Do Not Adjust Your iPod
On a sunny afternoon in Atlanta, the New York rock duo Sleigh Bells arrives for sound check at a venue called Vinyl, a sports-bar-sized room in a confusing triple-stage compound. A Braves game is on TV, and the room is practically empty except for a promoter stabbing at a salad.
The door opens and guitarist Derek Miller walks in, wearing shorts and a backpack. "This is Vinyl, right?" Told that it is, he promptly starts setting up. Miller, 29, is battle-scarred after six years playing in Florida hardcore band Poison the Well, which he joined at age 16. He has a bulldog's tenacity and a state trooper's affinity for dark Ray-Bans, and he's built like a spark plug: small, hard, coursing with electricity.
Joining him is singer Alexis Krauss, 24, who emerges from the band's touring van in a black tank top, black cutoff jeans and $8 Kmart canvas shoes with a hole in one toe. "I move around a lot," she tells Vinyl's sound man, understating what will happen six hours later when she douses fans with water, springs into jumping jacks, hops into the crowd and pulls a young woman onstage to sing. "This song is called 'Kids,' " she'll inform the audience. "You should dance. It's fun."
The cover of Sleigh Bells' debut album, Treats, depicts a pyramid of cheerleaders — their teenage smiles defaced beyond recognition — and Krauss sometimes seems to be one of those twisted pom-pom girls. She's a peppy vocalist with a dark side, a former kiddie-pop singer now draped with tattoos, a gripping performer who fuses Karen O's art-punk theatrics with OJ Da Juiceman's gasping rap. Her voice often is buried beneath an avalanche of Miller's guitar, but instead of crying out for help, she seems to be crooning the Shangri-Las.
This tension between mirth and menace makes Sleigh Bells the year's most compelling new band. With Treats (released in May on Mom+Pop Records) and in their brutal, thrilling concerts — October 15 at the Hollywood Bowl and October 20 at El Rey — Krauss and Miller distort the boundary between art and noise.
Their melodies are almost childlike, often resembling school-yard chants or nursery rhymes, yet their rhythms pile heavy-metal riffage atop cheap mechanical beats that emphasize kicks, claps and snaps. Every element in the mix is full-blast, forcing Krauss' voice to fight for attention. Lyrics are indecipherable and so beside the point that Sleigh Bells hasn't bothered to print them.
While Krauss and Miller are hardly the first to deconstruct rock & roll, they're among the most successful to harness such sonic extremes since Nirvana. Every Sleigh Bells song is made to sound broken. The blown-out bass tones, the bone-saw guitar, the listener's sense of disorientation — that's all supposed to be there, even when it sounds like a recording flub.
Sleigh Bells makes no distinction between beauty and terror.
The overpowering effect of their music is in realizing how intertwined the two really are. Onstage, at two different lulls during the Atlanta sound check, Miller's guitar drifts into other bands' tunes: One is the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," the other is Slayer's "Angel of Death."
Krauss and Miller both had musical childhoods. Krauss' father was a professional singer and guitarist, and she was a classically trained pianist with Broadway dreams. Miller learned guitar as a kid, and by eighth grade was carrying his instrument to school along with a loose-leaf sheet of paper listing all the songs he knew, so that classmates could make requests. In high school he drove a pickup truck with a 10-inch woofer behind the seats (all the better to blare Pantera). He started touring around the time his classmates attended their first prom.
Krauss got her start with a now-notorious stint in the kiddie-pop quartet Rubyblue; the band tanked, but she gained enough experience to launch her career as a singer. She moved from her childhood Jersey Shore home to New York in 2003 to attend Marymount Manhattan College, paying the bills with her voice: She sang in a wedding band, which stretched her range from Ella Fitzgerald to AC/DC. She worked as a vocal coach. And she performed demo or "scratch" vocals for professional songwriters wanting to shop their material. The work strengthened her chops, kept her in the business and made her the kind of vocalist who could sing just about anything.
Krauss graduated college in 2007 and began teaching bilingual fourth grade at P.S. 30 in the South Bronx. In July 2008 she took her mother, a nurse, to dinner at Miss Favela, a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn. Miller was their waiter. He'd just moved to New York after a long dormant period following his amicable 2004 departure from Poison the Well, which had scraped its way up to playing 1,000-seat venues before he quit and moved home to South Florida, bar-backing to make ends meet.
In his free time Miller wrote music and lyrics for a new groove-based project he called Sleigh Bells, a name he chose in 2005 after realizing that it wasn't taken and he wouldn't be sued for using it. He built primitive rhythms on tabletop drum machines, and he played guitar over those beats. Still, he wanted Sleigh Bells to be a band, which meant he needed a singer. At dinner that night, Krauss' mom suggested her daughter.
