Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss talks 'Reign of Terror,' hyping up crowds and her childhood in Tampa
An eight-city tour of Florida? In February? With a DJ sharing top billing? What rock band in their right mind would think this sounds like a good idea?
Easy: A rock band that doesn’t think like one.
“Some people don’t think it makes sense, but we say we’re not a band,” Sleigh Bells singer Alexis Krauss says by phone from her home in Brooklyn. “We don’t represent the traditional rock format. All of our music is electronic. We sort of see our sets, in a way, like DJ sets, where it’s really about hyping up the crowd.”
Sleigh Bells has that down pat. The duo ripped into the mainstream in 2010 with their unconventional debut album, Treats, a blistering, id-driven mix of Krauss’ breathy pop vocals and Derek Miller’s fuzzy metal guitars and hip-hop beats. Musical tastemakers everywhere are counting down the days until their second album, Reign of Terror, is released on Feb. 21 — but starting this week, fans all over Florida will get a sneak preview, as the group embarks on a comprehensive tour of the Sunshine State alongside superstar DJ/producer Wes “Diplo” Pentz.
Gainesville, Tampa, Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, all in the span of 12 days. That’s just how Sleigh Bells rolls.
As Sleigh Bells invades the Ritz Ybor on Saturday (click here for details), Krauss explained why the group has so much love for Florida.
It’s really the only obvious place to start the interview: Why are you doing eight shows in Florida?
Well, Derek is a Florida native, as is Diplo. To be totally honest, the tour came to be when Derek and Wes were just having some drinks, kind of messing around, and they were, “Hey, we should do a tour of our home state.” And the next morning, in their sobriety, it actually became a legitimate idea, not just some drunken rambling. Derek talked to me about it, and I was like, “Hell yeah.” It’s a great state. We’ve played Miami, we’ve played St. Pete, we’ve played Orlando, and we’ve just had a great time. It seems like a logical sort of thing to do to kick things off.
And I like to think Florida is the key in a lot of ways to Derek and I even being in a band together, because when we met, that’s really what got the conversation going. I was out to dinner with my mom, and she was asking Derek where he was from, and he was telling her he was from Florida, and my mom is also a native Floridian. I feel like if Florida hadn’t been part of the conversation, we probably wouldn’t be here.
That’s funny. Where’s your mom from?
She’s actually from Tampa. She grew up in Thonotosassa, right outside of Tampa. I actually lived in Tampa for a little while, when I was about five. I have really great memories as a kid, going to Weeki Wachee and the beach. I have a good amount of family there, who we see when we come through. It feels a little like a homecoming for me as well.
So you only lived there when you were a kid?
I probably would have stayed there longer, but I lived there in kindergarten, and (my mom) dropped me off at school the first day of kindergarten, and then she got a call a few hours later, and they were like, “Your daughter is not old enough to start kindergarten this year.” So my mom was like, Well, we can wait an entire year... but she said I was ready, so we actually moved back up northeast, to New Jersey, to start school.
Did Derek ever talk about being a music fan in Florida, how sometimes bands just don’t come here?
Absolutely. A lot of cities in Florida get neglected. As a band, we’ve always found that we have the best shows when we play cities where kids — I don’t want to say are deprived of good music, but where kids are more grateful to have bands coming through. When you play big metropolitan areas like New York and San Fran, they’re obviously wonderful, but the kids tend to be a bit jaded and a little bit more self-conscious. And when we play cities like St. Pete or Pensacola, I’m really looking forward to the crowd, because they tend to go a little bit more mental than the more uptight places. (laughs)
I think they’re both pretty representative of some of the different moods that you’re going to get on Reign of Terror. Born to Lose is kind of a darker track, a little moodier. The lyrical content is pretty bleak at times, and I think you get a sense that Reign of Terror is going to be more of a guitar-based record, as opposed to a beat-based record. A lot of the writing that Derek was doing was done on guitar, as opposed to on Beatstation. And Comeback Kid was the last song that we did. It was by far the most collaborative thing the two of us have ever done. Comeback Kid kind of represents a new direction for us; in a way I see it as sort of a turning point on the record. Lyrically, it’s talking about turning a corner; it’s more optimistic and hopeful than a lot of Reign of Terror. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum, in a way, and you’ll find a lot of Reign of Terror to be somewhere in between those two poles.
One thing I think you guys had going for you on Treats was the element of surprise. Sleigh Bells has this format that no one would expect to work, and yet it totally does. That caught so many people off guard that it helped propel you into that next level. Is that an obstacle you have to overcome with this album?
