Born of an unlikely restaurant interaction, Sleigh Bells is one of the most prominent indie acts of this decade. This month’s cover feature is an interview with singer Alexis Krauss on the duo’s new record, dream collaborations and Nov. 18 show at Wonder Ballroom.
It seemed fitting that I should meet The Domestics at home. Not my home, but theirs. Really, the place was the old digs of singer Leo London, a strange little home and practice space tucked up away somewhere between Lombard and the industrial yards off Columbia Boulevard, walled in by hedges and trees, so that I had to walk right up to the fence to see Leo and co-founder Michael Finn standing in the yard. The inside was decorated mostly with music posters, and a few old copies of various magazines lay on the table. The basement that had once been some sort of garage sat full of instruments and amps–a few keyboards, a guitar, a bass, a drum set, and an older iMac on the table, with cables snaking out and around, holding it all together. On a beam overhead sat two stuffed tigers, one white and one tawny. We sat down outside to talk about the process of creating Little Darkness, the band’s newest project, and what all they’ve been working on recently. As we talked into the evening, there remained the sounds of cars passing beyond the trees, some going on out for the night, and some no doubt returning finally, after the long day, back home.
ELEVEN: So you guys were just working on some music just now?
Leo London: Yeah, we’re steeped in material for the next record.
11: You have one album out, your debut self-titled project. Were you here in Portland before that?
Michael Finn: I moved here in 2009
LL: I moved here in 2005, but then I moved away, and then came back. I kinda yo-yo’ed back and forth. I’m from Eugene, so I’ve moved back and forth a lot.
11: How do you think Portland has changed since your first release, and how have you changed, as a band, or as individuals?
LL: Well, Portland is more expensive than when I moved here, for sure. But if you get creative, I feel like there’s still gems (gestures around). When we did the first record, it was just me and Mike working together, we didn’t have a band or anything like that, we’d only really worked together, the two of us. Mike got some studio time at Flora, and we went in there with some song sketches and stuff, and we made a record that sounded like we were a band. We did a lot of live tracking, with Mike playing drums and me playing piano, and then we’d add two more layers. Now what’s markedly different is having an abundance of time in the studio, comparatively. We did the first record in about two weeks.
MF: yeah, it was all tracked and mixed pretty fast, maybe twenty days total. This new record was over the course of a month and a half, probably at least forty or fifty days in the studio.
LL: You want a beer? I’ll grab you a beer.
MF: As far as the shows go, and I’m not sure how much the city plays into this, but when we first started out as a band, it was before Tender Loving Empire picked up our album and re-released it, and we were mostly playing to our friends, and playing with our friends’ bands. And then through TLE signing us and going through the re-release, the landscape for our shows changed, so we were able to attract a wider audience. A lot of that was due to their work, where we had started building something and they came along and were able to build off of that.
11: How did that come about, teaming up with TLE?
MF: There was a lot that played into that, but after we finished our album, one of our singles was retweeted by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who I had met working on their last record with Tucker, my boss, in Stinson Beach, California, which in a lot of ways was the genesis of our project. I remember getting a demo from Leo while I was there for “American Drag.” I wrote all the time while I was there, and there was a lot of back-and-forth about us starting a band. But I remember playing an early version of “Wait Forever” for some of the My Morning Jacket gang while we were all hanging out, and they really liked it, and when we put out “American Drag” as a single, Jim retweeted it, and then the next day we had some emails from the company that ended up being our booker, Billions, and they put us in touch with a bunch of labels, so pretty quickly after we started putting the record out ourselves, we were in talks with some labels, and TLE was one of them, and we ended up going with them.
11: So on Little Darkness you had a lot more time in the studio, and other players on it as well?
LL: We still do everything mostly, the two of us.
MF: Leo and I still track almost all the instruments. We had help from our band on certain tunes for sure, and Tucker, who I’ve worked with for years, he produced the record and was instrumental in a lot of decisions that were made.
LL: Getting Michael off of the mixing board, and having him just as a musician. He was washing and drying for the first album. Like, he’d press record, and then run from the control room into the drum set and then track from there.
MF: So that was really nice, having that mindset, and not having to worry about if the compressors were hitting too hard, or whatever issue, knowing that Tucker and Justin and Keegan, his assistants, were going to take care of it, so we could focus more on the songs.
11: After listening to Little Darkness, it does feel more produced in a deliberate way than your last project. Did you have a direction that you wanted to go in with respect to the production, or ideas you wanted to pursue with that new freedom?
MF: I think the template for our process for the record really took place when Leo and I went into the studio about a year before the dates with Tucker. We started the project, started tracking some ideas for a few of the songs. “Trampoline Girl” and “Synthetic Girl” were two songs where we set up some drum mics and distorted them some more, and then really started getting into looping, and making loops and building off of the loops, and then subtracting sonic elements, working that way as opposed to trying to have it sound like a band is playing a song. It’s not about simulating this five people all playing at the same time, it’s more about constructing something and then figuring out how to perform it live later. And we listen to a lot of hip-hop records, and were talking with Tucker going into it about Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar and a lot of the stuff we were listening to that was loop based, and that process was really exciting. Also, Leo was working off of loops a ton for the demo process.
