Interview Sleigh Bells: ‘I Prefer That People Have High Expectations’

El Hunt chats with Derek and Alexis about writing music, drunken tour ideas, and feeling vulnerable.

Fresh from the release of their new album ‘Reign of Terror’, Sleigh Bells are in town to grace Camden with their powerhouse brand of noise-pop. With compulsory Ray-Bans, several amazing tattoos and some incredible tribal patterned nails on Alexis’ part, Sleigh Bells are as effortlessly cool as they look on stage, and really rather friendly too. El Hunt chats with Derek and Alexis about writing music, drunken tour ideas, and feeling vulnerable.

We were all waiting for ‘Reign Of Terror’ with really high hopes, and now it’s been out just over a week, and is getting a great reception from the fans. Did you feel a little bit of pressure to live up to ‘Treats’, seeing as everyone loved it so much?
Derek: I think most of the pressure we put on ourselves, because we’re our own worst critics, I mean, really, really really hard on ourselves. Any outside pressure I invite. I prefer that people have high expectations and if we can’t meet them then it’s on us.

There’s been a lot of build-up around the new album, what with the dressing table teaser video from last December, and then the aptly named single ‘Comeback Kid’. Do you enjoy the promotion and buzz around releasing new music?
Alexis: We’ve been documenting the entire recording process, and we had all this live footage - we had this great guy come out and he filmed a couple of shows for us. I think it’s more interesting than just suddenly announcing something like “here’s our new album!”
D: Yeah, some people get really precious about bands making a big deal out of a record, but if you don’t want to pay attention it’s like, whatever, don’t click on the link. It’s our stuff. I think promotion is an excuse to do something really creative. Putting that trailer together was really fun.
A: When we’re in the studio, we don’t really engage with social media much, so we thought it would be a nice thing, for our fans, to come back with something that was…
D: Something other than a press release. We wanted to try to do something, different, like I said; it’s an excuse to get creative. I don’t feel like we’ve overly saturated though, because we don’t tweet, we only use Facebook just to get information out there. We’re not that active on social media, so we use a handful of videos, a trailer, stuff like that.

When did you start writing ‘Reign of Terror’?
A: Immediately, straight away.
D: Some of the stuff we didn’t have time to finish on ‘Treats’, but most of it I wrote on tour. We were out for 14 months so I had plenty of time, and I always write on the road.

Is that how you prefer to work – whilst you’re on the move?
D: Yeah, well I never stop writing, I’m always working on something, you know, typing something into my phone, scribbling something down. It’s a cliché but I’m usually working on something wherever I am.
A: It makes the actual studio time hyper-productive too, because we didn’t have days set aside for writing, just days where we were recording.
D: We were just executing our ideas when we were actually in the studio, yeah.

Whereabouts did you go to record it?
D: We recorded at a studio called SMT, in Chelsea, in New York City, with my good friend and engineer Shane Stoneback.
A: He worked with us on ‘Treats’ as well.
D: Yeah, he’s an incredible dude.

Did you feel like it was important to keep the same kind of base for album number two? I mean, I know you stayed with Mom + Pop records too..
D: Yeah, we’re sort of a closed shop, nobody comes in, and nobody goes out. We write, record and play everything on the records ourselves and outside of Shane nobody else is really involved. That’s important to us because, I dunno, I’m not that comfortable with being vulnerable in front of people that I don’t really know, and when you’re making records you have to be vulnerable. It’s nerve-wracking, and you have to trust people.
A: We have a really unique relationship with Mom + Pop, they really give us free reign to do whatever we want to do creatively. We feel really comfortable with how things are.
D: I mean, there’s no shortage of ideas, so bringing in a third party would just be odd. I was trying to escape that, having someone else in the room fight me on creative decisions. We’re finally in a position where we’re independent, and I don’t see the need to change that.

‘Reign of Terror’ definitely has the same kind of ‘noise pop’ sound as ‘Treats’, but to me it feels much more guitar-orientated. How did that come about?
D: Sure, on ‘Treats’ I was playing with rhythm, I had drum machines, I was laying everything out in logic, and starting out with the rhythm tracks. With ‘Reign of Terror’ I just happened to have a guitar in my hands every single day because we were touring, and so I naturally gravitated towards it. I also fell in love with Jackson guitars and I started playing soloists again – I used to play shred guitar when I was really young. That was a big part of it, I was really attracted to the instrument – I just really wanted to pick it up and play it whenever I saw it, so yeah that’s definitely fair to say. It wasn’t calculated though, it was just an instinct.

