Sleigh Bells : Interview
“I can turn anything into a kick drum now, and that excites me. It’s addictive.”
Sleigh Bells’ story — a former hardcore rocker has a chance encounter with a former teen-bopper etc. — is so ingrained in the fabric of their mythos it doesn’t bear retreading here. With their continued artistic output and bombastic presentation, guitarist/producer Derek Miller and singer Alexis Krauss have progressed beyond their auspicious beginnings into an artistic entity that can no longer be succinctly tied up into a snappy blog-post paragraph.
The duo released its sophomore album, Reign of Terror, in February. It was saddled with the responsibility of being one of 2012’s most eagerly-awaited albums, especially after the breakout success of Sleigh Bells’ explosive debut, 2010’s Treats. Miller will be the first to acknowledge reactions to the record have been mixed, especially when, inevitably, compared to Treats’ aggressive sugary aural assault. But he’ll also be the first to point out he was expressing a different mindset with Reign of Terror. He says he can already feel more artistic progression under way for a third record.
He recently took some time to speak with Tiny Mix Tapes about how the new music came together and how much he believes, and hopes, fans will follow Sleigh Bells there.
You’ve been touring for several weeks since the release of Reign of Terror. What has the audience reaction to the new songs been like as compared to the older songs?
Every week, the reaction gets closer and closer. I mean, Treats has been out for almost two years, so people are [still] super-psyched to hear those songs. There are people who are still coming to that record so it’s brand new to them. Every three or four shows more people know the new record, so that’s obviously a good sign.
It’s really a trap to fall in to when people only need you for one record and then they just sit there through the rest of your songs. You always have to worry about that. Treats was received [well] almost across the board. Second records are difficult, it’s just a fact of life. But I love the new one, I really do. I feel really good about it. People seem really into it.
Reign of Terror has a darker vibe than Treats throughout, but occasionally a more concentrated song-based structure as well, so the total feeling it generates is maybe a little more serious. Do you hear that in the songs?
That’s fair. It came from a very different place. Treats was a very “up” record. There’s almost zero cohesion to it and that’s what I love about it. On Reign of Terror, I was working with a [more] limited color palette. It’s very much a guitar record, and it’s a very claustrophobic, depressed record. It differs from Treats in that way.
[Reign of Terror] just came out, but it’s a little older for me. We finished tracking around Halloween, and I don’t feel like that person anymore. I’ve been working on a lot of new stuff. There’s an ecstatic, “up,” positive feeling creeping back into the new stuff, because I got a lot of stuff off my chest with Reign of Terror.
I played in a hardcore band [Poison The Well] for six years with four other people. There were too many cooks in the kitchen, and it was too hard to make a living. Splitting a buck five ways was not as much fun as splitting a buck two ways, if I’m being honest. We have to be practical.
Oh wow, so you’re already working on new material?
It’s really too soon to be talking about it, but I never stop working. That’s what sustains me on the road. We do a lot of touring, which I enjoy. I love playing live and I love being in a different city every night. But having new material that I feel like is the best work that we’ve done is what keeps me going. I can play 200 shows knowing that at the end of 200 shows I can go back into the studio and hopefully do the best work of my life. It always starts with the first new song, when I’m like, “Oh my God!” and I won’t shut up about it to my friends and I play Alexis the demos and she gets involved. That’s really what sustains us on the road.
I saw a video interview with you a couple years ago where you showed off your music production area. It seemed pretty Spartan, with a MicroKorg hooked directly into Logic on your laptop. Are things still that straightforward?
It got a little more complex with Reign of Terror, but now I’ve sorta moved away… dude, I don’t even use Logic. I don’t even fuck with software. I have a synth that Teenage Engineering makes called the OP-1, and I use my iPhone voice recorder, and my guitar – that’s it. I didn’t even bring my interface on tour. I haven’t opened Logic in months, and it feels great [laughs].
The skeleton of the song has to be solid. If I’m excited by it using limited means, I know that when I do it “for real” (which is kind of a ridiculous concept) I’m really gonna love it. When I actually utilize my sound library and start […] chasing the sound I hear in my head I’m gonna get really psyched on it.
It’s funny, dude. For “Infinity Guitars,” [from Treats] I plugged my Alesis SR18 [drum machine], which you can buy at Guitar Center for $200, into… remember those shitty, white Belkin iMic’s? They were like the size of a quarter? I plugged my SR18 into the Belkin and then into Garage Band. You can’t really recognize the SR18 for what it is because I pushed the master so hard [the beats] don’t sound like the original source material.
I never thought I’d ever release that. It was like, “Let’s just use this for now and I’ll do it ‘for real’ later.” That’s a mistake bands make often – whenever you re-record a demo it’s always robbed of something. So I’m glad at the time we were making Treats we knew better than to make that mistake.
You’ve obviously come a long way since then. Was your recent appearance on Saturday Night Live something of a milestone for you?
It was really cool for my mom, but the only thing I really care about is making records. That’s what I’m in this for. Playing shows is amazing, and I love it. I’m all about making new music and pushing it as hard as I can. I’m in love with that moment when you do something new and you really, truly believe it’s the best thing you’ve ever done […] that’s the addiction.
It’s going to go away. It’s gonna dry up at some point; not anytime soon. I feel like Alexis and I are just getting started, but there’s a lot of fear and paranoia that it’ll go away because everyone loses it at some point, it’s just inevitable. That fear and paranoia is a big part of the creative energy for me.
