"In Self-Expression, There's Nowhere to Hide": Sleigh Bells on Texis and Staring Down the Dark

Music Features Sleigh Bells
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"In Self-Expression, There's Nowhere to Hide": Sleigh Bells on <i>Texis</i> and Staring Down the Dark

New York noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells have a new album out, Texis, their sixth, and it is—as is usually the case whenever Trilby-pure vocalist Alexis Krauss and her mad scientist, multi-instrumentalist associate Derek Miller start mixing lab concoctions—another sonic stunner. It opens on the machine-gun rhythms and pinball-machine synth/guitar melding of “SWEET75,” a license plate of sorts for the vintage Dodge Charger that they’re about to crash through your living room wall with the Atari-arcade-retro “Locust Laced” (and Krauss’ deceptively rah-rah chorus of “I feel like dynamite!”). Then come the pulsing wall-of-sound wallop of “Justine Go Genesis,” a plush “Tennessee Tips,” the acoustic-strum-on-steroids “Rosary” and a remarkably straightforward power ballad called “I’m Not Down”—which, in essence, summarizes the musicians’ upbeat, never-say-die optimism that they defiantly kept alive during the pandemic. It’s only now, post-release, that the really difficult decision has become clear, sighs Krauss—to tour behind such an incredible record, or not to tour? That is the existential question.

The Sleigh Bells team—who first exploded onto the worldwide radar with their sugary-but-dissonant Treats debut back in 2010—has grown increasingly uncomfortable, watching mask mandate flouters stay vocal while Delta variant cases increase exponentially in their uninformed, anti-vaxxing wake. “And it’s just unfortunate that something that just should be about public health has turned into politics,” says Krauss, who—along with Miller—luckily left The Big Apple pre-pandemic, for the more verdant wilds of upstate New York; they currently reside only 30 minutes apart, enabling them to swiftly complete any new Sleigh Bells concept that occurs to them. “But I think fortunately, we’re very open about our politics, so we’re not a band that needs to worry about our fan base being too resistant to any masking policies, or requests for a Covid test or proof of vaccination.” No, she adds, there’s a much larger moral imperative hanging in the balance: “Personally, I would love to get out and be playing shows again, but the concern is that people would not feel super-comfortable in a crowded indoor space. And we’re willing to make changes in order to have it happen, but we’re just trying to figure out if that’s financially doable for us, or if it’s the ethical thing to do, to our crew and to our fans. We really don’t know.”

What Krauss and Miller do know, however, is how to push their musical parameters to the near-breaking point, and then implode in on themselves a la the positively surreal Texis coda “Hummingbird Bomb,” wherein decadent distortion meets ’60s-girl-group innocence in one their weirdest tracks yet. They spent over an hour discussing all things Sleigh Bells with Paste.

Paste: In the two videos you’ve done so far, there are tons of strange curios, knickknacks. What do they signify?

Derek Miller: It’s hard to say. My interpretation of the video—and everyone’s is valid—is that, at least in the second video, there’s an inability to break out of an old pattern. And all of those items for me represent painful items to Alexis that she just cannot escape. And every time she opens her eyes and we’re in a different location, the hope is that we’ve finally broken out. Like we’re free. But in every new situation, in every new context—just like in life, as pretentious as that may sound—those memories come with you wherever you go. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. And they can haunt you. So that’s how I see it—it’s not just a bunch of meaningless crap. Well, maybe for some people it is. But I see it as painful memories, and I think every human being on the planet has at least a few.

Paste: Alexis, are there certain painful memories you associate with those things? Like a ceramic Pound Puppy?

Alexis Krauss: Well, it’s more positive things than anything. I mean, some of the objects in that video we’ve referenced and featured in our album art throughout the years, and some of it goes back as far as the Reign of Terror era. But the majority of those objects were things that were featured in some of the artwork for this album and its tour posters, and a lot of them directly reference lyrics that are on Texis. So we’re kind of revisiting the world of this character. But I don’t think I have any particular objects of Derek’s that haunt me on a daily basis, fortunately.