What kind of artists fed into the album, what kind of stuff were you listening to?
D: In terms of new stuff new stuff I’m really into Clams Casino. I’m really into Main Attraktionz too, and Little B, he’s a Brooklyn MC. Lots of film scores as well, David Grusin’s original soundtrack for the movie Goonies, and also Jerry…
A: From [80’s horror movie] Poltergeist.
D: Poltergeist, yeah, yeah, Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack is one of my favourite scores of all time, if not my favourite.
A: It was a big influence on the record.
D: Yeah, Poltergeist, in many ways, was kind of lingering over the entire record. We had all these effects and patches - when I say patches I don’t mean like physical patches [mimes a square in the air] - I mean a combination of sound effects. We’d label them after characters, like, we had one called Carol Anne. Yeah that movie had a massive impact on ‘Reign of Terror’.

So you did an eight date tour round Florida with Diplo and [black metal band] Liturgy – I know it’s a massive cliché, but did you feel like it was important to stay true to your roots, as it were?
D: More than anything I feel like our band is a little bit homeless to be honest. Alexis is from New Jersey, I’m from Florida, and we live in New York. That doesn’t really add up. But if anything I feel like more of a Florida band than a New York band. Florida’s a weird place, but it’s my home, and Diplo is from there too. It’s very strange, culturally it’s extremely mixed up, there’s a lot of ignorance within a lot of beautiful towns and cities on the coast. Florida’s just this weird little detached peninsula- it’s the south, but it’s not the south - it’s like an orphan. It just felt right to go there.
A: We also tend to have our best gigs in places where the kids don’t necessarily have access to a ton of shows, so it was really great playing in places like Pensacola and Jacksonville. Those towns are pretty neglected compared to places like New York or London, so yeah, there was a lot of excitement around that tour. I think it was just like, the strange glances exchanged among friends, you know, with Liturgy, and us, and Diplo. It was a very eclectic bill.
D: It’s just amazing because, well, the tour was a drunk idea between me and Diplo (Alexis giggles). We were at a bar in Brooklyn, and we were just like “we should do a tour of Florida, that would be so amazing, so badass” and then it just turned into this two week thing. It’s just amazing, and then to bring a band like Liturgy, who are so different from us. When it was all put together and we made it happen, it was great to see it materialise – to be finally sitting backstage. You put 1000 kids in a room in Gainesville, and then Hunter [the singer] from Liturgy is talking to one of Wes’ [Diplo’s] friends about production, and everyone’s cross-pollinating. That’s just an incredible environment to be in. It’s just amazing that you can lie in bed and think that up, and then actually see it happen. It’s very satisfying.

So you’ve got a show later on in London tonight – what kind of stuff should we expect from a Sleigh Bells live show?
D: Sensory overload!
A: We have a touring guitar player with us right now, his name’s Jason Boyer, so I think it sort of rounds out the sound - I think we sound better.
D: Yeah, it’s a fuller sound.
A: I mean, not a ton has changed since people have seen us last, like Derek says, there’s still a lot of volume, a lot of strobe, but I think the new material adds a nice balance to the set. It’s no longer just 35 minutes of being bludgeoned.
D: It’s a little more dynamic.

Yeah, I definitely noticed some softer moments on ‘Reign of Terror’. You could kind of hear it in ‘Rill Rill’ on ‘Treats’, and that’s really come through in this album. Was that a conscious thing, or did it just happen on its own accord?
D: I mentioned instincts before, and that’s how we are – I really don’t over think it. I try to just let something happen. You know when you’re making a record you don’t know the shape of it until you’re done. I take it one song at a time and then suddenly I have 11 and I’m like “huh?!”. Maybe there’s a thread running through them though, it sounds cohesive, but in the moment you never know, because one minute we’re working on ‘Demons’, or ‘Crush’, which is very poppy to my ears. At one point I was like, does ‘Crush’ even fit on this record? When we finished it, it was clear it did but yeah. I guess the answer is it just sort of happened that way.

Is that how you go about writing music, in general?
D: Absolutely, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I have ideas. The idea is normally something that’s just trying to occur. Thinking about it too much slows the process down, so yeah. I try not to think, I just do.

So what’s next after the tour?
D: We’ll be on tour for about a year, and then we’ll make another record

Sleigh Bells’ new album ‘Reign of Terror’ is out now via Mom+Pop and Columbia.

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