Artist to Artist: Sleigh Bells x Sunflower Bean
To keep the party going after the release of our music issue, we're continuing the tradition of pairing up some of our favorite artists and letting them interview each other for a change.
To keep the party going after the release of our music issue, we're continuing the tradition of pairing up some of our favorite artists and letting them interview each other for a change.
The next installment from our Artist to Artist series Sleigh Bells and Sunflower Bean. Although the bands may appear to juxtapose each other–the former can be described as nothing short of a bombastic noise-pop duo, while the latter tends to be more subdued, yet stirring–they fit together seamlessly. That goes for both on stage and in conversation.
V caught the musicians after their tour and got them to chat about integrity in music, collaborations, and Harold and Maude. Read the entire conversation below!
Sunflower (Julia): How have you been since the tour?
Sleigh (Alexis): I’ve been great since the tour. I wear many hats, so I’ve been very much in the guiding, rock climbing, working with kids in the outdoors world, and also writing new Sleigh Bells music. It’s been this lovely time of feeling a bit more rooted, which is something that you guys are in tour crusher mode, it’s a bit of the opposite scenario, but it’s been wonderful. We are working on new material and gearing up for our summer tour, but I’m feeling very content. I’ve been in the mountains and really immersed in nature lately which is my happy place.
Sunflower (Julia): Well that’s what I remember from being on the tour. I think there were a couple times where you were like ‘I’m going to go record now’ and I was like ‘man that’s so amazing’. First of all, I was curious of your approach to doing that on the road, that’s where it started was what it’s like to keep recording alive while you’re doing it because it’s something that we’re trying to integrate more of but haven’t really started.
Sleigh (Alexis): You know it’s not something we started until maybe two or three years ago. It became a part of our process when 1) we had the luxury of touring on a bus, which changes everything because when you’re in a van and you’re staying in hotel rooms it’s just a lot harder to set up and break down everything. But in the back of the bus, we had this little studio set up going, a couple speakers, interface and laptop, little beats station. So it’s very portable and it’s a great way for us to lay down scratch vocals mostly, although there have been times where we’ve kept some of those vocals. But just a great way to demo things and stay excited about the process, because I find that when we’re on tour, we’re already in such a creative mindset, and we’re already so excited about playing shows and being in the world of our band and this music. So it’s generally just a really great way to stay in that headspace. We’ll spend an hour or two before soundcheck or after soundcheck just laying down ideas, and we like to bounce them off of our crew or even play something at soundcheck. It’s just a nice way to stay thinking about the next chapter when you’re in the present chapter.
Sunflower (Jacob): It’s definitely a good thing because you’re on tour and you’re feeling creative and energetic. It’s like we feel like we need another outlet for the creativity rather than just playing the show. You want to put a good show together then once you have that down, it feels like there’s more to be done.
Sleigh (Alexis): Exactly. And it’s a nice way to look forward into the future. That’s not to say you get fatigued by playing the same songs. Especially you guys were just playing on this last tour upcoming songs from an album that hadn’t even been released yet at that point. So there’s certainly a lot of freshness there. Same thing with us, we were playing mostly Kid Kruschev material. But it’s nice to know you have something in your back pocket.
Sleigh (Alexis): Let’s specifically talk about the album. I got to hear so much of it on tour but I’ve been listening to it a lot on my own. It reminded me in a way with Sleigh Bells, we often get asked about the kind of juxtaposition of hard and soft and tough and sweet. I really hear that on your latest album, especially if you listen to “Crisis Fest” then you listen to “Twentytwo”. It has this real grit and snarl to some of the songs, then there’s this warm, glowing feeling that I get from the music. Was that sort of juxtaposition between hard and soft, tough and sweet, was that conscious aesthetic choice or was that just who you are as a band and comes out naturally when you’re all writing together?
Sunflower (Julia): I wouldn’t have thought of that connection in the stuff that we’re doing, but that is definitely a part of Sunflower Bean’s, all the music we put out, had always made people be like ‘what are you, what genre are you?’ You probably get that a lot too. Like, of course, it’s rock but someone will hear it and say it’s grunge, or someone will hear it and say it REM, now people hear it and say that it’s Linda Ronstadt. I feel like our approach was to think of it kind of like a garden, each song was like a flower or a plant that was different than the one next to it but we were trying to water them all the same. So one song needs something totally different than the other one.
Sunflower (Jacob?): To have a healthy garden you need a variety of plants. I think we try to be really honest in our music. As people you go through a lot of emotions, sometimes you can’t decipher the feelings and the sounds. I think the juxtaposition in the songs themselves, like “Twentytwo”, the lyrics have kind of a bite to them, but then the music is so sweet. I think that juxtaposition feels really natural to us.
