If Alexis Krauss immediately takes unflinching command of the stage with her dissonant noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells, you'll have to forgive her. She's accustomed to controlling an unruly room.
Until recently, the honey-voiced singer — who regularly battles to be heard over the gear-grinding fretwork of her bandmate, ex-Poison The Well guitarist Derek Miller — was holding classes in her native New York as part of the Teach for America program. And she didn't take any guff. "I didn't go to college for education — I went for international studies and political science," she stresses. "But I got really interested in education policy, so I applied and was accepted into that program. And I taught bilingual fourth grade in the South Bronx for two years, in a very needy school. But I absolutely loved it."
When Sleigh Bells took off with its dazzling 2010 debut Treats, the heavily tattooed tutor was finally forced to resign. Her kids all knew that Miss Krauss had lots of ink, like the huge image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that adorns one arm. "But it was kind of like our little secret," she snickers. "Because we had no air conditioning in the classroom, it was sweltering in the spring and summer, so I had no choice but to wear sleeveless shirts. My students loved it, but the cardigan would go right back on when we were walking in the halls."
Krauss had problem pupils. One chair-throwing brat trashed her entire schoolroom one afternoon, and she had to evacuate all the other children to safety. "But I was a hardass as a teacher, and you had to be," she says. "The key is, you've gotta start from the first day. Because they can never sense any weakness in you."
Eventually, some of Krauss' students figured out that she was (not so) quietly doing music on the side. Naturally, she wound up inviting a couple of them down to the studio for some chattery voiceover work on the squealing Treats track "Kids." "And lately, I've been getting calls from my kids, my ex-students, going, 'Miss Krauss! You're on MTV!' It's been pretty funny." The duo may work with Beyoncé on the pop star's next album.
Krauss, meanwhile, is no stranger to the entertainment world. Her father was a full-time musician, she says, and she started doing TV at an early age. By 13, she'd been cast in a Nickelodeon-spawned group called The Gunk Girls ("Girls plus Funk equals Gunk — let's not talk about it," she says with a sigh). After another teen combo, Rubyblue, bit the dust, she was "so disillusioned with music that I went in a different, more academic direction."
As the fable goes, Krauss was out to dinner with her mother a couple of years ago, and Miller happened to be their waiter: "He'd just come from Florida, and he was talking about how he was working on music, and my mom did one of those 'Oh, my daughter's a musician — you guys should work together' things."
And while the sweet/sour Sleigh Bells combination eventually won out, Krauss still hasn't forgotten her pupils.
"I had an amazing experience with those kids," she says. "They were brilliant, hardworking and we accomplished a lot. And that same kid who was throwing chairs around my classroom? I got him into a great charter school by sixth grade, and now he's a straight-A student!"