It’s a time-honored tradition in classic horror literature: to achieve their greatest works, most fictional scientists have to be anywhere from slightly daft to stark raving mad. Otherwise, their creations would never spark to life in the first place. But the danger, of course, lies in dabbling in dark arts beyond mortal ken and accidentally unleashing a destructive monster on some unsuspecting village. Usually, said creature winds up consuming its maker in the process, body and soul. Such is the price of possessing an inspired, perhaps incendiary Frankenstein vision. It’s not easy to control.
Derek Miller, however, believes that he’s learned how to rein in his laboratory experiment—a Ouija-board-summoned, ectoplasmic entity called Sleigh Bells, the industrial-pop duo he formed eight years ago with Alexis Krauss. And he swears he hasn’t been driven into the abyss of insanity. But—with the band’s potent new potion Jessica Rabbit, its fourth—this Dr. Jekyll can barely restrain his inner, insistent Mr. Hyde anymore, and he’s fascinated with his own transformation. Still, the only thing missing from these dark proceedings is demented, unhinged cackling as the composer pours his concoction from beaker to test tube and back again, methodically struggling toward alchemical perfection.
There are sinister clues everywhere—you don’t have to look too hard. A recurring theme in Jessica Rabbit (named for the voluptuous Who Framed Roger Rabbit? toon that Miller had a crush on as a child, who came to represent lofty lifetime ambition, since he hoped to eventually marry her) is the mention of the word “day”’ in several songs, the mapping of existence in 24-hour periods, often fearfully so, as in the opening “Flesh & Blood,” where a rapidly approaching sunset doesn’t sound like a good thing. Elsewhere, in the stomping “Crucible,” Miller’s observations—sweetly chirped by Krauss—note that he’s “Laid on the floor at the end of my rope/ But I’m better today, better today…I just can’t argue with what’s right in front of me.” The machine-gun-riffed “Unlimited Dark Paths” notes the passing of “Another day of disappointment,” and the ching-chinging “Rule Number One” describes its own genesis in even scarier terms: “Mostly okay but I’m bleeding profusely/ Mostly okay but only on Tuesdays…Stare at the moon in a memory lapse/ Wind up the clock, total collapse…God only knows the hell that I chose.”
Since the group’s gut-punching 2010 debut, Treats, through its increasingly inventive followups, 2012’s creepier Reign of Terror and the relatively chipper Bitter Rivals in 2013, all issued on the cool indie imprint Mom + Pop, Miller has never enjoyed explaining his arcane wordplay. He still doesn’t. But this time he’s actually taken note of his own songwriting process, and he’s decided to go into deeper detail about the meaning of it all. “I did notice that that I used that reference to the sun going up and down often, and what I can tell you about that pattern, lyrically, is that it’s a nice metaphor for things getting much darker,” he states, with surgical precision. “Maybe it’s a little lazy, but usually, if the sun’s going down, that’s just a way of saying that my personal situation is deteriorating along with it. For me, bad days are bad, and I’m going to be a self-destructive dude until I’m in the grave.”
Miller wants to clarify that he’s not whining. And he doesn’t think anyone really wants to hear more war stories from another sad sack in showbiz. But the solitary, complicated music he imagines in his Brooklyn home-studio/apartment is inextricably linked to his state of mind, which can cloud over with Mr. Hyde mood swings. He’s not sure if it’s depression, exactly—he hasn’t bothered to have his affliction professionally diagnosed. “I don’t like doctors—I just don’t believe in them,” he states, unequivocally. “So the best way for me to combat it is, I have to be vigilant with my exercise routine, and as long as I box, I’m okay. That’s why touring is always a little challenging. But when I’m home in Brooklyn, which I am now, I’m in the gym boxing, five days a week. And often I’ll do two routines a day. It’s impossible for me to walk out of there feeling anything from relatively good to great. So today started out great,” he adds. “I woke up, boxed, and I’m going to meet Alexis later and do some band shit. So today is great. And then we’ll see about tomorrow—I don’t really think too far ahead.”
Why boxing? For the endorphin rush, Miller swears. Every time he works out, it makes him feel better about himself, and that all is temporarily right the world. Krauss even took up the practice alongside him. “Exercise is a great way to fight depression or darkness or whatever the fuck you want to call it,” he believes. “It’s science, straight up—there’s a reason for it. But it’s just hard when you fall into a hole to motivate yourself.” Again, he adds, he doesn’t want to sound like he’s grousing about his situation. “Making records with Alexis, playing shows, taking care of myself—when I’m doing all those things, then I’m usually pretty okay,” he says. “It’s just that if I have a stretch of four weeks where I’m home and I turn my phone off? When you’re not accountable to anybody and you have self-destructive tendencies, it’s hard not to indulge yourself and just go off the grid.”
