Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells—the experimental pop duo from Brooklyn who combine aggressive guitars, bubblegum-sweet vocals and pummeling electronic beats—says her band is polarizing for many reasons.
"I guess the first thing is the volume," she says. "Our live shows are very loud, and we want you to feel the music, and there are strobe lights and lots of dancing and shouting. Our music doesn't really have subtleties. It can all be pretty overwhelming."
But if you can appreciate Sleigh Bells' meticulously constructed wall of noise, which many listeners find irresistible, you can discover in it compositional sophistication and emotional catharsis.
Krauss' musical partner in Sleigh Bells is guitarist and producer Derek Miller, formerly of the band Poison the Well, a popular proponent of punk and metalcore during the early 2000s.
Miller left that band because of creative differences—"He felt trapped by the formulaic approach of hardcore," Krauss explains—and was working in New York in 2008 while looking for a female vocalist to help him capture the new sounds bouncing around in his head. He met Krauss, a former Spanish teacher, while serving her in a restaurant, and they hit it off.
Krauss had a background in television and theater. Like Miller, she'd also endured a less-than-satisfying musical experience—as a teenager, she was in a pre-fab teen pop group called RubyBlue—that left her disillusioned with the music business.
"I don't think I would be pursuing music if I hadn't met Derek," she says. "If you find the right person, who helps you focus your energy and talent in the right direction, it makes all the difference. Us working together brought back my interest in music, which I wasn't sure I had anymore."
Sleigh Bells allows Krauss and Miller to exercise their shared, but varied, musical interests.
"We have a lot of sounds we try to fit into our music," Krauss says, "pop songs, punk, girl groups of the 1960s, electronic and hip-hop, experimental stuff. And on the new album, we tried to explore more of the arena-rock realm, like Def Leppard, but also had stuff like the Cranberries in mind, too.
"Obviously, we're a band that utilizes a lot of technology. There are live vocals and live guitar, but also lots of electronics, such as synth pads and different drum-machine sounds," she says. "We like the variety we can get from using different effects and programs."
That modest description doesn't take into account the power of Sleigh Bells' music to transform familiar elements into something fresh.
On Sleigh Bells' walloping 2010 debut album, Treats, songs such as "Kids," "Rill Rill," "Crown on the Ground" and "A/B Machines" combined electronic sound beds with Miller's post-punk and heavy-metal guitar licks, and Krauss' magnetic vocals. The results sounded immediately and shockingly contemporary.
With this year's follow-up, Reign of Terror, they further explore the relationship between noise and melody, leavening a monstrous guitar assault with infectious melodies. Jackhammering drum machines and burbling electronics tilt and twist the sound like an Escher drawing. Krauss croons and trills and chants and shouts like a mutant-punk cheerleader.
Krauss says Sleigh Bells already have recorded three songs for their third album, which is tentatively scheduled to be released in 2013.
Although they're headlining their current tour of theaters, Sleigh Bells recently came off a stint on the road, opening in arenas for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Krauss says the Chili Peppers couldn't have treated them any better. "That operation is run so beautifully; they really know what they are doing. The band members were extremely gracious and genuine, and they went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable."
When it came time for her and Miller to determine an opener for their tour, they chose carefully. AraabMuzik is the producing and performing name of Abraham Orellana, a hip-hop and EDM artist born in Providence, R.I., who is half-Dominican and half-Guatemalan.
AraabMuzik performs on the MPC, a computer that can be used as both drum machine and sampler.
Krauss says Orellana is a virtuoso on his chosen instrument. "His live sets on the MPC show a degree of mastery that have made some people compare him to Mozart," she says. "His sound is very unique and interesting. Sonically, it's very compatible with what we do."
Must be. In honor of their tour together, AraabMusik recently remixed several Sleigh Bells tunes, which are being released online. You can listen to his remix of the band's "Never Say Die" at pitchfork.com/news/48098-listen-araabmuzik-remixes-sleigh-bells.