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.