bill bodkin interviews Alexis Krauss of the band Sleigh Bells …
White-hot indie band Sleigh Bells may hail from the current mecca of music, Brooklyn, but lead singer Alexis Krauss’ roots lie on the sleepy sandy beaches of Manasquan, N.J.
Alexis is the daughter of famed Jersey Shore musician Joel Krauss, guitarist and singer for Cats on a Smooth Surface and Holme. During Cats on a Smooth Surface’s prime they were the house band at the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. — a venue Alexis will headline with her Sleigh Bells partner Derek Miller on Friday, May 13.
Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin spoke with Alexis Krauss as she was preparing for her show in Fire Stone Live in Orlando, Fla.
Pop-Break: You started your musical career early in life as the member of the teen-pop band RubyBlue. Can you talk about the band’s run?
Alexis Krauss: I grew up with music. My dad’s a musician, so I starting singing and performing pretty early. I did community theater when I was 9 – I was Annie at The Count Basie Theater [in Red Bank, N.J.]. Then I started going to New York, got an agent and started auditioning for TV, commercials, film. Around that time, I started with Nickelodeon. They wanted to do a show that was a female version of The Monkees. We signed a production deal and they were going to build a girl pop band around me, being the bassist and lead singer.
We [Rubyblue] got a deal with Sony, which was great, but at the time the market was saturated with acts like Christina, Britney, Mandy Moore, and there wasn’t much of a market for teen pop bands. By the time I was 15, I was growing out of the music. We were making song for a target audience that was 5-8 years old, and when you’re in high school, the last thing you want to do is to make pop music for little kids.
We disbanded and I decided to get out of the music business. I saw a side that was very unappealing. I was also getting into hardcore music, my boyfriend [now fiancé] was in a hardcore band [To Each His Own, Spanish Bomb], and I thought it was an inspired type of music, the opposite of what I was doing. It was genuine and raw while I was doing something that was very manicured and disingenuous.
PB: I read you moved completely out of music into the teaching world for quite some time.
AK: I stopped being in Ruby when I was in Manasquan High School. I continued in the music business as a session singer in New York when I going to college in Manhattan. I worked with writers and producers on demos for songs that they would pitch to artists. I also gigged in a wedding band. I had intention of music being my career. After college, I went into Teach for America for two years.
PB: Did any of the songs you did demos for ever turn into hits songs?
AK: There were a few tracks — one for Britney Spears, one ended up being the main song for Freaky Friday with Lindsay Lohan. Some other songs charted. Honestly, I would just go into the sessions and get paid a flat rate, no royalties involved. It was a really great thing to do. I sang a variety of genres, plus all the harmonies and backgrounds. It was very challenging, but it was also a cool way to network with all the bullshit involved.
PB: Can you tell us about the chance meeting you had with your Sleigh Bells partner Derek Miller. I read you met him when he was the waiter for you and your mom at a restaurant in Brooklyn.
AK: Yes, Derek was our waiter. It was really random. I had just finished my first year in the classroom and we had gone out to dinner and we had this unusually friendly server. So, my mom initiated some conversation and it turned out Derek was from Florida, and my mom grew up there, so they shared some stories. She asked what he was doing in Brooklyn and he mentioned he was a musician. He then mentioned he was looking to start a band with a female vocalist, and my mom, being a mom, mentioned, “Oh, my daughter’s a singer.” I just rolled my eyes and said I was a teacher now. Derek was extremely determined and kept inquiring about my singing. He gave me his e-mail address and said he was purely interested in music and had no ulterior motive. He wanted to get together and try record. Later when I was home I just said “fuck it” and I e-mailed him. I sent him a bunch of songs I had done. He e-mailed me shortly and he said, “I love your voice.” And as it turns out, we live in the same neighborhood in New York.
He had some early demos and I was really taken by them — they were unlike anything I had heard before. I felt immediately challenged by the music. So we got together and recorded an early version of “Incendiary Guitars.” I sang the vocals into the internal microphone of his MacBook. After we were done. we thought this was, “Cool, let’s keep at it.”
PB: People categorize your sound as “noise pop,” “alternative” or “indie.” It’s such a unique sound. Was it hard to gather a following and get bookings, because it’s not like anything else in the scene? Was it hard to pitch yourself to promoters and venues?
