By Noah Manskar
Sleigh Bells are certainly a restless band.
In 2012 they put out the strikingly dark “Reign of Terror,” a contrast to their debut “Treats,” and promoted it with a tour supported by Brooklyn-based black metal band Liturgy and acclaimed DJ Diplo. The followed up with another national headlining tour, including a stop in Columbus last November.
In October, just a year and a half after “Reign of Terror,” they released the more upbeat “Bitter Rivals,” proceeded to embark on a cross-country tour and will return Columbus on Saturday. As vocalist Alexis Krauss put it when I spoke with her over the phone last week while she and guitarist/producer Derek Miller were in Atlanta, the album “feels like a fight,” and from how active and motivated they are, it’s certain Sleigh Bells will go down swinging if they go down at all.
Alexis and I talked about the band’s restlessness and how it helps them put out albums so quickly, their fond memories in Columbus and boxing, their newfound love—not surprising, considering the sound “Bitter Rivals” achieves.
Noah Manskar: Where are y’all right now? You’re on tour, right?
Alexis Krauss: Yeah, I am currently in Atlanta, Ga., and—I guess we’re about midway through the tour, so it’s been really incredible so far. The shows have been a lot of fun, and we’re looking forward to keeping it going.
NM: What do you like best about touring, and what do you like least about it?
AK: I like best the fact that you wake up in a different city every day and get to meet new fans and experience new places. I feel incredibly grateful and appreciative that I get to do this for a living and that I get to see so many different parts of the country and of the world. What I like least about touring is probably being on a bus with nine guys and dealing with their lack of hygiene and all that comes with touring with nine boys. But that being said, we all love each other, we’re a really close knit touring family. But stepping on dirty socks and dental floss is never fun.
NM: So y’all are gonna be in Columbus on Nov. 9, and you were there a year ago, almost exact to the date. What do you think of Columbus as a city? Are you excited to come back?
AK:Yeah, no, absolutely. We’ve had a lot of great shows in Columbus, and we play there quite a bit. I remember the show at the BoMA in Columbus was probably one of the craziest shows we’ve ever played. It was a Halloween show, and it got insanely raucous. So yeah, lots of great memories in Columbus, and we’re excited to be playing again. You know, a lot of people kinda give us shit for putting out records so close to one another. It almost seems like they want us to kind of just disappear for a while and take a break. But for us the fact that we’re going back to a lot of the cities that we were in last year is really exciting. We have new music and we wanna share it with our fans, and we never get bored of visiting places like Columbus, because it’s incredibly rewarding to return to these places and see familiar faces and get to re-engage with a fan. So it brings us a lot of pleasure.
NM: You mentioned that you get a lot of shit for putting albums out pretty fast compared to a lot of other artists. What is your process like that makes that happen?
AK: Honestly we finished recording “Reign of Terror” in 2012, and we left the studio on an incredible high note, because the last song we recorded was “Comeback Kid,” and Derek and I both felt really re-energized. He had just come out of a really dark period in which he was dealing with the loss of his father and his mom being very sick, but by the time we recorded “Comeback Kid,” things were really looking up and we were just feeling great about our personal working relationship with one another, and we never really stopped writing. And so every time we would finish a tour, we would get into the studio with our engineer Shane Stoneback and we’d work for maybe two days, sometimes we’d work for a week, and we started having these fully formed songs that we were super proud of. And once we finished touring “Reign of Terror” in March, we went into the studio full time, and we would work for as long as we felt energized and productive, and then we’d go home and take breaks. So the recording schedule for us was always really enjoyable. Nobody was forcing us to do it, we never felt like we were spreading ourselves too thin, we never felt like we were lacking ideas. And so after a few months we had 10 songs that we felt were really strong. We recorded about 15, but in the end we felt that those 10 were the ones that really deserved to make the record. And instead of sitting on it and instead of engaging a really long press lead, we just decided to put it out. ‘Cause if I was a fan of our band, I would just kinda wanna hear the new material and then go to a show. There can be a lot of bureaucracy in the music business and a lot of people telling you what you should do. We tend to ignore all that and do things ourselves and put out music when we wanna put it out, and we control our artwork and we’re very involved in the routing of our tours. And so it comes from a real restlessness and a real desire to keep producing records, and so that’s kinda why we do what we do.
NM: You talked a little bit about “Reign of Terror” and the dark tone it took in your work, with Derek and what he was going through. This record is a lot lighter than “Reign of Terror” and even “Treats.” Where did that come from?
