Cover Story: Sleigh Bells Stay Sharp
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So what’s in store on Album Four? Another pause. The studio whiz wants to blurt out a few secrets, but he can’t, he sighs. His publicist will kill him—he has to stay on topic and stick to Bitter Rivals. Which in itself becomes a chore, since he rarely discusses the exact meaning of his lyrics. “99 percent of them are all me,” he says. “Every once in a while, Alexis is free to edit a line. Or when I write something terrible, she tells me, and sometimes she’s like ‘I don’t wanna sing that.’ Or ‘That sounds corny.’ Or ‘That’s wack.’ And I’m like ‘Alright. Cool.’ I would never ask her to sing something that she wasn’t comfortable with.”
Why all the latent warnings posted throughout Rivals? Miller won’t say. “I like to leave it open-ended, which is such a cliché thing that any lyricist will give you,” he allows. “But yeah, I’ m gonna have to play that card. So I can’t help you about [the warnings]. But they’re there, though. And they make perfect sense to me. And a lot of times when I write, it’s just sort of a subconscious overflow, really. Or it’s like a stream of consciousness.” Which explains a subtle Terminator X reference in one cut, he adds. “I’m a big Public Enemy fan, and Terminator X was always such a badass DJ. So things just sort of seep in there, somehow. I dunno. Sometimes it’s deliberate, and sometimes its just there. I try not to think too much about it.
“Like the farm animals on ‘Tiger Kit’? That’s probably me listening to too much Beastie Boys. And I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that I’m a Beasties fan—I worship at their altar, and Paul’s Boutique is like a desert-island disc for me, for sure. But ultimately, it was just fun. I think after Reign, I wanted to do something that just wasn’t so menacing and full of doom and gloom. Because by the end of Reign, by the end of “D.O.A.,” it’s like ‘My God!’ So I didn’t intentionally banish any of those vibes—it just happened that that’s where my head was at.”
The “Bitter Rivals” title is significant, however. It doesn’t refer to a Miller vs. Krauss knockout bout. But it does touch upon fighting. Or, more specifically, boxing, which both artists took up as a new way to get in shape. And it’s not some passing fad, not a tire-of-it-eventually phase, Miller maintains. He means business, as in four days of every week, training at a local gym. “It changed my life,” he declares, excitedly. This past February, Sleigh Bells finally returned to the Big Apple after nonstop Reign of Terror touring. And literally, the next day he was working out with a trainer, getting conditioned.
Progress was slow, but the avid disciple was used to the patience-will-be-rewarded process. It reminded him of when he was first learning to play guitar as a kid in Florida. “Which was frustrating,” he says. “Which is why most people give up on guitar. But if you stick with it, a few months pass, and you realize ‘Hey! I’m switching between all seven major chords!’ And you don’t notice that you’re doing it. But one day you’re just doing it. And you’re certain that you couldn’t do it a few months before. That’s a lot like boxing, in terms of technique and muscle memory. One day, you’re just faster and cleaner and sharper. And your instincts are a lot sharper. And that’s carried over into this record—it gave me a lot of confidence.
But Krauss—a dark-haired beauty of the threatening Tura Satana type—had something of a head start. She’s been punching machine-gun jabs in time to Sleigh Bells music onstage and in videos for a few years now. So when they started training together, her cardio was far more accelerated than her partner’s. It took Miller a few months to catch up. Now, he’s just turned 32, has dropped 20 pounds (which he packed on from his typical tour diet of pizza and beer, he’s ashamed to admit), and believes he’s in the best shape of his life. Eight months into the sport, he still feels like he’s just learning to crawl. But he’s mastered hooks, crosses, uppercuts, and is now moving on to the more complicated study of defense.
In the studio, Miller is king of all he surveys. In the boxing ring? Not so much, he sighs. Recently, he was feeling his bob-and-weave oats, and asked, then demanded, that he be allowed to spar with someone. No, his trainer insisted, he just wasn’t ready yet. But the student kept badgering, until the veteran shrugged, handed him the appropriate mouth guard and head gear, and climbed over the ropes with him. “I asked him ‘Where’s your mouth guard?’ and he said ‘I’m good. Don’t worry. You won’t touch me,’” Miller relates, laughing at his own hastiness. “And he didn’t knock me out, but he, uhh, showed me what’s what. After two quick jabs that came at me like lightning, everything I learned went out the window. I just stumbled back and went fetal on my feet, where you cover your face and your vitals. So I was like ‘Alright—point taken!’”
So Bitter Rivals stands as a much larger metaphor for Sleigh Bells. “That’s the ‘fight’ aspect of it,” Miller elaborates. “It could be anything that’s the bitter rival. I’m a college football fan, so you think about LSU and Bama—every year they look at the calendar and go ‘Alright—we’ve got Bama at this date in November. That’s our biggest challenge.’ And they take every league seriously, of course, but if they don’t prepare—if they’re not elevating their game every week, getting better and better—they’re gonna lose. So it’s that concept of having an enemy that inspires you to compete. Or just plain inspires you, you know? It doesn’t have to be negative—it’s just about having something that keeps you sharp, keeps you focused. Which I desperately needed. And this record gave it to me.”
The obvious question presents itself—have the Sleigh Bells members ever gone a round or two with each other, just for fun? "No, no, no!” Miller responds in a millisecond. “I could never hurt her! We mess around, but I’m doing it to get in shape, not so I can beat someone’s ass. It’s not a Hemingway thing. And I’m doing it a little more aggressively than her, but I don’t know what to chalk that up to. I can only assume that it’s just the caveman part of me. And I’ve got to stress that it really is just for fitness. Besides, I’m over the hill at 32—I could never box competitively because I’m an old man!”
But who said Miller might be the dangerous one in the ring? Krauss looks tough enough to lay him out flat. He mulls over this embarrassing TKO scenario for a minute, and the caveman scampers back to his den. “You never know!” he agrees. “If I wasn’t sharp. If I went in there and was cocky? Hell yeah! Alexis would probably do exactly that!”
Ultimately, the whole Sleigh Bells, album-a-year phenomenon circles back around to that most unlikely of motivators, death. It’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated, but once an artist experiences the tragic death of a parent, an internal switch seems to get flipped on creativity. The underlying message—that we truly do not have forever here on Earth—often acts as an accelerator, amping up productivity to uncharted new levels. Once you become the generation, you feel even more compelled to make your magnum-opus mark. Miller understands this prime directive. On an almost instinctual level these days.
“I’ve been doing a lot of press coming up on the Bitter Rivals release date,” the survivor concludes. “And a lot of people are like ‘How do you account for the rate at which you’re churning these things out?’ And I don’t want to be dramatic, but the nature of my father’s death probably had something to do with the urgency that I feel. So do the math. Tragedies don’t get put on your calendar, you know?
“So I feel like as long as I’ve got air in my lungs, I’m gonna do this. I’ve got this thing in front of me that I love, and that’s really all there is to it. I’m not gonna sit around and wait to get hit by a bus, because that’s never in your script until it is. So I just don’t believe in wasting time. I work. And I love what I do, so I do it as often as possible. And you just can’t argue with that.”