Jessica Rabbit, the provocatively titled new offering by Sleigh Bells, is both an aural blast and a declaration of independence for musical partners Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller, who headline the Gothic Theatre on March 24. The recording is the first on the group's new label, Torn Clean, and it's likely to knock even longtime Sleigh Bells fans for a loop thanks to its passionate embrace of both ultra-forceful sonics and pop verities. Or, as Krauss puts it with more than a little bit of pride, "It's a strange album."
Krauss, whose alternately tender and terrifying vocals are a big part of Sleigh Bells' appeal, is among the most thoughtful and intelligent figures on the current scene, as you'll glean from the interview below. Among the topics she tackles in the wake of a just-completed European tour are reactions of overseas fans to the U.S. election results; how politics influenced the group's lyrics in ways that may not be immediately apparent given their seemingly personal nature; the risks and rewards of the band's members being in charge of their own financial destiny; how producer Mike Elizondo, who's worked with Eminem and Dr. Dre, helped grow his latest clients' craftsmanship; how thematic darkness doesn't have to be a downer; the combo's lawsuit against singer Demi Lovato over alleged song pilfering; and the way the most memorable quote by a certain Who Framed Roger Rabbit cartoon bombshell equates to Krauss and company.
They're not bad. They're just drawn that way.
Westword: You guys just returned from a European tour. Did you get a lot of questions from people there about your take on what's going on in America in the wake of Donald Trump's election?
Alexis Krauss: We definitely had lots of conversations in Europe and the U.K. Obviously, the U.K. is going through some similar issues with Brexit and the European Union. And Germany is struggling with a lot of the same kind of nationalistic, xenophobic policies. So there are a lot of similar anxieties throughout Europe. People are certainly shocked and disappointed in this country for voting for Trump. But I think that people, especially in the major cities, understand that Trump isn't necessarily a reflection of many of the people in the U.S., especially in the creative industries.
So there's a level of concern for the direction that our country's going in. But there's also kind of an excitement about how energized people are in regard to wanting to fight back and protect what they believe is important. So there are positives and negatives.
Was it weird having people from there asking you for insight into things that even people here are having a hard time getting a handle on?
It wasn't that strange. I think people in Europe and the U.K. have always been a bit more responsible than the United States as far as knowing global politics and being engaged and having a pretty critical understanding of what's going on in the world. So I wasn't surprised by it at all.
Lyrically, you guys typically deal with the personal rather than the political — but I understand you majored in political science when you were in college. Is there any temptation, given what's happening in the world, to take your music in a more political or topical direction?
I think we did that more than ever on this album. Songs like "Throw Me Down the Stairs" and even "Rule Number One" are definitely — I don't want to call them political songs, but they touch on the overall feeling of exasperation and frustration and insanity that we're experiencing in the world. I think they were more a reflection of our current political climate than any of our past music. I think our songs tend to be more personal, but obviously, personal experiences tend to be tremendously influenced by the outside world right now. Personal turmoil is also kind of reflecting that public turmoil, and you can't really draw a line between them, in my opinion. We're just trying to be as honest and vulnerable and insightful as possible with our music. But I don't think we're going to set our course one way or the other. It's really about what comes out and what feels right.
Photo courtesy of Torn Clean/Sleigh Bells
Given the band's expressive and aggressive style, can songs that don't directly equate to our current political situation still be useful to people in helping them deal with it?
I think so. I think our music has always had a cathartic quality to it. It's definitely aggressive at times, definitely bombastic. It certainly is music that allows people to have an outlet for their frustrations and energies and emotions. I think it can be a really energizing music that encourages people to mobilize and rally and scream and fight and kick. [She laughs.] All of those things. I think it definitely is a good expression of the current chaos.
The new album is the first to be released on your own label, Torn Clean. Have you found, considering the changes the music industry has gone through over the past few years, that doing it yourself makes more sense from both a creative and a business standpoint?
For us, it has. It doesn't come without its challenges. We're not working with a major label and a major label budget and marketing plan, so we really have to be resourceful and committed to getting the music heard. But because we're in charge, we're making our own decisions about everything from videos to track listings to artwork to touring decisions. It's just a much more holistic approach, and it's worked well for us. As you said, the music industry is in a really challenging position, and if you're in it just to sell records, you have to have a different approach. But if you're in it to make music you want to be making in an uncompromised way, then self-releasing makes a lot of sense.
When you're working on those business kinds of things, do you ever get frustrated because you'd rather be thinking about and performing music? Or does it feel empowering instead that you're able to make all your own decisions?
I would say 90 percent of the time, it's empowering. We have a great team of people we work with who facilitate those things, so Derek and I rarely feel like we're being bogged down by business and it's cutting into our creative time. More often than not, it's very liberating and empowering.
Judging from the new album, you didn't compromise artistically at all. But did you ever find yourself fighting against thinking, "We're paying all the bills. We need this to be a hit"?
We really didn't think about commercial viability much on this album. Of course, I think any band would be lying if they told you they weren't interested in getting their music out and heard by as many people as possible, and appreciated by as many people as possible. We want to make songs that people like and want to listen to and buy and want to support. But the mainstream radio industry is very political, and if you're going to embark down that path, it's a conscious effort and choice. You have to spend time with programmers, you have to play radio shows, you have to play conference shows, you have to really decide that's the trajectory you want to pursue. And there's nothing wrong with that. But that wasn't really something we were interested in for this album, or really something that we've done in the past.
