A Noise Pop Affair: An Interview With Alexis Krauss Of Sleigh Bells

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Sometimes things take time to evolve and with patience and devotion they just work out. We might say that applies with Jessica Rabbit, Sleigh Bells‘ new album, which was three years in the making and the result is just something amazing. It’s probably their most compelling and daring album to date. Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller are in the spike of their game and more audacious than ever. We caught up with Alexis that talked us through the whole process and so much more.


Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Jessica Rabbit is out now and is terrific and bold, totally worth the wait. How does it feel for you now that the record is about to be released?
It’s exciting! It’s always a really wonderful thing when you get to release an album that you poured all of yourself into, so it’s wonderful to be able to share that with our fans and with the world. That being said, it’s also a little anxiety producing because you obviously have expectations of how you want people to respond to the album and it’s kind of inevitable that there will be disappointments as far as what people think of it and how people are critical of it. This album is kind of like our child and you want to keep your child safe. [laughs] And then you release it to the world and suddenly it’s object to a lot of harsh criticism, but that being said I’m really looking forward to play more shows and hopefully having more and more people hearing the band.

It took a while for Jessica Rabbit to be completely finished. According to a press release, the process of writing and recording Jessica Rabbit began, stopped, and started over again many times throughout the last three years. How did you overcome the obstacles that came along the whole process?
I think we overcame the obstacles by continuing to write and record. We continually pushed ourselves to try to come up with the best ideas and we thought really critically about the arrangements and the song we were going to ultimately keeping for the album. We probably recorded about 30 or so songs and didn’t use a lot of them. Overall, this process was just much more critical and we spent a lot of more time thinking and analysing each song, which ultimately I think just proved to be beneficial to the album, like we didn’t rush anything with this, but at the same time I think it’s dangerous to spend too much time on anyone’s album or anyone’s song because you’ll never stop hearing flaws in it. It’s very rare that you make something and you continue to think that it’s perfect. [laughs] Everything kind of becomes valuable at a certain point in everything like the initial infatuation that you have with it kind of wears it off. I think we kind of have to figure out that balance between getting things out too quickly and never getting anything out at all. I like to think that we kind of ended in a happy place. [laughs]

Jessica Rabbit is in every way a different, such as vocally as musically. It feels like you guys had this urgency to go farther with a much more audaciously approach and it definitely feels like a sonic change for Sleigh Bells. What was your mindset while going into writing these songs?
I think those are great insights. I think we wanted to push ourselves on this album. Vocally, I wanted to use my voice in a way that kind of explored more of a range of experiences that at times was very vulnerable, emotional and dark, and at other times it was euphoric and it kind of pushed in a way that we hadn’t heard me sing before. From a production standpoint, Derek was interested in using different sounds and textures, and writing arrangements that were a bit more manic and colorful. At times we kind of wondered “Where’s this song taking me?” and hopefully by the end you feel satisfied by the journey. I think if I had to categorize the process, I would say it was a very uninhibited process. It was exploratory and adventurous and we weren’t limiting ourselves with any ideas of genre or any sort of definitions of what we wanted this record to be.

How was the whole songwriting/recording process for Jessica Rabbit?
I’ve become much more of an equal collaborator with Derek. The process for Jessica Rabbit was mostly Derek sending me an instrumental and sending me a document with lyrical ideas and then recording a demo in my apartment where I would arrange the vocals and write the melodies and harmonies and finally getting the demo sounding as close to a final product as possible. I would send that to Derek and from there we would have a conversation about the best parts, the strongest and the weakest moments and I would either rewrite or we would record it as it was. That was kind of the general process and then we started recording with Mike Elizondo in California and that process was a little different, because we did more work in the room together kind of in our own private world, so it was kind of a more open process and we did a lot of good writing on the spot together. It was wonderful. I think Derek and I feel more comfortable now than we’ve ever been with one another. We’re very close friends and we trust each other, but we also feel comfortable offering one another very constructive but at times extremely critical feedback and that’s important. You don’t ever have to hold back with somebody and not tell him how you feel because, even though it can be painful, it’s ultimately very beneficial for the writing process. That was kind of how it looked like.

The chemistry between you and Derek seems more and more like a perfect partnership, the way you two connect is sharper than ever. How do you guys think you develop your songwriting all over the years?
I think Derek from day one had a really interesting and exciting vision of what’s the music he wants to make and that vision has always been very inspirational to me and I’ve always felt very much like I understand it and able to kind of put myself into it to vocalize it at best and be that sort of missing link to the process. Now that’s a more equal partnership, I think when I hear one of his tracks I’ve always just want to try and do it justice, you know? I want to try to include a vocal that is interesting and engaging and urgent as the instrumental. So, I’m just trying to create something that kind of matches with the energy and the quality of the music. That’s how I like to think about it. I just want to really create something that feels cohesive, but also a bit unhinged. [laughs]

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“We continually pushed ourselves to try to come up with the best ideas and we thought really critically about the arrangements and the songs we were going to ultimately keeping for the album.”

