Sleigh Bells On “Jessica Rabbit”

Sleigh Bells are back and in rare form on new album Jessica Rabbit. Following an amicable split from their former label, the duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller formed their own label Torn Clean, to afford themselves a non-compromising approach to craft, marketing and business. The resulting sounds are braver than ever, more emotional, and more pleasing, perhaps because they are not so eager to please. 

Singer Alexis Krauss joined ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann to discuss the brave new venture, the decision to work with hip hop producer Mike Elizondo, and the band’s enduring relationship with the fans who mean more than anything.

Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking for the release of your new album “Jessica Rabbit” and you’re heading back out on tour in November – though you already played a string of dates in September… so how’s the mood in the Sleigh Bells camp?

Alexis Krauss: The mood in the camp is great – there’s a lot of excitement moving forward and there’s a big sigh of relief after playing that first batch of shows because I never personally take it for granted that people are going to show up when we announce a show. It seems like an eternity since we played our last shows, even though it hasn’t been. When you embark on a new tour and a new album, and have people actually show up and have a blast while you play to a full room – that’s really inspiring, rewarding, and encouraging. It felt great.

We’ve just wrapped shooting a video for a new song called “I Can Only Stare” – which will be released soon, and I’m very keen to embark on this next tour, and we’re playing a few shows in London in a couple of weeks, which I’m looking forward to, so yes – the mood in the camp is very positive. Obviously releasing an album is always a bit anxiety inducing, there’s a lot of opinions that can be formed, so all of that is yet to be seen, but I think the most important thing is that we’re very proud of what we made, and we’re confident about it, so I think we should be good!

CF: Talking about this album, this is the first time that Sleigh Bells has released music through their own label, Torn Clean. Taking Sleigh Bells from a world that was ‘just music’ to one that now encompasses business must have come with some trepidations, but I was wondering what have you learned from the experience – and what has it brought into your view of music and the way you present it to the world?

AK: I think ultimately the decision to start Torn Clean and to release this album ourselves came from a place of wanting to have 100% creative control, and to have as much autonomy over the decisions that were being made about how the record was made, released and marketed. We had been fortunate in the passed to work with Mom and Pop (records) and have a lot of those thing present, but self-releasing is the ultimate way to ensure that you’re doing things on your own terms. That was the primary motivation behind it.

We were also also trying to figure out how we were going to release the record for a little while, and we ended up leaving our Mom and Pop relationship on good terms, but y’know we’d had some differences of opinion about what the record should look like, and what the record should sound like, and ultimately Derek and I can be pretty stubborn about things. We’re not very good at playing the game and making decisions that are focused on anything other than the songs – that’s sometimes a blessing, that’s sometimes a curse. There really was no grand strategy here other than putting it out exactly how we wanted. It remains to be seen how things are going to work! (Laughs)

We definitely… it’s been interesting doing the marketing ourselves, and we’ve lucky to work with Orchard and they’ve been great… but it’s a lot more work because we’re our own record label and we’re responsible for things that in the passed we took for granted.

It’s been an eye-opening time for us, and I’m really learning that we should never take things for granted. In this climate people are so numbers driven and even small labels are having a really hard time making ends meet, it’s very difficult for artists to put out music that… without there being a financial goal in mind. Obviously we need to pay our rent and that’s why we tour as much as possible, when we are promoting an album. Record labels, understandably so, have to be really strategic about how they release music and what music they release, and we just didn’t want to be a part of that whole game.

CF: You’re speaking of the focus on pushing commercial singles…

Ak: Exactly! We’re not really a commercial band, we never have been, we never will be… We’ve been been fortunate to have a lot of great things happen to us around music, and that’s raised our profile, and we had to ask ourselves “Are we going to go down that path of alternative radio band, or are we going to go down the path of making a record that fulfills us?“ and we chose the latter.

CF: There’s a certain pop sensibility to the album at times, especially on tracks like “I can’t stand you any more” and “I can only stare”. You’ve just spoken a little on this, but now you’re on your own label did you feel any pressure to be accessible, to move a little more toward the masses?

