David Bowie, Madonna, Radiohead, David Byrne. Throughout musical history, many an artist has found themselves chasing the unknown, attempting to rewrite the rulebook and transform themselves into an entirely new entity with each of their works. And while, of course, some musicians find they can easily slip into a new skin, it’s not always as straightforward as it looks.
“I’m not comparing us to this band at all,” begins Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, during his first ever Zoom call (yes, really!) from his New York home, “but with a band like Radiohead, they’re constantly tearing it up and starting from scratch every time they make a record. I’m 39 and I’ve been listening to that band since I was 15 and so, for a lot of people in bands, it feels like you have to do that all the time.” Sometimes it works, however, as Sleigh Bells found out, sometimes it doesn’t. “I’m not gonna do the thing where I dismiss our catalogue,” he adds, “I really love a lot of it, but we were just overthinking it. You kinda reach a point where you feel like you’re not allowed to sound how you sound.”
There’s a sense of clarity to this sort of admission that seems synonymous with getting older and easing more comfortably into your identity. For the Brooklyn duo, it’s fifth album ‘TEXIS’ that’s allowed them to reach that goal.
“This record is definitely just a lot less fraught,” Derek confirms, reflecting back on their previous two releases. And, admittedly, their last album ‘Jessica Rabbit’ - and its 2017 follow-up EP ‘Kid Kruschev’ - found the band at somewhat of a crisis point. “There were times where I feel like [Derek] felt like the record wasn’t going to come out for one reason or another,” vocalist Alexis Krauss told us back in 2016; having been out of contract at label Mom+Pop, and following a failed trial with a different label, the pair found themselves with little option but to release the record themselves.
And while external factors obviously put pressure on Sleigh Bells’ shoulders, that wasn’t the only issue at play. “The songs to me sounded like they were searching,” Alexis confirms now. “We would land on an idea that we liked, but we wouldn’t necessarily pursue it fully. We were trying out a lot of things, whereas this one feels a lot more settled and anchored in its identity.”
"I just wanted to get back to making music without any self-consciousness and to find an identity.”
— Derek Miller
Having first broken through back in 2010 with their incendiary debut ‘Treats’, the duo rapidly became renowned for their skills in melding together all manner of genres - pairing sugary sweet pop with thunderous metal riffs and bold electronics, while cranking the volume up to eardrum-shattering levels. But work on fourth album ‘Jessica Rabbit’ saw Alexis and Derek actively attempt to deviate from what they thought of as “Sleigh Bells’ sound” (“We basically made a list of everything that was recognisable as Sleigh Bells and removed those options from the menu,” says Derek).
It was only “after years” of experimenting that Derek finally grew tired of trying to push against his natural instincts. “I didn’t wanna think about it anymore,” he says, of where the writing process for ‘TEXIS’ began back in 2018. “I threw away my Oblique Strategies, the Brian Eno prompts to help you leave your comfort zone, all that shit. I just wanted to get back to making music without any self-consciousness and to find an identity. I was really trying to find a space where it felt cohesive and more focused, and I feel like we did that on this record.”
The result is a startling new version of Sleigh Bells. Channelling the same euphoric energy of their debut, but without ever straying too close to repetition, there’s a playfulness to ‘TEXIS’ that’s addictive and boisterous. The juxtaposition of pummelling synths and squalling guitars on opener ‘SWEET75’ set the tone perfectly, while the likes of ‘Justine Go Genesis’ and ‘Locust Laced’ come packed with the deliciously dark attitude that the band first built their name on.
“It doesn’t sound like ‘Treats’,” he adds, before anyone gets too eager to make comparisons, “which is still by far the fan favourite. Frankly, I’m just happy anybody cares about any of [our music]!” This isn’t “a corny ‘return to form’ narrative,” he laughs, “but it does sound like a return to us sounding like our band, and I’m really excited about that.”
‘TEXIS’ is out now via Lucky Number.
As featured in the September 2021 issue of DIY, out now.