Enjoying the Sweet Pains of Success
Photo by: Josh Haner/The New York Times
Derek Miller, Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells. The Brooklyn duo will release its 2nd album, "Reign of Terror," on Feb. 21.
By MELENA RYZIK
Published: February 14, 2012, New York Times
FIRST came the recorded sound: drums and riffs, some demonically heavy marching band. Next, a couple of guys with guitars, who immediately started messing with their pedals in the darkened club. Two minutes later there was Alexis Krauss, with ripped jeans and a distinct saunter. She raised her arms as she reached the microphone, the black-haired queen of this stage. White lights exploded behind her, over a wall of Marshall stacks and an unfurled American flag.
In a breath she ripped into “True Shred Guitar,” the first track on a new album written with her band mate, Derek Miller. The crowd surged, pleased. Sleigh Bells were on tour again.
Backstage, before the show this month at the Ritz Ybor here, was a bit less grand. “Oh my Godddd,” Ms. Krauss moaned, “I have the worst bangover right now.”
Too much headbanging at the previous night’s gig was taking its toll. She popped some Advil and stretched. Mr. Miller drank Bud Light, paced, cracked his neck. “Every time you get on tour again after a break, the morning after it’s like you’ve been in a car crash,” he said, sounding sort of elated at the opportunity to beat himself up. A few nights later he fractured a rib crowd-surfing.
This prerelease tour, and the tattoo on Mr. Miller’s left biceps — a thin blue outline of Florida, his home state — were the result of a barroom wager, friendly but determined. It’s another example of how ambition and happy accidents, coupled with musical savvy and careful planning, have shaped the career of this band.
Since they appeared in 2009, a duo with a striking sound and a fully-formed vision, they have adroitly navigated the pitfalls that often scuttle new indie rock groups subject to breathless online hype — the cyclotron of buzz, backlash and boredom that plagued many acts before and many since. Instead, Sleigh Bells has so far managed to thrive, a feat they hope to continue with their new album, “Reign of Terror,” due on Feb. 21 from Mom + Pop Music. It’s a sweet but tense spot to be in.
“Nothing is a given for how this will actually be received,” Mark Richardson, the editor in chief of Pitchfork, the music site, said of the album. “I’m very interested. I feel like they’ve done it right so far.”
Even before Sleigh Bells’ first album, “Treats,” was released in 2010, they were darlings of the indie scene, propelled by a perfect storm of attention. There were early demos circulating to all the right tastemakers, breakout shows at the CMJ Music Festival attended by eager industry types, and suddenly, the interest of the rapper M.I.A., who called Mr. Miller into her studio to produce for her after hearing a few of his tracks. The Sleigh Bells sound — Mr. Miller’s pummeling wave of distorted guitar riffs and hip-hop-inflected beats, over which Ms. Krauss provides catchy, breathy, melodic vocals — was hailed as a new direction even for noise pop, earning glowing reviews of “Treats.”
Sleigh Bells had barely played a dozen shows before they were booked for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a month before their debut album was out. A European tour with M.I.A. followed, putting the new duo in front of tens of thousands of fans. Their tracks showed up in blue-chip commercials for the likes of Nike and Honda, and in shows like “Gossip Girl;” Beyoncé expressed interest in their production technique.
By the end of the year the band was named to many best-of lists, including in The New York Times. “Each whipsaw only whets the appetite for more,” Jon Pareles wrote of their songs.
All of this happened while Mr. Miller was privately dealing with a family tragedy that threatened, minute by minute, to overtake him. Instead it became the basis for the heavy “Reign of Terror.”
The new record is unmistakably Sleigh Bells, with dense but bigger production that puts Ms. Krauss’s voice into sweet relief over Mr. Miller’s dark metal peals. It is even more guitar driven — Mr. Miller discovered a model, the Jackson USA Soloist, that he loves — and more narrative and lyrical, with a crisper focus on arrangements and harmony over beats. (On tour — they have sold-out dates in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles this month, and are playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the spring — they are joined by Jason Boyer on guitar.) They began recording “Reign of Terror” just days after the 14-month tour for “Treats,” which sold 149,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, solid for an indie debut.
If a sophomore album is tricky, for Sleigh Bells — now an established act with an established sound — it is a particular leap. “They’re not going to have the same ‘what the heck is this?’ kind of thing happening this time,” Mr. Richardson said.
But he added: “Despite the splash they made, they did a pretty good job avoiding oversaturation. They were away for about the right amount of time, where people remember that record fondly.”
That is no coincidence. Mr. Miller is a musical obsessive who can recall the first time he heard Brazilian baile funk, in 2004 — “Light bulbs were going off in my head,” he said (“A/B Machines,” on “Treats,” uses its 130 beats-per-minute rhythm) — and closely observes his industry.
“It’s a puzzle,” he said. “And if you put the pieces together correctly, you get a picture. It’s going to work.”
