Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells: "I just wanted it to sound like a gang of ferocious women."
Since forming in 2008, Sleigh Bells (due tomorrow night at the Ogden Theatre) have issued three records, a debut EP on M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. Recordings in 2009, followed by two full-length albums, 2010's Treats and its latest offering, Reign of Terror. The band's combination of heavy, expansive guitar rock and hyperkinetic, layered rhythms, along with Alexis Krauss's commanding vocal delivery, caught on with audiences early on, and its bombastic, visceral live performances have evolved as the music has.
With its latest album, Sleigh Bells is coming very much into its own with Krauss and guitarist Derek Miller clearly having more fully integrated their individual talents in the songwriting. Reign of Terror documents a challenging time in the life of Miller, but it's also obviously a catharsis of emotion wrapped in warmly resonant atmospheres. We spoke with the affable and open Miller about these developments, his interest in hip-hop production, the Florida tour with Diplo and Liturgy and his own evolution as a guitarist.
Westword: You've added a guitar player for the live show on this tour. Why did you choose him, and has that addition opened up anything up for you, in your mind, with what you might like to do with Sleigh Bells in the future?
Derek Miller: Yeah, it's actually one of my good friends, Jason Boyer; he's from Miami. He's another south Florida dude. We tend to stick together. Basically. Reign of Terror has a lot more guitar harmonies, a lot of things I couldn't handle on my own, and I didn't want to sacrifice them live, and I refuse to have pre-recorded guitar on a track because it would be super corny. All the rhythm and synths is on a track; that's no secret because it's all electronic music.
I'm also really interested in symmetry as well: Alexis is in the middle and there is a guitar player on either side. It just made it fresh, you know? I wouldn't say we got bored with just the two of us, but this feels a little heavier, and it's just one more person to interact with, and it's a chance to hang out with one of my friends. We're really close with everyone we work with. It's hard to do just strictly business relationships. We usually get really close to all the people we work with.
You played a show the NME reviewed at the night club Heaven. What was it like playing there? That place is known for having some crazy shows.
It was amazing. That's easily the best London show we've played thus far. I think we've played ten or eleven shows in London, which is quite a lot considering how young of a band we are. The energy was incredible. At the end of the day, it's just a room with a sound system in it, and whatever you happen to be doing in it puts it into another context.
Why did you want to film the video for "Comeback Kid" in your hometown?
I co-directed with my friend Greg [Kohn], who is a high school buddy of mine from south Florida -- again the south Florida connection. But it was the first time I've ever really directed a video. I don't want to steal all credit because he did a lot of really good work on it as well. I thought it matched the vibe of the song.
And I just sort of wanted to represent my hometown, Jupiter. It's sort of a weird place. At times it can be a little bit of a cultural void. It's certainly not very diverse ethnically, but there's something about it that's home, you know what I mean? I was in that house for half of my life. My mother moved out of it just after Christmas -- we shot it in December. I wanted something to remember it by.
To be honest, it's very strange but my mom is also into symmetry. Alexis is dancing in our living room and my mother's bedroom and also a dining room. If you notice, everything is symmetrical, and all the rooms are painted different colors. My mom is sort of OCD, as well. We just made it up. I don't like treatments. We don't really do treatments. For "Infinity Guitars," I was like, "Um, so we're just going to walk down the street and follow us. At then at the end we're going to light guitars on fire." It's sort of a joke, sort of a prank on music videos.
Yeah, for "Comeback Kid," I just thought it would be hilarious, really. To me it's all very familiar, and when we got there and started shooting, I thought, "Is anyone going to think this is exciting, visually? Am I out of my mind?" Having Greg and a couple of other dudes there that were unfamiliar with the house, they were like, "Yes, this is very strange. There's a David Lynch quality to it." So I really liked that.
We were just fucking around. We got there, Alexis made up this dance, and I was like, "Let's go out into the cul-de-sac." She did the dance in the street, and I found a skateboard in my garage and just started skating around and just sort of trying to distract her. I was trying to make her laugh. Then I was like, "Hey, let's go to the supermarket. Why the fuck not? I'll bring my guitar." It just seemed bizarre and ridiculous, and okay, here are some visuals. I don't really like narrative in music videos. You only have three minutes, and for me they just kind of bum me out.
Which grocery store was it, and did you have to get permission to film there?
It was actually twenty minutes north of Jupiter in a place called Stuart at Peggy's Health Store. We tried to go into Publix, which is sort of the large chain in south Florida. But we had to contact corporate, and they wanted to charge us all this money, so we ended up finding a spot that was cool with us just rolling in. We gave her a couple of hundred bucks, and we filmed for an hour or two, and that was pretty much it.
How did that tour with Diplo and Liturgy come together and how were those shows all around?
