Sleigh Bells: Something To Shout About

Feb 18, 2012
Originally published on February 19, 2012 3:41 pm

When Derek Miller moved to Brooklyn in 2008, he'd already written most of the songs that would become Treats, the first album by his band Sleigh Bells. But the guitarist and producer says he needed one thing to bring the songs to life.

"Female vocalists have always appealed to me, ever since I was a little kid," Miller says. "My mom was super into Madonna and Belinda Carlisle and Janet Jackson, so I was always surrounded by female voices."

Miller found his muse that spring in singer Alexis Krauss, who put aside a career in education to start the band. Krauss says that working with Miller's production style — characterized by blaring guitars and machine-gun beats — meant learning how to shout.

"I have a past in session work, working with other people — that was something I knew how to do," Krauss says. "I was used to pushing myself and going to a place that I was a bit uncomfortable in, but making it work. ... Now I love shouting. I actually kind of prefer it to singing sometimes."

NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Miller and Krauss about their creative partnership and the second Sleigh Bells album, Reign of Terror, which comes out this week.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The duo that makes up the band Sleigh Bells has just released its second album, and now Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller find themselves teetering on the edge between fringe indie rock and full-blown mainstream music fame. Krauss and Miller were happy with their first album called "Treats." It sold well, fans packed their shows. There was, as they say, buzz. But their new album, called "Reign of Terror," which goes on sale this week, has put them on the cover of an upcoming issue of Spin magazine and won them a much coveted performance on "Saturday Night Live" just last night. This is rock with a guitar edge driven by Miller and blistering lyrics delivered by Krauss's deceptively sweet voice.

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MARTIN: They join me from our NPR studios in New York. And Derek Krauss talked about his obsession with finding that perfect female voice.

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DEREK KRAUSS: Actually, at the time, like around 2005 and '06 when I was looking, I was listening to a lot of really noisy stuff with the girls just, like, shouting over it. So, I think that was maybe my initial idea. And once I met Alexis, it was sort of impossible, I don't know, to not let her sing, because she's - you know, her voice is, you know, not to like - she's sitting right next me and I'm, like, sitting here flattering here. But, you know, her voice is incredible, so it would be ridiculous to not use it.

MARTIN: And her sound is different than what you just described.

KRAUSS: Yes, absolutely. So, I guess, yeah, I guess you can say I didn't really foresee what it would sound like.

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MARTIN: And, Alexis, we should say you walked away from a Rhodes scholarship to do this?

ALEXIS KRAUSS: I mean, I walked away from a career as an educator. And, yeah, I was nominated for this, you know, obviously a great scholarship and...

MARTIN: Yeah, it was pretty good as they go, yeah.

KRAUSS: She ain't that smart.

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MARTIN: So, you know, the sound that Derek kind of offered to you is a pretty heavy sound. There's a lot of this driving guitar. Did you have any hesitations about marrying your voice with that?

KRAUSS: It was easy for me to follow his directions. And because I had a past in doing session work and working with other people, that was something that I knew how to do. So, I was used to kind of pushing myself and going into a place that I was a bit uncomfortable in, but making it work. And, you know, it's like anything. It's you try it and you practice it and hopefully it ends up sounding pretty good. And now I love shouting. I actually kind of prefer sometimes, I think.

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MARTIN: What happens when you shout that doesn't happen when you sing?

KRAUSS: I mean, I think it's just like what happens when you, like, play electric guitar versus when you play acoustic guitar. I mean, they're both great but, you know, there's an intensity that you can communicate with your voice.

KRAUSS: Yeah. And when she sings sometimes she, like, slips into this country accent.

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MARTIN: Is that true?

KRAUSS: I swear to God.

KRAUSS: I have this, like, natural country twang sometimes when I sing.

KRAUSS: It's really strange. Like, we'll be tracking...

KRAUSS: I have no country roots but...

KRAUSS: ...and I'm like, I'll, like, go into talkback. I'll be like a little bit of Bonnie Raitt sneaking in there.

KRAUSS: Or Shania.

KRAUSS: Or Shania. And I'm thinking I love those women but maybe you'll get a country record from Sleigh Bells in the future.

MARTIN: I want to ask you guys about specific songs. The song "Crush" on the album is something that I thought really showcased Alexis's voice. But I also read that, Derek, you said that that particular track is a kind of tribute to Queen. Is that right?

KRAUSS: Oh yeah, absolutely. We're both massive Queen fans. I mean, I would definitely count Brian May as one of my favorite guitar players.

MARTIN: And there's that stomping at the beginning.

KRAUSS: Yeah. Well, that's, I don't know, I'm just super into, like, stomp-clap routines. Like I love marching bands, percussion cadences, stuff like that.

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KRAUSS: We rented out a gym and - where was it? Bed-Stuy? Yeah, Benjamin Banneker High. And they have these, like, rickety old wooden bleachers. So, we had, like, 50 of our friends show up and we miked, you know, we miked up the gym.

MARTIN: So, that's real stomping at a real pool?

KRAUSS: Oh no, no. Yeah, we made those samples.

MARTIN: So, I get the sense from both of you that there's some thought into what you're doing, your collaboration and where you want it to go.

KRAUSS: I mean, our priorities are very simple, and there's actually only one. And my only priority is to try to make really, really memorable records, you know, so...

MARTIN: Have you made mistakes thus far - not in your music but in your career?

KRAUSS: I just want to say we've been extremely cautious and we always try to make careful decisions. We say no a lot.

KRAUSS: Yeah, we say no to a lot.

MARTIN: What do you say no to?

KRAUSS: Just opportunities...

KRAUSS: Anything.

KRAUSS: ...that aren't going to be advantageous to us.

KRAUSS: Like TV, for example. You know, we just weren't interested in doing any late-night shows. Nothing against them, you know. Like, we kind of jokingly said to our label, well, like, I mean, if "SNL" asks us to perform - which was ludicrous - then we'd do it. And then, ah, they called us and they're like, guess what? "SNL" just invited you to perform. And we're like...

MARTIN: So, that happened, yeah.

KRAUSS: Yeah. People think, like, oh, you get that call and you jump and down and you scream and you yell and you say of course. I mean, and even with that call, I mean, it was this very - we sat down and had an extremely, like, serious face-to-face conversation, where we said, OK, are we ready? Yeah, like, are we ready to do this?

KRAUSS: You know, and I just, you know, it's a balancing act, you know, and we try to be smart about it.

MARTIN: Well, we wish you luck with the album and much success with your upcoming tour. Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller make up the band Sleigh Bells. Their new album is called "Reign of Terror." They joined us from our studios in New York. Alexis and Derek, thanks so much for talking with us.

KRAUSS: Thank you very much for having us.

KRAUSS: Thank you.

KRAUSS: We appreciate it.

KRAUSS: It was a pleasure.

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MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.