There are some bands that started out as lifelong friends. Others have meet through friends, family, musicians, or even on Craigslist.
For Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller, their origin story is much more interesting. In 2008, Alexis and her mother were having dinner at a bistro in Brooklyn, which just so happened to be the place Derek was working at. After striking up a conversation, Derek mentioned to them about how he was searching for a female vocalist for a new project he was working on. Alexis’ mother immediately volunteered her. Since that fateful night, the duo have been making some of today’s most original and pulse-pounding music.
Together they make the ridiculously loud and intense electronic rock band, Sleigh Bells. Between Miller’s jarring metal riffs and Krauss’ incredibly catchy choruses, Sleigh Bells have become one of the most exciting live acts in recent memory. They just played for a huge crowd under the Gotham Tent at this year’s Governors Ball and have been on tour with promoting their latest album, Bitter Rivals, since it was released in October of last year.
In anticipation of their return to The Stone Pony on Thursday, I spoke with Alexis about her time growing up in New Jersey, falling off stage, and the writing process behind the latest album.
Pop-Break: I read that you once acted in some Nickelodeon Magazine commercials when you were younger.
Alexis Krauss: (laughs) How old are you?
Pop-Break: I’m 23.
AK: Okay, cool. I’m 28, so you’re younger than me, but I’m glad you remembered them.
PB: (laughs) Did acting when you were younger and teaching later in life help prepare you for performing for huge crowds on tour and at festivals?
AK: I definitely think my experience acting in front of the camera and in theater was helpful in terms of building up my courage in regards to performing in front of a large crowd. When are you that young and you’re working professionally you have to rise the occasion and be wise beyond your years and meet the demands and expectations of those you’re working for. I think of being on stage in a similar way. I have to keep my composure regardless of the variables: regardless of whether it’s a good sounding stage, or it’s not a good crowd or it’s windy or raining. You’re up there to do a job and the show must go on. There was a similar mindset being on stage and acting and being in theater.
With teaching, it doesn’t draw direct parallels, but I did work my ass off as a teacher. I think I approached being in a band with the same sort of passion and discipline, I hope that people perceive my performances as me giving everything I have and giving 150% to the moment. When I was teaching I had a slogan with my students –“Sweat the Small Stuff.” Which for a lot of people it’s “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It’s really about taking pride in every single thing you do and constantly pushing yourself to be better. So, sweating the small stuff is the way I approached running a classroom and the way I approached my students and the way I approach my music. Sometimes the smallest thing, the smallest mistakes, the smallest pitchy notes, you name it, can really be devastating. So I try to motivate myself to be better each and every time I’m on stage.
PB: Did you teach in Jersey?
AK: No actually. I taught in the South Bronx. I moved from Jersey after high school and I went to college in the city and then I was accepted into a program called Teach for America. They place you in some of the neediest, most low-income schools throughout the district. In my case I was put in the South Bronx.
PB: When I first saw you play live it was at the House of Blues in AC where you fell of the stage during “Rill Rill.”
AK: (laughs) God, there was nobody at that show! (laughs). I totally fell off the stage. Recently I had a little bit of a fall, but not as bad as that one. That was the worst fall I ever had. I was stepping across the barricade to get into the crowd and I just underestimated the difference. It was ironic, my fiancee’s band, Wet Witch, played that night and were watching from the second floor, looking directly down on the stage and so was my mom. So my fiancee ran down and my mom was like “Oh my God!” It was nerve-racking, but I was fine. Just knocked the wind out of myself. You gotta be smart and prepared for everything. I’m pretty strong and I consider myself to be pretty tough.
PB: But, that didn’t stop you from singing the song. Is that the general attitude of Sleigh Bells? To not let anything phase you and let the music take over?
AK: Definitely. It’s a very visceral show. For us onstage, as soon as the music starts and as soon we start playing we become transported into the universe of Sleigh Bells. It’s energetic, aggressive, dynamic place to exist in. I like to work the crowd up and get the crowd going. I feel the only way that’s possible is if I’m manifesting a type of energy where we don’t hold back and we go straight the set. We don’t play the longest sets in the world because it’d be a sensory overload in terms of our live show. We don’t want to keep people in a crazed state for too long. It’s definitely like a punch in the face.
