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Sleigh Bells: Rabbit Tricks

Published in Relix Magazine, April 3, 2017 The music of Sleigh Bells has been called a lot of things—abrasive, loud, brash, intense, metallic, even schizophrenic—but idyllic is certainly not one of them. The duo sounds like the clatter of the big city, the heat and pressure of millions of bodies crammed into a too-small space. So when singer Alexis Krauss talks about her upcoming move to a quiet, bucolic Upstate New York community with her fiancé, mother and dog, the shift feels unnatural. But music doesn’t make the musician, of course.

“I live a very simple, anonymous life,” she says. “When I’m off tour, I really just want to be hiking or hanging with my dog, at home reading a book or watching Netflix. I could probably be a lot more involved in the music, nightlife and fashion of Brooklyn, but now I’m escaping all the chaos of living in the city.”

She’s using the weekend to box up 13 years of memories in Brooklyn, nine of which have been spent as half of one of indie rock’s most unabashedly loud duos. For much of that time, Krauss has been on tour, playing tiny clubs and massive festival stages. But, at least symbolically, the move is coming at a perfect time—in many ways, Alexis Krauss is at a crossroads.

In November 2016, she and her Sleigh Bells partner, the band’s guitarist and musical mad scientist Derek Miller, released their fourth album, Jessica Rabbit. While many experimental indie acts inch closer to a sound that becomes increasingly palatable to the masses with successive albums, Jessica Rabbit saw Sleigh Bells double down on their speaker-busting noise-pop. Songs change direction like a villain in a car chase. Beats chug like machine-gun fi e before giving way to delicate piano. The album is radio-pop catchy, but aggressively weird. And, after three years and countless iterations, it was finally done.

Jessica Rabbit is a strange new beginning for Sleigh Bells, who burst out of the Brooklyn hipster underground almost seven years ago and have occupied a comfortable place between indie and electronica on the live music circuit ever since. By the spring of 2013, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller hadn’t taken a break in three full years. And they weren’t about to start relaxing. The duo had dropped three albums in rapid succession, beginning with 2010’s Treats, then Reign of Terror less than two years later, and Bitter Rivals the following fall. Each album riffed on what had quickly become Sleigh Bells’ trademark sound: thunderous, overblown percussion; crushing metal-guitar riffs; and Krauss’ devilish, cheerleader chanting, all tied together into fever dream blasts of noisy, aggressive pop. In three years, Sleigh Bells had grown from underground obsession to hipster gateway drug for the mainstream.

Sleigh Bells’ origin story is the stuff of indie-rock legend. In 2008, Miller was waiting tables at a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn where Krauss and her mother happened to be eating. He’d left his metal-core band Poison the Well four years earlier, following a few scene-dominating albums in the early 2000s, and was hovering over an innovative new project. Krauss’ mother broke the ice, and soon Miller was playing Krauss his Treats demos in a city park. He was looking for the perfect voice, and Krauss—who was working as a schoolteacher at the time— turned out to be the perfect fit, despite her unusual roots. As a teenager, she’d been a member of RubyBlue, a teen-pop girl group manufactured, *NSYNCstyle, to churn out hits.

“RubyBlue burnt me out on the music industry at the age of 16,” Krauss reflect . “I didn’t have the desire to make music again, unless I was doing it on my own terms with a band I loved and respected.”

Miller fit that criteria, and the two began recording Treats in his apartment. By 2009, Sleigh Bells were generating buzz in New York and posting demos on Myspace. A year later, they were the least expected but most beloved indie breakthrough of the year.

Prior to Jessica Rabbit, Krauss and Miller began laying down new demos with their longtime engineer Shane Stoneback during a brief reprieve from the road in 2013. They’d recently parted ways with Mom + Pop, the indie label that had been behind them since their earliest years. Talks were swirling about Sleigh Bells joining the roster at Loma Vista Recordings, home of Andrew Bird, Local Natives and Spoon, among others. For a brief moment, it seemed like album four would slip out seamlessly at the same pace as two and three had followed one.

