely during a time of real positivity and productivity.”

After countless interviews and profiles talking about how Derek Miller would meet his future collaborator Alexis Krauss in a NYC restaurant, he also remains gracious and humbled that people are even interested in the band in the first place. “Yes, this is our third record but some people are just hearing us [for the first time], so I try to be respectful of that and just sleepwalk through interviews that are sort of introductory.” The tone in his voice is so down-to-earth that it’s hard not to note a jarring shift between the band cracking jokes with me on the phone, and the one who snarl behind their Ray-Bans in their press photos.

Certainly, Krauss and Miller are just as notorious for their stone-faced public image as much as they are for their distinct brand of hard-hitting guitar-driven rock. When I tell Derek how pleasantly surprised I was to shoot the shit and laugh with Krauss, and how moved I was by her kindness (“Did you get enough material? Here, let me give you my personal email if you wanna follow up…”) I have him laughing in what may have been his most comfortable moment throughout the interview. “Yeah, I mean, we’re certainly not assholes, that’s for sure,” he jokes. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with projecting. If there’s a disconnect between what we project and who we are in quote-unquote ‘real life’, well, that’s fine. It’s performance, you know? It is what it is.” He then slyly retorts, “Or maybe that’s what we want you to think.”

It’s doubtful. This band is all business on record and in their public image, but it’s also the band that cares about the real life moments just as much—backstage at the band’s Vancouver tour debut, I meet a fan Miller and Krauss personally invited, after he happened to get a piece of his nose bitten off at a Seattle show last year. Krauss examines his nose up close and genuinely seems to care—Oh dear, I wonder what kind of drugs the guy was on” she says with a sense of motherly attentiveness. She then introduces us to her bull terrier, Rizla, and both she and Miller genuinely seem excited when we tell them how we enjoyed their set.

But the group has just as much fury and ambition as they do down-to-earth humbleness. “We only put out music that we're incredibly proud of, but I want people to listen to our music, and I want them to feel a sense of abandon and a sense of excitement and energy, and I want them to follow up those things with coming to a show and essentially losing their shit,” says Krauss.” I'm less interested in the cerebral meditation that often occurs with indie music, where people really think about it and analyze and critique. While that's all well and good, I'm most excited about when I see people listening to our music in a way that encourages them to just feel really good. I hope people have fun with this record. I hope they don't think too much about it. I hope they, sort of, just…react.” 

Krauss continues, “There was humour involved with making this music. Derek and I didn't make it in a box, and we had a lot of fun when we made it. It felt really playful, and I hope people get those vibes when they listen to this record.”

When I mention to both Krauss and Miller that they’ve outlasted many of their contemporaries, they seem genuinely humbled and grateful they’ve gained such a fan base that they’re able to keep making the records they want to. After all, as Miller notes, “Many bands don’t even get to a third album, and we know that.”

“Making records is our world, it's what we dedicate ourselves to,” Krauss says. Miller agrees. “It's just the thing that I love to do the most. I've been a music obsessive my whole life, it's just what I love to do. When I record it's almost like I'm taking my temperature; they always tell me a lot about myself. At the end of it, you have this record that, in a lot of ways, is a mirror.”

Sleigh Bells wants to keep moving forward, but admit fans that love Bitter Rivals will have to be prepared to never get a repeat of it. Because, as Krauss notes, they have no intention of making the same record twice. “What I want is to be able to continue making records that not necessarily fill a void, but have a purpose. I want to make records that people haven’t had before, and when they come into existence they hold a special place in people's music history. I want our records to mean something to our fans, and I want them to associate them with a time or a place, or a positive memory or even a dark memory.” 

Krauss notes a desire to create records that fulfill the band’s creative passions and resonate with fans, rather than all the bullshit that comes along with the territory. “I want to make records that are not made to make critics happy or to appease people, not to make money or make the record people happy. I want to make records that are independent of all the noise that often exists in this business. And that speak for themselves, and reflect where Derek and I are at as people and as creators. I want to create records that take chances and that are risky, that don't always fulfill people's expectations because I don't always want to make music that was expected.”

 So, onward Sleigh Bells will head. At least, that’s the intention. “As long as we continue to surprise and inspire each other, she and I will keep going,” Miller says. “It would have been obnoxious for me to have said on the first or second record 'We're just warming up’, but I mean it when I tell you that we're just warming up. We're just getting a handle on what we can do together creatively. That's absolutely what keeps me going. That's what sustains me for sure.”

Catch Sleigh Bells on their North American tour, with Doldrums, through October and November. Their third album, Bitter Rivals, is out now.   

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