Sleigh Bells, the Brooklyn duo of former school teacher Alexis Krauss and former waiter/Poison The Well guitarist Derek Miller, have a rather apocalyptic presence, as we’ve previously noted. Hearing Treats for the first time, you might think this is somebody’s dying boombox, left stranded with a warped cassette on some sad loop. But the more time you spend with it, the more Krauss’s syrupy-sweet vocals blend with the abrasiveness that is Miller’s half-programmed, half-not compositions. It works so well, partly because there’s nothing else working like it.
This weekend, Sleigh Bells join labelmate/fan M.I.A., Rye Rye, Die Antwoord, and Theophilus London at the HARD Festival, which takes place Saturday, July 24 on Governor’s Island. We spoke with Krauss and Miller earlier this week as they were driving to Montreal.
You all have had a rather successful last six months–and the record is called Treats. Have you treated yourself to anything nice?
Derek: Mostly just touring and playing shows. As much work as it is, it’s really fun. I can’t tell if it’s vacation or work–it’s kind of both. I’d consider that a treat. Especially a headlining tour. Playing to your own crowds, there’s not a lot of work. Playing for other bands, it’s a little different, where you’re playing for blank faces.
Alexis: Not yet. We’ve been so busy, it’s the day-to-day routine. I haven’t necessarily felt the need to treat myself yet. But we have a break coming up at the end of August and there will be some treating going on.
But no Flavor Flav-style clock necklaces?
Derek: I’m trying to think. We buy some ridiculous shit. In Florida, we bought some gator hats and gator teeth. Our manager Will had a gator-tooth necklace, but he took it off and gave it away; it was bringing bad vibes. No jet airplanes yet. That’s next year.
I don’t know if you know this, but there’s an Internet idea circulating that Sleigh Bells’ Treats is great for exercise.
Alexis: Oh, and I feel like the Village Voice did something to propagate that idea!
But I have gone jogging to it!
Alexis: I feel like that’s a compliment. That gets me excited. The type of albums that I like to work out to get your pumped or that you want to dance to. I think that’s good–that the record charged people up and makes them feel like whatever they need to conquer, they can conquer.
Some of the songs have this anger that you want when you’re working out.
Alexis: Absolutely. When I go to the gym, I’m pissed. I hate being there in the first place [laughs].
So what do you work out to?
Alexis: I haven’t worked out in a while. Now I work out to Sleigh Bells–because of our live set. When we were in the studio, I made a playlist that had some Justice on it, some Beyonce. Annie. Club beat stuff.
When you were first getting together with Derek, were you apprehensive about bringing your vocals to his work?
Alexis: No, I have a lot of experience being in the studio, working as a session singer. That was my job basically all throughout college. I feel comfortable walking into a studio and working with people, developing ideas and seeing different styles. So when I started working with Derek–it was a challenge, sure, but I wasn’t apprehensive. I wanted to do a good job. It was more excitement and feeling really eager and determined.
You and Alexis met at the place you were waiting tables. [Derek was waiting on Alexis and her mother.] Did you think this was a rather risky move in taking stock in a customer and say, “Yep, let’s do this”?
Derek: I had nothing to lose, really. I was definitely the waiter with big ideas–and annoyed the shit out of my boss and coworkers [talking] about how I was going to do this band. And it’s funny, when I met Alexis, I went back and said, “Hey I met this really nice girl, and she sings.” And they said, “Well, there you go, you found her.” But obviously it worked out.
I feel like at some point, we all have this dream where we think we have an amazing connection with a waiter or waitress, forgetting that they’re working for tips.
Derek: I know. But Alexis waited tables as well and I think we’re rather friendly and like people.
Alexis: I have to give my mom the credit. I’m much more quiet and would’ve just sat there. It was a weird confluence of our personalities and it was a nice night.
What were your first impressions with Alexis when you heard her vocals?
