”Hollaback Girl' With Metal Guitars': Sleigh Bells Look Back on 'Treats' at 10
The first time you hear Treats is a shock to the system. From that initial pow-pow airhorn on “Tell ‘Em,” the 2010 debut from indie duo Sleigh Bells is a cause for concern — so abrasive in its mix of heavy-metal guitars, trap hi-hats, punk sneer, and pop enthusiasm that, even at a reasonable volume, it sounds like it’s holding a knife to your speakers. Writer-producer-instrumentalist Derek Miller brings the explosive riffs and chant-like lyrics; vocalist Alexis Krauss brings the cadence and attitude of a SoulCycle coach cheerfully marching you toward hell. Yet underneath all the swagger and feedback fuzz, Treats is as confectionary as its name: sweet, confident, and pleasingly chaotic, like the washed-out high-school cheerleaders that adorn its cover.
“I had a background singing pop music for a long time, so I was very comfortable with that,” Krauss says, looking back on the early days of the project. “But I had grown up embarrassed by that affection for and involvement with pop music because I spent a lot of time going to hardcore and punk shows, especially in high school. But then, when Derek played me the initial demo for ‘Infinity Guitars,’ that marriage made sense, and felt really good.”
Others agreed. When Treats arrived 10 years ago this month, to near-unanimous critical praise and endorsements from M.I.A. and Beyoncé, it was riding on the back of a two-year hype cycle that came about through a mix of happy accidents (Krauss met Miller when he was her server in a Brazilian restaurant) and handing demos off to the right people at the right time. A decade on, Treats looms large not just because it’s a damn good album, or because it bent genre in an innovative way, or because several of pop’s current giants have implicitly (or explicitly) lifted from its bombastic, joyous sound. It’s a reminder of a New York music era where blogs thrived, Williamsburg “hipsters” were a running punchline, and mixing indie rock with dance music was still considered a novelty.
The duo’s material since Treats, from their dynamic sophomore album Reign of Terror to their tender 2017 mini-release Kid Kruschev, has worked hard to move past that initial burst. But the staying power of Treats, even after the collapse of the press ecosystem that birthed it, remains formidable.
Calling in from their respective homes, Krauss and Miller discussed the many musical inspirations behind Treats, the challenges of performing the songs live, and how their “aggro-pop” sound has become the norm for mainstream acts.
When’s the last time you both listened to this album in full?
Alexis Krauss: I haven’t listened to it in its entirety for a while. I’ll listen to it before we go on a tour, and that’s when I really get re-energized and excited about it. I will say, though, every time I get into my car, “A/B Machines” without fail comes on blasting. That song annoys the shit out of me, because it comes on so loud, but I really love it.
Derek Miller: I skimmed through everything just to prep for this interview, but before that, maybe eight or nine years since I’ve listened to it in full. The mixes are still mind-boggling to me — listening to them now, having made records for a decade since then, it’s incredible that we just kind of went with [that sound], how it just seemed normal to me. It didn’t sound radical in any way, shape or form. It didn’t sound harsh. Or blown out. It just sounded right.
How did you guys come up with that uniform sound across the album? Especially since you came up so quickly, and were riding on so much hype from your early demos, was it challenging to come up with such a cohesive LP and vision right out of the gate?
Miller: I feel like we were just trying to spit out really great singles individually. We discussed how we wanted to treat the band like a studio project, and not worry about whether or not everything fit underneath a single umbrella. We didn’t really worry about whether or not it sounded cohesive. “Rill Rill” and “Infinity Guitars” somehow still sound like the same band, but they have almost nothing in common besides your voice, Alexis. There’s just something abstract between them — they speak to each other. And I think the same can be said about all of the tracks. It was truly a happy accident.
Alexis, when you decided to quit your job as a teacher to be part of Sleigh Bells, was that a difficult decision for you?
Krauss: Yes and no. I started working professionally in music at such a young age, so stepping away from music and going to school, even though I was still working as a singer — as a session singer, as a wedding-band singer — it was creative, but it certainly wasn’t anything like being in your own band and creating something of your own.
I did feel a real reluctance [when Derek reached out]. It seems like small potatoes now, given what we’re going through, but that was in 2008. The economy was going down the toilet, and there was all this uncertainty, and I had just spent a lot of time working towards this career. So when I met Derek, even though I loved working with him, and I felt a real strong calling, it also felt kind of irresponsible to say I was gonna stop doing what I was doing to pursue a career in music. And I can’t even say I was thinking about it as a career.
