The Jingle of Sleigh Bells
Indie rock has steadily mined and reforged the past’s sonic potential, whether it’s refashioning ’60s-girl-group melodies into shoegaze or adding synthesizers to turn post-punk into danceable electro. Brooklyn, New York, duo Sleigh Bells are one of the first, however, to make the 2000s seem vintage. When they released their four-song demo in 2009, the genre listed in iTunes was “dream crunk”—an apt, made-up genre for a sound that encompasses Jock Jams synth bleats, arena-rock guitar riffs, and alternately breathy and freakishly impassioned vocals from lead lady Alexis Krauss.
Songwriter/guitarist/producer Derek E. Miller met Krauss, a former teen pop singer and Nickelodeon-commercial star, in 2008 while waiting tables at a Brazilian restaurant in New York. Krauss was dining with her mother, who brought up the idea of the two working together after Miller (formerly of hardcore band Poison the Well) mentioned he was looking for a female singer for his project.
“We started talking and quickly realized we had similar interests,” Miller says. “She liked what I was saying about rhythm, melody, volume, etc. After our first few recording ‘sessions,’ we felt like we had something exciting.”
That very quickly turned into a four-song demo released last year and interest from singer M.I.A., who signed the band to her NEET Recordings, and the release of this year’s full-length album Treats, which has garnered solid acclaim across the board as one of the year’s most beguiling and wonderfully bewildering releases. It’s commercial—Honda used its track “Riot Rhythm” in a spot for its CR-Z sport hybrid—yet lo-fi and static-laden.
While a song such as “Rill Rill” (a modified, Brit-soul-style rendition of the song “Ring Ring” from the demo) has the potential for widespread airplay, songs such as “Straight A’s,” a 1.5-minute blast of hardcore guitars and tweezed-out screaming vocals, make Sleigh Bells seem like alien 6-year-olds burning you with a giant magnifying glass—like what should have been the soundtrack for Space Jam.
That youthful exuberance seems to stem from two music-industry veterans figuring out something new from familiar parts. “The sound developed over time, I suppose,” Miller says. “I didn’t get into beat production until early 2008, so it’s still really new to me. I bought cheap drum machines thinking they would eventually be replaced by a drummer but ended up liking the way it sounded. I’m not sure how to describe it; the sound is still changing.”
But of all its tricks, one of the most distinctive elements of Sleigh Bells’ music are its coma-awakening guitars. Despite the fact that much of indie rock has turned down the knobs in recent years to emphasize tonality and clarity over fuzz and bombast, Miller isn’t concerned.
“I didn’t play guitar for years, but I’m getting back into it,” Miller says. “I’m not sure what indie music is, if it’s anything, and I don’t think we belong to it, if it actually exists. I just sit and work on things until I’m satisfied, which lasts for about a week, at which point, I get back to work.”
Perhaps Miller’s methodical nature isn’t surprising, given the music skillfully toes the line between over-the-top absurdist exhilaration and more-layered moments of musical depth. “Run the Heart” recalls Kelis and Rihanna in their most tender, offbeat moments, with a hard-hitting beat, surf-metal guitar, and ah-ah R&B sighs underpinning such heartsick lyrics as “I wanna wanna hang a name on you,” and “You take a heart; I can take out two.”
“I never know [when it goes too far or not far enough],” he says. “I try to avoid thinking about it at all. The most important part of the creative process is knowing how to get out of the way. Ideas want to happen, [and] analysis and questioning create roadblocks.”
Naturally, not everyone’s hip to it. Sleigh Bells are still a critic’s band, lauded by most respected publications but with their fair share of haters (the kind who might type “h8rz”) on the Web. Miller told Pitchfork earlier this year he believes that in the future, ignoring negative press will be as important as making memorable music.
“Human beings are sensitive and reactive by nature,” Miller says. “Wrongheaded ideas can plant themselves in your brain and affect the way you work. Stay away!”
While Sleigh Bells continue to drown out naysayers with their explosively loud and energetic live shows, the band also look toward the future—naturally.
“We already have a ton of new material,” Miller says. “It’s still pretty rough, I’m not sure how to describe it . . . romantic and violent? The mood and tone are very different.”
New-romantic, AutoTuned, nu-metal garage pop? Time will tell.
Sleigh Bells perform at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Tues., 9 p.m. $15. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Future No Wave Crunk Trash: Sleigh Bells are reinventing the present."
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