Interview: Sleigh Bells

Matthew Fritch

By Matthew Fritch

on 02.16.12 in Interviews

Reign of Terror

Sleigh Bells

The world is Sleigh Bells’ pep rally, and the Brooklyn-based duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller had a lot of fun blasting the gym bleachers with 2010 debut Treats. Looking like Breakfast Club walk-ons in their Ray-Bans and varsity jackets, Miller and Krauss deployed a series of small explosions that threw off shrapnel from such divergent source material as DMX’s “Gonna Make Me Lose My Mind,” the Fucking Champs, Funkadelic and white-girl R&B that’s more Belinda Carlisle than Debbie Harry. Loud, unsubtle, crowd-pleasing songs were launched from Treats as if from a hot-dog gun at the ballpark.

It’s fitting, then, that its follow-up begins with the roar of an audience and some foot-stomping and hand-clapping: Sleigh Bells’ spirited playfulness is alive on Reign Of Terror, but it’s subject to the kind of forethought, pacing and balance that’s normal to albums constructed for continuous listening. This means that in between the call-and-response fight song “Crush” and the manic whammy-bar bends of “Leader Of the Pack” (which begins with the sound of a gunshot) is the ballad “End Of The Line” – maybe not so much to provide caesura as to soothe the nerves. And in case you were waiting around for Sleigh Bells to do something macabre, “You Lost Me” is a typically over-the-top – and intriguing – stab. While Def Leppard arpeggiated guitars and divebombing keyboard tones telegraph the downcast mood, Krauss sings about something terrible that’s happened behind the Circle K: “Face down in the dirt, in a miniskirt…What a way to die.” The freaks, geeks and goths in rock ‘n’ roll high school used to be able to dismiss the cheerleaders in Sleigh Bells as being vapid and purely out for fun, but there’s no denying them now.

From his apartment in Brooklyn, Derek Miller spoke with eMusic’s Matthew Fritch for an inordinate amount of time about football (despite growing up in Florida, Miller is a New Orleans Saints fan) before moving on to more pertinent subjects such as sunglasses and Beyoncé.

I know you’ve told the story about meeting Alexis a million times; you were waiting on her and her mom. I used to work as a waiter, and I still sometimes have nightmares about being in the weeds.

Oh, dude. Yes. I used to expo, too. Did you have an expo at the restaurant you worked at, like taking tickets?

Yeah, I did some of that. Expediting was my favorite, actually, because you get to yell at people.

I worked at a really busy restaurant expoing as well. I barbacked, too, and there was a system I had: napkins, straws, check the beer, check the liquor. I found a rhythm. I would 100-percent have nightmares about everything being depleted all at once and me being totally fucked.

What are your occupational hazards these days? You and Alexis move around onstage so much, someone must trip on a wire once in a while.

People are always asking Alexis and I how we don’t kill each other onstage, because it’s dark and there’s lots of smoke and strobes. InAtlanta, I threw my guitar in the air and it came down on her head. I stopped playing and looked at her to see if she was OK. She was still singing but had this crazy look in her eyes. She nodded to say she was OK, and then blood started pouring down her face. Alexis is a tough woman, though, and someone threw a towel onstage and she held it against her head and finished singing “Rill Rill.” I was proud of her.

Sounds like something that might’ve happened in your former life [as a member of hardcore band Poison the Well].

Playing in hardcore so long, there’s a lot of energy and I could never stand in one spot. I much prefer to run around like an idiot. Because we’re not a band, half our job is to hype the crowd. I’ve got no problems with bands – I just don’t want to play in one.

With Poison the Well, you were part of a mostly local hardcore scene. But Sleigh Bells is in that broad spectrum of Internet-era bands where you might not even know who’s listening to your record.

It’s a good thing, from where I’m standing. It means we have a diverse audience that expects different things from us at different times. Whereas with hardcore, everyone is thinking the same thing and everyone expects the same thing from you over and over again. It’s suffocating in every way, shape and form. That’s why I quit. I was 22 and I knew I wanted to keep making records but that I was being inhibited by what was expected of me from the hardcore scene. That’s why I started looking for a female vocalist, too, because I’d just spent six years on tour with seven other guys and playing mostly to male audiences that beat their chests and beat each other up.

Do you still listen to hardcore?