LL: Yeah, so I was living in an apartment and I didn’t have access to a kit or anything, so I’d go to other people’s houses, and I’d record drum parts, and then I’d cut them up in logic and build drum loops out of that so I’d have something to work off of at home. The distortion on the drums came from… I was recording everything into a Radio Shack tape machine and then putting it into a Tascam, and then I was turning the knob all the way down so it’d get really deep and crunchy sounding, and I think that informed some of those ideas.
11: Lyrically, a lot of your writing seems off the cuff in a way, there’s this spontaneous quality to it.
LL: Yeah, it’s mostly stream of consciousness.
11: So you have the music written out first?
LL: Usually what I do is I sit at the piano or the guitar and I just mumble-mouth it until something comes, and then I make words up as I go along, which isn’t how I used to write. I used to write everything painstakingly, like, oh, iambic pentameter, blah blah blah. But now I just kinda kick it from my head, as it were, to varying degrees of success (laughs.) Mike gets all my demos, and some of them are hits and some are…
MF: Well usually the only time we disagree is when you try to change lyrics from that first ramble, and I’m like, no I think you were onto something when you weren’t making much sense.
LL: I get insecure sometimes.
11: On this new record, you’re doing a pledge music campaign and doing some interesting bonuses, including roller-skating lessons?
LL: Well this guy’s an excellent roller-skater.
MF: I will not deny that. But yeah, in making this album we had all these opportunities pop up, to work with Tucker and to build this team around us of people that are all excited about the record, and are all professional, and that require a payment, because all these things cost money. To make a record and to put it out there, there’s so much. There’s the creative process, and then there’s all this stuff that happens alongside and during that process, and onward. And we’ve been fortunate to have TLE on our side, helping with so many of the expenses, but the thing is once you invest all this time and money into making a record…
LL: And then you have no money…
MF: And you look back, I mean I’ll go check Spotify, and there’s hundreds of thousands of plays on our first record, which is killer. It’s amazing that people are sharing the music, that’s such a good feeling to make something that folks will listen to. But the way that that translates… I mean if ten percent of the people that were constantly listening to our music online, streaming it, if they bought a copy of the record, that would drastically change the way that we could go about our days, continually making music and paying our band.
LL: Yeah, we could stop hustling (laughs).
MF: With the streaming services, as a music fan it’s the most amazing invention. It’s incredible that you can go listen to any song ever written, and not only can you play it, the quality is really good. It’s insane. But to think about the fact that when these services came about, I mean, I remember once a week I’d go into Borders and buy CDs, spending 17 dollars a CD, and I’d buy five or six of them. So do all the math, I was spending all my money buying CDs at Borders, and now you don’t have to pay for anything. It took this huge jump. Basically what I’m saying though is the reason we chose to do the pledge music campaign–we are to a certain extent asking for help, we’re asking for the people that enjoy our music and that support us to help us continue doing what we’re doing, and we greatly appreciate that support. But one of the big things is getting the message out that we have this record coming out, we’ve spent a lot of time on it, and the preorder is the way that people can assure themselves a physical copy of this record. And it’s the best way for us to get people to buy the record, and for anyone who does that, they can listen to the record early, and there are these little bonus things for them.
LL: I’ll go mow their yard.
MF: Landscaping, you know? But all that is there to state that this is a thing we’ve spent a lot of time on, and we think it’s worth buying a copy of. It’s a tricky thing to do, cause it feels weird to ask people for money. Anyways, it’s there, and whatever we make from it is going to help us immensely, and whatever we don’t, fuck it, you know? But we’re incredibly lucky to have TLE on our side.
LL: It was funny, we were at the airport for TLE’s new store that opened up there, and we were being interviewed by a lady from the news, and she asked Mike, “What’s the dream? What’s after this?”
MF: What do you say to that? (laughs).
LL: I was like, “To be on this label.”
MF: I think the whole team liked that. But it’s insane to me that in 2017 you turn on the news and people talk like that. Who talks like that? Who has ever talked like that? Back to you, George!
11: But in all seriousness, what is the dream?
MF: Lately, in the past year or so I’ve been trying to simplify things in the sense of having a routine, getting to work, working on the band, working on music, staying busy in that kind of way, and when I do that I’m extremely happy, and extremely broke. So ideally, when you talk about making strides forward in music, creatively, I feel immensely fulfilled in this project, and it’s almost getting to a point where we can do this for a job. Not just Leo and I, but our band, and our whole team can be sustained off of this, so in a lot of ways that’s the goal. We did a show at Ron Toms a couple weeks ago and there were maybe a hundred and fifty, two hundred people there, and a lot of ‘em knew the songs, and were stoked, and if we could do that in every city we stop in, in my mind, that’s good.