Sleigh (Alexis): That’s what we thought about as well. When I first saw you guys in 2014 at Baby’s All Right, that’s one of the things I was struck by even then. Nothing felt like you were sort of prisoners to genre or you were stuck in a certain sound. It had this really fluid quality to it, that’s something that I really appreciate when artists have the bravery to just indulge the different feelings, emotions, experiences, and inspirations that they hold and allow that to infuse their process and their songs. I see that on stage with you guys as well. There’s this playfulness but then there’s this fierceness, especially when you’re all playing to each other, that I love. So I’m just going to segue into one other question, because that was one of my favorite things about being on tour with you guys is that you all seem to really enjoy each other. I’m sure there’s behind the scenes friction and tension, but in general it just seems like a really pleasant experience. What’s the best part, would you call each other best friends, is that fair?
Sunflower (Jacob?): Yeah
Sleigh (Alexis): So what’s the best part of touring with your best friend?
Sunflower (Nick): I would definitely consider these two my closest and best friends, and, of course, Crista as well. I think the reason it works out so well is because the four of us when we’re together kind of fit into this weird four piece perfect puzzle where our personalities sort of balance each other out in this way where we never have moments where we’re sick of each other and don’t want to see each other. Every time if there’s something that happens that causes a run in, it’s always resolved fairly quickly, and because we’re all so different we never really have silences or moments where there isn’t something to talk about because we all have very different opinions and ideas about things. There’s always something interesting to discuss. We’re all funny in unique ways. It can sound like a recipe for disaster but I think it’s that we’re each so different but we’ve also just agreed to—it sounds corny but—love, respect, and communication at the forefront of everything. When you’re with the same people basically all the time, forever, it’s kind of the only way to make it work. Just keeping the lines of communication open.
Sunflower (Julia): I feel like we’re tuned into each other in the way that if one of us is down, we can try to lift them up. We can try to be there for each other. That actually goes into a question that I had for you about your relationship with Derek. Because I remember when you guys started out, it was like the press point about your differences and on tour I feel like what I witnessed was this really beautiful relationship. I was just curious if there was any way to speak to that. The point I think I’m thinking about is that living this life and choosing to live this life is so insane, if you find people that are insane enough to do it with you, I feel like you kind of have to hold on to them for dear life. I was curious if you ever felt like that or how the dynamic has blossomed or grown or changed over time.
Sleigh (Alexis): I think what you guys were saying before about love, respect, and communication—especially communication, whether it’s communication about when you’re sharing creative ideas, it’s a very vulnerable process. It’s very easy to feel judged, it’s very easy to feel like ‘I’m not feeling super confident about this right now, and I don’t want to share it so I’m not going to take the chance’. Whether you’re on the road and someone is leaving food out, or someone is flossing their teeth in front of you. You’re surrounded by each other constantly and you’re experiencing so many diverse experiences. Whether it’s being in front of a camera or being on a bus or backstage, whatever it is. I think communication is just so critical. That’s not to say that Derek and I haven’t had moments where our communication has failed, but when we do dig deep and force each other to communicate and be honest, and are also loving and respectful to each other - that has by far more than anything been the key to our relationship’s longevity. I think Derek is a very different person than I am in a lot of ways. We have very different interests, so on the surface it can seem a bit strange that our relationship works as well as it does. Like, we’ve always joked that he’s eating meat and drinking Bud Light and I’m eating kale and drinking smoothies. There are all these seemingly inconsistent parts of our personalities. But the bottom line is that those differences keep the healthy space between us where there’s always room for us to be individuals in the band. But we’re so very similar, especially creatively, there’s always been this language of music between us that’s existed. When we met essentially we were complete strangers.
It was really talking about the band and talking about the goals of the band and the sound that we wanted to create that bonded us. That language has only continued to develop and get stronger over the years to where our creative instincts are so aligned that it kind of freaks me out but it’s this beautiful gift that I love and I’m so grateful for it. Our relationship is more like brother and sister. I’m an only child, I’ve never had a sibling so I can’t really speak to what that’s actually like but I have such powerful, strong love for him and I know he has the same for me. You know that person is going to be there for you despite all of their flaws and fuck-ups. This bond, this musical bond, transcends all that bullshit. I love that love, respect, communication is absolutely the key.
Sunflower (Julia): One thing this made me think about is kind of what she said about vulnerability and songwriting. I feel like for us on this record it was kind of a big thing that happened. Especially for me was realizing I don’t think I really was as vulnerable as I needed to be or could be and it took this domino effect for it to happen, which started with Nick changing his guitar tone and moving creatively forward in his way, which allowed me to change and Jacob to change. The fact that you can have these vulnerabilities that you don’t know about that you’re not really honoring unless the situation is right. You can think that everything’s right, but at the same time, you’re always kind of afraid that even the people you love won’t accept you for who you are and when they do it’s the most beautiful thing.