I don’t listen to quite as much metal or hardcore as I used to, but there’s something I get from it that I don’t get from Top 40 or pop or club music. Sleigh Bells is such a natural marriage. We’re so rapidly approaching a time where genre is completely irrelevant. Some of the best pop music being made right now is such a strange hybrid, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

I wonder whether that’s a function of the music world shrinking or something like a residual effect of mashups.

Sometimes that can be novel, but more and more, the results are legitimate. It’s not a clever idea, mixing oil and water, it makes sense. And the records are really good.

Was there really a Beyoncé collaboration in the works?

Yeah, but the way it was spun was inaccurate. She was working with Switch and Diplo on “Girls Who Run the World,” and one of them played our record for her. She really liked the second track, “Kids.” [Diplo] called me for the stems and said they were gonna fuck with the track, and that was the extent of it. I was never in the studio with her – I just sent an email. I have no clue what happened with it.

Is it still the case that you write all the songs, or was there more collaboration with Alexis on Reign of Terror?

This one was a little more collaborative. That’s definitely the big difference. I wrote everything on tour, where we’re together 24/7 and I’m constantly bouncing ideas off her. With Treats, we were both working right up until the time we went into the studio so we didn’t get to spend time together. When we were on tour we finally got the chance to become friends and get a lot closer. She’s had a much bigger hand in this album. The last song we finished, “Comeback Kid,” was our first true collaboration where I just gave her the instrumental and lyrics and she came back with the melody. That was our first true two-name collaboration, like Miller/Krauss.

I wanted to talk about “You Lost Me.” I haven’t worked out all the lyrics yet, but from what I can tell, there’s at least one dead body behind the Circle K.

Oh yeah. [Laughs] That song is kind of different. Because of the production and treatment and the arpeggiated guitars I was kind of worried people would think it was pastiche because there’s a heavy Def Leppard influence on that song. But it’s totally un-ironic and deadly serious to me. And then, you know, it’s actually kind of strange because DJ Mehdi passed away a couple months ago. I didn’t know the guy, but I’ve always admired Ed Banger and how close they are. They’re such a family. The way he died was so tragic. It was such a horrible waking nightmare. I remember specifically working on “You Lost Me” after hearing about it. It really affected me; my stomach just turned.

I’m not familiar with the details of DJ Mehdi’s death – what were the circumstances again?

Again, I didn’t know the guy, but from what I read he was having a birthday party at his flat in Pariswith a bunch of friends. They were on a rooftop with a plexiglass section. They were dancing on it, and it broke. They fell through. A couple people fell and were hurt but [DJ Mehdi] fell to his death. I just can’t imagine. All your friends are there, you’re having a birthday party, and something so horrible… it’s just really sad. My family went through some really difficult stuff right before I started making Treats, which had a lot to do with the record.

“You Lost Me” made me think that Reign Of Terror might have some very evil undertones.

It’s not a concept record. But it is a darker record. I didn’t decide to call it Reign Of Terror because I thought it sounded evil or tough. I can’t go into it, but my family went through a really difficult period for a couple years. I didn’t deal with it on Treats. I used Treats as a distraction. I just buried myself in it and ignored the reality of the situation. Which is a great coping mechanism because when you’re in shock, you’re not ready to deal with anything. So we finished Treats and went on tour. And really, 99 percent of the time on tour you’re traveling, staring out a fucking window and there’s really nothing to do but think. You can’t hide from anything. Whatever is in your head will start eating you up. This record was definitely my way of dealing with that.

Last question: How many pairs of Ray-Bans do you own?

Two. I got my first pair in 2005 and I wore those for years. When we were on tour for the last record, we went to the Ray-Ban showroom in Los Angeles and they gave me a pair of these really dope matte wayfarers. So there’s zero gloss. I don’t really lose shit, or sit on my glasses or break things. I used to get a lot of shit for the glasses thing. I started wearing them habitually because I’d be hungover for a photo shoot or something, and it’s nobody’s business other than mine what happened the night before. I don’t wear them indoors or anything. But definitely for press photos. You know, I hate looking at photos of myself. I’m not a self-loathing guy or anything, but I can’t stand it.

You like to think at some point, even in the music business, it ceases to matter.

I remember when we were working on Treats, I didn’t want to take any pictures or have anything out there except the record. Then that’s almost a little obnoxious. I don’t like that super-cryptic, anonymous band vibe.

Like a man-behind-the-curtain thing.

That’s almost more pretentious. I just put my glasses on, ignore the camera and get on with it.