Preview: Sleigh Bells still too abrasive for Top 40


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There's always a chance that some day Sleigh Bells will be headlining arenas -- certainly the indie-rock duo's sound is bombastic enough -- but its first venture into that realm was met mostly with blank looks.

Sleigh Bells, which plays Mr. Smalls on Wednesday, was plucked as an opening act for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the veteran band's first tour as Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

Sleigh Bells

With: Class Actress, Jel.

Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: $22; 1-866-468-3401.

Naturally, Sleigh Bells wasn't met with the kind of excitement it is accustomed to in the smaller sweaty clubs.

"When you're supporting a band that is so loved like the Chili Peppers, it's kind of hard to get the crowd super excited about you," says frontwoman Alexis Krauss. "There's a lot of indifference but certainly no hostility, which was really nice. I've seen a lot of opening bands at arenas get booed and get a lot of negativity from the crowd."

Backstage, it was nothing but positive.

"They are some of the nicest, most down-to-earth people that I've ever had the pleasure of interacting with," she says of the Chili Peppers and their crew. "It was pretty surreal to have days where you'd get to the venue and kind of be hanging out in the dressing room and all of a sudden Flea would walk in, bass in hand, of course, just tearing it up and asking you how your day was. The same thing goes for Anthony [Keidis]. He was an absolute pleasure."

Sleigh Bells started in 2009 when Ms. Krauss, an elementary school teacher with a history in a teen-pop group, met Derek E. Miller, the former Poison the Well guitarist, who was waiting tables in a Brooklyn bistro. When he recruited her to sing over some work-in-progress tracks, the result became "Treats," a debut album acclaimed for its block-busting beats, sexy cheerleader vocals and metallic guitar-rock assault.

Along with the sensational reviews, Sleigh Bells was invited to such festivals as Coachella and Pitchfork and landed one of its songs, "Infinity Guitars," in a phone commercial.

When it finished its tour, at Bonnaroo, the duo was faced with the high expectations of following an album that had become a hit among the hipsters and critics. The pair dealt with it by turning off their cell phones and hiding away in the studio.

"Derek and I are pretty insular in the sense that we don't let other people's expectations or the media or people's criticism or opinions really penetrate our creative process," the singer says.

Sleigh Bells emerged with "Reign of Terror," an album that packs even more of a guitar punch (the first song is called "True Shred Guitar") while also setting aside some of the playful party vibe for headier themes.

"For us," she says, "making 'Reign of Terror' felt cathartic, something we had to do. We had been touring on 'Treats' for many months and we had all this pent-up creative energy and all these ideas, and Derek had a lot of these things to work out in his personal life, and making 'Reign of Terror' was definitely the outlet for a lot of emotional baggage and things that needed to come out and breathe in order for him to move on and for us to move on as a band."

With Sleigh Bells' approach of throwing its record collection at the wall and seeing what happens, there were some surprising twists in "Reign of Terror."

"We were pretty open about the music we were making and not being ashamed of our influences. We referenced bands like Queen and Def Leppard and a lot of bands that aren't necessarily hip or widely celebrated among the indie blogs and whatnot. ..."

In terms of song structure, she thinks "Reign of Terror" is a more conventional album than "Treats."

"Even though our sound is more abrasive than a lot of generic pop music that's out there, we're essentially a pop band. We love melody, we love structure. I think on this record we were really motivated to write songs that were a bit more traditional, with proper verses, proper choruses, bridges. We were much more interested in crafting songs than we were on 'Treats.' "

Despite the duo's love of certain pop elements, the end result is too abrasive for Top 40 radio.

"I always have this idea in my head," she says, "that, especially 'Reign of Terror,' it sounds much more mainstream. But when you compare it to a song like 'Call Me Maybe,' it just sounds like a completely different animal. So I don't necessarily think that our music will ever be suitable for Top 40. That being said, it's not something we'd ever be ashamed of. We're a very ambitious band, we're a very inclusive band in that we have no problem with 13-year-old girls liking our music."

If you saw Sleigh Bells when it made its debut on "Saturday Night Live" in February, you may have noticed a second guitarist in Jason Boyer. He's been on the road with the band, but Sleigh Bells isn't looking to expand on the duo concept in the studio.

"I think the fact that we're a duo is crucial to our dynamic," Ms. Krauss says. "Derek and I have developed a close personal friendship. We trust each other and we're comfortable bouncing ideas off of one another and collaborating. I don't foresee ever inviting anyone else into that process. That said, when it came to the live show, after we recorded 'Reign of Terror,' it was evident we needed another guitar player, because there were so many harmonies and guitar parts, if it was just Derek and I, it wouldn't have done it justice."

Don't look for a real live drummer any time soon, as Sleigh Bells is dedicated to the machine.

"We're probably never going to add a drummer unless we start recording live drums, which I don't see being an option for us. All of the percussion on both records is electronic, so it's all sample based. It wouldn't work having a live kit up there. It would probably make a lot of people feel better about our band -- they'd think it was more legit or acceptable in their eyes -- but sonically it doesn't make sense. It's not compatible with our sound."

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published July 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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