Sleigh (Alexis): Absolutely. And you’re so often rewarded for taking those risks. That’s what I find. It’s always better to take the chance and do it, commit and put yourself out there. Speaking of putting yourself out there, I’m always really impressed when such a young band—I don’t necessarily mean young in terms of how long you’ve been playing together—because you guys have a pretty established history of collaborating and working and performing together. I’m always so impressed age wise when you have musicians who just exude this tremendous confidence and charisma. I notice that about you guys, it’s not an easy thing to walk out onto a stage, especially when you’re supporting when you’re not playing your own headlining shows. Crowds can be, even if they love you they’re just likely to be expressing their enthusiasm in these immediate ways. So how are you such a confident band at such a young age? Do you guys go into a different headspace, do you feed off each other’s energy? Do you have icons and role models that you chanel when you’re performing? How do you manifest that confidence and where does it come from?
Sunflower (Julia): It’s such an interesting question and it’s funny you bring it up now because we did the tour with The Pixies and then we did the tour with Wolf Alice. Both of these tours, the rooms were like 2000-3000 every night, but you have a thirty-minute set. It almost changed our idea of what a show was, which we’ve kind of had to relearn now that we’re headlining again. It almost felt like shows were like a challenge you were being offered. Kind of creating a war strategy—how am I going to go out here, how am I going to get my point across? If I’m thinking about it, for us I think it’s about leaning on the magic of the guitar. I think the guitar has been the unspoken part of our band and the unifying thread between all of these genres. There’s something about seeing a band land a guitar solo that I think all of us really loved when we saw bands. Something about the magic of playing live. I think that leaning and trusting in the idea that that’s magic. If you trust in that then you’re just trying to do something special in that form. I think a lot of it was just if we believe in this, if we can do this, then it’s going to be okay. People are going to respond, they might hate it but at least they’ll respond to it. At least that’s my strategy for it, what do you guys think?
Sunflower (Jacob): I think it’s just trusting in the live music and the music being alive and trusting in each other. It’s funny about opening all those shows for the past years. It’s like we took on this super confidence that I feel like we had to adjust now that we’re headlining. It’s like Julia said, it was kind of like a battle, it was almost guarded in a way. We have to put ourselves forward in the most concise, easily digestible way. Now for the first couple shows on this tour we’re playing an hour for the first time in a while. It was a weird thing that needed adjusting which I think is cool when you get to a point where you can see that and be like ‘I got to adjust how I’m going about this’. Now with headlining it’s about being more open to the crowd and letting that energy back in and give us confidence.
Sunflower (Julia): I have a question for you that’s unrelated but in a different direction. As we’re talking and when I think about you a lot I think of this line from the movie Harold and Maude when Maude’s saying “oh how the world loves a cage, the world loves a prison”, and she’s talking about a bird. I think about it because I think about your music and I think about who you are as a person. Obviously, from the outside and from knowing you, there’s always more to know, I feel like you’re a person who doesn’t think about or get caught up in this idea that we have to stay in one box, that we have to stay in our genre. Even as a musician, we have to be one thing. That’s something I think about a lot too, people think that musicians or entertainers need to stay in their lane or stay doing what they do best. I feel like with your life, your art and your activism, you’ve kind of fought against that. I just wanted to bring that up because we’re talking about so much going outside of genres, going outside of boxes.
Sleigh (Alexis): Maybe five or so years ago, I was leaving a yoga class and there was a quote, it was actually a Stephen King quote and it was on the wall. It said, “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start you will”. That quote kind of just knocked me over. I had to sit down. That’s not to say that I hadn’t lived a life that embodied that prior. Just even starting Sleigh Bells was a real risk, was a real chance and wasn’t something that was not necessarily the smartest choice. I had just taught for two years and was about to be a tenured teacher. I had spent all this money on a college degree and here I am taking this chance with this guy that I just meet to start this band and go on tour. I think bravery and spontaneity have always been a part of my life. In the past several years I’ve just really made an effort to harness what I see as my personal power and my ability to do a lot of things and hopefully do them well. Some people would say that that’s a flaw because it distracts from completely putting all of my intention and energy into one space but I find that with music we have this incredible career, we have this tremendous ability to set our own schedules to degree and to meet so many people whether it’s in fashion or beauty or activism or art. We are able to cross into all of these spheres. I’ve just found that music has been this key that allows me to explore other paths whether it’s beauty and that turns into education.
