It’s the Fourth of July, and Alexis Krauss, Sleigh Bells frontwoman and former fourth grade teacher, is singing the chorus of “Hot Stuff” to me on the phone from Vermont. As I attempt not to melt into a puddle on the floor in reaction, Krauss describes her first meeting with bandmate Derek Miller.
Krauss and Miller have been creating music together since 2008, when they met in a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn. Miller was a waiter, and Krauss was out for dinner with her mother. “My mom is the type of woman who will know a waiter’s life story by the time you are eating your appetizers,” she says. The conversation turned from mutual Florida roots to Derek’s intentions with Brooklyn, and when he told Mama Krauss he was looking for a singer for his band, she volunteered her daughter. They exchanged email addresses and the rest is lightning-paced history. “Later that night I was hanging out in my room, and I had this feeling, this strange gut feeling that this was a good idea.” That same week, they recorded the demo for “Infinity Guitars.”
Everything about Sleigh Bells has moved fast, from their first recording to their climb to mass recognition with the release of their album Treats in 2010. Krauss describes the experience as overwhelming in the most positive way. Almost overnight, the fourth grade teacher with the occasional wedding singer gig entered the echelons of admired and unapologetic female frontwomen. I ask her what song from her wedding singer repertoire she would choose to perform with Miller, Sleigh Bells style. She croons the chorus of “Hot Stuff” down the telephone wires. “I think we could do a pretty sick version of that,” she says. Anyone who’s seen their live show would be inclined to agree.
Stomping around onstage in leather shorts, red lipstick, and basketball jerseys in front of a towering monolith of speakers, Krauss is the entry point to Sleigh Bells’ live show, which is an assault of sound. Miller hangs back, working the guitar, the eye in the storm of crushing sound. “If the audience isn’t feeding off of our energy and just letting go and acting with complete abandon, then we’re failing at our jobs,” says Krauss. Even their softest songs, like “End of the Line” and “Rill Rill,” can only be described as such in context: Krauss’s breathy, sexy vocals are backed by a wall of body-thumping noise, making instruments out of the audience, who can’t help but throw themselves into the thick bayou of sound. “I love the visceral response that comes from a room of people having fun, and dancing, and sweating, and screaming,” says Krauss. “When it comes to our live show, it’s all about reciprocation.”
That reciprocity finds its way into their songwriting process, as well. “We layer ideas on top of each other,” Krauss says. For their first album, many of the songs were already crafted before Krauss came on board, but now, the two of them are creating together. “The more serious the band became, the more crucial it became that I was a more active partner in songwriting. So Reign of Terror was much more collaborative.”
Reign of Terror was released in 2012. One of Kraus’s favourite collaborations resulted in a standout track, ”Comeback Kid.” Recorded on their last day in the studio, Krauss says it was one of those magical moments. “I think that song, for both of us, represented a shift in tone. Reign of Terror is a much darker, more melancholy record than Treats was. Once we had purged ourselves of all that darkness, and that energy that was fuelling Reign of Terror, and we came out of the studio having just made a song like Comeback Kid, which is literally and emotionally about rising up and becoming stronger…I think that launched us into a new territory.” The duo felt reinvigorated, ready to head out on tour and being work on their third album. “I think that song, symbolically, is probably the most representative of Derek and I, and our coming together.”
There’s an inherent serendipity to Sleigh Bells, from their origin story to the almost cinematic contrasts between Krauss’s life pre-band and their rapid rise to fame. I ask if any of her former fourth grade students are old enough to have been to a show yet. She says they’re still a bit young, but she keeps up with them on Facebook. “I try to put myself in their position, and imagine if I had had a teacher who went from being my role model, and being my disciplinarian, to suddenly being this woman who acts like a maniac, and dresses completely differently. I think it’s probably been, pardon my language, but a bit of a mindfuck for them. But they love it, obviously. They’re excited to know Miss Kraus.” Even she still can’t believe the transition at times. She remembers sitting in the Austin airport after the band played their first South by Southwest. It had only been a couple of months since she quit her teaching job, and now the band was headed to London. “At that moment, I definitely recognized that we had accomplished so much in such a short period of time, and I saw no ceiling for us.” She emphasizes that she doesn’t want that statement to sound conceited, but merely to reflect the drive and ambition she feels in connection to the project. “ I still feel that we have created something that with time could go anywhere, in any direction.” School’s out for Miss Krauss.
For more information on the July 5th show, click here.
~ Haley Cullingham