Flaws make the man in this case, though. If Miller never sank to such murky depths, he could never ascend to such heights as Jessica Rabbit, a record so meticulously constructed that it has to be unwrapped, taken apart piece by piece over repeated spins, like a Christmas present or a Russian nesting doll. It’s truly that intricate. “It’s Just Us Now”—emblematic of the fact that the team has left Mom + Pop, with no hard feelings, and launched its own label, Torn Clean—cracks open the disc with lightning-jagged bolts of guitar segueing into a cadence-shifting military march, which leads into an aqueous interlude called “Torn Clean,” which serves as the company’s birth announcement (friends badgered Miller to make the track longer, but he’s quite pleased with its 1:23 brevity, thanks). Then the album really takes off on track three, “Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold,” which starts off as a delicate piano minuet but morphs into a Eurodisco-metal monolith and Krauss’ whimsical, reverb-drenched chorus of “I was dreaming ‘bout the dead-end street that we used to run down.”
Miller can’t go very long without giving into his shameless pop urges. Thus, the fourth Rabbit entry is a handclap-huge sing-along dubbed “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” that employs the guitar tones of…Boston? (“I love Boston! Tom Scholz is a real genius and an incredible guitarist, and their records are histrionic and over-the-top, but I’m not offended by that,” Miller affirms). The composer won’t say who the cut is about—“I’m taking that to my grave,” he insists—but its bitterness is buried beneath the syrupy sweetness of Krauss, a contrast that colors ensuing songs, like the Metallica-sharp “Throw Me Down the Stairs,” the wah-oohed, industrial-strength nursery rhyme “Baptism By Fire,” and the bluesy “I Can Only Stare,” which is punctuated by a huge, unsettling SETI/alien blare (no coincidence, Miller says—“John Williams’ score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind is epic, one of my favorites”). He worked steadily on Jessica Rabbit for three years, considering every last note, even down to the inclusion of the playful word ‘katydids’ in “Baptism By Fire.” Was it simply too playful? “I was really iffy about that, and it drove me nuts, whether to leave it in or not,” he says, sighing. “I thought about rewriting it, but I eventually just said, ‘Fuck it—it’s strange, but it works for me.’”
The DIY-er used to rely on an outside engineer to capture all his sonic ideas. This time, deciding to go it alone, he studiously mastered all of his complicated recording software, like Logic Pro 10, and all the plug-ins he utilizes for his ‘70s-and-‘80s-retro guitar sounds. “And I’m really happy with the results,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to work whenever I’m struck with an idea, and not have to wait for somebody else to run the software.” He’s happy to be on his own with Torn Clean, as well. He loves his old Mom Pop company, and the longtime fan there who signed Sleigh Bells, Michael Goldstone. “He’s an incredible human being and a man of his word, and I would run into a brick wall for him,” he says. “But we signed to Mom Pop in 2010, and the music industry is a completely different animal six years later, so I don’t even deal with it anymore. Our manager handles that entire side of the band, so Alexis and I are free to just worry about the creative end.”
Miller hasn’t settled down with anyone yet—he’s still dreaming of his elusive, curvaceous Jessica Rabbit. Mention to him that he just might have found her—at least platonically—in the vocal powerhouse Krauss (whom he met while waiting tables in New York; he’d left his Florida punk band Poison the Well, and Krauss had traded her band dreams for a solid teaching career), and he laughs at the inherent irony. “In a way, she is!” he agrees. “I never could have imagined meeting someone like her, who is as talented as she is kind and patient with me. And that’s the lucky part—that I ended up waiting on her that day. She could have gone into any number of restaurants in the neighborhood, and if she’d sat in someone else’s section, we would not be having this conversation. I try not to get bogged down thinking about that, because I certainly don’t believe in fate or anything like that.”
But does Krauss, for her part, ever look at grave lyrics Miller has asked her to sing—like, say, “Count to three/ And throw me down the stairs please”—and perhaps begin to fret about the current mindset of her friend? He exhales thoughtfully before conceding that, “Yeah, I think she worries about me all the time. But I’m a dead man walking without Alexis, no question. I’d be in the ground. That woman has saved my life so many times, directly—and indirectly—even more than she knows. That’s why it’s such a strong friendship and such a strong creative relationship. We do actually care about each other.”