“It’s screaming into a pillow. Getting it all out…” - Sleigh Bells talk their riotous return on new album Texis
It’s been a long time since we had anything new to dig into from riotous rock duo Sleigh Bells, but that changes today.
The pair formed back in 2008, with guitarist Derek Miller coming together with singer Alexis Krauss. From age 17 to 22, Miller was the guitarist in the post-hardcore band Poison the Well, but left in 2004 citing creative differences and a desire to make music that was a little less earnest.
Krauss had been in teen pop band RubyBlue as a teenager, but, after they split went to college and made a living teaching Spanish at an elementary school in The Bronx, until a bizarre meeting with Miller.
Miller had begun working at a Brazilian bistro in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in July, Krauss and her mother came in.
During their dine, Miller spoke to the pair about his desire to find a singer for his new project and Krauss was volunteered by her mother. The two met in a park, where she listened to Miller's demos and it’s gone from there.
Together the pair have made four albums of acerbic, powerful rock, with Miller’s walls of guitars colliding beautifully with Krauss’s soaring vocals. Their last, Jessica Rabbit, came in 2016, and, after completing touring commitments, they’ve taken some time apart. But now they’re back with Texis, a brand new effort and an album steel in the same riotous energy as their very first work.
With the album now on shelves, we spoke to the pair about its creation and why it’s a taken a while to come together…
It’s been five years since your last record, was that by accident or by design?
Derek: “We did an EP at the end of 2017. That was seven songs, so by no means a full length, but it felt substantial. Then we’d planned to be back much sooner, but the pandemic has added at least a year. In March of 2020, we landed in Los Angeles and we were ready to start mixing the record and within 48 hours everything had shut down. It was hard to be too disappointed, things were going on that were much, much bigger than this band. I was more worried about my friends and family than I was about Sleigh Bells.”
Alexis: “The added time did benefit the album, in a weird way. We had more perspective and more time to sit with the record.”
Did you have it in mind to do anything differently from what you’d done on Jessica Rabbit?
Derek: “It was mostly seeing what happened, but in the back of my mind, I wanted more focus and more cohesion. I love our last two records, but you can hear a searching and you can hear two people looking to find what this band really is. This record has more of an identity. I’d like to say that’s deliberate, but I feel like that’s something that’s really not in your control. You can’t force anything. On this record, I really tried to not be self-conscious and work until I felt excited to call Alexis. I’m that guy. I make her stop and listen to the demo right there. I’d work I’d textbomb Alexis.”
Alexis: “I always try and listen to his demos as quickly as I can because I know that every minute I delay is just torture for him. Everything he sent me that made the record felt really good. That’s not always the case. Our last EP, Kid Krushev, it really opened the door for this album, it allowed us to have a rawness again and feel excited.”
Derek: “I don’t feel like we’re trying to recapture the band who made Treats, but it feels in that groove. It’s not a retread, it has a spirit and freshness. I don’t feel like we’ve had a comfort zone for the last few years and this record was trying to find it.”
You said that you wanted to let the music guide you and not think too much, did that mean writing a lot of stuff and throwing it away? Or did you lock onto a sound early on?
Derek: “There was a lot of material and a lot of it didn’t make it to completion. We finished Kid Krushev in the summer of 2017 and this record is everything that’s happened since. There was a bit of searching. There are probably 20 sessions that didn’t make it and those have great moments, but they didn’t fit this album. I’ll probably go back to them someday.”
Musicians are forever telling us that they’re dusting off old songs. When do you know when something isn’t working? Is it when it feels like hard work?
Derek: “Sometimes it’s just what songs make sense in a batch. Artists aren’t necessarily the best judge of a song, I can send a friend a bunch of songs and they’ll love the ones I’m not sure about and hate the ones I love.”
Alexis: “Derek has a good ability to know when a song is worth revisiting. He’s entirely comfortable telling me “This will be ready in a year” and setting up himself up for a year’s worth of work.”
Derek: “‘Truth Seekers’, we’ve had that song for four years and we couldn’t get it right. Sometimes your ability as a songwriter catches up with a song.”
You’ve always largely self-produced, so was the making of this record quite literally just the two of you?