I noticed from your appearance on Saturday Night Live that you’ve added a second guitarist to the touring lineup. Is he there to help you with the multiple guitar melodies on the new songs?
That’s exactly what it is. Reign of Terror is so guitar-heavy and there are so many guitar harmonies I just couldn’t sacrifice those live. It would drive me crazy. I play all sorts of rhythm, and any synth parts I can I just put on the track, but I’m not going to go so far as to put guitar parts on the track. That would be way too corny.
I can play 200 shows knowing that at the end of 200 shows I can go back into the studio and hopefully do the best work of my life.
It’s my good friend Jason Boyer, who does a band called Nerve City, which is really amazing. So he has his own thing going on, he’s just doing this as a favor. I’m also really obsessed with symmetry, so I like the fact that Alexis is in the middle and she has a guitar player on either side.
It’s another person to interact with on stage, and another one of my good friends who gets to come and be a part of this thing. Every day there’s a moment where we look at each other, and we feel like we’re getting away with murder. It’s like, “They’re paying us to do this? Are you kidding?” We’re really bad with having strictly professional relationships. Alexis and I are really close to everyone we work with. So a lot of times it feels like a family business, even though none of us are siblings.
Sleigh Bells has a very distinct sequenced-drum sound, but would you ever consider expanding to a full band with a drummer and bassist?
It’s not something I foresee. I can almost guarantee that we will never expand past this lineup. I tried practicing with a drummer, but there’s way too much compromise, sonically. I’m a producer, so I’m into detail, and I can’t replace a [Roland TR-]808 with some guy’s right foot on a kick drum. I can’t do it. And I don’t want to stack it because it will never sound perfect, it’ll be kind of flammy.
I feel like we sound sort of like a nu-metal band with a drummer, to be honest. It turns us into too much of a rock band, and I never want to be in a rock band again. I did that. I played in a hardcore band [Poison The Well] for six years with four other people. There were too many cooks in the kitchen, and it was too hard to make a living. Splitting a buck five ways was not as much fun as splitting a buck two ways, if I’m being honest. We have to be practical. So I don’t think we’ll add any other members. I’m really comfortable with the setup.
In your working relationship with Alexis, is there a special kind of intensity to creating music with only one other person?
It gets very intimate and you really can’t hide any of your vulnerabilities. You have to be totally honest and they have to be totally honest with you. To this day, I get super-nervous when I’m presenting a new idea to her, and vice-versa. I do a lot of really bad work, and thankfully no one has to hear it [laughs].
We worked a little more closely on the melodies on Reign of Terror, although I wrote most of the music and lyrics. But the last song we recorded, “Comeback Kid,” I had recorded the instrumental and I wasn’t even planning to include it on the record because I wasn’t sure what it was or if it would be interesting. It’s a handful of power chords, really. But I gave it to her, and I said “This is yours, do whatever you want with it.” I handed it over, and she had the entire song in five minutes.
It was one of the only optimistic songs on the record and was a great way to wrap everything up. Her sense of melody is so much stronger than mine. What she does is so much more memorable and sophisticated than anything I can do in terms of writing melodies. So I think that’s the next step for us. I’m going to focus on production and arrangement, and just give her instrumentals and let her do her thing.
The setup of your live show allows you to interact with the audience in such a unique way. It seems to include the best parts of rock attitude and passion with all the audience-participation of good electronic and DJ-produced music. Do you ever look at it as a kind of performance art?
It’s really a trap to fall in to when people only need you for one record and then they just sit there through the rest of your songs.
I personally wouldn’t call it performance art, but it does differ from Poison The Well in that, because I’m not limited to working with guitar/bass/drums, we can do more sonically. I can’t imagine ever going back. It was such a limited palette. I can turn anything into a kick drum now, and that excites me. I don’t have to use a rock snare, I can use snaps or I can create my own. It’s addictive. Really, that’s what I like most about it in terms of the differences between the two. It’s the freedom to do more sonically.
Sleigh Bells has a very distinctive style. Is there a conscious direction to the way the two of you dress and present yourselves?
We basically wear what makes us comfortable. I never considered myself a fashionable guy. You know, just jeans and t-shirts. When Treats came out I was so distracted and shell-shocked by a number of personal events I was going through that the aesthetic was not something I paid attention to. I very much had bigger fish to fry. I’m actually amazed that I was able to tour on that record and get everything done because I was going through such a horrible time.
It’s been a couple years now, and I worked through it just like anybody works through tragedy. You just have to become a stronger person. I got a lot of self-confidence back. I stopped apologizing for who I was, what I wanted, how I wanted to look, and the guitars I wanted to play. I remember when I started playing Jacksons people thought I was kidding. They thought I was making a joke, that I was being ironic. I just remember thinking, “Fuck you guys. I’m not sorry. I’m not gonna apologize.” That’s just a part of growing up and coming into your own and being your own person. For me that meant playing Jacksons and [telling Alexis] “I kinda wanna make a metal record, is that okay with you?” She was like, “Great!”
And in terms of the aesthetic, our clothing, it just felt natural to me. I wanted custom lettermans, and I had a couple of bucks and could definitely get them made, so I did. And I want to stand in front of a wall of Marshalls. Sure, half of them aren’t working, everybody knows that. But half of them are, and it looks really fucking cool.
The aesthetic has everything to do with that. Just me being honest, and Alexis being honest, with ourselves and how we want to present ourselves and the things we really like. Who wouldn’t want to get onstage in a studded leather jacket and scream into a microphone? It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.