Interview: Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells serendipitous getting together back in 2008 is already the stuff of indie legend. A chance meeting in a restaurant led to waiter Derek being hooked up – in the musical sense – with session singer Alexis via her enthusiastic, young-at-heart mother. The quick-fire demos and debut album buzz that’s developed since has propelled Sleigh Bells into a upwards trajectory of the clichéd, meteoric variety. And their music? It’s a loud, manic, wall-of-sound brand of quirky melodic electronica that even the band themselves struggle to define.

Merrily sat in the corner of Whelan’s before their Dublin performance, State meets a pair on top form: they’re riding the crest of a wave that’s built to a peak quickly and organically. For all the love that already surrounds them, it quickly becomes clear that Sleigh Bells believe they’re someway short of their peak, but remain grateful for everything that’s already passed by in a whirlwind 2010. With more than an album’s worth of new material already tucked up their sleeves, the duo are hiding away songs they consider ‘better’ for sheer second-album shock value. After seeing the band’s Irish live debut, during which they lead Whelan’s on an outrageously frenzied dance, we’ve every confidence they’ll deliver…

State – Welcome to Ireland. This is your first time playing here as a group. Have either of you been here before?

Derek – I haven’t. I’m really psyched. We had a day off yesterday so I went to about 10 bars.

Alexis – It reminds me a lot of New York. It grew up in the North East of the US, and it feels strangely familiar.

State – Not many bands arrive here for the first time with quite such a level of hype propelling them. Does having such a buzz behind you on each stop add to the pressure this early in your careers?

Derek – Not really. We don’t have quite the buzz we’re feeling here everywhere. Ireland seems to be a place that gets us. I also feel like any pressure put on us from the outside, we regenerate internally ten fold. We expect so much from ourselves. We rarely feel like we meet the standard that we expect, and we’re very self-critical. I don’t think we really notice it so much from outside, as it’s just not comparable.

State – Your back story really is the most fortunate of encounters….

Derek – Tell me about it. I think about it every day. We’re very lucky.

State – Alexis, after your mum played such a big role in Sleigh Bells formation, what does she make of the band?

Alexis – She’s a huge fan, really supportive.

Derek – Her mum’s a huge music fan, she’s the type of mum who’ll fight over whether The Clash are a pop band or a punk band. Normally there might be a generation gap, but it doesn’t apply to her mum!

State – Your original demos got you a whole lot of attention. How did you get from that first restaurant encounter, knowing that you both had totally disparate musical backgrounds, to actually recording music together?

Alexis – Well first we met up in a park, and it went from there… The demos were recorded in an apartment, straight into the external microphone on a Mac.

Derek – I actually had a lot of material written before I ever met Alexis. As I’d spent so many years looking for someone to work with that I started writing out of necessity. Alexis’ voice was just perfect for it. If she had a deeper, more sultry thing going on it just wouldn’t have worked, but her voice is so sweet.

Alexis – It was just like a perfect coming together. Derek had been working on a lot of material, and I’d been working as a session singer, so I was very comfortable stepping in with somebody I’d never met and fitting with their style. It came together very naturally, very quickly.

State – Before Sleigh Bells, you were a session singer for pop musicians, Alexis…

Alexis – Yeah. It’s a funny world! There are so many singers that work behind the scenes and demo material for artists, as pop artists aren’t usually writing their own material. Lots of straightforward bubblegum stuff, R&B stuff.

State – Have you taken much of that with you into Sleigh Bells?

Alexis – Absolutely, being a good session singer is really about being able to do things quickly, and also about being able to do a diverse range of things.

Derek – Alexis responds very, very well to kind of abstract producer speak. It gets really absurd when you start talking about delivery. You use strange words that have nothing to do with sound, and Alexis has a great head for that kind of thing.

Alexis – It’s something I’ve just developed. I started in pop at 13 and as a session singer at 16.

State – The vocal diversity comes across well in the album – you have your really aggressive tracks like ‘Infinity Guitars’ and then a much mellower style on, for example, ‘Rill Rill’…

Derek – It’s all part of discovering what our band sound like. We often say that we still don’t really know. We actually want to be able to go in any direction. Being able to have a song that’s really straight edged and a song that’s much calmer – I like the unpredictable side of it. We can still make any kind of record, and that’s really exciting to me.

State – You’ve said in previous interviews that you’ll always prioritise getting people to move their feet over the lyrical side of your songs. How does that work in terms of songwriting?

Derek – We always start with the rhythm. I was just learning as I went, kind of winging it, as I’d never made beats before. I made lots of mistakes, and the mistakes ended up being the exciting parts, so they ended up being left in. The lyrics are often indecipherable, and I like that about it. The sound should be so loud that it just bludgeons you. You’re not supposed to strain for the lyrics, you’re just meant to take it all in.

State – Some aspects of your sound remind us of The Go! Team, who are also almost impossible to describe…

Derek – Yeah, we love that band. It’s obvious that we both have an affinity for high-school style gymnasium clap routines. I just like gang vocals really. It probably comes from growing up with hardcore, which really uses a lot of gang vocal styles.

State – M.I.A started showing an interest even before Treats was released. How much has she helped you along the way?

Derek – At the beginning she was huge. She’s had her plate pretty full, but we did a European tour with her. Her early involvement gave us the encouragement that we needed. We didn’t really know if anyone would give a shit, when she got in touch we felt we were doing something right. She hears a lot of music.

State – You’re still very much in the touring loop with Treats, but how far along are you in terms of new songs?

Derek – We have a ton of stuff.

Alexis – If were to stop tomorrow, we could make a record.

Derek – By the time we do get into the studio this summer we’ll probably have two records worth of stuff to work through. The second I leave the studio and feel like I have one new song that destroys everything else, I’m over everything that’s behind us. I feel like that’s yesterday.

Alexis – We released Treats so quickly that we’re really looking forward to giving this next record the chance to be fully formed in every sense.

Derek – Yeah, we pretty much left the studio and went straight out of the door on tour with Treats. We didn’t have any videos, the artwork wasn’t done… we didn’t even have press photos. It worked, but we’ll take our time next time!

State – Where’s the weirdest place you’ve heard your music so far? It seems like it could fit in almost anywhere…

Derek – Actually we heard it in the restaurant where Alexis used to work. They normally play this kind of chilled out stuff, but when we were eating in there, ‘Tell ‘Em’ came on, and it was about 40% louder than everything else they’d been playing. I actually jumped, and it took me about 4 or 5 seconds to realize it was our song. We get that a lot with our songs on shuffle, though. We get people telling us they hear our songs at sports games, which is awesome. Our music’s been played to 80,000, even though the highest crowd we’ve performed to so far was nearer 10,000, and that’s at a festival. It’s kind of weird.

State – It looks like the only way is up. What would you like to do in the future? Can you imagine the band expanding, or performing in a different way when the budget increases?

Alexis – I think we’re quite happy how we are. I don’t think there’s really a need for a lot of people on stage. We could have a few people coming on for the odd song, but not permanent members of the band. We like to walk the line between being a live band and a DJ. It doesn’t really seem important that every little aspect of the show is live, as long as the sound is good and people move their feet. That’s all we can ask for.

As published on, March 2011.

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