Derek and I never depended on the shock value of our music to be the only thing that was going to get us through. Our ambitions were never to be a one-trick-pony kind of band that depended on volume as the thing that would “shock and awe” people and make them like us. Obviously the way that Derek produced Treats had a lot to do with the reception of the record, because it sounded very different. That being said, Reign of Terror was the logical next step. We didn’t sit down together and say, “We did this on Treats; now we’re going to do X, Y and Z on Reign of Terror.” It just came out of a lot of personal things that Derek was going through. It has nothing to do with politics or shock value. And like I said, this record was much more collaborative. A lot of the melody work that I did was really rooted in a lot of my pop influences, and as I mentioned, Derek was writing a lot more on guitar. It was just a coming together of all of those elements and influences that created Reign of Terror. It wasn’t by any means a reaction or a response to critics or the people’s expectations.
A lot of Treats was written before you and Derek started working together. How would you characterize your role on Reign of Terror?
I was a lot more invested in this record. When Derek and I met, he had a lot of the demos for Treats finished, and I came into the project more as a session singer, almost, when we met. But with Reign of Terror, we wrote this record while we were touring. Derek still did the beat production and the instrumental work, and then we would get into the studio and he would tell me ideas that he had for lyrics, or he would have a verse or something, and then I would contribute to whatever parts. It was much more collaborative. And I think Derek would be the first person to say that he is very controlling of a lot of things. He’s just now really learning how to collaborate and how to be open to new ideas. He’ll be the first person to admit as well that when we do share our ideas, I think the results are better. But those things take time. You have to really trust each other.
When I saw you guys last year in St. Pete, one of the things that struck me about your live show are these moments where it’s just you onstage, like with Rill Rill. It’s just you and a mic and all those amps, and Derek just leaves the stage. I kept thinking it was kind of like a hip-hop concert or a pop concert. In those moments, what’s your mindset, when it’s just you alone on stage?
I see myself as sort of a hypewoman, as the frontwoman who’s there to really pump up the crowd and engage them, because they’re providing all the energy that I’m thriving off of. And you know, pop, for us, is not a dirty word. We love pop singers. Some of our idols are pop icons. Some of the best performances I’ve ever seen are one person sitting on stage with a mic. We’re actually adding a touring guitar player this time around, just because a lot of the harmonies on Reign of Terror are much more intricate. But I’m sure there’ll still be moments like with Kids and Rill Rill that it’ll just be me, and I like that about our band. I like to switch things up.
As an aspiring singer, you must have always envisioned yourself singing in front of a band. Was it an odd feeling the first time it was just you onstage, alone, singing a Sleigh Bells song?
You certainly feel more vulnerable, because there’s nothing to hide behind, and you can’t just go up to a fellow bandmate and interact with them and kind of pretend that the audience doesn’t exist. I felt that maybe in the beginning, when I was more self-conscious and people weren’t really familiar with our music. But now I love it. I sort of relish those moments. I’ve had some of the best times performing when it’s just kind of me up there and the crowd.
Do you have to pump yourself up for all the stage dives and scaffolding-climbing? Or does it just come naturally when you put on the Sleigh Bells jersey?
(laughs) It just comes out. Yeah. We often compare ourselves to athletes. We jump up and down and do a bunch of jumping jacks and really hype ourselves up when we go on stage, because it’s a very physical performance. Mentally, also, we have to prepare ourselves for what we’re about to get into. Not to keep going back to the crowd, because it sounds cliché, but I’m nowhere near as fun to watch, in my opinion, when we have a crowd that’s just sort of standing there. I think my performances are always dependent on how much the audience is giving.
On Treats, you guys had several songs that got licensed for use in TV and movies. Have you had that conversation yet about Reign of Terror? Are there songs that you think might play well in a licensing context?
Yeah, I think there are. We haven’t explicitly had that conversation. We didn’t really expect people to be as interested in licensing our music for Treats as they ended up being. But it’s something that Derek and I are open to. We don’t just whore out all of our music. We take each potential opportunity very seriously and then we consider them individually. And who knows? We didn’t write Reign of Terror to be a licensable record, but if people think it is, that’s good. Honestly, that’s how we eat. We certainly don’t make most of our money from record sales.
Obviously this Florida tour is part of the promotional blitz leading up to Reign of Terror. Do you have the rest of the blitz lined up? TV appearances, magazines, festival appearances?
Yeah, we’ve done a couple of really cool press opportunities. We just had a thing come out in GQ. We have a couple of other things coming up that I can’t really speak about. But in terms of touring, we’re finishing up Florida and then going right into some major-market shows in the States. Then we’re heading over to the U.K. and mainland Europe. We’re going to do some South By shows, and then a different part of the U.S. We actually just announced we’re doing some dates with the Chili Peppers, which is mind-blowing.
That’s cool. Don’t let Flea tell you that you guys need a bassist. I think you’re doing all right without one.
Thank you. You know what’s funny? People always say, “Get a drummer! Get a bassist!” But literally, we did not record a single live drum or bass sound on Reign of Terror. It wouldn’t work.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Patrick Odell