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Hardcore Mixed With Honey: ‘Bitter Rivals’ and the Evolution of Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bell’s album 'Bitter Rivals' is high-voltage thrash metal meshed with pop melody—and inspired by early Janet Jackson. Alexis Krauss talks about the uninhibited sound.

Even if you haven’t heard of the band Sleigh Bells, you’ve definitely heard them. Maybe while catching up on Gossip Girl or watching the opening scene of The Bling Ring. Or by simply being within however many feet of whatever venue they’re rocking out at. (They don’t call it noise pop for nothing.) Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss formed Sleigh Bells in 2008. Miller, a former guitarist in the hardcore band Poison the Well, had mix tapes and a vision, but needed a female vocalist to bring his project to life. Krauss was a former teen pop star who was teaching at an elementary school and singing wedding gigs on the side. The two talents crashed into one another when Krauss and her mother dined at a Williamsburg restaurant where Miller was waiting tables. They’ve been churning out raucous pop ever since.

Sleigh Bells burst onto the scene with 2010’s critically-acclaimed Treats, which was packed full of hits like “Rill Rill” and “Crown on the Ground.” Despite a grueling touring schedule, the duo managed to release their sophomore album Reign of Terror only two years later, featuring the lead single “Comeback Kid.” Sleigh Bell’s first two albums are hardcore mixed with honey. Their sound melds thrash metal with pop melodies, as Krauss shouts her pep rally chants over heavy guitar work and electronic explosions. Sleigh Bell’s new record, Bitter Rivals, which was released on October 8, seamlessly fits into their canon. The record treats diehard fans to the high-voltage Sleigh Bells aesthetic they know and love, but also expands on the young band’s repertoire, adding more challenging melodies and stronger R&B influences into the mix.

Taking a break from touring Bitter Rivals, Krauss spoke to The Daily Beast about the inspiration for the album—and what it means to have a dog on tour.

So Sleigh Bells has released three albums in the past four years, and it seems like you guys are constantly touring as well. Why the rush?

It’s weird. It didn’t feel rushed at all. We started working on new material essentially immediately after we started touring Reign of Terror, and that wasn’t because anybody was forcing us to. We left Reign of Terror in such a good place—you know we started making that record in such a dark place, especially for Derek. He lost his father, and then his mom was very sick. By the time we were wrapping up the recording for Reign of Terror and writing songs like “Comeback Kid” the music felt totally re-energized, and was coming from a much brighter, more positive place. And so we just kind of felt this restlessness and this need to continue working. And that’s what did.

But did you ever find the grind of creating new material exhausting?

For us it just felt like going to work every day at a job that you really enjoy. We would work until we were no longer inspired and then we’d go home and take a couple of days off. After four or five months we had about fifteen songs that we were really proud of, and about ten songs that we felt really comfortable putting on a record, and so we did! We just decided to go with it and put it out and ultimately make our fans happy and make ourselves happy. We love being in a band, we love touring, we love writing; it’s what gives us our sense of purpose and pride.

[Dog barks, shuffling noises]

I’m sorry, give me one second, my dog’s like running into the venue. I have my dog on tour, which is a blast, but sometimes she likes to run into the venues and run around the stage.

So since you’re basically always either on tour or in the studio, what’s better?

The studio is such a rich and prolific time, at least the last experience was. We would go in and we sort of never felt that we were lacking ideas, and never felt that we had to work really hard to pull something exciting out from ourselves. But the reward that you get from playing your music in front of people is definitely unlike anything else. And this record in particular because it just feels so fun and so full of energy, it’s a real pleasure to play live. You know some of the songs on Reign of Terror were pretty depressing and pretty melancholy, so there wasn’t that same euphoria around playing them live. Now these songs, they feel a little bit more like Treats to me, because they have that same sense of abandon about. Kids are incredibly uninhibited when they come to our shows, they dance and scream and sweat and act crazy.

How do you think your sound evolved on this album?

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This record feels like it couldn’t have been made without Treats and Reign of Terror, it sort of needed those two records in order to exist. But at the same time this feels very new for us, a lot of the territory that we explored on this album was definitely uncharted. We took a lot of risks on this record, we had a lot of moments in the studio where we would finish recording something—like I distinctly remember after we finished “You Don’t Get Me Twice” and we were listening back over and over again and we kept kind of looking over at each other and saying like, “Can we do this? Is this a Sleigh Bells song? Should we give this to another band or keep this as like a little studio project, because I don’t really know if we can get away with this?”

Ultimately we decided just to not in any way be hindered or restricted by genre or by people’s expectations of what our music should sound like. We didn’t put a lot of thought into the music we were making, it just sort of came out, and ultimately we ended up going with it. It feels like a more evolved record, because we weren’t feeling in any way like we had to create music that sounded like one thing or was one thing. I think it’s much more, I don’t want to use the word experimental, but it’s much more broad in terms of influences and definitely takes you in lots of different directions. You have a song like “Young Legends” which is very R&B pop song and then a song like “Minnie” which is some weird, mutant punk meets twisted pep rally thing.