Miller: Yeah, the canteen that she picks up in the field was my grandfather’s canteen, and there’s a bullet hole in it, and that’s from Reign of Terror. And the bike that’s in the video is the one she’s riding in the “End of the Line” video from Reign of Terror, as well. And that was an incredibly traumatic period of my life. Reign of Terror wasn’t just a fun, creepy, clever title—there was a lot of stuff happening. And I don’t mean to play on the idea that we’re haunted and it’s just endless, but the act of confronting these things is therapeutic, of course—it’s catharsis. But there’s an attempt being made to find some resolution, and it’s not left open-ended. And as far as the outfits go, the one I’m wearing is an exact replica of one that Elvis wore, and he was one of the first celebrities to self-destruct, right before our eyes. And self-destruction is in almost every record made, and certainly in this one, too. So that’s my take on all of that.

Paste: Maybe it’s just the way I think, but when I hear “Justine Go Genesis,” I hear De Sade meets Psychic TV.

Miller: Absolutely. You’re absolutely right. It’s written from her perspective, and basically it’s one of the first songs that I’ve written in character. I’ve kind of toyed with it in the past, with a few autobiographical elements, but this version of her life plays out outside of Ocala, Florida, which is somewhere I grew up, and where I spent a lot of time growing up. And the original [De Sade’s] Justine’s life did not go well, and it’s the same with this one, and she’s kind of lashing out at everything she loves. And Alexis and I have talked a bit about these lyrics, and she doesn’t believe in God, and so her version of blasphemy is to attack the things she loves the most, which would be her favorite bands. And in this case, it’s Nirvana, The Beatles, riot grrrl stuff. Like in the opening lyric, she insults Nirvana, she knocks The Beatles twice—“Ticket to Ride” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—and she does this because she loves these things, and it’s the only way for her to express the intensity of her sadness and pain.

Paste: So the character courses through the album. But how long has she been around?

Miller: For me, it’s new to this record, but any time there’s a “she” in one of the songs, like “Knowing,” for example, it’s Justine. So it’s certainly not a concept album by any stretch of the imagination, but there are a few common threads, and this one of those occasions where any “she” is a reference to Justine, for sure.

Paste: Is she doomed?

Miller: I think it’s something that we all feel at times—there are times in your life when you just feel hopeless. I mean, everybody understands what despair feels like, and hopefully it’s fleeting. But it isn’t for everybody. I mean, for me it has been—I’ve had lots of ups and downs, but I turned 40 the other day, and I’m in one of the best places I’ve ever been, as far as my health, my sobriety, my creativity.

Paste: Are you still boxing?

Miller: Oh, absolutely. That’s what I did during the pandemic, and it saved me. So it just touches on that because it’s universal, it’s a common theme, just like self-sabotage or self-destruction. And it’s just something that every human being on the planet has in common, to some degree. But boxing definitely helped keep me sober. I’ve got a heavy bag set up in the back of my house, and I would hit that, and that kept me calm, kept me on track. And that’s the only reason why, when I’d go to the grocery store—which was one of the only places that was open—I’d buy vegetables instead of beer. Which is an important decision. And this is basically my version of Alexis’ climbing, which is such a huge part of her life. Physical exertion for me really helps. So I’m a gym rat now. I was at the gym for an hour already today, and I’ll probably work out again later.

Krauss: Yeah. I definitely cope with anxiety and the challenges of life through exercise, and it’s definitely calming and therapeutic. And I do a variety of things, but I do have a love/hate relationship with climbing, because personally, right now, climbing is just feeling a bit overwhelming. But whether it’s running or really pushing myself in remote locations, yeah, just working through all the incredible challenges that we’re continuously confronting, especially in regards to the pandemic? That has definitely been my coping mechanism, more than anything else.

Paste: Who writes the lyrics? And do you share, trade off?

Miller: I write all the lyrics. But Alexis does have all the freedom in the world to arrange them however she sees fit. And I am usually blown away by the way she does it, because I’ll send her something, just a block of text, and she’ll pick out the chorus and say, “This is the verse.” While in my mind, it was actually the inverse, so that’s actually my favorite part of the process. I mean, writing is a blast. But then hearing what she does with it is the most exciting moment for me.