Those shows were incredible. That came about from a drunk conversation that Wes Pentz and I had. He was in town, and we just went out drinking one night. I think we had a grip of Jameson shots, and by 2 a.m. we were hammered, and we were like -- and he's from south Florida as well -- "We should just do a weeklong tour of Florida." And one of us was like, "Fuck that, let's do two!" I'm a really big fan of Liturgy, and I asked, "Are you cool with what is essentially a metal band opening?" And Wes is a super down guy, he said, "I don't give a fuck, yeah. If you're into it, let's do it. Let's just fuck with people, it'll be rad."
So we started in Pensacola and worked our way down to Miami. I think it was ten shows in total. I thought it was amazing, especially for Liturgy. To be sure, there were some people that didn't get it, but at least half the crowd walked out of there Liturgy fans. Pitchfork wrote a big, long think piece about the tour and one of the writers came to three of the shows, and in his piece he said Liturgy was booed the entire night, which is an egregious error.
I was actually pretty upset because the tour was an experiment. I think Liturgy do a thing and Wes does a thing, and we sit somewhere in the middle, because I do beat production, but we're also quite heavy. I just really liked the idea of the show running the entire spectrum. I thought it worked beautifully, but unfortunately, that piece gave people the wrong impression.
The truth is that it actually worked really well. It was so exciting for me to see a guy like Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy sit back stage and have a conversation and talk about Rihanna with Diplo or something. You just see what we all have in common. I see a lot of it because we tour with pretty much anyone and everyone, from metal bands to DJs to indie bands.
We don't really fit in, but at the same time, we kind of almost fit in anywhere. It works both ways. You meet these people and you realize we all have the same goals. We're all just trying to do something memorable, and we're all trying to make really good music. I think more and more people are becoming aware of that. It's obviously an effect of the internet: genre doesn't really exist anymore.
It's not as relevant to have all the same music for the whole show.
Yeah, that would drive me crazy. Mix it up, expose people to something different.
If you accept it, other people will too.
Yeah, totally, absolutely.
On "Born to Lose," you have an especially beautiful shimmer on the guitar at the end that's reminiscent of Cocteau Twins or Kitchens of Distinction.
What kind of changes did you make to your guitar set-up in recording for Reign of Terror, as opposed to the palette of sounds you used for Treats? It sounds like it's pretty different.
It's much different. Treats is all direct. All of my guitar sounds were direct. There were no amps involved. For this record, and I don't want to sound like broken record, I've talked a lot about Def Leppard recently, but I can't overstate how heavily Hysteria and "Mutt" Lange's production influenced me.
Really, I was just taking cues from them. I found a chorus pedal that I love to death -- the Boss CE-20. And those were just the sounds that were exciting me at the time. I follow my ears and follow my instincts, and I don't think about it too much. I try to just do what I like -- what's exciting, no matter how ridiculous. If people think I'm being ironic, I can't help that. Those were the things that were inspiring to me.
For sure the 4AD records, as well, especially, like you said, the Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Frasier. A lot of people kind of think it's strange to mix sort of this heavy, high gain sounds with a lot of those really jangly, sparkly, chorus-y sounds, but I think they really go well together.
And Johnny Marr might be one of the best living rhythm guitar players on the planet. I've definitely ripped a few pages out of his book in terms of sound. I'm nowhere near the quality or standard that he set. But I'm working it, you know? We're still going, and I feel like we're just getting started.
Yeah, it's just your second record.
Exactly. I see them all as steps and a document of a period. There's always more.
When you talk about the high gain sound, some of the later shoegaze bands did exactly that.
Sure, yeah. We get compared to a lot of bands that are spot on, and a lot of them I haven't heard. An obvious one would be Atari Teenage Riot. I saw them in ninth grade on a super eclectic bill, but I've never heard any of their records. Apparently we sound a lot like them.
I don't agree with that. They're almost completely electronic. Maybe that's what people are thinking of. Have you ever heard Curve?
No. But I've heard the name.
A lot of electronics and processed sounds but also really heavy guitar. Loud and beautiful at the same time.
Is there a specific record I should check out or their who discography?
Start with Pubic Fruit and after their sound started to change up a bit more. "End of the Line" has more of a reggae-inflected hip-hop feel in the vocal delivery than some of the other songs on the new album. Obviously a lot of production goes into your music but in what other ways would you say hip-hop has influenced or informed what you've tried to do in your own music?
I don't remember when it happened, it must have been around '03, '04, or '05. I listened to hardcore in high school, and then in '97 or '98, I got OK Computer. For everyone my age, that was sort of the gateway drug. Then you got Bjork records and then kind of kept going. Then I got 36 Chambers. I came to it late around 2002 or 2003. Then I became a really big hip-hop fan and dance music, as well.
I quit my hardcore band in 2004 and moved from Florida, and I started going out for the first time because I was playing shows every night. So I started going out with my friends to DJ nights and dancing and understanding what that culture was all about. Basically, I really got into rhythm. I just became really jealous of how many sounds they had at their disposal.