He and Ms. Krauss are careful stewards of their creative brand. They rejected offers to perform on TV when they started out (“too soon,” Mr. Miller said) but felt ready for “Saturday Night Live” on Saturday. They parted ways with M.I.A., who put out “Treats” on her label, N.E.E.T., jointly with Mom + Pop, but were diplomatic about her involvement.
“From the start she was a champion of our band,” Ms. Krauss said. “We can never repay her for that.”
Neither were musical neophytes. Starting in high school Mr. Miller, 30, played in a Florida hardcore band, Poison the Well, which signed with a major label, Atlantic. And Ms. Krauss, 26, the daughter of a New Jersey musician, was in a teen pop group, Rubyblue, from 12 to 16, and performed in wedding bands through college. In their early 20s both had moments of disillusionment with performing: Ms. Krauss taught in the Bronx with Teach for America, and Mr. Miller quit Poison the Well and focused on composing and becoming a producer.
In March 2008 Mr. Miller moved to New York expressly to find a female vocalist for a duo. “I’m just obsessed with female vocalists,” he said in an interview in his only slightly messy Brooklyn apartment a few days before the tour, naming Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays, Belinda Carlisle, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper as his favorites. (The Cranberries played on a mix in the background.) “I don’t want to say I was really determined,” he said, “but I was really determined.”
In April 2008 he began waiting tables at a Brazilian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One day in July Ms. Krauss came in for lunch with her mother, who struck up a conversation with the waiter. He mentioned that he was a musician looking for a singer. And that, fortuitously, was that. “He was very polite,” Ms. Krauss said. “I could tell he wasn’t hitting on me. And the conversation we had about music was very sincere.”
Ms. Krauss, who is engaged to Tyler Mate, of the hardcore punk act Wet Witch, was a nominee for a Rhodes scholarship, she said. But — with her family’s blessing — she decided to pursue Sleigh Bells instead.
Though half of “Treats” was written before Ms. Krauss ever got involved, for “Reign of Terror” she was a more equal collaborator. “She was there for every single stitch of this record,” said Shane Stoneback, the engineer who recorded both “Treats” and “Reign of Terror.” Mr. Stoneback, who has worked with Vampire Weekend and Cults, praised Ms. Krauss for her attention to the minutest details, like the week they spent listening to individual drum machine rhythms.
They spent four months in his Chelsea studio, recording vocals and guitars in a makeshift echo chamber and honing a sound that Mr. Stoneback said was inspired by Mutt Lange, the producer of AC/DC, Def Leppard and Billy Ocean. “The immediate grenade pin that we pulled was big ’80s rock stuff,” he said.
But “Reign of Terror” is also an autobiographical record, Mr. Miller’s attempt to deal with his family trauma. In June 2009 as he was working on the first Sleigh Bells demos, his father was killed in a motorcycle accident. He told only his intimates, like Ms. Krauss. “Treats,” with its party-ready anthems and simplistic lyrics, was “like a denial record,” Mr. Miller said.
He buried himself in the band, whose quick success sometimes salved and sometimes seemed unimportant. “It was a really strange balancing act,” he said.
Then, as they were on the road in 2010, Mr. Miller’s mother learned she had cancer; he said he felt as if his family was under attack. He tried to quit the tour, but his mother forbade it. “She was like: ‘This is the only good news in our family, you doing this band. Don’t you dare come home,’ ” he recalled. (His mother’s illness is now in remission, and she’s faring well, he said.)
For Mr. Miller it was an emotional wallop that was alleviated by writing “Reign of Terror,” whose title dates to that period. “I still don’t know how to talk about it,” he said. “But the record is my first attempt to try to not let that define me anymore.”
The track “Leader of the Pack” references the Shangri-Las hit about a motorcycle crash in its chord progression and theme, with the lyrics “Don’t you know he’s never coming back again?” “Born to Lose” imagines suicide. But on other songs, like the single “Comeback Kid,” and “Crush,” there’s some uplift. “Immediately, once he got into the studio, I could see how cathartic it was for him,” Ms. Krauss said.
Their chemistry is about balance: Mr. Miller is a partier, Ms. Krauss, a homebody. One reason Mr. Miller wanted to work with a female singer after Poison the Well was that he was done with the dynamic of an all-male band: the “macho, testosterone-driven behavior, which I’ve had plenty of,” he said. He labors to make space for her in his creative process but likes to hide behind sunglasses in photos; she relishes the artistic challenge and is comfortable as the center of attention onstage.
For the encore at the Ritz, during “Rill Rill,” Sleigh Bells’ biggest hit, Ms. Krauss swanned backward into the outstretched arms of the audience. They carried her for a few bars and returned her, still singing, to the stage; the tour manager came to help her up. But she pushed him off, hard, and sailed out over the fans again, never losing her place in the crescendo.
Afterward she and her band mate sat backstage, damp and elated, hashing over the set. “How was the front of the house?” Mr. Miller asked a friend.
He swore bluntly. “My ears are still ringing,” he said.
Mr. Miller grinned big: “Good.”