Paste: It’s weird—in “I’m Not Down,” you say, “I want to be alone for awhile / Buried alive in a quiet town.” And your Genie said, “Wish granted!”

Miller: I know. It’s insane. And the verses are about isolation, one thousand percent. And I think we actually talked about just releasing that song, like trying to get it mixed and mastered and putting it out. But it felt strange, like kind of crass and opportunistic. Because the chorus is “The battlefield never goes away / We’re so brave when we’re in pain / We’ve gotta look out for each other.” So it’s very on the nose, even to the point where I was uncomfortable with it, because I’m mostly—not a rosy optimist—but not a hardcore pessimist. But I am maybe 20% cold, dismissive cynic, and I remember bringing it up to you, Alexis, a number of times, like, “Is this chorus really corny? ‘We’ve gotta look out for each other’?” And at one point, you were like, “But do you believe that?” And I said, “Yes.” And you said, “Okay, cool. So shut the fuck up. It’s a good lyric, you mean it, don’t second-guess it, you’re overthinking it.” And I was like, “Okay, cool—case closed.”

Paste: On “Rosary,” you can hear what seems to be a dog howling. And there’s a new dog in the videos, too, a brindle bull terrier maybe?

Krauss: That’s my dog, Riz. She’s 10 now, but she’s made cameos throughout our career as the dog that barks on certain tracks. And surprisingly, we’ve never had her in a video. But we’ve had Sugar Pie, which was one of Derek’s dogs, and then Bosco, and there were some dogs in “Infinity Guitars,” so yeah, definitely The Dog is a kind of character that reemerges. But yeah, that’s Riz! We had to get Riz in somehow!

Paste: Derek, how many dogs do you have now?

Miller: I haven’t had a dog of my own since I left home at 18. Like, I don’t even have a house plant. But look, I want to be able to sit down in front of my studio setup and work from 9 a.m. to midnight if I want to, or I’m inspired to, without thinking about anything else. And if I was just listening to this stuff and never releasing it, you could consider that masturbatory, but hopefully the idea is that we finish this stuff, mix it and master it and put it out, and it is, in some way, shape or form inspiring. But that’s really the thing that I’m committed to the most. And friends of mine that have dogs—as much as I would love to have a dog, because I love them with all my heart—I just don’t want the responsibility to interfere with that goal, of making as much music as I can and trying to make it as great as I can. And you know we travel, we tour, and I’m not married so there’s no one to leave an animal with.

Krauss: But he’s Rizla’s uncle, you know, so it’s fine!

Miller: Exactly. There you go! She’s been with us since 2011. She’s toured with us, she’s been all over the country. And whenever we see each other, I always call her the birthday girl, because every time I see her, I say, “It’s your birthday! The best day of the year!” And I feel like she knows that, because she’s just always so happy.

Paste: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in “Tennessee Tips,” are you actually endorsing the product Crystal Light?

Miller: Ha! I’m so glad you read the lyrics! I’m not going to go into details about that one, but it is about a sort of unhinged moment, an unhinged night where bad decisions are made and you’re really trying not to go over the edge. Because, you know, I’ve flirted with that stuff. I’ve lived really hard, at this point, for about 19 or 20 years, and you’re kind of reaching that scene in the movie where the doctor looks at you and says, “Well, if you don’t make some changes, you’ll probably be dead in three years.” And I feel like I reached that stage a couple of years ago, and of course, I’ve been making the appropriate changes. But yeah, I’ve had a lot of experience with just real wild, crazy-ass nights, and “Tennessee Tips” is about that. At least the verse, and then the chorus is about trying to calm yourself down and keep from going over the edge of the cliff. You know? “All I have to do is breathe / All I have to do is be.” And the chorus is also really a relief from the tension in the riff—it’s major key, it’s really melodic, and it’s one of my favorite vocals that Alexis put down for the entire record. So it tries to be soothing.