Looking at all of these questions I was being asked about “what’s your personal beauty routine?” Then it got me thinking more critically about not just the products I use but the products that other people use so that turned into an avenue for activism. Most recently it was our land and thinking about Bear Ears and being a rock climber and a lover of the outdoors, but also being a musician and having access to people like you who would hold up a sign and share their support for our public lands and for Native Americans. I get very restless but I also find that it’s my, I don’t want to call it a duty but in a way it is. It’s this duty that as a performer, as someone who has this respect to a degree that is so sacred, it’s so amazing that we have people that are not just interested in what songs we sing and what we write, but are interested in what we have to say. So I just found, why not? Why not take that and explore options. There’s certainly a lot of people who only care about Sleigh Bells and that’s fine. Then there are other people who are like ‘I love the fact that you want to take children into the outdoors and that you do that in addition to being in a band.’ I don’t find the two things to be mutually exclusive. It’s all about staying fluid. It’s all about if you have a desire, if you have a space that you want to explore, explore it. That same worldview certainly applies to the writing process for Sleigh Bells. There have definitely been times where people on our team have advised us to rewrite Treats.
We are always just trying to be intuitive enough and touch base with ourselves to know who we are and how we want to put our talents out into the world. I’ve never felt confined by genre, I’ve never felt confined by my bandmate, I’ve certainly never felt confined by life and the opportunities it presents.
Sunflower (Julia): People ask me similar things and there’s no way to answer that going against staying in your lane quote, whatever that may be. You have to do it well roundedly. I feel like that’s definitely a path that I personally have started. I feel like in music there’s this purism that can be really paralzying, what you’re supposed to put out, what you’re allowed to put out, how to obscure yourself to be cool. All this kind of stuff that seems really outside of what the work actually is.
Sunflower (Julia): We’ve been doing so many album tours that we’re really in this interview vibe. We get this question a lot, I hope that we can phrase it in a way that’s not totally annoying. Just because we really respect you guys and think that you have an amazing career and I totally understand and love the fact that you don’t want to remake Treats just like we didn’t want to remake Easier Said when people asked us to do that. To have the chance to fail, whatever that may mean, just to push yourself forward. I think the question is, at this point, with all the amazing stuff you’ve done and where you are in your life, creatively and musically, is there anything you think or feel certain about in that direction. Does that make sense?
Sunflower (Jacob): Like for us as a band, we just put out our second record.
Sunflower (Julia): People keep asking us what’s next. As a fan, I’m asking ‘what’s next’?
Sleigh (Alexis): That’s totally fine, it’s not annoying at all. I completely empathize. When you’re in that press mode and you’re like “if I hear that question about how we met one more time I’m going to freak out”. We released Kid Kruschev and toured that. We called it a mini album because it was coming off of a full length release and that full length release just took us a long time to get it out. There were more, I don’t want to call them politics, but more logistical challenges that we had to sort of tackle putting that album out. Whether it was finding a partner or going through a change with our label, management. There weren’t even necessarily hurdles, there were just things that we had to contend with and it delayed the release of that album. But we were also doing a lot of writing and then scratching things, recording things, listening to it for four or five months, going from loving it to hating it. There was a lot of creative turmoil there. Then we started writing Kid Kruschev and we didn’t necessarily know what to do with it. Once we had that first audio of six or seven songs, it felt complete. They all spoke to each other in a way that was really special to us, they had this chemistry about them. We decided to move forward with the release on our own terms. It was really liberating. It was challenging in the sense that you become responsible for everything that in the past you’ve relied on a label to do. It was really liberating but also a really thought-provoking experience.
Now we’re working on new material and we’re kind of torn as to whether or not we want to release it again as some sort of a mini album, an EP, or if we really want to focus on an LP and put a full length out. In terms of what form it takes, there’s already a collection of material that we really love and feels like an evolution of what we’ve done in the past but is also this synthesis of a lot of the things that I’ve really been liking about our most recent music. For us it’s just continuing to write and be inspired and as long as we feel inspired by each other and as long as we like each other and as long as we’re making music that we find to be compelling and worth releasing, we’re just going to keep releasing it. I can’t necessarily tell you that there’s this grand strategy other than we just want to keep releasing music and if there are people who come to our shows then we’ll keep playing shows and if there are people who listen to our music we’re going to keep putting it out. There’s this confidence that I’m feeling right now that I wasn’t feeling a few years ago. I’m enjoying that. We’ll see what form the music take, as of right now there’s certainly no fatigue. Things feel really good and hyper-creative. We’re just going to continue moving forward.
Sunflower (Julia): Amazing. Well, we will certainly be in the crowd, and we wait with anticipation.