If people are going to listen to our stuff, they're going to listen because they feel a connection to it, and they're going to come out to the live show and enjoy an experience. But we're not really striving for that type of commercial success unless it comes to us organically, which may be asking for too much. But as I said, we'd love to have a song that a million people stream and listen to, and grow our fan base. But we're not going to compromise our aesthetic and our creative process to do so.
One of the key contributors to the new album is Mike Elizondo. What was it about his work that made you think it would bring a new dimension to Sleigh Bells?
Mike is extremely versatile. He understands the rock world, he understands the pop world, and he is a phenomenal musician. He has a great ear for melody and chord changes. He's also a production whiz. We just thought his strengths would help enhance some of our weaknesses, and he helped us think super-critically about every creative decision: every note, every kick sound, every tempo change, every lyric. He helped us raise the bar, in my opinion. And he is just a really decent, wonderful human being who makes you feel good about making music. It was really a lovely time spent with him.
[Here's the Derek Miller-directed video for Jessica Rabbit's first track, "It's Just Us Now."]
You mentioned weaknesses. Were there maybe things you didn't realize were weaknesses, but in working with him, you thought, "We can do better in this area, and he can help us get there"?
I think Derek and I are and will always be pretty aware of what our weaknesses are, or what we perceive our weaknesses to be. I think we ran into the process with our eyes wide open as far as that we knew what we wanted him to help us with, and he was able to do that. I think probably the biggest thing was arrangements. Not just repeating one strong idea, but trying to generate as many strong ideas as possible.
Is there a song on the new album that may exemplify that? That became more multi-faceted as a result of that approach?
I think "I Can Only Stare" is a good example. When we started with "I Can Only Stare," it was pretty much only the chorus refrain repeated over and over again. We really worked on fleshing out that arrangement and just making every moment count — working on solid verses, on an instrumental break, on a strong intro. Just kind of breaking down the song in a way that was more thoughtful, but also in a way that was more orthodox. Writing a great pop song is one of the hardest things to do, and sticking to a traditional pop arrangement can be really challenging. But if you do it right, it can be insanely interesting.
You talked about "Rule Number One" earlier, and that's definitely one of your more complex and challenging songs to date. Did you realize when you were making the album that it might be one of those recordings that people would need to listen to more than once to be able to connect to it?
Definitely. I think when you play songs for friends and family, they often look confounded after the first listen. So it wasn't a surprise. But some of my favorite music is challenging at first and makes me want to listen a second and a third and a fourth time. I think immediacy can be a great thing, but I also think complexity can be a really interesting and valuable thing. So hopefully there's a bit of both on this album.
Is one of the positives on that track and the album as a whole that when you get to that fourth and fifth and sixth listen, the songs still have new things to reveal?
I hope so. I love that. I love when you listen to a track and you discover a little harmony line or a texture or an instrument you didn't notice before. I hope people feel that excitement listening to it and hearing different things every time that they listen. I think that's one of my favorite qualities about some of my favorite artists.
The song title "Unlimited Dark Paths" strikes me as symbolic of the band as a whole, in a way. Four albums in, you guys certainly haven't run out of things to write about, but a lot of it tends to be dark. Does that make sense to you?
Yeah. I think that song is pretty brutal. It's one of the heaviest things we've done. That song's definitely kind of a commentary on a lot of the things in society that make us uncomfortable and disappoint us. But it's also hopeful. It's about strength and integrity. It's aspirational in that sense. That song feels to me like an appropriate sort of microcosm of Jessica Rabbit.
There's a lot of aggressive imagery in "I Can't Stand You Anymore." I'm thinking of lines like "Bombs don't compare to the trouble you bring me" and "You're killing me, but I'm killing you, too." When you deliver lines like those, can it take a lot out of you from an emotional and energy standpoint? Or is that part of the fun, to really dig into lines like those?
I think it's part of the fun. It's definitely an emotional delivery, and I really wanted the emotion in the delivery to match that lyric. But my favorite singers, whether it's Sam Cooke or Etta James, they give everything. You can hear that cry, you can hear that vulnerability, you can hear that anguish, and that's what I really connect with. So I wanted to give vocal performances that felt extremely hysterical at points, because they're intense lyrics and you're trying to convey serious emotions.
Miller and Krauss in black and white.
Photo courtesy of Torn Clean/Sleigh Bells
I wanted to ask you about the band's lawsuit over Demi Lovato's "Stars" and its likeness to "Infinity Guitars" and "Riot Rhythm." Is that still pending?
I can't really speak about it. But we're actively having conversations with them — I'll just say that. But we haven't changed our position.
Was the decision to file the suit mostly about maintaining your integrity in a world where it's gotten easier and easier for people to steal ideas?
Yes. It was just us standing up for what we thought was right and what are appropriate procedures for sampling and using someone else's ideas. We're certainly no strangers to sampling. "Rill Rill" is a straight Funkadelic sample, and we did it the right way. We just ask that other artists do the same.
It sounds like for you, one of the key issues is simply giving credit where credit is due. Is that fair to say?
That's extremely fair to say. Absolutely.
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I can't resist asking one Jessica Rabbit question. Her most famous line in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." Is that something you relate to?
[Laughs.] I think it's interesting after you title your album after something, you start to connect to pieces of information you weren't initially inspired by. I definitely see a relationship between that line and our album and sort of the attitude of our album. The inspiration for Jessica Rabbit came more from this idea of desiring something that isn't real and being a bit delusional in your expectations and wants and passions. That was really the inspiration. But I think her sort of attitude and toughness is certainly a quality of Jessica Rabbit — the Sleigh Bells version.
Sleigh Bells performs March 24 at 9 p.m. at the Gothic Theatre. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased on the Gothic website.