Paste: But in following it with “Rosary,” are you implying that your faith or religion saved you, or Justine?

Miller: Well, I was raised Catholic, but I haven’t been practicing since I left home at 18. I used to go to church because my mom asked me to. But that song is really about desperation, and I just had a really fucked-up image in my head. You know, people pray to a rosary in desperate moments, or Catholics do. So I imagined somebody on a plane, a Catholic, and the plane starts going down, and if there’s a rosary on hand, they’re probably gonna start praying to it, and I imagined that concept, put on steroids, would be them consuming the rosary, like rip a rosary between your teeth if that’s what it takes, in a time of need. So there’s a really ugly visual there of somebody flossing with a rosary and pulling their teeth out, out of desperation, desperation ramped up.

Paste: “Red Flag Flies” has this initially Disney-simple melody, but with this one repeated piano note reminiscent of—and I will watch this film anytime it’s on, like 3 a.m. last week, when I just saw it again—Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick, and the one party you do not want to attend.

Miller: That is a brilliant, brilliant film. And obviously Kubrick is a huge influence, and it’s amazing that you’ve drawn that connection—I’m extraordinarily flattered. But “Red Flag Flies” is just an expression of alarm, really—it’s just like one giant, loud 911 call. Just in general. And that definitely is born from the feeling in the air during the previous administration, which I don’t want to start talking about—let’s not give it any more press. But yeah, there’s just a lot of cause for alarm, every day, and so in my mind the image of the red flag, which is questionable behavior, it’s like Smoke ’em if ya got ’em. Just in terms of Sound the alarm, it’s a five-alarm fire, shit’s fucked, and that’s the least melodic song on the record. Alexis, in your harmony on that, you sing the root, which is an A#, and flatted fifth over it which is an E, and it creates the Devil’s Chord, which is that famous Devil’s Interval that you’ve heard from Black Sabbath, Korn, and Mr. Bungle—it’s really dissonant. And Alexis, I can’t believe that you pulled it off, but that’s your harmony. Because usually people hear “harmony” and they think of Brian Wilson, which is beautiful. But this is the other side of the coin. And I’m not comparing us to The Beach Boys or Brian Wilson, just so it’s perfectly clear, because I don’t want to paint that conspicuous target on my back!

Paste: Alexis, how did you rise to the occasion there?

Krauss: Umm, I wish I had some great story or something fabulous to tell you, But I don’t know. A lot of the writing for me on this tune just hit me pretty naturally, and that song enters with such a … it just creates such an atmosphere, and everything that Derek said. We wrote that one pretty early on, and it just has an ominous vibe, but also I think it’s one of the few songs that we have that stays more ominous, it stays more menacing, and it doesn’t really go into that sweeter space. There’s not much hope in that song, it’s kind of just brutal image after brutal image. But it just kind of came out that way, as did a lot of the stuff.

Miller: I remember the moment that we tracked that, when you found that note. Because we tried a few things, but nothing was really working. And then we settled into that, which is kind of a little bit lower in your range, and I remember the second you recorded it, because when we track, I’m never listening to playback—I’m sitting in a room, listening to her a cappella. But I remember you taking off your headphones and putting the mic down, and me going, “I think we’ve got it now.” And I remember playing it back for the first time, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. And I loved that moment. And that was really early on, too. We’ve been saying that “Justine” was the first song that we kept for the record, just because we just started doing press for this album cycle. But actually, “Red Flag” is a little older than “Justine,” so it must have been mid-2018 or even earlier.

Paste: Then the album closes on “Hummingbird Bomb,” its real WTF moment.

Krauss: I love that song. That’s one of my favorite, favorite songs. And it is definitely kind of a what-the-fuck song, but to me the tension and release, or just the emotional release of that song is very fulfilling to me. And I love where it sits on the album. Derek and I always talk about it, and how it’s less of a song in the sense that it doesn’t have any of the traditional structures of your usual song. But I find it a really fulfilling song, personally.