“It’s interesting—if we had turned in an album to Loma Vista, and they said they loved it and wanted to put it out, we would have released a very different album, way, way sooner,” Krauss says now. “And that would’ve been a mistake.”

Though exciting songs were beginning to peek through, Krauss recalls that Loma Vista founder Tom Whalley encouraged them to dig deeper and explore new methods of writing. It was tough love, but Krauss and Miller were receptive—maybe even thankful for the challenge. While Bitter Rivals explored more lushly layered sounds than the one-two punch of Sleigh Bells’ earlier records, critics had less enthusiastically received it. More than that, though, the very process of creating a Sleigh Bells song was evolving.

With each subsequent album, Krauss added more to the mix. On Treats, she stepped into Miller’s massive songs and added vocals he’d already sketched out. By 2013, that wasn’t nearly enough.

“Both of us record initial demos at home and send them to each other, then we have a conversation by texting. It’s easier to let someone down that way,” she admits. “But I can always tell how he’s feeling about [something I wrote]. ‘Really strong ideas. There’s definitely a lot to work with’ means ‘Try again.’ But if he sends me, ‘Holy shit, I can’t wait to work on this,’ I know there’s something there.”

Despite their technological— and emotional—safeguard, Sleigh Bells were becoming a true writing partnership. And they pushed each other to recognize that Loma Vista simply wasn’t a fit for their loud, fiery project.

“We parted ways with Loma Vista because our creative visions weren’t aligning, and Derek and I felt like we were going back to basics,” says Krauss. “We started writing and recording in his apartment again, working on songs as if it was just us now. We got totally abrasive and weird. We started working on material that was stranger, more eccentric. It felt like a rebellion. Like, ‘Fuck it, we’re gonna do shit how we want to do it.’ And we began to recognize that we were writing an album that wasn’t necessarily going to appeal to any label.”

So Krauss and Miller stopped trying to appease anyone besides themselves and launched Torn Clean, their own label, as a vehicle to release their own music. The new venture allowed Sleigh Bells to be as hyperactive as they wanted, and, without a third party offering suggestions, the co-songwriters burned through new possibilities.

“Derek is incredibly restless and hard on himself. He’ll make something and love it passionately and, a month later, he’ll hate it just as passionately,” says Krauss. “We spent more time making this album and writing more songs, throwing more songs away, loving more songs. All those feelings were amplified ”

Along with more narrative lyrics, Krauss was beginning to embrace the belt. The most beloved tracks on Treats and Reign of Terror featured her robotic, heavily treated vocals blending into the buzzing music like another percussion track. Yet the songs that would eventually form Jessica Rabbit were, by far, the most melodic that Sleigh Bells had ever written, and their lyrics were, by far, the most affecting. “I was dreaming of a dead-end street that we used to run down,” howls Krauss on “Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold.” “We are running around till our hearts break down; there’s no need for that now. Take a deep breath before you do something drastic.”

The finished track throws Krauss’ whipping vocals on top of an echoing guitar and a squirming synth line, a military-march beat blasting along. “I wanted to create vocals that matched the instability of these tracks,” she says. “Now there’s an intense tension between the music and the vocals. They’re not just a repetitive texture within the music. Now they’re battling each other.”

Elsewhere, Krauss tucked in lyrics that feel more real-world than most indie rock tends to. On the riff-heavy “Rule Number One,” she’s in a conversation with her number one dude: “But, Derek, it’s Monday night and you’re high as a kite watching Lion King. You can’t feel a thing, but your knee hurts. Heartbeats are speeding by; it’s the fight of our life. Are you proud of yourself? Are you doubting yourself?”

It was just as Krauss and Miller were indulging their weirdest musical whims that a new character with a true pop pedigree entered the picture. The split with Loma Vista had amicably dissolved before it began, but not before Whalley made an introduction that would give Jessica Rabbit its curves: Mike Elizondo, a producer best known for his work with 50 Cent, Dr. Dre and Eminem. As Sleigh Bells were chasing their most frenzied songs, Elizondo invited them to Can-Am, his studio in Tarzana, Calif., to give the music its shape.

