Sleigh Bells' story is well documented, but it’s anything but typical.
Florida guitarist Derek Miller got his start with metal-influenced hardcore screamers Poison the Well, but was convinced he was destined for something different and left the band after their major label debut.
While beat making and working as a waiter, Miller met singer Alexis Krauss when he waited on her and her mother at a Brooklyn bistro. The New Jersey native, who at the time was teaching elementary school and chasing a Rhodes Scholarship, took her mother’s advice to meet with Miller after he revealed to the pair he was looking for a vocalist for his songs. After all, Krauss had been on children’s television and performed in a teen-pop group during her formative years.
The pair hit it off, and the result was Sleigh Bells, a metal-riffs-meets-big-beats-meets-cheerleader (think Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video) pop duo.
Krauss was the perfect conduit for Miller’s strange, stylistic mash-ups, and after being the hot topic for some time out there on the interwebbing, the pair was signed to M.I.A.’s label in 2009. They dropped their debut, Treats, in 2010.
Festivals, commercials, and a whole lot more hype ensued, and the band just released its follow-up, Reign of Terror, in February.
Although they’re already thinking about what’s next, Sleigh Bells are currently in the midst of an extensive tour for the new record.
Miller recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with SoundDiego before their upcoming performance at 4th & B on Tuesday.
Scott McDonald: How’s it going?
Derek Miller: Great. Rare day off at home. Don’t plan to do much other than watch some basketball.
DM: Yeah. Doesn’t happen very often.
SM: Congratulations on the new record.
DM: Thank you very much.
SM: Was it strange to have a set of expectations this time around?
DM: We actually welcomed it. I mean, I was aware of it. Anyone who tells you any different is a liar. But we welcome pressure and, really, are our own worst critics. We are really, really hard on ourselves and that’s why we rarely reach whatever goals we set. We’re always a little bit unsatisfied, but, of course, that’s a good place to be. And we’re aware of that as well. Pressure is a good thing and people should expect a lot from us. It’s up to us to deliver, and if we don’t, they’re going to stop listening to our records. And that’s something I can live with. I’m realistic about it.
SM: I think one of the new record’s successes is that you were able to resist the temptation to drastically change things up. It’s a nice progression without losing sight of what people seemed to like about Treats. Did you have a game plan going in?
DM: I think Treats had far less cohesion - but in a good way. It’s all over the place sonically, while the new one is very much a guitar record. When I was making Treats, I was totally in a production mindset. I had just gotten into beat making and was totally in love with it. It’s very much a studio record. Reign of Terror is as well, but I wrote it on the road when I was playing guitar every single night. When I wrote Treats, I was only playing guitar when I felt like it, and was spending a lot of time making beats and working on samples. But on tour, I had a guitar in my hand every night and that became the default. Sonically and aesthetically, Reign of Terror is a much more cohesive record. That doesn’t automatically make it better, it’s just more focused and that’s a fact. So, to answer the question, we did not have a game plan. It was just circumstances. I had a guitar in my hand, I was looking back on a lot of my favorite metal records, and was back into that world in a lot of ways. Which is funny, because now I’m drifting back out of it again and thinking about rhythm a lot. I’m working on some new stuff, and while it’s not like Treats, it is a lot less metal-influenced.
SM: Well, whatever you’re doing, it seems to be working.
DM: Thanks. I don’t take myself seriously, but I do take music and what I do for a living very, very seriously. And I LOVE it. I care so much about it and we’re playing for keeps. We put a lot of effort into it, and if someone says it works, then that’s flattering, because that’s the goal. There are some accidents, but there’s really a lot of hard work that goes into it as well.
SM: Any plans for some time off?
DM: No. I work. And we don’t take vacations. It’s straight from tour into the studio. Actually, I wouldn’t even know how to take a vacation. I understand the concept. It makes sense. But if I went somewhere exotic and sat on a beach, within a day, I’d have my laptop open and I’d work on music. It’s just what happens. So there’s really no point. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have kids. This is my life. And I’m happy to keep it that way for a while. It’s not going to last forever. But, for right now, it’s the focus.
SM: You guys have been go-go-go for some time now.
DM: Yes. And it’s funny you say that. We’re already planning out how long we’ll tour for this record and have been talking about renting a house to make the next one. I’m already blocking months out in my mind for 2013. [Laughs.] It’s already shaping up and that’s very exciting to me.
SM: Has having the time to collaborate with Alexis helped?
DM: I think it absolutely has. And I think it will even more so in the future. We worked a lot more closely on the melodies this time around, and I think that’s really Alexis’ strength. That girl pulls melodies out of thin air. “Comeback Kid” was the last song we did, and I just gave it to her. Told it was hers, I had the lyric, and I think in five minutes she had the entire song. And that was extremely satisfying, because it was ours. And to be completely fair, she’s giving this 100% of her time as well. She wants to be a bigger part of it and I think we’re better for it. The lyrics are still my domain, but I’m totally open to ideas. Whatever you got. Bring ‘em in and let’s do it.
SM: That’s always been fascinating to me. Alexis has such a distinct personality, yet she’s singing your words.
DM: It’s funny. It may sound corny, but it was like an awakening when we met. She was almost unrecognizable. I mean, she’s a fourth-grade teacher. Straight-up. And I think some people might see it as an uncomfortable transformation, but really, it’s just been her discovering what she really likes and not apologizing for it. Everyone has the right to do that, and she’s just done it publicly. And I’m very, very lucky to have met her. She saved my life and has become one of my best friends.
SM: Seems to be good energy there.
DM: It’s so drama-free that it would bore you to f-----g tears. I really enjoy being around her and we do not fight about anything, even the usual s--t that everyone seems to fight about: money, publishing, what we’re going to eat. We trust each other and that’s why we work so well together. We’re productive. And really, I don’t see that slowing down any time soon.