Cover Story: Sleigh Bells Stay Sharp
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Derek Miller is the first to admit it. During and after the recording of Reign of Terror—his sophomore 2012 assault with vocalist Alexis Krauss as the gear-grinding noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells—the guitarist/producer felt like he was in the bleakest of pits, facing a razor-sharp pendulum swinging lower and lower to his inexorable, chest-slicing doom. And that’s putting it mildly, he chuckles lightheartedly today, as the band releases its new rapid-fire followup, Bitter Rivals. “Things could have been worse, but they were bad,” he sighs, referring to the untimely death of his father and his mother’s nearly simultaneous cancer diagnosis (she’s currently in remission, he’s pleased to report). “I was in a really dark place, just dealing with a lot of difficult shit. So this record is the story of me coming out of that black hole after my dad passed and my mom fell ill. I just finally dealt with it. It took almost four years, but I did it.”
Miller still shivers recalling the daunting emotional rollercoaster that was Reign of Terror. He’d first met Krauss while waiting tables at a New York restaurant, when she and her mother came in for dinner. He was fresh out of his Florida hardcore outfit Poison the Well; she was a schoolteacher with a vocal background in the teen-pop combo RubyBlue. As the peanut-butter-meets-chocolate fable goes, he wanted to sonically experiment with a female voice, and Krauss’ mom made the ‘Well, my daughter can sing!’ introduction. And what the team emerged with on its 2010 debut Treats was a sweet-and-sour shock to the staid system; Krauss had a sugary, feather-soft delivery that wafted down over Miller’s squealing, shrapnel-strewn soundscapes, and the record’s reverberations are still being felt in 2013. The dissonant stomp “Crown On the Ground” was just featured in Sofia Coppola’s brilliant, ice-cold study of millennials, The Bling Ring, and a chiming “Rill Rill” just found new life soundtracking the latest iPhone 5 TV campaign.
But Terror descended to a whole new level of brutal Def-Leppard-inspired catharsis, from its screaming “True Shred Guitar” opener through “Demons,” “Road to Hell,” “Born to Lose,” and a catacomb-creepy closer called “D.O.A.” Even Miller’s purported pep talks to himself—the gut-punching “Comeback Kid” and a melancholy incantation “Never Say Die”—felt like spadefuls of last-rites dirt being shoveled over his freshly interred, still-breathing body. It was/is a truly visceral experience. And if you didn’t feel at least a twinge of its composer’s pain? Hey—you probably weren’t human. Or at the very least not meant to be a Sleigh Bells fan.
In those grim early days, Miller concedes that he didn’t view his group as a true partnership. Like a mad professor, he saw Krauss’s vocals as another crazy ingredient to his combustible mix. “Her voice was almost like a texture at times,” he says. “And we would talk at length about how not to emote, how I wanted her to be just totally deadpan. And now, with Bitter Rivals, it’s much more of a lead vocal. And that’s her comfort zone, really—when she can push air and she can belt and just really go for it. I encouraged her to do that this time, and she did. And it feels so good to me right now. The chemistry is really rich, really strong.”
The optimism comes beaming out of Bitter Rivals from its opening title track. “Hi!” Krauss charismatically greets, before bouncing into an echoey melding of dog barks, finger snaps, and huge acoustic guitars that don’t really shred at all. Then the set segues smoothly into the garage-growling “Sugarcane” (with Krauss cooing a conversely inviting “Beware!” chorus), a hair-metal powerchorded “Minnie” (with another odd chorus: “Minnie, Minnie, go count your pennies/ I’m sorry to say you don’t have many”), and the vintage-R&B-classy “Sing Like A Wire,” wherein Krauss really tears it up. More acoustic six-string surfaces on “Young Legends,” working at odds with surly synthesizer, as the diva seems to warn of pending suicide with “Don’t do it…legends die all the time.” “Tiger Kit” juxtaposes farm-animal noises with a joyous wall of guitars that echoes prime-era Sigue Sigue Sputnik, “To Hell With You” works, ironically, as a gossamer-delicate power ballad, and the grand finale, “Love Sick,” builds into a veritable tower of synth cacophony, while again Krauss cautions “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Miller wrote almost all of the lyrics, so Bitter Rivals is certainly his baby, thematically. For the rest of the project, the confessed control freak actually relinquished a good deal of his control. “I was totally hands-off this time around,” he offers, cheerfully. “I let Alexis handle all the vocal duties, and for the first time, like I said, we had a real chemistry. Where I’m working on something, and as I’m making a track, she’s sitting on the couch, hanging out, just humming ideas into her phone. And it’s just instantaneous—it happens very quickly. And usually her first instincts, her first ideas, are almost always the best. And we go with those now—we don’t really second-guess ourselves very much. We just plow forward.”
Maybe too far forward. Miller is so excited, so rejuvenated, he’s already mapping out Sleigh Bells’ fourth salvo. “And I know that sounds obnoxious, but that’s just the rate at which I work,” he apologizes. “I’m not bragging. I just don’t waste time. And I don’t do anything else—I live and breathe this band. And it’s getting more intense for me. It’s not slowing down, the output. And the more Alexis and I work together, the more comfortable we get.” He pauses, getting ahead of himself again. “I mean, we just finished this record, and you’re supposed to feel taxed and wrung out when you finish a record. I don’t. I feel totally refreshed. And I’m more interested in talking about LP 4, and this record’s not even officially out yet!”