My parents were the people in my life that were the most encouraging and supportive. My father is a musician, and my mom, from the beginning, just adored Derek and really loved what we were working on. There was that encouragement and recognition that I could always go back to school if I wanted to. But things happened so fast that I don’t think I ever had time to question that decision or hesitate. The band became our lives within a matter of months.
Miller: We met July 10th, 2008 — that was the night that she came into the restaurant, and I know that because she e-mailed me that night. And then [New York literary critic and former music blogger] Molly Young posted about us [on Spike Jonze’s blog] in July of 2009. Molly was actually a friend of our manager Will Hubbard, who’s been my best friend since we were 12 or 13. And there was a period around 2008 or ‘09 where every guy I knew in Brooklyn had a crush on Molly. I honestly don’t think I knew that she was writing for Spike’s blog. I think I was probably just trying to impress her, or at least get her attention, or something.
She ended up writing back, “I think these are great. I’m writing them up on Spike’s blog. Can I post?” I was like, “Holy shit, yes, please. Of course.” We had had that whole year [before that] to write songs, July is when she posted, and then that’s when Spike Jonze heard it. Spike gave it to M.I.A., and that’s also how [music critic] Sasha Frere-Jones heard it. Those four people right there basically kick-started the whole thing. By December we were a full-time band.
Was that always the goal, in terms of listenership? When you were passing out demos in your apartment building, who were you hoping that music would reach?
Miller: I had no idea how many people would like it, but I knew that it would find an audience. I just had no idea what that audience would look like. It definitely became way more of an ordeal than I initially imagined. I would walk by these little clubs in Brooklyn — 80-capacity rooms — and be like, “It’s my dream to play there. How are we going to get booked there, so that 20 of our friends can come see us play?” I certainly wasn’t prepared for M.I.A. to e-mail me, and then five days later show up at my apartment and knock on the door and for us to start playing a bunch of music for each other, kicking ideas around. It was really nuts.
Nowadays, you have all these artists like Charli XCX, or Rico Nasty, or even The 1975 on occasion, who will combine this really aggressive, punkish sound with pop melodies or hip-hop beats. But at the time, you guys were kind of a novelty. There had been mashups of rock and hip-hop before Sleigh Bells, but the specific hybrid you came up with was really unique.
Miller: At the time, I couldn’t believe that no one was doing that yet. Before I met Alexis, I was trying to find a singer and talked to 20 or 30 women, and my pitch for Sleigh Bells to them was “‘Hollaback Girl’ with metal guitars.” I was obsessed with the Neptunes, and still am. And “Infinity Guitars” is really just “Gold Digger.” It’s the kick-and-snare pattern from “Gold Digger,” just played on a different drum machine with different kicks and claps and a guitar riff on top of it. I was trying to marry those two worlds.
Krauss: It’s interesting that you mentioned the fact that that sort of heavy/sweet juxtaposition is so common now. I remember when we first started doing interviews and being asked about the music, people were really struggling to give us a genre, to give us a label. If there was one, it was “rap-rock” and “noise pop” and all this stuff. I feel like that conversation is so less relevant now. When I look back on it, it’s like, wow, people were really determined to put us in a little box.
When it comes to the lyrical content of the album, and the aesthetics, were you always going for that high-school cheerleader vibe from the beginning, Derek? Or did that happen after Alexis came on board?
Miller: It was definitely part of the plan. The reason I use “Hollaback Girl” as a reference is because she’s basically shouting. Gwen Stefani is quadruple-overdubbed or more — it sounds like there’s eight or nine of her — and she was just shouting. I figured it would be easier to find somebody [that way], because even if they told me, “Yeah, I make music but I can’t really sing,” I could be like, “It doesn’t matter. You could just shout over all this stuff, all the instrumentals.” So when I got Alexis, and I heard her voice for the first time, I was like, “Holy shit, she can sing. This is an actual singer.” And that was a gamechanger.
I had been really influenced by bands like the Magik Markers — that was the other side of the coin. There’s the Neptunes and stuff that was hyper-pop, but I was totally incapable of tackling that on my own, creatively speaking. But I could easily make a bunch of noise. So when I heard her voice, it just opened up a whole other world.
Vocally, how difficult is it to perform some of these songs live?
Krauss: When I’d be tracking Treats in the studio, I would be singing very quietly, and then that would be bumped up and blown out. So getting that sort of breathy, soft approach and delivery was hard in a live performance. It’d be me trying to sing “Rill Rill,” for example, over these really loud beats and cacophonous music, and that was definitely challenging. It was much easier to do the full-on shouting for “Straight A’s” and “Infinity Guitars.” I remember there were a lot of vulnerable moments early on, being out there like, “What the fuck am I doing?”
