Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss on Her Girl Group Past and Their Relationship With M.I.A.
By now, the genesis of Sleigh Bells is already the stuff of indie rock legend, but in case you missed it, a short recap: Fourth-grade teacher Alexis Krauss was having dinner with her mother at Brazilian restaurant Miss Favela in Brooklyn. When their waiter, Derek Miller, mentioned he was looking for a female vocalist for a music project, Krauss’ mother volunteered her daughter. Sleigh Bells was formed. Eventually, Spike Jonze stumbled upon their Myspace page (because that’s what people like Spike Jonze do), and sent what he heard to his friend M.I.A. The rest is history. She signed them to her N.E.E.T. imprint, and since then, they’ve enjoyed the attention that being attached to one of music’s most talked-about figures brings. But Sleigh Bells is more than an M.I.A. beneficiary. As their critically-acclaimed debut album Treats proves, they’re propagators of zeitgeist-capturing sound. Here, Ms. Krauss talks about her days in a girl group, her high school sweetheart, and the truth behind her relationship with M.I.A.
Then there’s this almost animalistic creative chemistry between you and Derek. Where does this magic come from? When Derek and I are up there on the stage, all we need is the tracks blasting behind us through awesome speakers, and an audience that’s ready to dance and have fun. It brings both of us to a chaotic, insane headspace.
It’s really amazing, considering the two of you met randomly at a Brazilian restaurant. Absolutely. When I met Derek, I didn’t have any intention of returning to music. So our meeting was incredibly fateful. And random. But there’s something about the power of our connection. We do work well together. We haven’t known each other very long. But we share a commitment — an excitement — for the music we make. I think that’s important because often time bands stay together even when the excitement isn’t there. It ends up feeling forced. They’re faking it for the crowd.
You joined a pop girl group when you were sixteen. Do you look back and cringe? Cringe is a strong word. It was a huge learning experience. If I hadn’t been involved in the music business in that way, I wouldn’t know what I wanted at this point. It became very clear after that project that if I was ever going to be involved in music again it was going to be on completely different terms. And that I’d be working with somebody who shared my creative vision. Going into Sleigh Bells, Derek and I had experience in the business and we’ve seen what not to do and we’ve learned from mistakes. I would have been a lot more naïve going into all this stuff with Sleigh Bells had I not been in Ruby Blue.
Can you tell me what it was like being in that band? I was twelve, turning thirteen, when I joined the band. I was a kid. I was working. I was working as a child. It was amazing. I was incredibly excited. But then you grow up a bit and you start to feel incredibly disconnected from the music you’re being told to make. It’s not the same music that I was coming home and listening to. I felt like I was acting. I was playing a character in a teen band that had no connection to me. We were put together. How genuine can that be?
How hard did it become to keep playing that role? I remember some of my friends coming over my house and hanging out, and they’re, like, “Let’s listen to your album.” And me being, like, no. We’d just got back from some seeing some hardcore band. I was seeing shows all the time. Ruby Blue became kind of like a day job. And then I’d come home and want to do anything but what I’d been working on during the day.
What kind of guy did you date in high school and is it different then the kind of guy you date now? It’s actually the same guy. His name Tyler.
How is he reacting to your success? He’s actually sitting right next to me. He’s on the road with me, selling merch and stage managing. He’s been there for Ruby Blue and now this so he’s seen the changes.
Is he cool with you being seen as a sultry rocker? Absolutely. There could easily be a lot of jealousy and weirdness. But he’s handled everything tremendously well. For that, I have tremendous respect for him. I’m very different in real life than I am on stage. People are initially taken aback by that. But I try to explain, would you really want to hang out with me if I was that person 24/7? It would be a little overbearing. When I’m up there I’m occupying a head space that is much different than my daily head space. So he knows that.
When he saw you perform your first Sleigh Bells show, how did he react? I think he was a little surprised. It’s funny. I cite him as my inspiration as a performer because I grew up watching him play in hardcore bands and be this complete maniac, and then get off stage and be the nicest, most down-to-earth guy you’ve ever met. So it’s nothing radical or strange for him to see that switch in me.
You grew up in a small beach town on the Jersey Shore called Madesquan. Are you and Snooki BFFs? It’s funny, when you grow up in a certain place and you know it and you love it and you know the truth about it. That show—whatever. It’s a shame that the Jersey Shore now carries those associations around the world. But it’s funny to see the show because it’s true. When summer rolls around we get invaded by guidos.
If Derek hadn’t waited on you that day, what do you think you would be doing now? I’d still be in the classroom, teaching.
What’s your reaction to those who say your “sonic fingerprints” are all over M.I.A.’s new album? Well, “Meds and Feds” was produced by Derek. The riff is from the last song on our album. Obviously, that’s Sleigh Bells’ influence. It’s not like she’s taking our ideas or anything like that. She and Derek collaborated on that track. I think sonically Maya is going in a different direction. And I think that was the direction she was planning on going for awhile. Many of her tracks were in existence before we even met. So maybe that explains why she was into our sound to begin with. I think it’s easy to make those conclusions. They’re on her label. They work together. But I think the connection is blown out of proportion. She’s fucking great. She has her own sound. I think it’s more coincidence than anything else.
Had I not read that you were on M.I.A.’s label before I saw you perform I wouldn’t have necessarily linked you musically. Do you think it was a mistake for your label to have aligned you as closely as they have to M.I.A.? Our label hasn’t been the one putting that out there. It’s been other people saying things. There’s been a lot of misinformation. I’ve read things like Maya produced the Sleigh Bells record. But other than being really good friends and seeing each other socially and playing shows together, I wouldn’t say we’re aligning ourselves too closely. We have different aesthetics. We have different music. We have different goals.
So you’re aware of the misinformation that floats around the blogosphere? As amazing as the internet is—and obviously blogs have done a huge service too our band—that being said, because information is traveling so quickly, there’s so much misinformation. People don’t take the time to check their sources and fact-check. It’s easy to propagate rumors and lies. She’s a friend. We’re on her label along with Mom + Pop. That’s pretty much the relationship. She has her own shit going on, we have our own shit going on. And we meet up occasionally. Up to this date, Derek has played on one track on her album and we’ve played one show together. That’s our relationship. The friend aspect is huge. She’s great. We’re honored that she has take an interest in our music.
Yes, we’re signed to N.E.E.T. and they’re amazing. But Derek and I are a new band and unfortunately when you do align yourself very closely to somebody who has as much influence as Maya does, it’s the kind of thing where all your success is attributed to that person and all your failure is attributed to you. Maya didn’t do any production work on our record. And that was intentional. That’s not to say that we don’t love her. Her music is incredible. I don’t want to make it sound like there’s any tension there. But we’re a new band and we needed to make our first record as us with nobody else. That’s the way it should be.
Back when you were in Ruby Blue being a pop star meant Britney and Christina. Today, it also means Lady Gaga and Sleigh Bells. I think for a long time mainstream Top 40 pop was boring. I think a lot of it still is pretty vapid and uninteresting. I hope people continue to open their minds to something that has more going on than the traditional pop song.
You proudly call your music pop. Absolutely.
A lot of indie bands shy away from that label. Derek and I are not trying to make music that’s precious. Or that’s for a certain group of people, or in a certain scene, or from a certain time. I think we play pop in the true sense that it’s popular. You don’t need to listen to it and think about it. It’s not cerebral. It sounds best over loud speakers when you’re out with your friends, dancing and having fun. It’s a very social record. We’re not embarrassed by that.
Photo by Phil Knott.