Jessica Rabbit feels like a natural progression of Sleigh Bells, would you agree with that?
I think that’s great to hear you say that because it does feel like a natural progression to me. I think a lot of the ideas that we started to experiment with on Bitter Rivals but maybe didn’t flashed out completely, we picked up on Jessica Rabbit, so I think a lot of the impulses to push ourselves are present on Bitter Rivals, but in my opinion not as well executed as they are on Jessica Rabbit. For us there was nothing contrayed on this album, there was no strategy with this album. It was just like the most pure, creative impulses being realized. I appreciate that you think it sounds like a natural progression because that’s what it felt like.

Your voice is just brutally impressive and emotionally heavy in Jessica Rabbit! How was it like the process to create such great melodies?
I wanted to write melodies that moved me in the same way that the music moves me. Like the outro of “Rule Number One”. I just think that’s a beautiful piece of music and it’s bizarre, chilling and I wanted to create a vocal and a melody that felt that way. I’ve always been attracted to melancholic melodies… Melodies that are slightly disturbing [laughs] and so I think I was trying to write in a way that kind of made you feel hopeful but also a bit devastated. You know, I’ve never really been good at writing sunny and sparkly simple melodies. My melodies tend to be like complicated and strange, so I wanted to bring that to the table and I also really wanted to bring a lot of interesting harmonies for the table. Some of my favorite vocalists are Sam Cooke, Etta James, Jackie Wilson… people that when they sing, they sound like their voice is on the brink of cracking and kind of breaking apart and I was trying to do that on this album. I tried to delivered vocals that felt really committed because they really are.

What were your musical or non-musical influences for this new album? Any albums or artists that inspired you somehow?
We’re always listening to so many artists, that’s a tough question. [laughs] I was listening to a lot of obscure soul albums. There’s a collection called Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label and I was listening to a lot of that. I was listening to a LOT of Beatles, a lot of the White Album. I just love how bold, adventurous and different each of their records sound, and so that was a huge inspiration. I’m a big fan of some pop artists like Beyoncé. I love how her albums continue to change and she pushes herself into new and exciting territories. I was listening to a lot of 80’s pop like Nu Shooz, Romeo Void, Blondie… Listening to a lot of jazz like John Coltrane, Patsy Cline and just really bad country music… I know Derek was listening to a lot of Jimmy Page and a lot of classic American music. Everything from bands like The Alman Brothers, Chicago… He was totally obsessed with the new Radiohead’s record when it came out and he listened to Burial a lot and a lot of different producers in the electronic music. He’s really into the new Jamie xx stuff, he has always been a big Kanye West fan… He’s always obsessing over The Funk Brothers. It’s just really diverse. There wasn’t really one specific genre, just lots of music… Always listening to music, especially Derek who is a music consumer and so he’s constantly listening to stuff. [laughs]

This was the first time you brought on board someone outside of the band into your creative process. You worked along with Mike Elizondo, who executive-produced five songs on this album. What did lead you to work with him and how was the experience for you guys?
Yeah, it was the first outside person that we worked with. We were introduced to him by Tom Whalley who used to be on Warner Bros. Records and now runs Loma Vista Records. He put us in touch and Mike was a fan of the band, which was exciting. It was a wonderful experience; we worked with him in L.A. and he’s just one of those people. He’s a true professional, he loves what he does, he’s very pleasant to be around and he knows how to make artists feel safe and feeling like they’re not being judged, but at the same time he’s really good at pushing you to do better but not in a way that feels judgemental or mean. He’s like “Why don’t you try this?” or “Have you thought of doing that?” instead of “Fuck that! You have to do something different.” [laughs] He’s super positive but really motivating. Derek and I always joked that since having work with him we’ve kind of always have this voice in the back of our minds telling us to question if it’s the best arrangement, if it’s the strongest melody or if it’s the best sound. He was just a really important influence in this process.

The video for “It’s Just Us Now” is absolutely amazing and it was directed by Derek. Can you tell us about how was the concept developed and the shooting experience?
For the past few years, Derek and I always do our own videos. We’ve never had a big crew or a big budget and we work closely with a cinematographer. The concept for that video was really just about creating a story about this one particular character who is experiencing extreme stress, we don’t really know why and so it kind of follows her journey in addition to referencing some iconic imagery from that times, like a bikini pool scene, but sort of pushing it into a David Lynch way and just make it all very bizarre. I think that video – like a lot of our videos – is less like a narrative and more of like a strange collage of images. I’m really glad you like it, it was my favorite video until we made the video for “I Can Only Stare”. The video for “I Can Only Stare” takes up where the video for “It’s Just Us Now” sort of left off in a way. They speak to one another, but this one just feels… I don’t know, I just think it’s more exciting. [laughs]

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“It was exploratory and adventurous and we weren’t limiting ourselves with any ideas of genre or any sort of definitions of what we wanted this record to be.”