AK: We did very little pitching actually. It boiled down to us being lucky. We had a lot of good fortune early on. We recorded a few demos, early versions of “Rill Rill,” “Incendiary Guitars,” “A/B Machines” and “Crown On The Ground.” We put them up on Myspace, and they sat there for a while. We had a mutual friend, a journalist named Molly, who wrote for a few blogs. She was nice enough to write for us on the blog for Spike Jonze’s film Where The Wild Things Are.
A few weeks later, M.I.A. e-mailed us. I remember it — September 2009. And she said Spike Jonze heard the music, loved it and passed it on to her, and she loved it as well. She said she wanted to hear more, meet up and see what was up with the band. Obviously, we were both ecstatic. I mean, were both waiting tables at that point. We hadn’t even played a show. So she flew out and became a solid supporter. Derek even co-produced a track on her album.
At the same time, a good friend asked us to play a benefit in October ’09. It was the first show we played as a band and people were into what we did. Then another kid we knew asked us to open for his band at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. The second show was intimidating. The venue is a pretty big place. It happened that nice that Sasha Jones of The New Yorker was in the audience. She came up to us and said loved what she heard and we were like, “Why? We were terrible!” She asked to interview us and she did a substantial piece on us in The New Yorker. At that point, once you’re published in The New Yorker, people start noticing you and offering you shows. We got five show offers immediately [after the article] and we did about two to three of them. A lot of people in the industry started talking about us, and then we got on Pitchfork and Stereogum, two of the radars of indie music. Really, it was people coming to us.
Since then, there’s definitely been a lot of people who don’t get it. Radio has been very hesitant. They think we’re not radio-friendly, there’s too much distortion, the songs sound blown out. I mean, with [our album] Treats, we’ve sold 130,000 in the states alone, so some people are definitely embracing it and some aren’t. But I have to say, this been a very easy road compared to other bands.
PB: That’s crazy, because “Rill, Rill” has such an insane hook — it’s so catchy. I’m more into the hard rock/metal scene and I couldn’t get that song out of my head for two weeks, and I mean that in the best possible way.
AK: “Rill Rill” has just now gone mainstream. It’s hard to be in that gray area of music — we’re not rock, we’re not pop, we’re not metal, we’re not hip-hop. We straddle all those genres. To a lot of radio and markets, that poses a challenge. “Rill Rill” is definitely crossing over into the mainstream. Other songs have potential. We’ve reached a lot more people than I ever thought though.
PB: You’ve got a show at The Stone Pony on May 13. How important is this show to you? You’re a Manasquan girl, the daughter of a musician who made his bones as a member of the Pony’s house band. Are there nerves?
AK: This is our first show in New Jersey. Well, we did one show opening for LCD Soundsystem in North Jersey. But this is our first REAL show. Personally, this is huge. It’s definitely something I wanted to do for a long time. I’ve been around the Pony my whole life and I’m proud to play there and I really want to do it justice. My dad has been a huge inspiration my entire life, and if it were up to me, he’d be much more well-known. I am going to carry the torch for him. I’m also a huge Bruce fan and there so much legend and history in that venue, and Asbury Park is such a developing and thriving scene. It’s special to take part in a hometown show.
PB: There’s definitely a huge scene that’s growing down the shore in terms of original music. I just think a lot of people and bands don’t get that, so it’s pretty awesome that a band of your standing in the musical world is performing here.
AK: Bands do Philly and they do New York and sometimes North Jersey, but it seems that Central Jersey always gets skipped. It gets neglected, and it’s unfair there are so many people that want to go out to shows. And there’s so much musical history here.
PB: What lies ahead for Sleigh Bells in 2011?
AK: We are out on tour until early June. Then mid-June, around June 25, we’re back in the studio. It’s something Derek and I feel is long-awaited. We recorded Treats in two months and we have tons of songs left over. We’ve done a lot of writing, so we just want to disappear and record the new album. We’re lucky we’ve done so many shows, but we only have one record, so we have to do a short set. Our tracks are all pre-recorded, so it’s not like we can jam. I think some of our fans are getting pissed and think, “Really Sleigh Bells, 40 minutes?” I mean, it’s the format we use and I wouldn’t change it. But we are super excited to make our second record, should be out in early 2012. We hope our fans stick around and that our next record will better than the first. And we’ll look forward to getting back out on the road and performing.