Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss talks origins and M.I.A.

Categories: Interview
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Photo by James Ryang
For a band that hasn't officially released any music, Sleigh Bells sure are getting a lot of attention. Based on the clattering, fuzzed-out demos that started circulating last fall and the over-sized star quality of vocalist Alexis Krauss, it also isn't hard to see what all the fuss is about. Whether shouting maniacally over scrappy, homemade beats or cooing sweetly to a Funkadelic sample, Krauss -- a former schoolteacher and one-time member of a teenpop girl group -- brings an attitude and charisma that put ex-Poison the Well guitarist Derek Miller's angular crunch well over the top. Even at a time when lo-fi production and dance floor infatuations are de rigueur, the Brooklyn duo's rhythmic assault sounds fresh and ambitious.

The band, which had their breakthrough at last year's CMJ Festival, are about to release their debut full-length with support from M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. label and are currently touring with Yeasayer. Ahead of tonight's show at First Avenue, Gimme Noise spoke with Krauss over the phone to learn more about Sleigh Bells' unlikely origins, their relationship with Maya Arulpragasam, and what to expect from Treats, which is due to drop May 11.

Gimme Noise: Based on your backgrounds, you and Derek would seem to make an unlikely pairing. What brought the two of you together in Sleigh Bells?

Alexis Krauss: It was pretty random. The summer of my first year teaching, I was in Brooklyn with my mom. Derek was actually our waiter. He said he was from Florida, which is where my mom is from, so they got to talking about what brought him to Brooklyn and he said he was working on music and looking for a female singer. My mom told him that I'm a singer so then we started talking. He gave me his email probably figuring I'd never get in touch with him, but I actually did, and we started working together and recording in my apartment. That January I decided I wouldn't return to my teaching position, so by summer of '09 we were working and practicing together [regularly]. It all came together really quickly.

Back before you were a teacher, you were in a teen group called RubyBlue. What was that experience like?

I was really young. I was the bass player and lead singer. The other girls were extremely talented and worked really hard, but the whole thing was just a production deal. A lot of the image was conceptualized by producers; it was during the whole Britney and Christina craze, so they tried to turn us into Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. By that point I was 16 and in high school and it was of no interest to me anymore. It was real superficial, not the type of music I wanted to work on; it actually left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth and I swore I would never work on [a project like that] again.

Do you think that experience had much of an influence on your performance style?

Not really. The best thing is that after I left I did a lot of session work, which is basically how I paid my way through college. I demoed for all kinds of different artists, doing vocal tracks and stuff like that. I got to work with an incredibly diverse group of people and types of styles which helped me hone my skills. [With Sleigh Bells] I looked at it as a chance to assume a new character and a new vocal challenge. In terms of performance style, there's a big difference between being 15 and 24; I'm so much more comfortable with myself and what I want to be now. So aside from being on a stage there really aren't a lot of similarities.

M.I.A. has thrown her support behind you and Derek, including with the release of the new album. What's the nature of her involvement with the band?

She reached out to us [last] September, which was incredibly early on and before anyone else did. To have her support and her backing was pretty uplifting and inspiring. She approached us and said, "I like what you're doing, I get it, and I want you to record for me." We were excited, but we wanted to be careful, so we signed with Mom + Pop. Our partnership with N.E.E.T. is more aesthetic for the time being -- Maya didn't do anything on or produce the record. We still gotta prove ourselves on our own and it can be hard to distinguish yourself, so that's why we decided to keep it separate.

The few songs Sleigh Bells have released so far were recorded as demos. Should people expect the album to sound much different from those tracks when it comes out next month?

The album versions aren't that much different. The biggest difference is that Derek has so many more sounds and tools available, like changing a kick here or a vocal there. I don't want to say we changed the sound, but the vocals tend to be more melodic and harmony-involved, there's more juxtaposition between the vocal and the loud, discordant guitar and the heavy rhythm process. A good way of thinking about it is looking at the difference between, like,"Ring, Ring," "A/B Machines," and "Infinity Guitars." We pulled different elements out from each one of those songs and expanded on those individual parts. I think there's a nice range on [the album] that includes all the band's different sounds.


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