Miller: We were on really small stages as well. On our own tour, when we were headlining, she didn’t have in-ear monitors — basically high-end earbuds, and you can dictate what goes into them and blocks out the crowd or any excessive noise. But she would be standing right next to my monitors, and they are definitely loud, like 120 dB, 115. It was totally unfair. I just wasn’t even thinking about it. I’d be like, “Don’t step in front of my monitors,” and she’s like, “Well, the stage is four feet wide.”
For [recording] a song like “Tell ‘Em,” she’s literally standing perfectly still, right up on the mic, singing very quietly, and we’d quadruple-overdub that and treat them. So to try to pull that off live, while you’re running around, that’s a tall order.
Krauss: I vividly remember when we were recording at Treefort [Studios] with our buddy, [engineer] Shane Stoneback, we’d often call it the “dead babydoll” approach for the “Tell ‘Em” delivery.
Miller: It was basically the three of us, and whenever she sang with too much emotion, we’d kind of look at each other and jump on the talkback and be like, “More dead-eyed babydoll.” She knew immediately. She’s like, “That’s right, I gotta roll back the emotion.” We got tired of that, and have evolved greatly since then. But it definitely works for that record.
I was listening to a Pitchfork live set you did in 2010, and you can definitely hear the difference — you’re basically rapping the lyrics to “Tell ‘Em” so they can hear you over the instrumentals.
Miller: Oh, yeah, that show was a tough one for us, actually. Do you remember that, Alexis?
Krauss: Didn’t we lose the vocal pedal?
Miller: Yes. We were running our own vocal effects onstage because we had no idea what the fuck we were doing. We didn’t have a front-of-house person. One of the quarter-inch inputs was really dirty, so her vocal would go in and out. My guitar pedal broke. And then somebody came backstage and said that we were only at 80 dB — it was the quietest set of the entire fest. We were supposed to be the loudest.
I wanted to ask about “Rill Rill” specifically — that’s such a special song in the Sleigh Bells body of work. And that Funkadelic sample is just timeless.
Miller: That sample, that loop, is bulletproof. “Can You Get to That” is one of my favorite songs of all time. And the lyrics are this kind of pure abstraction. I have nothing but respect for people who write coherent narrative, but that’s never really been what we do. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but I’ve always been more about mood and imagery and feeling. We got the idea for a song with a single line or lyric repeated over and over from “All the Tired Horses,” the first track off the Bob Dylan record Self Portrait. It’s just the title sung by a small chorus of women for a little over 3 minutes. It’s beautiful. That’s where “A/B Machines” came from.
Actually, “Rill Rill” started off with me kind of biting Andre 3000 first, from “International Players Anthem.” “Keep your heart, Three Stacks, keep your heart, keep your heart, Three Stacks, keep your heart.” And that’s why [“Rill Rill”] starts off, “Have a heart, have a heart, have a heart,” and then it just kind of went from there. I think it’s written from the perspective of a high-school student. And your voice in that sample, Alexis, the chemistry is pretty intense. It does strange things to me when I hear it today, because it was such a strange time in my life. Good stuff and bad stuff. I lost my dad right before the record came out, and his death was quick and unexpected. It was a very confusing time.
Krauss: There was a time where we weren’t sure we were gonna be able to clear that sample, and eventually we were like, “This song is this vocal, on this production, on this sample, and we can’t make it any better than that.”
Miller: On the chorus, when she says, “Click click, settle up,” a lot of people think it’s “saddle up,” like on a horse. But it’s “click click, settle up,” like it’s a gun being cocked in your face, being robbed, something like that. It’s kind of a violent image. I’ve always wondered about it, because I don’t think we released official lyrics until a year or two after the songs came out.
Krauss: And honestly, the “saddle up” has become so ubiquitous that I’m not even sure what I sing live anymore.
Even though the album’s lyrics are very impressionistic, they always seem to go back to these subjects of trends and materialism — how people become obsessed with those things in their adolescence.
Miller: There’s that carelessness and looseness and sort of the drama of being a kid, doing drugs in the bathroom at way too young of an age. “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces,” all of that stuff. For me, it’s got a high-school vibe, which of course works with the cheerleaders on the cover and whatnot. They all kind of speak to each other.
Krauss: The amount of young women have come up to me at shows and either proudly displayed their braces, or told me how that song became their anthem and gave them the self confidence when they were going through this period of feeling incredibly insecure and judged — that’s probably the thing that makes me smile most about that song. It’s the amount of people who have shared that very personal, awkward high-school story with me about their braces.