Derek: I loved them immediately. I remember the first time–I remember her talking but I don’t remember her voice from the restaurant. I remember calling her but I didn’t get a hold of her, I got the answering machine. And I could hear how high-pitched her voice was. It was really high and I thought that was great. It was preppy and kind of sweet, kind of how it sounds on the record. She sent me a bunch of songs that she’d worked on and I was psyched from the start.
There’s a sweet innocence about it, but something devilish as well. It balances out the actual music that you write and perform.
Derek: That’s the most important part for me. It’s something I’ve always craved. For me, [the song] “Tell Em” is a good example–instrumentally, it’s one of the more heavier but in terms of the vocals, it has one of the more melodic, poppier vocals on the record. For me, I don’t know why, but that’s really satisfying.
Alexis: When Derek and I talk about laying down vocals, you have to think about what the music is bringing and where you need to get your head. When I’m in studio, I love going into whatever place I need to go, or whatever character I need to be to pursue the right performance. My headspace on “Infinity Guitars” was much different than on “Run the Heart” or “Rachel.” I think it’s really important to occupy every inch of that space and really get into it. You can be so nuanced and make sure every syllable is coming out how you want it. Derek’s writing a majority of the lyrics and I’m doing a lot of melody work and harmony work. We’re collaborating more.
Growing up, who were some of your vocal heroes?
Alexis: I know this sounds cliché, but my dad. My dad’s an incredible musician. He’s a guitar player and a writer and a vocalist. He can sing the shit out of any style of music. But he was my first teacher and I always looked up to him. I grew up listening to a lot of soul and r&b. It was really important to me at an early age to not get stuck in singing one style of music. I did theater as a kid, but I never wanted to have a Broadway voice or an American Idol-style voice, where it’s all about vocal gymnastics and showing off and shit. I was much more interested in learning how to sing different types of music and learning to sing them well. And that even became more relevant when I was doing session work, because it was basically about becoming different characters. People like Jackie Wilson–and I love girl groups like the Shangri-La’s and the Supremes–and singers like Etta James are incredible, but I never really idolized one person.
Could this have been just an instrumental project?
Derek: No, definitely not. It definitely needed vocals.
Constructing the beats, writing the songs–is it a solitary process for you?
Derek: Generally, yeah. I get pretty uptight if I think anyone can hear me when I’m working. That sounds precious. But a lot of times I don’t really know what I’m doing or I’m messing with some equipment that I don’t understand and it doesn’t sound very good. But then there’s one moment, where you latch on to that and build a song around it.
There’s always the risk of someone walking by and saying, “Dude that sucks” and you have to be all like, “Dude I was just messing around with something I found on the street!”
Derek: That’s exactly it. I remember my old roommates when I first moved to New York, I didn’t know as well. I know that they’d be in the kitchen listening to me play this boring-ass loop over and over–and in my head, I was very insecure about it.
Treats doesn’t sound like anything that’s popular at the moment. Do you think the timing helps something like this stand out? Or are other people just making boring things?
Derek: That’s a really good question. I don’t think there’s ever a shortage of good things happening. Timing is a lot of it. Luck also. I really have no idea, man. It’s hard to say.
People have been very concerned with your pal M.I.A.’s perceived authenticity recently. Have you seen that trickle down to the Sleigh Bells camp?
Derek: Not really. People always ask us about her. We love her and support her and think the record [///Y/] is awesome. A lot of people really like the record, but Pitchfork dislikes it, to put it lightly [laughs]. I don’t think it’s a very accurate gauge, but it casts a big shadow over it. We don’t sit around and talk about it. I think the record is rad and I think she’s too busy working on other stuff to worry about something like that. I’d like to think she isn’t very concerned. I think we’ve established ourselves on our own and I don’t think there’s really any piggybacking.
Regarding the song “A/B Machines”–I don’t know what an A machine or a B machine is.
Alexis: Neither do I [laughs]. I got to stick to what we’ve been saying–it’s more of a secret, one of those abstract things.