Can-Am and Elizondo are names that come with history. The studio has been home to a nearly unbelievable cast of musicians: Guns N’ Roses worked on Appetite for Destruction, Phish mixed Hoist, 2Pac walked the halls. But none of that mattered when Sleigh Bells arrived.

“I was already a fan,” says Elizondo. “I come from a metal background, and I hadn’t heard a band that combined that metal sound with hip-hop and pop like Sleigh Bells did. I was interested right away. Now, Derek and Alexis are both very bold people, in everything they do. There’s just no other way for their music to come off than to sound bold.”

For two musicians fiercely protective of their work— and planning to release an album on their newly minted label—inviting a superstar pop producer to stir the pot wasn’t easy. Elizondo waded carefully into the waters.

“As much as they wanted to open up to the idea of having someone come in, you quickly realize that this is their baby. Especially Derek—this is a guy who eats, sleeps, breathes Sleigh Bells. His everything is this band,” says Elizondo. “You don’t wanna mess around with that.”

Over several sessions, though, Elizondo brought some pop-savvy to the duo’s collection of wild, whirling songs. He added an extra chorus here, and provided a rewritten bridge there.

“We’d done so many versions of some of these songs, and Mike helped us lock in to what the songs needed to be,” says Krauss. “Initially, we were skeptical—like, ‘Can we pull this off?’ [The single ‘I Can’t Stand You Anymore’] was almost straightforward pop. But it felt fucking good. It’s a song you’d hear and want to sing along to.”

Though Elizondo only has production and writing credits on a handful of Jessica Rabbit’s tracks, Krauss says she “can’t overstate how critical he was to the album. He’s very good at becoming a part of the band, not just making his mark because he should, or to claim partial ownership.”

The final version of Jessica Rabbit hit fans and critics by surprise when it was released. The same points that some derided, others embraced. But pretty much everyone agreed on one point: It was different from anything you were likely to hear anytime soon.

The opening song on Jessica Rabbit is “It’s Just Us Now,” a less-than-subtle nod to Torn Clean. The number’s very first sound is Miller’s growling guitar—that jagged, glowing, electric tone that lit up Treats seven years ago. A submarine radar pings as pummeling drums punish the track and Krauss sings that, “When I’m conscious, I am cursed.” All in all, it’s the sound of Sleigh Bells, tried and true. But then the chorus hits, with Krauss Broadway-belting, “When you die, I wanna die with you!” and it’s clear that Jessica Rabbit— the album that took nearly as long to create as the band’s first three combined—is a brand new Sleigh Bells.

Second track “Torn Clean” is 80 seconds of shoegaze guitar and punching-bag percussion. “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” launches like a pumped-up Pat Benatar anthem. “I Can Only Stare” erupts with stabs of cathedral organ synth, a syrup-slow hiphop beat and a high-drama melody—and, somehow, still sounds like it belongs on the radio. There are pure slabs of white-hot heavy metal and dirty, industrial chugging (“Throw Me Down the Stairs”), darkly playful R&B (“Hyper Dark”), and more than one song featuring what actually sounds like automatic-weapon fi re (“As If,” “Unlimited Dark Paths”).

The album is “a reflection of anxiety, instability, commitment and perseverance, but also the despair and hopelessness we experienced at times,” says Krauss. “People either say it’s a roller-coaster ride and takes you a moment to get adjusted but, if you go with it, you feel euphoric, or they say it’s strange and overwhelming and disjointed. ‘Get me off this ride because I fucking hate it.’

“But that’s very much in keeping with Sleigh Bells’ past work. We’re very polarizing. We’ve always been a band that people loved or despised,” she says, knowingly. “And that’s a more interesting place to be than making music that’s pleasant to the masses.”

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