Miller: The title “Crown on the Ground” actually came to me after seeing an interview Kanye gave during the 808s & Heartbreak era. It was the first time I had heard him talking about himself as the greatest artist alive. I actually quickly came to love his outsize confidence and passion but at the time I remember thinking it was nuts. “Crown on the Ground” is about humility.
In that sense, it’s sometimes strange to hear Treats songs playing in a commercial, or used in a trailer for The Bling Ring.
Krauss: With Sofia Coppola, we both just love film so much, and there were some really exciting opportunities there — just having a moment where you could communicate with somebody like Sofia Coppola, who was like, “Yes, this song means this to me, and I see it in this part of the film.” There was a moment when those songs were really resonating in trailers and with films. It was exciting.
Miller: The Sofia Coppola thing was incredibly flattering, and a big deal for a very different reason. You know, Honda commercials are one thing; this was another. I think Spike Jonze was our first sync, actually. He made a short film for Absolut Vodka, and I think he used “A/B Machines.”
How did you feel about Beyoncé asking you to work with her after the album came out?
Miller: I actually didn’t believe it at first. We were playing a show that night for the MTV show Skins in New York City. We had finished soundcheck and were backstage, and I got a text from Diplo, and he was like, “Hey, I need the stems for ‘Kids.’ Working with Beyonce, send them ASAP.” I didn’t respond. I thought he was fucking with me, ’cause that’s kind of how we communicate; we joke around a lot. And then I got a second text from him, and then he called me. He was like, “What the fuck are you doing? Get me the shit, I’m with Beyonce right now, we need the stems.” And of course, I went into overdrive, and within four hours they had the stems. I don’t think they were even made yet — I think Shane had to jump on his computer and stem everything out.
What did you make of people comparing Taylor Swift’s song “…Ready for It?” to “Kids”?
Miller: We saw all the press about it. There was also the Demi Lovato thing that actually happened before that, where she used “Infinity Guitars” for her song. I don’t even think that was a replay; that was the master. I was flattered that they thought enough of my beat to steal it, and frankly I’m glad they didn’t clear it, because we sorted it out.
It’s interesting, that stuff, because Pharrell is probably still dealing with the “Blurred Lines” issue. I tweeted this years ago, when that case was still pending, but “Riot Rhythm” is basically “Grindin’.” It’s my own version of it, but I was basically tipping my cap to him, because I love him so much. That wouldn’t happen in 2020, but I also don’t know if this band would’ve happened without the Neptunes. I was in a hardcore band called Poison the Well, before Sleigh Bells, from ages 16 to 23. I quit in 2004. Up until that point, I’d never really gone out — I played 300 shows a year in hardcore clubs or whatever, but I’ve never gone out dancing and partying like normal people. So when I quit and moved home to Florida, [Justin Timberlake’s] Justify had been out for a year or two. It was one of the biggest records in the world. Especially songs like “Like I Love You” — Pharrell’s backbeat on that is absurd. But that changed my life, just going out, doing drugs for the first time, staying out late. I was like, “Why am I in a band? I can’t believe I spent almost eight years in a hardcore band.” That was a huge part of what I wanted to avoid with Sleigh Bells — there would be this intensity, but one that people would dance to, and it would be a more celebratory vibe.
It really does have that mass-appeal element, even with all its aggression. Is that what you’re most proud of with this album?
Miller: The thing I’m most proud of is being a part of something or being associated with something — in this case, Treats — that brings some people some measure of joy, that they have fun listening to it. Whether it’s background music for five minutes on a Friday night when you’re out with your friends, or it’s one of your favorite records, just being a part of something that people care about is a huge deal for me. That’s probably what I’m most proud of.
Krauss: The amount of people who have talked about the ways that Treats has helped them to keep going … It’s not what you put on where you’re cooking dinner in your kitchen, at least for most people. When they have an experience with this album, they’re usually doing something intense — something physical, like running a marathon, or being really angry. It’s this very physical, emotional, all-consuming, in-your-face experience.
The ways that I’ve been able to hear those stories, especially in the live space, has made me forever indebted to this album. It taught me how to let go of all of my insecurities and self-consciousness about being onstage, and it just let me completely come through and connect as a musician and as a performer. To this day, it still does that. When “Crown on the Ground” comes on at the end of our set, there’s an eruption there, like no other song that we play.
It’s a weird time to feel like you can celebrate anything right now, but it’s nice to recognize our own little place in history with this album. And eventually we’ll get out there — we’ll get back onstage; we’ll play it live, and I’m just waiting for that moment when people will be able to have that release again.
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