Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller are something of a musical odd couple. He was a guitarist in blistering metalcore act Poison the Well, and she once fronted teen girl group RubyBlue, authors of the unfortunately-titled 2001 debut, Beyond Pink.
The two met in July 2008 when Krauss and her mother were eating at a Williamsburg, N.Y. bistro and their waiter, Miller, mentioned that he was looking for a female singer for a new project. Krauss' mom quickly volunteered her. Sleigh Bells has since become one of the underground's most fêted acts, a noisy blend of pop melody, sputtering electronics, jarring blasts of guitar, and big dancefloor beats that defy categorization.
"We're very open to infusing our music with all different types of influences, whether it's Quincy Jones, Janet Jackson, Def Leppard, Kanye West, The Clash, or The Shangri-Las. We're constantly listening to records and saying, 'Okay how do we do that? How do we imitate that?'" says Krauss. "Hopefully [we're] doing it in a pretty unique way, and yeah, at this point we have no respect for genre."
The duo's supporting their third album, Bitter Rivals, which pares back some of their prior noisy, experimental excess in favor of sharper, more cleanly delineated arrangements. Their mix of sounds is still quite adventurous, but they're more often surgical strikes than a sonic bum rush.
"We're very intrigued by the idea of space at this point. You know, how do you do more with less? It's just about refining, distilling, and making sure that every single sound, whether it's a harmony, kick drum, synth, or guitar part — every element is there for a reason," Krauss says. "We're just trying to learn from what we see as maybe past failings and build up on them and just to make music that is a bit more intentional."
Bitter Rivals is a visceral experience, and more unapologetically pop than anything they've attempted. It ranges from "Sugarcane," with its mix of handclaps, power chord riffage, jangly acoustic guitar, and throttling breakbeats, to the bouncy island-y, synth-pop of "Young Legends," and the lovelorn "To Hell With You," a pretty pop lullaby channeling the thrum of the factory churning ceaselessly in the background of Eraserhead.
The key is that no matter how familiar the elements, Krauss and Miller find an unusual way to assemble them. The most intriguing experimentation is within "You Don't Get Me Twice," which features a gnarly swamp-blues riff, an opposing piano melody with a gospel tinge, choir vocals, and finger-snap beats. It vacillates between sweet and tough, as Krauss declares, "It's a terrifying dream, the American dream."
"That's an example of us allowing ourselves to just write a song that maybe didn't make the most structural sense but that just was everything our ideas were telling it to be. We had this weird idea for a bridge and then this weird idea for an outro, and we didn't really worry about form; we just made it," Krauss says. "It feels kind of random but its randomness makes it exciting."
After RubyBlue ran its course, Krauss dove into her academics at Marymount Manhattan College. She did well in college and wound up a core member of Teach for America. She taught elementary school children in the Bronx and was pursuing a Rhodes Scholarship when she joined forces with Miller. Her parents, in one of the world's great switch-ups, encouraged her to give up her studies to make music. Because her father had spent his life trying to make a career in music, he understood the opportunities before her.
"They were very much of the opinion that I could always go back to teaching or go back to some type of scholarship and grad school, but this was a very time-sensitive opportunity in the sense that if I didn't jump on it, who knows when or if I would ever meet someone like Derek again," Krauss says.
They released a seven-song, self-titled EP in 2009 that garnered a lot of attention, setting them off to a quick start. But even more than the press accolades, they were buoyed by the support of filmmaker Spike Jonze, who expressed his affection for the album.
"When you're in the early stages of a band and somebody like Spike Jonze emails you randomly, you just don't even think that's possible," she laughs. "Next thing, he comes to a show and says, 'Oh yeah, my friend Maya is coming. You might know her, she performs as M.I.A.' Then before you know it, you wind up in a studio with her."
From there they released their 2010 debut, Treats, which hit No. 39 on the Billboard chart thanks in part to an iPhone commercial using their song "Rill Rill." Their follow-up, Reign of Terror, reached as high as No. 12, though it fell off the charts quicker. The album is darker thematically, shaped in large part by the death of Miller's father and his mother's diagnosis of cancer. (She's now in remission.)
In time that darkness receded, and Miller's journey to overcome those fearful, painful feelings and more genuinely embrace life informs Bitter Rivals. It's a more unabashedly catchy, sincerely upbeat album.
"Bitter Rivals was just completely different in terms of mood and in terms of what it represented for us," says Krauss. "If anything, we're more comfortable and confident with who we are at this point than at any time in our career."
Krauss understands the frivolous nature of the music business. She went in clear-eyed because of her father's experience as a musician. It's nothing she takes for granted.
"I've been really lucky that I've been able to have a career out of music. I know how hard that is," she says. "My father struggled in music his whole life and certainly failed a lot and never got the recognition he deserved. So I know what a cruel business it can be, and for now it's treating me well, and I'm enjoying the ride."