AK: I think initially, in the very beginning there was a little of that pressure, but that was not coming from us, that was more coming from people we were working with -the people pushing us in that direction, which is totally understandable. I think ultimately there was a rebellion against all that, and there’s definitely a pop sensibility on the record – for sure – but to me the heart of the record is it’s strangeness and rebelliousness held against the pop side of things.

Songs like ‘As If” … I think we found a happy medium where we able to make the really self-indulgent songs that we wanted to make that clearly aren’t commercial and then I think we just learned how to be, in my opinion, better song writers who are able to write songs that can take an audience there – and you’re absolutely right… it has a more traditional arrangement and a more traditional pop sound in a way.

Songs like that were definitely influenced by working with Mike Elizondo who is a great songwriter, and is responsible for a lot of really huge songs. It was less about “You guys are going to write a hit” and more about “Okay you guys are songwriters who respect the craft – how can you make this melody better, and this chord more exciting?” It wasn’t about “Let’s write a great hook” it was “Let’s write a great song” I think that’s why that balance exists – because we pushed ourselves to really flesh out our choruses and really think about every line of our verses and make sure they were as strong as they should be.

I don’t think we were trying to have a commercial sound – I think we were just trying to execute in a better way.

CF: The pop elements actually sound more subversive on the album, you pull from a range of different genres, so I was wondering if that was the intention; to disrupt the norm?

AK: I don’t think it’s an intention, I think it’s just the result of following all of our creative impulses and not reining them in that makes us appealing to one particular group of people, or one particular expectation. I think it’s actually about being as self-indulgent as possible. Taking risks, and stepping outside your own expectations of the band saying “Can we get way with this?!? And then ultimately deciding that we can (Laughs) I think “I can’t stand you any more” is a perfect example of that approach. I remember working on that song and thinking “Oh no! Is this way off?!?!” and we were both like “I don’t know!” but then we just thought “F*** it – it’s going to be a Sleigh Bells song”.

It’s the same thing with “Torn Clean”; Derek sent me the tracks and worked on the vocal and they are what they are. It was really consciously – it was just a part of the song – then part of the album. There was definitely no strategy for the album. Most of the songs that ended up on the album are just the songs that we kept listening to and kept loving after months and months and months. We wrote a lot of music for this album and 50% of it didn’t make the cut.

CF: You chose Jessica Rabbit as the title – which is interesting in terms of not being held back. She’s such a sex symbol in animation! Since you guys blend all of these elements of culture – I was wondering how Sleigh Bells lends itself to the blending of the real and the imaginary?

AK: Derek has definitely been talking about the theme of being slightly delusional! And the inspiration for “Jessica Rabbit” was this character that’s absurd, a cartoon character that he had a crush on when he was little. He spoke of the terms that she wasn’t real and he could never have her – but he never stopped wanting her wanting her – he had his sights set on her. And so I think there are a lot of ways that speaks to this record. You don’t think you can do something, you don’t think you can pull it off, but then you try and you manage. There’s the idea that you’re never allowing failure to hold you back but to push you forward, because if now the consequences can be dire.

The idea is that you can be really stubborn about music, because where else can you have that freedom in your life – to just do something without having to dot your ‘i’s and cross your ‘t’s. I think, like I said, this is a very personal album – and not one that we expect everyone to get, or understand or like, but I think we’ve always been a polarising band and I’m okay with that. There are certainly some things that are staying, and I’d rather people like our band than hate our band but it means we’re doing something interesting. Hopefully!

CF: David Bowie said that it’s like walking out into the water – and that point where you start to float and your feet are only just touching the ground beneath is the place where you want to be…

AK: Definitely! We were often uncomfortable in the making of this album because we were doing things that we haven’t done before and it was very scary as a result, but ultimately very rewarding… so I definitely identify with that.

CF: So, you mentioned working with Mike Elizondo – he’s famous for working with Dr. Dre and Eminem in the past. I read that you guys had never brought anyone into the studio to work on material with you – so I was wondering what it was like to bring another creative force into the studio and letting them into that world?