AK: I don’t want to sound cliche, but this record is really a reflection of where we were as people in terms of just feeling really healthy and strong and energized and happy. We had a lot of silly moments in the studio, which i think we captured on this record. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously on this record. WE did things we enjoyed. We took a lot of risks. We looked at each other and questioned if this music was sleigh bells music, but ultimately we decided that we weren’t going to be inhibited by people’s expectations or by what we had sounded like in the past. Ultimately we wanted to make a record that we’d never made before and we wanted it to sound fresh and innovative and new. But ultimately it was just the music that was coming out of us. This was a much more collaborative record, and so I think a lot of it is much more strongly influenced by pop and R&B, because those are really my biggest influences. And from a guitar point of view, it’s much sort of scrappier and leaner and a lot less dense And the production just feels really upbeat. It still has an abrasiveness to it, but it’s definitely a lot less heavy. But at the same time, I still feel like it’s sort of our toughest record to date. We didn’t really have a vision for it; it was just about making the songs that were coming out of us at that time.
NM: What do you mean when you say it was the toughest record?
AK: To me, this record sort of feels like a fight. It feels really kind of tough and deliberate. I don’t know, it just sounds really kind of badass to me. When I say it feels like a fight, it just feels like it goes in full force, but ultimately ends in victory. It doesn’t end in sort of melancholy and despair. It has a lot of go, a lot of pep. It’s abrasive, but victorious.
NM: Speaking of it sounding like a fight—which I totally got, I listened to the record a lot—I also read that you and Derek took up boxing recently while you were producing this record.
AK: We did, yeah.
NM: So how did that happen? How did that come about, and how did it influence this record in sounding like a fight?
AK: I don’t wanna get too literal about it. Boxing has influenced this record in terms of infusing us with a lot of energy and a lot of positivity. It was something we got into. We were doing it together—we’d start our day off at the gym and then go into the studio, which was just a really healthy, productive way to start the day. Obviously we used the boxing glove for the record artwork, but I don’t think it had any more of an influence beyond that. I think it’s more of just a coincidence. I think if we were boxing when we were making “Treats,” it would’ve made just as much sense, you know? Our music always has a bit of a pugnacious quality about it.
NM: So you said this was more of a collaborative record than in the past.
NM: In what sense was it collaborative? Where did you and Derek come together on this one more than you had in the past?
AK: We’re still a relatively new band, and I think because we met as complete strangers and didn’t have any prior working relationship with one another, it took us some time to learn to trust one another creatively, and it took some time for Derek to be able to release some control around the songwriting process and to entrust me with the writing. I think it’s just a matter of time before you start opening up and feeling comfortable sharing ideas in a collaborative way, and so that was what happened for “Bitter Rivals.” He would work on a track and then we would sit down and talk about lyrics, and I would go home and I would demo the song on my laptop using GarageBand and I would fully arrange all the vocals, and 9 out of 10 times I would come into the studio with essentially a completed demo, and he would love it, and we would just record it properly from there. We kinda found a groove and found a formula that worked for us, and I think for this record it proved successful.
NM: You talked a little bit about the artwork and the boxing gloves for “Bitter Rivals,” and with “Reign of Terror” you used a lot of patriotic kind of symbolism with the Purple Heart and the flag and the canteen and stuff like that. Some of that stuff I noticed has carried through in the content of “Bitter Rivals,” too, like on “You Don’t Get Me Twice” there’s the lyric, “It’s a terrifying thing, the American dream.” I’m just wondering, where does that kind of comment on American life, I guess—what are you trying to say with that, and where does that come from for you all?
AK: It’s kind of two different perspectives. For “Reign of Terror,” a lot of that—well, not a lot of it, all of it—was actual personal—the Purple Heart was Derek’s grandfather’s, the canteen was his grandfather’s. And for him that was more of a document of his father’s history and his family history and sort of a reflection of a lot of the artifacts that he had gone back and rediscovered after his father’s death. So that was much more a personal reflection on his family’s history and whatnot. And for Bitter Rivals, that line in “You Don’t Get Me Twice” is more of a commentary on where we are currently as a country, and Derek and I are very interested in how society’s changing and what people are prioritizing, and how it can be a bit disconcerting thinking about what people consider to be measures of success now, and the obsession with materialism and technology, and how that’s kind of causing people to seek out things in life that aren’t the most meaningful and important. We don’t necessarily consider ourselves a political band, but that particular line is definitely a commentary on, honestly, how terrifying it is, what a lot of people want in this life. We’re not judging, we’re just reflecting.
Sleigh Bells are performing at Newport Music Hall on Saturday, Nov. 9. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22.00 in advance and $25 on the day of the show.
Listen to full interview with Alexis Krauss at owutranscript.com.