Miller: Yeah. I like it. I like going out on something sincere, and something that’s clear, as well. Like for me, it’s the long bridge that leads up to the outro, where the lyrics are saying “I’m sorry”—that’s written from the perspective of the hummingbird, that it’s unhappy about what it’s about to do. But even divorced from that idea, if you just look at it on the page, it’s a very heartfelt apology for—and these are bigger themes that we’re talking about here—but just the shit that people go through in life, the daily stresses, the big ones, the small ones. And again, it isn’t necessarily about us—it really has a much broader perspective, and I love that. And “Some inside get out alive / Some inside get burned alive”? That tends to be the case. I’ve got a lot of friends in recovery, and some of them make it, but a lot of them don’t. And the idea of the song is that the birds essentially get sick of us, and they arm themselves. They transform into weapons and they take out humanity. And if you google how many birds there are on the planet, the numbers vary widely—a couple hundred billion? 200 billion? 600 billion? My point being that there’s a lot more than just a single bird for each person on the planet, and—just so it’s crystal-clear—this is not something that I would like to see happen, because it’s just a nightmare. But it’s born out of frustration, just wanting and expecting us to be better—and willing us to be better—but acknowledging that we aren’t always better. And that song is newer, actually. It wasn’t written during the previous administration but it’s a hangover from that era, of just being so fed up and imagining the birds doing the job for us, bringing the apocalypse. And on that really light note! Sorry, man—hopefully the music provides counterpoint to those ideas, and that it’s uplifting. And it is for me. Especially at the ending of that song—what’s going on musically, with these really staccato strings, and the way that they’re playing against the chord progression, just makes me feel a certain way. They give me energy, and a hopeful, confident feeling. And this is the case with “Locust Laced,” as well—in a lot of the songs, I’m trying to counteract the bleakness in some of the lyrics with music that is uplifting, and that’s very important to me. And I don’t even think that’s deliberate.It’s just because when I’m working on music, I get pretty euphoric, even a little manic, and that’s gonna be reflected in what I’m making, because—as you know—in self-expression, there’s nowhere to hide.

Paste: Funny you should say that. Because now—as it’s become abundantly clear during our now-annual floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires and coastal erosion—there is no place to hide from climate change and the imminent extinction of our species. While oblivious, shortsighted Republicans chip away like termites at voters’ and women’s rights instead of getting on last-minute board with curbing its effects like any decent human being should.

Miller: And that is beyond heartbreaking. The lack of humanity is so startling that you’re almost numb. And that’s where I have a real problem with trying to put my best foot forward with people who are on the other side of the political spectrum, but faltering because there’s just no reasonable justification for supporting those concepts. You can’t say that you’re a good person and then back that shit—I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way. And this is what I’m talking about—I get pissed. And it is heartbreaking.

Krauss: Obviously, this is very long-term, but we’re in the anthropocene epoch, and this is the sixth extinction, and the planet will be just fine once we’re all gone. In fact, the planet will be better off once we’re gone. So whatever we’re gonna do in this next, however many more decades we have as humanity will be just that.

Miller: And I will say, just on a personal note, I don’t find that I’m misanthropic. And that is astonishing to me. Because people give us cause to be, but I still find that my knee-jerk reaction to people I’ve never met is some form of consideration and generosity. And I’m not trying to paint a picture of me being a saint, because I have bad days just like anybody. I just mean that I’m balanced. I’m still not misanthropic, and I’m still interested in everybody’s story, regardless of what it is that you do. I don’t give a fuck about how many zeros are at the end of your bank statement, you know? I’m curious about you, and I wish you well—that’s who I am as a human being. I wanted to make that clear. Just because the lyrics are bleak. But that is because I’m trying to get it all out—I don’t want it to sit in my head and stew. And you spit that stuff out? Hopefully, you’ll feel a little better.

Krauss: And look, we can’t underestimate the power of young people, so there’s a lot to fight for and a lot to be optimistic about. And I agree with Derek—I’m far from being a misanthrope. But it’s important to acknowledge the trouble that we’re in, even if it’s in something as simple as a song and its lyrics.