Sleigh Bells: Rule number one
With their fourth head-spinning record 'Jessica Rabbit', Brooklyn noise-pop duo Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller are more in control than ever.
Published: 10:12 am, November 14, 2016
“It’s been a long time coming for us,” begins Alexis Krauss, frontwoman of Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells. “Because we were sort of used to putting a record out every year, we decided to take our time with this album and not to rush anything out,” she continues. Though it’s left fans eagerly waiting nearly three years for new music, the end result is undoubtedly one of their best albums - up there with 2010’s ‘Treats’.
“Giving ourselves more time to be a little tougher on the music ended up being really advantageous,” Alexis continues. “You have to live with a song in order to realise if you really love it, because once that initial excitement about recording it dies down, that’s when the true feelings come out,” she considers, in the middle of a hectic week that’s seen them film the video for their unexpected ballad moment ‘I Can Only Stare’. “We shot down in New Jersey, in my hometown and then we had a shoot here in Brooklyn. I don’t want to give away too much but it was an excellent two days,” she says.
“I think the songs that made it onto ‘Jessica Rabbit’ are actually the best songs that we worked on… and we worked on a lot. We recorded more music than we ever have,” Alexis continues. “And we were pretty cruel to a lot of the songs; some of the ones that didn’t make it were favourites of mine at one point.” The chanty, shouty lyrics and guitar-heavy onslaughts of debut album ‘Treats’ are long gone on ‘Jessica Rabbit’. Instead, the duo opt for emotional urgency – Alexis’ powerhouse vocal sits firmly at the front now, showcasing a range that could challenge many of her female counterparts; whilst sinister synths and drum machines are favoured over guitars.
‘Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold’ opens with misleadingly reserved piano keys - but it’s not long before Alexis’ emotional vocal takes hold, every word audible to sing at the top of our lungs. ‘I Can’t Stand You Anymore’ sounds like a completely different band. Alexis still manages to make ‘Crucible’ sound like a pop song, despite screeching and scratching instruments while ‘Loyal For’ and the almost acoustic silence of ‘I Know Not To Count On You’ sound like what Bat For Lashes might come up with if she worked with Derek.
The handclap synths give way to a full force ballad chorus on the head-spinning ‘I Can Only Stare’. Bone-shattering shotguns of noise reign supreme throughout punk-rave anthem ‘Unlimited Dark Paths’ and ‘Rule Number One’, built on ticking synths and relentless stop-start guitar riffs, verges on heavy rock territory before simmering back down to pop singalong potential through the chorus. On penultimate track ‘Hyper Dark’, Derek’s stalking guitars haunt while Alexis delivers an eerily minimal vocal over ticking instrumentals and spooky synth crashes.
The cheerleader-esque lyrics of ‘Treats’ have been replaced with a fuller, conventional pop/R&B vocal style on ‘Jessica Rabbit’. “In the past, Derek was doing a lot more of the songwriting. Now that’s starting to really change,” Alexis explains, adding that her album of the year is Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ (“It’s everything I love about music right now”). “When I write melodies for my voice, and the way I like to arrange vocals, that’s how I write. I just don’t write in chanty, shouty ways… Derek and I just have very different writing styles.” Bringing them together, the end result is a more “belted” traditional-sounding pop/R&B vocal. “But obviously taking that and definitely fucking with it to the point where, hopefully, it sounds like something other people aren’t doing.”
Recorded between tours over several years across varying studios, ‘Jessica Rabbit’ came together in San Francisco, as well as in Derek’s apartment, Alexis’ apartment and they also recorded at The Creamery Studio in Brooklyn. “We started working on ‘Jessica Rabbit’ right around the time we finished touring for ‘Bitter Rivals’. We’d actually been recording music before we wrapped… some sessions were more formal than the others, but we were just all over the place,” Alexis considers, adding that some tracks were mixed with Andrew Dawson, who has worked with Kanye West and Jay-Z, in LA. As a result, Alexis describes the finished product as “pretty manic. There are definitely themes of turbulence and delusion; that being said I think it’s very hopeful.”
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With Alexis’ vocal leading the instruments - rather than the other way around as on earlier albums - Alexis likens her voice to “laser beams… I think the intensity is definitely amped up on this album. The vocal delivery, especially, is much more in your face; the way it’s mixed is different than our past records. In the past a lot of the vocals were more textural, but now they’re much more emotional.” A sense of euphoria runs through some of the tracks, though there’s an unmistakable sense of “fierceness and melancholy,” she says. “I think that was a conscious creative decision, especially how I was using my voice and how Derek was recording my vocals. They’re less muddied and less treated – kind of like laser beams,” she laughs.
It all adds up to something that sounds like nothing else Sleigh Bells have done - or any other artist for that matter. “It’s not like we’re spinning our wheels trying to do something completely unique,” Alexis ponders. “On this album there was a desire to pull from all of our influences and to not feel the pressure to write songs that would fit the ‘Sleigh Bells formula’… whatever the hell that is!” she deadpans. As for their influences, Alexis says: “Derek and I both love great pop music and as a vocalist I’m very influenced by pop icons from Cyndi Lauper to The Marvelettes to Beyoncé. So it’s only natural that those influences would seep into our creative process.
“There was definitely more of a focus on writing strong arrangements and crafting better melodies, she continues. Most recently, though, Alexis has been listening to “obscure” soul music. “I’ve always loved that,” she says of Sam Cooke, Jimmy Ruffin and Jackie Wilson. “I’m really attracted to singers that are able to sing in a way that’s powerful and emotional, but still incorporate melodies that are really joyful. I love that contrast between really melancholic music and a triumphant vocal. Loretta Lynn, also, I find the way she uses her voice phenomenal, there’s so much heartbreak in it but yet there’s a sweetness and a vulnerability.”
As well as a change of sound, Sleigh Bells are unleashing ‘Jessica Rabbit’ on their own terms. “It took some time to figure out the best way to release the music. And, ultimately, we decided to self-release and start our own label, Torn Clean, while working with some great partners in the UK like Lucky Number.” The choice to leave Mom + Pop, which they released all three records on and “had a great relationship with – especially founder Michael Goldstone,” came from a desire for greater creative control and autonomy.
“Our visions just didn’t align, in as far as what we were looking to release, and that was fine,” Alexis confesses. “I think it’s really important to try out new things but if they don’t work then you can’t be afraid to part ways. We were just looking for something a little different,” Alexis recalls. “We ultimately ended up putting it out ourselves because there were a lot of things that we want to do on our own terms – everything from the artwork to what songs we wanted to release and how we wanted to release them. It just made more sense to do it ourselves… It’s been great so far being our own bosses…”
Sleigh Bells’ album ‘Jessica Rabbit’ is out now.