"I was a good session singer," Krauss says the day after the Atlanta show. We're all in a Nashville pub just down the street from the night's venue. "But I wasn't writing music. I wasn't dedicated to music in any way. I had no delusions of anything happening, nor did I want anything to happen. I was perfectly fine being behind the scenes."
Krauss agreed to meet Miller for a session. She figured it'd be fun to try, and then she'd go back to teaching in the fall. Will Hubbard, a boyhood friend of Miller's who went on to become Sleigh Bells' manager, lent his apartment for the occasion. Accommodations were rustic. A noisy air conditioner had to be shut off, so the room was sweltering.
Miller had recorded the tracks onto his computer, which meant Krauss had to sing into the face of an open laptop, capturing her voice on an internal microphone. She sang standing up, with the laptop resting at eye level on a pile of books stacked on a bar stool atop a coffee table. "We didn't even know each other," Miller says, turning to Krauss. "And you were so responsive. I remember we were kind of feeling it out because I knew how I wanted it to sound. I had very specific ideas, but doing something percussive as far as delivery's concerned was new to you. I could tell you were uncomfortable, but you were totally up for it and you were never intimidated."
By January 2009, Miller had enough Sleigh Bells material to post some songs on MySpace. After the school year ended that summer, Krauss committed to the band.
Blog hype began almost instantaneously, with mainstream press attention soon to follow. "I definitely had an inkling that they were special," says Miller's friend Molly Young, one of the first online writers to champion the band. "I mean, I hadn't heard anything like those songs. And when I played them on my computer, I thought, 'Oh, shit, my computer speakers are broken. This sucks. I need to get a new Mac,' 'cause it's so fuzzed out. But they're just songs that are made to be played really loud."
"The quietest moments on this record are almost as loud as the loudest moments on almost every other record," says Shane Stoneback, who engineered Treats with Miller. The two broke every rule in the book, almost literally: "I was doing some things where it says outright in the manual, 'Don't do this.' "
Just as T-Pain's infamous robot voice bastardizes the Auto-Tune software (which was designed to correct pitch, not make R&B singers sound like droids), Miller and Stoneback manipulated technology to create Treats' pixilated sonic overload. They pushed Miller's thumping beats and squalling guitars so far past normal recording levels that the audio quality began to deteriorate. Then they ran the deteriorated sound through a compressor "to make the loudest thing quieter and the quietest thing louder, thereby compressing the whole dynamic," Stoneback says. "Once you've squished the whole thing down, you can make everything louder."
"I still feel like a 5-year-old discovering a fucking Slinky or something," Miller says, "when I stand in front of a subwoofer and low end drops, and wind hits your face. I'm just, like, 'How?' I understand music. You can describe the process scientifically, but it's just like your whole body. I know that if it's loud enough that I would be destroyed — like, my atoms would split."
By 6:30 p.m., a line has already formed outside the End, the sold-out 200-capacity Nashville dive where Sleigh Bells will perform at 11:15. It's a drizzly evening, so the club lets fans in early. Krauss hangs at the bar, drinking a Bud Light and reading the Nashville Scene, which has published a story about her and Miller called "The Slayer and the Belle."
Every so often, fans approach. The bartender wants a picture. A bald guy wants a picture. "Alexis, can I talk to you?" It's a 19-year-old fan named Tess Little. "At the Valarium you kissed me and gave me your glove." In concert, Krauss sometimes invites a fan to sing a song with her — just as she did in Atlanta — and back in March at the Valarium in Knoxville, Tennessee, Little had been the lucky fan. "You made my life," Little goes on. "You're like my role model. I'm fucking obsessed with you." Krauss hugs her admirer, and then slips backstage.
A few hours later, Sleigh Bells' set begins with a tolling church bell, a sound Miller found on YouTube. This intro music, along with every beat fans hear throughout the show, originates from Miller's iPod — the house lights go down, someone presses play and the music begins. The band does not hide this. Indeed, at two points every night, Miller sets down his guitar, steps offstage and leaves Krauss alone with the backing track. This is not like lip-synching, which pretends to be something it's not. Sleigh Bells songs have always been made and played cheaply, so that's what you get in concert.
One consequence is that the set list remains the same every night — the songs are all stored on one 32-minute track. There's no time for rambling banter, no room for improvisation. Once the show starts, it doesn't stop.
Nashville amounts to the Platonic ideal of a Sleigh Bells concert. The room is a sweaty shoe box. The crowd knows the songs, and the band plays almost its entire recorded catalog. Tess Little gets another chance to sing onstage. And at the very end, as the last chords of "Crown on the Ground" ring out, Krauss crowd-surfs on her back — propped up by hand after hand, reaching out to touch a rising star.
Sleigh Bells will open for LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip at the Hollywood Bowl at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, and will headline at the El Rey at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 20.
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