Jessica Rabbit will be released on your own label, Torn Clean. How did the idea to start a label come about and how’s been like to own one?
We spent a long time trying to figure out the best way to release the album and we worked with some different people, but ultimately we felt that self-releasing it was really the only way to achieve the type of autonomy and independence that we were looking for. Once we figured out that we could self-release and we could partner with digital physical distributor and then still have the support of Lucky Number in the UK, it became obvious that this was the way to go about it. Torn Clean is the name of a track of the new album and it just feels like a very powerful image and it just felt right to name the label Torn Clean. We bounced around with a few ideas and ultimately ended up finding that one to be the most compelling name. It’s been a really exciting time because we have a new level of control over everything and ownership over everything. Obviously, it can be limiting in a sense that you don’t have a huge budget or a marketing team from a label, but I think the music world now is one that allows artists to really make their own path and take their music pretty far without the assistance of those things. It’s been a really riveting experience.

I could not help asking about the album’s name Jessica Rabbit as well the mesmerizing artwork. Can you enlighten us about the concept behind those two things?
Jessica Rabbit is a character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and that film came out when Derek and I were both children. He had this kind of intense fixation and fascination with her and this crush on her as a little boy and then kind of had this realization that she wasn’t real and that he was kind of delusional for feeling this way about her, but yet that didn’t stop him from wanting her. I think that kind of represents going through life with these expectations and never compromising and giving up on him despite rational thought. [laughs] That’s where the title come from… and the artwork was done by our friend Brian Montuori and he does these amazing and really large scale paintings mostly of animals and these very chaotic scenes, they’re very gory and over the top, but he just uses an amazing pallet. The album’s cover and all the artwork that we used so far for every song has been a very small frame of one of the very large scale of artwork. I think when you see the cover hopefully it feels like the music because that’s what we want it to be.

Now you will be touring your new record, what are your essential things while you are on the road?
I’m pretty simple. I’m very healthy when I’m on tour, I don’t drink or do anything that’s gonna compromise my voice. I drink a lot of tea, I eat a lot of manuka honey which is kind of anti-bacterial honey and that’s good for my throat. I’m pretty boring. [laughs] I always bring my bike on tour with me, I love to go for bike rides and I try to wake up early and get as much time outside and experiencing new cities as possible before I’m in the venue for the rest of the night. Those are kind of my tour essentials. I always bring my own pillow because that’s important. [laughs] And my dog often comes with me! Whenever she’s on tour, that’s always the best.

Besides Sleigh Bells, you have been involved on another amazing projects, such as the platform Beauty Lies Truth. You funded it with your friend Jessica Assaf back in 2014. I really love the whole concept behind it. Can you tell me a little bit about it and what led you to start it?
It came from the desire to share my own experiences discovering sustainable beauty and learning more about all the different chemicals and toxins that people – especially women – expose themselves everyday through cosmetics. It just started as a passion project with myself and Jessica. Mostly we just wanted to be an educational tool where people can learn about some of the dangerous and also celebrate all the alternatives. That’s really what it is, it’s never been anything that we’ve made any money from or have any intention of have any money off it, just a way to share something that’s really important to us. I’m very interested in how consumers can change the impact that we’re having not only on our bodies but on the planet and how we can all live just a bit better, cleaner and smarter. Beauty Lies Truth is just a reflection of that.

I think people are now more concerned about their health and about the world we live in, but there’s still so many bullshit going on in our society. How is it like in the States and what are your thoughts about those subjects?
It depends on where you live, what type of education you have and what type of life you have, but I think a lot of people especially now are aware of climate change, aware of our impact on the Earth and are starting to think more carefully about their choices and recognizing that everything from cancer to hormonal disorders are increasing in a way that we’ve never seen before. People are starting to really embrace eating healthy, organic food, pesticide-free, natural alternatives… Obviously we still have a ton of stuff to do. I’m a very progressive person and I spend a lot of time outdoors rock climbing and hiking… you know, our Earth is just such a sacred place and there are a lot of people out there champing that… And then we obviously have a very polarized country where there are people that are kind of pushing for a more regressive and scary agenda in my opinion as represented by Donald Trump and the people that exist behind. It’s an interesting time for the world, it’s a time that we see whether is Brexit or what’s going on in Europe with the refugee crisis or what’s going on all over the world… I think it’s a pretty critical time in determining what type of future we’re gonna have. I would like to see the good in people and I like to stay optimistic, but I can’t help but feeling pretty anxious about the state of things. We’ll see as humans what we decide to next…

For last, what have you been listening to non-stop?
There’s an album that just came out by a band called The Frightnrs, it was released on Daptone Records and it’s like their modern reggae band. I just love the album. It’s a pretty tragic story because the lead singer Dan Klein died recently of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and he was a young guy. He was actually very sick while they were recording the album and you just can hear this urgency on his part to say everything that he wanted to say because he knew that he wasn’t going to live very long and it’s kind of an amazing thing to hear. The album is called Nothing More To Say and I highly recommend it.

Words: Andreia Alves // Photos: Petra Collins – Jessica Rabbit is out now on Torn Clean.
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