Were there any specific musical influences that inspired Bitter Rivals?

While I was doing a lot of the melody work on this record, I was super inspired by early Janet Jackson. Like, I think Rhythm Nation is one of my favorite records and that song in particular is just so bonkers. It’s one of the most bizarre pop songs I’ve ever heard. It goes in like 500 different directions, the production is wildly creative and diverse, and yet it’s still pop music. It’s still very hook-y and very catchy. And so I think I was interested in writing hooks and writing songs that had that strangeness about them, but that were also very melodic and hopefully very catchy. License to Ill by the Beastie Boys is another example of a record that is completely uninhibited. It goes in totally different directions but still somehow manages to feel cohesive.

And what influences did Derek bring to the record?

Derek was listening to a ton of Michael Jackson. He’s obsessed with Quincy Jones. I mean what musician isn’t? And then he was listening to like a lot of Zeppelin, and sort of geeking out over Jimmy Paige in a way that he’s never done before. I think when you listen to the guitar work on this album it’s definitely a lot less metal. Whereas he was listening to like Mutt Lange and Def Leppard for Reign of Terror, and Reign of Terror definitely had that sort of density and that intricacy, but with this record it’s sort of much more straightforward and scrappier. It feels like a leaner record to me.

It seems like a lot of your favorite artists are pop musicians. How do you feel about your own music being classified as pop? Is that something you embrace or run away from?

I was much more involved in the writing process for this record, and my influences have always been more in the pop and soul world. Janet Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Sam Cooke… I’ve always loved singing that music and writing that music. And so because I was doing a lot more writing on this record that’s kind of what was coming out of me. And Derek grew up playing hardcore but he was also like listening to Belinda Carlisle obsessively. I’ve never felt like pop was a dirty word. I think that some of the most interesting music is essentially pop music, but pop music that’s done in a different way, pop music that isn’t formulaic or generic. I think when pop’s done right it’s really exciting, and it’s this very liberating, expansive genre.

What is your dynamic with Derek like? Is it hard having such a close creative partner?

When Derek and I met we were total strangers, so it took us awhile to learn to trust each other in a creative, collaborative way. It’s not easy to put yourself on the line and share ideas with somebody new without feeling judged, and we just sort of reached a place where we were comfortable enough with one another, and trusting enough with one another to share our ideas.

Derek had a very clear vision for the band when we started and I was happy to plug into that vision, but as the band became much more of my full time identity, it was really important to me that I was able to become an equal partner in the creative process. And that’s definitely what’s happened. And I think for Derek it’s been nice to relinquish some control, and he’s really excited by the way we work together now, because he gets to work on the production and work on the tracks and hand it over to me and see where I’ll take it and see what I do with it. It’s always really good to have someone setting the bar really high.

What’s the inspiration behind the album name, Bitter Rivals?

Derek, as the primary lyricist, was interested in the idea that, whether it’s an internal battle against yourself or against somebody else, your rival is often the person that pushes you to be the best person that you can be. So I think it’s the idea that you’re my rival but I sort of need you for survival. In less abstract terms he’s a huge sports fanatic, and is just obsessive about certain players, whether it's Jordan or Larry Bird. He’s sort of obsessed with the psychology of competition, what motivates people to achieve greatness.

What was the thought process behind having “Be good to each other” flash across the screen at the end of the “Bitter Rivals” music video?

Even though we have this song called “Bitter Rivals”, we didn’t want people to take it too seriously. It’s a song that has a toughness and abrasiveness to it, but it’s not an angry song. So we ended it on that note, which is sort of silly and playful, but also true. I mean, “Be good to each other,” you can’t have any more valid or simplistic advice than that. And seeing that it was the first song we were putting out we wanted people to understand that this record had a balance between being tough and confrontational but also being incredibly positive. But we also always end our videos in a ridiculous way. It’s not really something that we spend that much time thinking about. Be good to each other felt like a pretty universal, solid statement.

But do you ever feel like you’re trying to inspire your fans through lyrics?

There have definitely been a few lyrics that have been interpreted by our fans as being something super motivational. I know a lot of kids have identified with “Dear heart, don’t stop fighting” from “Riot Rhythm.” I’ve seen kids like get that tattooed on them, and people have told me that lyric propelled them forward through a time of serious adversity. So it’s always interesting to see what people do with lyrics and how they become personal anthems. I don’t think that’s ever our intention, but the result is often unexpected. So it’s great. I’ve had kids tell me that they listened to Treats while they were running a marathon, or that Reign of Terror helped them overcome the loss of a family member. For some people it’s just party music, and for other people it becomes something much more significant.