Talking to me over the phone from the US, Sleigh Bells vocalist Alexis Kraus is a tightly wound ball of enthusiasm and joy. Her voice is quite high and nasal and carries a tone of excitement and whimsy, which, combined with her American accent, gives the impression of a cartoon character. Think Lisa Simpson without the world-weary pessimism.
Formed in 2008, after Alexis met songwriter, producer and guitarist Derek E. Miller when he was waiting tables on her and her mother, Sleigh Bells had soon made their presence known on the Internet, attracting the attention of Spike Jonze, who then played the band to his friend M.I.A. and boom, Sleigh Bells were signed to her label, N.E.E.T. Recordings. Their debut LP Treats has had critics from around the world (including me) gushing all over them like a group of infatuated adolescents, and even climbed it’s way up to #39 on the Billboard 200.
However, while it may seem like an overnight success to some, in actuality the project had been on the boil in the cauldron of Miller’s head for years, never finding the right form to fit in with his vision. “Derek has been working on various different stages of Sleigh Bells for many years and he threw most of it away. I think that says something about our approach to music. We end up throwing away a lot more than we end up keeping and I think that’s good. It’s really important to me to be discriminating, to keep your ears fresh and to always check yourself. As soon as you start stepping back and getting lazy about it, it’s probably time you stop making music, or at least stop releasing it.”
This discerning writing may not be apparent at first listen, the music sounding simple and without much depth. Listening to the whole album though, it’s amazing how the songs just maintain their appeal, their simplicity and immediacy being the key to this long shelf life. “I think one of the unfortunate things nowadays is that because things are so single driven so often the focus is on making two or three songs on a record that are going to stand out and leaving the rest as filler. When it came to our record, Derek and I were really motivated to make an album where each song could stand on its own and each song counted. Everything is very intentional. Not to say that it’s super calculated and contrived though; a lot of the songs came about rather quickly, but many of them were laboured over for months or even years, I mean a song like Infinity Guitars has been in the works before I even met Derek. So it’s kind of a mix of things just exploding into existence very quickly and then labours of love.”
Being touted the world over by media outlets famous for their promotion of disposable indie pop, bands that are here one day and gone tomorrow, it would be easy to write Sleigh Bells off as just another product spat out of the internet hype machine. Going into this interview I sort of felt that’s how things were going to play out. But speaking to Alexis and going back and listening over the album, it’s apparent that despite its simplicity and how obvious and heavy handed the music can be, there is a lot of pride on display, a lot of conviction. “What’s the point of making a record? It should be a body of work where you’re proud of every moment, where you’re not cringing here and there every time you listen to it,” she exclaims, “I mean you’re going to be hearing it a lot.”
The music itself isn’t breaking any boundaries in terms of melodies or rhythm, but in terms of texture, Treats would have to be one of the most forward stepping pop albums to come out this year. By proving that heavy, distorted guitars and industrial beats can be poppy, Sleigh Bells are continuing the work started by label boss M.I.A., broadening pop music by injecting some new and exciting sounds into its pale and withered body. Just like M.I.A. there will always be people who look at Sleigh Bells as nothing more than a fad band, and whether they actually outlive that label remains to be seen. Like them or not though, you can’t argue with the fact that as far as pop music nowadays goes, Sleigh Bells are offering something with a bit more bite.