AK: Any sort of reservations that we had immediately fell by the wayside because he had a way of becoming a part of the creative process without ever feeling like he was an imposter. He has this great way of adapting and getting inside the heads of the people that he’s working with. He’s never doing it for a reason other than he loves music and he loves artists and he wants to make great music… he’s a really good human being! (Laughs)

We had a prior experience – we worked with Chris Vane who is another producer and we didn’t end up using any of the material but it really warmed us up to the idea of working with Mike because we did realize that collaborating with other people could be positive. It’s not that we didn’t think that collaboration would benefit the band, it’s just we were stubbornly trying to push the band together. But then you start to think of how many great ideas go into great albums, we realized that we were being foolish by not giving that a chance.

CF: You also worked for a second time with Andrew Dawson, when mixing the album. He’s also known for working with the hip hop community like Kanye and Tyler… It seems like you brought a lot of hip hop production into the studio and I wondered what it was about the genre that you find so innovative?

AK: Well, I think for Derek especially – our production has been influenced by hip hop more than any other genre. So working with people like Andrew and Mike who really understand kick drums and synth patches and have these amazing libraries that Derek can utilize is amazing. Derek is much more interested in nerding out about kicks and snares than he is talking about guitar amps – so it’s a natural alliance there! (Laughs)

Everything we do is electronic, with the exception of recording live guitars and vocals so working with someone like Mike who understands how to get great sounds off software is super important.

CF: To move over to your side of the world a little bit. Jessica Rabbit seems to bring out the best of your voice, more so perhaps than Sleigh Bells records of the past. I was wondering if going into the studio was there a desire to put your vocals more center stage or did it just end up that way?

AK: Well, I think both! Because I’m much more involved in the writing process no than I was in the past, when I write for my voice I’m much more inclined to write in a way that sounds like Jessica Rabbit. I like singing in an emotional, intense way, my idols are Etta James and Sam Cook – those are the vocalists that I’m attracted to, the people who have that sort of cry mournfulness in their voices, as if their voices are at the limit of breaking apart.

I think I was really interested in singing that way, but also for the first time the production and tracks merit that kind of vocal delivery, whereas in the past singing that way would have just sounded wrong. Also Derek was writing music to cater to my voice – he was writing and creating songs in keys that would flatter my voice in that. We thought more in that way “let’s have a vocal that sits in this way and lifts in this way” So yes, we would definitely think more about the placement of the vocal in the track than we did before.

CF: You’re going back out on stage in November – Sleigh Bells is known for putting on high energy intense performances, but what’s a good night on stage for you?

AK: It doesn’t matter if it’s a small stage or a festival, it’s all about reciprocity and what I’m giving to the crowd and what they’re giving back. I love that, and I thrive off of that energy. I feel we’re doing our job if people are uninhibited and dancing and going along with us. I also understand that people enjoy shows in different ways, so if you want to stand at the back with your arms closed that’s okay… (Laughs) but I’d much rather you were dancing!

CF: Over the course of the last nine years you’ll have had a fair share of rock ‘n’ roll experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?

AK: That’s a really good question. A most grounding moment… I think my most grounding moments are when I have personal interactions with our fans. There’s this one woman, Bailey, she’s been coming to our shows since 2010 and we’ve seen her grow from this younger teenager, and her last show she turned up in Detroit with her fiance because she was about to get married, be a married woman. I was like “Ooooh little Bailey is now here with her partner!”

To know that the band is now old enough to be an important part of people’s lives, and to be something that they carried with them when they were angsty teens in high school to mature adults about to start families and careers. To think we’ve achieved that kind of… I don’t want to say longevity… because we’re a baby band – but we’re becoming a part of people’s lives, and we’re not just a buzz band, and we’re on our fourth record, and we’re committed and we’re in this for the long haul.

Those moments are pretty poignant – and people are invested in us and we’re invested in them, and to see that kind of loyalty is very grounding, and very humbling, and I’m very interested in the relationships in the people that support our music. Our band is very lucky, we don’t court a lot of… we’re not into social media… we don’t court drama, a lot of our relationships are super positive, so I think that’s a very unique position and I feel very fortunate.

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