Derek: “We had three incredible backup singers for a day and lay down some melodies. That was it. Every time we make it a record, I always think I want to get in a room with a producer, then I’ll work on a song at home and by the time it’s finished, I don’t want to f**k with it and give it to someone else. I’d love to collaborate more in the future, it just needs to be the right time.”
Is it a weird process when you finally play the record to someone else?
Derek: “It is weird. If Alexis doesn’t come back to me for a couple of days, I always assume she hates it.”
Alexis: “Playing music for somebody is the worst. You’re so involved and if you see somebody pick up their phone, you immediately assume they despise it. On this record, I felt really secure about what we’d made and what we stood for, which made playing it for other people easier. We trusted the way these tracks made us feel.”
Is it easy holding onto that confidence when you’ve had to sit on the record for such a long time?
Derek: “We just kept writing. New songs keep your momentum going. Two of those ended up making the record. Both of us had a lot going on too, we didn’t have time to tear the whole thing down.”
How did you guys handle the pandemic as a band? A lot of bands have really struggled as you suddenly couldn’t see the people who were used to seeing 300 days a year…
Derek: “I did my best to do a 180 from how I would have reacted a few years ago. I could have been self-destructive and let the friction get to me. It was a crisis for the planet, my mom’s immune system is seriously compromised, if she comes into contact with Covid it’d be catastrophic. I kept focused. I worked out every day, I didn’t drink or get back into that bulls**t, I made sure the whole thing was sobering.”
Alexis: “It was a relief that we hadn’t just realised any music. A lot of bands were totally devastated. They’d worked for years and had just put out a record or were halfway through a tour. I was happy we didn’t have to scramble and have to do virtual sessions or stop through. We love playing live shows, we knew a livestream wouldn’t work for us, we just focused on the record. Derek and I live really close to each other and we didn’t see anybody, so we became a bubble. It was quite productive.”
What kind of album do you think it is lyrically? Is there a theme to it?
Derek: “It’s definitely not a concept record. There’s this recurring character of Justine, but that’s very, very loose. It’s a cathartic record. The previous administration was difficult to stomach and brought out the worst in people. Quite a bit of that sentiment made it onto the record. It’s screaming into a pillow. Getting it all out. Then feeling a bit lighter on your feet. I’ve always loved Kurt Cobain’s approach, putting something really sincere next to something really absurd. I’m not afraid to be specific and I’m not afraid to be abstract.”
When did you decide that Texis was the right fit for the record title?
Derek: “It had a much longer title and it was quite abstract. I told one of my best friends and he told he didn’t like it and it didn’t mean anything to him. He told me to go looking for one word, and that was always Texis. It has nothing to do with the state of Texas. Titles can be tough, but we really love this one.”
You’re about to head back out on the road, you must be excited…
Alexis: “We’re so excited and we’re trying not to overwhelm ourselves. Every band is going to have to take it show by show and work on that basis. We’re getting our setlist in order now and I can’t wait for our fans to experience the new songs, it’s always been at the forefront of our minds. Touring is going to be different, here in the States every state has a different vaccine policy and we’re going to have to be mindful. But I cannot f**king wait. We’re desperate to get back to London, it’s such an important place for our band.”
How are you going to structure the set? There’s going to be some hard choices…
Derek: “It kills me. There are tracks we’ve never played that I want to play, but so many we feel like we have to. We only like to play a 60-minute set, you can’t afford too many deep cuts. We need to keep the energy as high as possible. It’s a good problem to have though, it’s a real privilege.”
Finally, can you tell us about the cover of Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ you did for The Rhythm Section? How was putting that together? The Nirvana cover of that is pretty iconic too...
Derek: “We were both incredibly intimidated, and, frankly very cautious about doing it. It was scary, but fear isn’t a good reason not to do something.”
Alexis: “We’ve got a great relationship with Reed Morano, the director, she’s been the biggest supporter of our band. She’s worked on our videos and we’ve had the honour of watching her career take off. So when she reached out, we really care about her and wanted to help. It was such a cool process. She’s got such a strong voice and cares so much, for such a big film it felt very intimate. We loved it.”