Sleigh Bells followed up their impressive debut Treats with Reign of Terror this year. After meeting at a restaurant — guitarist and producer Derek Miller was the waiter, singer Alexis Krauss was eating — the pair began making music together. Super sleazy, sexy, layered R&B-influenced noise pop, to be specific. They're already hard at work on album number three - which I tried but failed to get info about. But we had more important things to talk about, including our shared love of Chicago and the weirdness of South Florida. They'll be at the Vogue on Friday.
NUVO: How important is the production verses importance of songwriting, and does one ever supersede the other, or do they work hand in hand?
Derek Miller: It's definitely hand-in-hand to me. There's not one without the other. I guess the interesting thing was that what I thought were my limitations sort of ended up being strengths. For example the synth and the guitars on “Crown on the Ground,” I blew all of those songs out, by which I mean made them all distorted and clipped because I was using really kind of crappy gear. It didn't sound very good on its own, so I had to do something to it. I sort of always imagined that I would re-record them when I got a proper sound library. It just turned out that they were fine actually. The production kind of made the songs for me, to be honest. It's incredibly important.
NUVO: You had the advantage of having a debut that was so well received. Did you have any anxiety recording Reign of Terror, or did you just tune out the expectations?
Miller: To be perfectly honest, no one is as hard as us as we are. We are extremely hard on ourselves. So, really, we welcomed the pressure. I think that people should have high expectations, and if we don't meet them, it's on us. If we make a crap record, we're going to hear about it. (Laughs) But more often than not, if we can get the songs to the point that we're happy with them, people seem to be sort of on the same page. But that can turn. I'm usually pretty good about tuning it out, and if I do read something, it's usually something I've thought before.
NUVO: Though it never seems too explicit in lyrics and music, is there a conscious effort to tap into feelings of youth and rebellion?
Miller: When I write, it's always in the abstract. The lyrics mean a number of different things to me, if I go back to them. I'm not into narratives, I'm not a storyteller. I do sort of like things to be vague and maybe a little uncomfortable. The [lyrics] are important to me, but...(trails off). The most obvious example of a band where lyrics don't really matter would be My Bloody Valentine. Loveless is a masterpiece, and I don't think I know a single lyric on the record, but the record still works just fine. I don't toss them off — I care — but I'm not sure what they mean.
NUVO: That sort of answers my next question — do you ever consider the gender of the person singing the lyrics (as Alexis is singing, but you are writing the lyrics)?
Miller: Occasionally. Never the gender, but whether I'm doing first or third person. “Comeback Kid” for example is sort of her slapping me in the back of my head and telling me to get my shit together. I was in a bad period and “Comeback Kid” was me trying to psych myself up. For lack of a better phrase, it's me giving myself a pep talk. Time to get back on the horse and start being a person again. Stop fucking up.
So every once in a while, I sort of consider [the person singing them]. But usually, I just write. But I do feel like that song is directly addressing me.
NUVO: I pulled a quote from an interview that I liked that you did with Pitchfork. You said, “You can get really precious about writing songs. I try not to be, but it's a very strange—it's always embarrassing for me to sit down and play Alexis a new idea even though I know she likes my songs.” As you move into working on your third album, have you felt that embarrassment kind of eek away?
Miller: Absolutely. We know each other so much better - there's a real friendship there now. There's a lot of trust there. You know what I mean? There's also a lot more confidence. Alexis has grown a ton in two years. All of this started in May of 2010 when our record came out. There really hasn't been a lot of time. A lot has happened in a very short amount of time, and there's been a lot of growth. So, absolutely, there's a more fluid exchange of ideas between the two of us.
NUVO: I know you tour with another guitarist, but no drummer. Any plans to incorporate other musicians into the live setting?
Miller: Um, never a drummer. But I don't want to give it away. We're thinking about adding one person, but I'm not sure yet. I would never turn Sleigh Bells into a “full band.” We're tossing some ideas around though, but it's a little too early [to say]. We'll see after we're done touring this record.
NUVO: Why do you reject the full band idea?
Miller: Sonically, it's too much of a compromise. I've never recorded a live drummer — I've just used electronic samples. The low end is bigger and much fuller. I've never recorded a bass guitar. To suddenly be up there with a bass player and a drummer, I'd feel too much like a rock band and I'm constantly trying to avoid that. I've played in bands and I no longer have the desire to do that. I like the freedom that working with samples affords me. I feel like I'd be backtracking to [add a drummer or bass.]
NUVO: Can you give us any hints or info about the upcoming record?
Miller: Ah, I would love to talk to you about it for like the next fucking hour.
NUVO: Let's do it.
Miller: I can't, I can't. I've got to focus on this record. Our publicist, who is actually a very good friend of mine, was yelling at me the other day. She said I've been doing all of this press and all I've been doing is thinking and talking about this new record. She's like, “You're supposed to be promoting [Reign of Terror], you idiot!” If you want to read about it, the Huffington Post just ran an article where I talk a lot about it.
NUVO: Well, I'm just going to copy paste straight from the Huffington Post then. Plagiarism is in. (Just kidding, readers! Plagiarism is never funny. Never.)
Miller: (Laughs) All I can say is that it will be out next year, without a doubt. And sooner, rather than later. But I can't give you any dates yet.