PB: Your first album Treats was made up of Derek’s demos, and Reign of Terror was based off a series personal tragedies that he went through. What was the inspiration for Bitter Rivals?
AK: Like you said, Reign of Terror came out of a dark place. I think that record was very cathartic for Derek and by the end he had capped all that melancholy and wanted to do something a bit brighter and a bit more uplifting. You can hear that shift in the music because the last song we recorded for that [album] was “Comeback Kid.” There was definitely a brightness and energy coming out. We just took that and ran with that for Bitter Rivals. It’s like Treats, because it has that fun, carefree energy to it. We made things more melodic and experimented with writing songs that were more traditional in structure and form. We’re so proud of Bitter Rivals, but this was more of a transitional record — transitioning out of Reign of Terror and into something else. Now, I definitely believe the music we’re working on for our fourth album is what the next step is. Our ideas are fully formed and I think we’re writing better songs. It’s interesting how each record is a bridge to the other. You try to anticipate where the music is going to go but it surprises you where it ends up. We’re in that position creatively right now. We’re expecting a certain result but getting a different one and being even more pleased with what we can we expect.
PB: You wrote a lot more on Bitter Rivals. Do you think your writing has changed the course of Sleigh Bells?
AK: The fact I’m writing more and doing the melodies and arranging of songs, I’m using voice in a way that’s more comfortable for me. I’m huge of soul and R&B and that type of vocal performance. I’m trying to integrate that sound into Sleigh Bells’ music which I don’t think we’ve done before. Derek’s not a singer, so there’s only so much he can do. We’re at that point where we’ve put both our egos aside and are doing what’s best for the band. I think Derek had a lot to prove initially and I think now that we’re comfortable, he’s really let me into the process and couldn’t be happier. It’s worked a really great process for us as songwriters, which takes time to do. Writing together is a very intimate process. You have to trust one another. You have to push one another without being judged. It’s complicated but we found out rhythm.
PB: Well, now I’m excited that you mentioned a fourth album.
AK: Yeah, we’re hard at work at it already.
PB: You grew up in New Jersey are coming back to play at The Stone Pony. What is it like to come back home and play at such a famous venue?
AK: We love it. It’s our second time playing there. It is obviously very close to my hometown, I grew up in Manasquan. I have always known of The Stone Pony as a real musical institution — my dad’s performed there, my friends have performed there. It’s iconic and local, it’s the best of both worlds because it has that history and that proximity to my friends and family. It’s lovely. We had a blast the last time we played there, it got pretty rowdy, sweaty and that’s exactly what a Sleigh Bells show should be.
PB: You mentioned your dad, and Bruce Springsteen actually mentioned your dad’s old band in his induction speech for the E Street Band. How does it feel to have the biggest musician on the planet shout out your dad?
AK: Wait, what? What band did he mention?
PB: He mentioned Cats on a Smooth Surface. [Editor’s Note: The band was mentioned during the segment where Springsteen talks about meeting Patti Scialfa.]
AK: Did he really?! Holy shit, I had no idea. Wow, I wonder if my dad knows that? My dad is an incredible performer and musician. He’s an incredible singer, excellent guitar player and that’s all he’s ever done, music and art. It’s a testament to how fucking fickle and strange this business is that somebody like him, who’s a lifer and has worked his ass off for years, and never got that recognition our band got in less than in a year. It goes to show you how much of this business is luck and timing and I’m fully aware of that. He’s very proud of me. Not saying he’s living vicariously through me at all. He was proud of me when I was teaching. He always thought my place was on stage and he’ll be at the show. He’s my number one inspiration for performing and singing growing up without a doubt.
Sleigh Bells performs this Thursday June 12 at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Click here for tickets.
Al Mannarino is a Senior Writer and a frequent contributor to the Singles Party column for Pop-Break as well as the host of the News Over Brews Podcast. He graduated Rowan University with a degree in Radio/TV/Film & History and is currently a Promotions Assistant for Clear Channel Media + Entertainment. When he isn’t writing he is either trying to build his own TARDIS or taking a nap. Follow him on Twitter: @almannarino