You listen to an Aaliyah record, and Timbaland uses an endless amount of sounds. The possibilities are endless when you're working outside the traditional four-piece rock band set-up. It had the greatest effect on me that way for sure, because it sort of opened up a whole new world to me, sonically. It was always about production for me, less about the MCs and more what's going on in the track.
"True Shred Guitar" sounds like kind of a tongue-in-cheek title. What inspired that song and its title?
The title is supposed to be a little bit funny. The record itself can, at times, take itself pretty seriously by virtue of what I was writing about and going through. I won't really apologize for that. But I also don't want that to define me. There's none of that on Treats. I think that's the one thing missing on the new record that Treats has on it.
Really, because I don't play lead guitar, I play rhythm guitar, but I felt really strongly about that song. I had a lot of confidence in the riff and with what Alexis was doing. So the joke was is that I'm redefining what it is to play shred guitar. But if you don't start cracking up when you hear the stadium crowd fade in, then we're not doing our job. It's supposed to be funny. It's such an ambitious, arrogant, tasteless way to start a record, but if you know that there's a wink and a nudge with it, I think it works perfectly.
We actually did a test because we didn't know if we wanted to start the record that way, so we just brought in a bunch of different friends separately. After the fifth or sixth one started cracking up within the first ten seconds, we knew that we had it. "Okay, no one's going to take this seriously." Although some people do, and they hate us for it. But whatever. Those people don't have a sense of humor.
For "Crush," you recorded some friends in a high school gym in Brooklyn and joked to Spin in December last year that "It was a lot cheaper than sampling 'We Will Rock You.'"
Why did you want those sorts of sounds for that song?
It sounds a little ridiculous but if you go to YouTube and search "Stomp clap routine" -- I just love the sound of thirty girls pounding their feet on the ground and clapping and screaming. If you listen to any of our records that's pretty obvious. Especially with "Infinity Guitars." I think I overdubbed her vocals six or seven times. I just wanted it to sound like a gang of ferocious women.
That's what cheerleaders sound like to me. It sounds borderline demonic. It's so raw and skeletal. They're these sort of inane chants. I really love that. That really appeals to me. Also I'm super into percussive cadences and marching bands. Timbaland has been mining that territory for years now, so that's nothing really new. But I was definitely going for that with "Crown on the Ground."
It was just an experiment, really. It was sort of like, "Well we have a label and they'll give us resources to go in here, set up a bunch of mikes, rent a gym and have fifty people stomp and clap for six hours. So why not? It just sounds really big, and I really like it. I actually use those samples all over the record. They're on "Crush," they're on "True Shred Guitar" -- sort of buried them all over the place.
So many critics talk about how your guitar style is very metal. Do you feel that's true?
It's fair, but I feel like it's not limited to that in terms of references. You know Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, 4AD, Johnny Marr. For a music fan, I think it's obvious that I'm sort of listening to a lot of those records, as well, because I use a lot of really clean, pristine chorus, jangly guitar sounds. A lot of times I'll mix the two. On "Born to Lose," it's a little buried, but there are clean guitars running through all of the verses, and, of course, the outro, everything else falls away and you're left with a clean guitar sound, which I think I'll be using a lot more of in the future. It's what's exciting my ears right now instead of what I usually stick with.
The way you use it at the end of "Born to Lose" is really beautiful and powerful.
Thank you, man. That's what I hope it is.
Did Beyoncé tell you why she wanted to collaborate with you last year?
You know? Actually, I'll give you the real story about that. So my buddies Diplo and Switch, who are producers, worked on her last record. At some point, Wes, Diplo, played her Treats, and she really liked the second track, "Kids." She was like, "Oh, that's fucking dope." So he gave me a call and he was like, "Hey, I'm in the studio with B. She really likes 'Kids.' Send me the stem; maybe we can do something with it. I was like, "Fuckin' sure!" I sent them to him immediately.
I was never in the studio with her, I was never part of the creative process. I just sent email with a bunch of stems. I was in the studio with Switch but Beyoncé had left. I went there at like three in the morning, and we ended up just sitting around drinking a bottle of rum and listening to records, and, you know, just talking shit. I didn't want to dispel any potential myths that were circulating immediately because it was free press, and it was really good press. That's the truth.
But I'd love to work with her. I think that if I actually had some say, and there was a conversation that was occurring, that we could do something really interesting together. I don't have any hits under my belt right now. What Alexis and I do is relatively small compared to her operation, and I understand that.
We're ambitious. I'm not gonna lie. But the main thing is that every time out with the new records, I just hope they're better and better really. Or that they're good at all. I want them to be memorable. That's kind of what keeps your head on straight. If more people get into it, man, I'll take it. It means I can eat and pay rent and all that shit. That's a privilege.
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