NUVO: I really relate to something that you said in an interview about guilty pleasures. You said, “No guilty pleasures. There's no genre of music that you can't listen to and find something good,” and mentioned Slayer, Cyndi Lauper, etc. That's interesting probably for the majority of your fans who would consider unabashedly loving certain groups to be a “no-no.”
Miller: We both sort of maintain that. We don't believe in associating guilt with pleasure, in any field, but especially with music. It's just ridiculous for somebody to write something off. For example, I'm a big Air Supply fan, a big Chicago fan, REO Speedwagon — those big, slick '70s rock and pop groups. They're definitely considered uncool, I think they're brilliant.
NUVO: I love Chicago so much.
Miller: So do I. Diane Warren co-wrote one of my favorite songs of all time with Chicago, called “I Don't Want to Live Without Your Love.” Diana Warren specializes in those big, massive Celine Dion-esque songs, and I think it's amazing.
NUVO: The really weird thing about Chicago is that they come back every year to Notre Dame and play with the ND Marching Band. It's so ...odd.
Miller: Are you serious?
NUVO: Yes. They do a medley of Chicago songs with the marching band backing them up. It's so strange. It's...the only thing that matters.
Miller: That is so fucking cool.
NUVO: Last year they did it and Jon Bon Jovi came out to conduct. I thought my mind was going to explode.
Miller: That's definitely in exploding territory.
NUVO: That's why I agree about no guilty pleasures. Because Jon Bon Jovi conducting a show with Chicago playing with a marching band is ... amazing.
Miller: You fucking nailed it, actually.
NUVO: After you released a single for this album, you went on an all-Florida tour. Why did you do that? Florida is so weird.
Miller: I'm from Florida. I'm from South Florida — I grew up in this place called Jupiter which is about 90 miles north of Miami, right on the beach. And Diplo, who is a good friend of mine, he also grew up in Florida. It was kind of a bet that we had between us. We were out drinking one night and it just came up — “When we put this record out, we should do a full Florida tour. Just say 'fuck it' and play ten Florida shows.” And it went down. All the promoters were into it and we brought out friends Liturgy. The bill was absurd — extremely eclectic in the best possible way.
I don't know. It is such a fucking weird state. It just doesn't have an identity. Somebody from Alabama, if you say Florida is in the South, they'll say Florida is not the South. It's just its own bastard state. Strange, weird, on its own. I love it. We wanted to represent.
NUVO: I'm kind of obsessed with that South Florida fiction genre — murder mystery stuff.
Miller: I've never read any of that. I didn't know that was a genre.
NUVO: It's all South Florida intrigue novels. Dave Berry wrote some, Carl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey, so many others. It's a hilarious genre. All about how weird Florida is, strange things that happen in Florida. Whose dirty shoes are those on your album cover?
Miller: They're Alexis'. It's kind of a ritual for her. She wears Keds every night. That's her blood. I think her dog chewed up on them a little bit. I hit her on the head with my guitar at a show in Atlanta and she just bled all over everything, including her shoes.
When we went to do that artwork, it's basically a bunch of items and family heirlooms that I've inherited after they passed, like my grandfather's [unintelligible] from WWII, which was shot through with a bullet that went into his leg, at which point he got the Purple Heart, which is where the Purple Heart comes from. I was photographing certain things that, to me, seemed vaguely tied together. There's a thread running through them all. Well — some of them are random. But it did kind of work.
But that's the first thing we shot — the shoes. And the second we saw that image, we were like, “That's perfect. That's the cover.”
NUVO: And the previous cover was from your mom's yearbook, correct?
Miller: Yup. That one was strange too. I was in New York, and I knew that she had a ton of old yearbooks stacked up in the garage from Glade City, which is where I went to school, where everyone went to school in my family. Which is funny, because later we were rivals in football. I went a high school called the Benjamin School, and nobody believed me that I went to Glade City. I was like (trails off).
And I was on the plane, going back home and I thought — that's the first thing I'll do. I want to find a photo of cheerleaders and football team. And it was literally on the second page of the first book that I picked up. I turned the page and it was right there. There's a lot of symmetry between those images — the shoes, the cheerleaders.
NUVO: I've read multiple times about Alexis' vocals being described as “cheerleader-from-Hell” style.
Miller: Oh yeah. We get that a lot. There's a connection between that as well.
NUVO: I think a lot of people may or may not have felt abused by the cheerleaders at their high school.
Miller: Probably. They can be so bitchy but so badass. Everybody wanted them. It's a strange thing with them.
NUVO: This is something that may or may not have a super specific answer. What factor does fashion consciousness play into your music? The look, not just the sound of Sleigh Bells.
Miller: It's important, but we don't have any rules for it. The only rule is to wear what makes you feel comfortable. I don't consider myself a fashionable guy, but I wear what I like. And that's the only rule: wear what you like, wear what makes you feel badass. For Alexis, she wears the cut-off denim sorts and studded leather jackets. That's pretty badass. When she puts those on, she feels like she can take over the world.
For me, I wear what I like. I like chenille patterns. I like football jerseys. I'm slightly plain, but i'm comfortable with that. You don't have to be flashy. When you wear something that makes you feel comfortable and good, people can tell and they think, “Hey, that's stylish.” You know, that's it, man. Oh, I'm sorry, I called you man. People like to look at each other.
NUVO: They do.
Miller: That's profound, right?
Special thanks to Michael Squeri for his assistance.