Interview #752: Sleigh Bells
Noisy, abrasive pop duo Sleigh Bells have established themselves as one of the most individual and celebrated acts to emerge in the last couple of years. Their debut album Treats turned heads in 2010 with its big beats, loud guitars and sugary vocals, and now they’re back with Reign Of Terror, adding extra depth to their sonic and emotional palette.
I Like Music caught up with both Alexis Krauss (vocals) and Derek E. Miller (guitars and beats) to chat about recording the new album, defining success, working with M.I.A. and meeting (and stealing from) their heroes.
ILM: How are you guys, how is everything going?
Alexis: We’re good! We had to cancel a show the other day because I got pretty sick, but I’m doing better.
Derek: The last week has been gruelling, but it’s been fun. It’s been worth it, it’s just been a lot of work. Flying to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Dublin... That whole string of shows just destroys you! But it’s been great!
ILM: And now you’re back in London, what do you make of it over here?
Derek: Yeah, this is our tenth London show. We’ve played London more than any other city, easily.
Alexis: It’s always good. Last time we played here we played Heaven, and that finally felt like we’d reached a point where we could play shows here and actually have fun. It felt like we’d played a lot of shows here as us proving ourselves...
Derek: Which is fair, when you’re a new band.
Alexis: Yeah, totally.
Derek: I don’t think we were very good for the first three or four shows, but luckily people were forgiving. They gave us a chance to grow, and finally by the ninth show I felt like we played a pretty decent set and the crowd was great.
ILM: When people talk about Sleigh Bells they often talk about the live show as quite an experience. What is it that you want people to take away from your gigs? Your new album starts with the sound of a screaming crowd...
Derek: Yeah, in my mind it’s more of a studio thing actually. We’re not a band: we don’t have five or six people locking in on stage. It’s two guitars and vocals that are live, then all my beats are on a track. Half our job is to hype the crowd. If the crowd doesn’t get into it then I don’t think we’re very good, no matter what we do. We usually play a pretty energetic set. It’s gotta be physical, sweaty and social. It’s not all about us. It can be more about two people going on a date and we happen to be the occasion. Maybe they dance, maybe they don’t even face the stage! Then they go home together... Something like that, I don’t know...
ILM: From what I’ve heard shows get pretty raucous and rowdy...
Alexis: We don’t necessarily encourage raucousness, but we often get surprised by the crowds. A lot of times kids bring an intensity and energy that you can feel the second you walk on the stage. We always exchange glances like “really? Is this actually happening?”
ILM: Has anything unexpected ever happened, either on stage or in the crowd?
Derek: Every once in a while there are freakish occurrences, but mostly it’s very positive. That’s kind of what I was trying to escape when I quit hardcore. I love the energy, intensity and volume at hardcore shows, but there’s so much aggression and macho chest-beating behaviour that it kind of disgusts me. It makes me sick to my stomach, so I was pretty happy to leave that behind for good.
Alexis: Our ideal kind of random occurrence is like the other night when we played Seattle: a kid threw a box of strawberry Poptarts on stage. We like things like that!
Derek: That was great! Life’s heavy enough already, y’know. Shows should be fun.
ILM: Your new album Reign Of Terror has just come out, could you describe it for those that haven’t got to hear it yet?
Derek: I always sound like an idiot when I try to do this! You’re forced to choose adjectives, and they make you sound ridiculous! I mean, this is vague, but I think we just both want to make something decent and memorable. The records are the whole point for me. Everything else is a lot of fun and I love it, but the reason I do this is because I love writing, recording and producing records.
ILM: Your sound is very unique, is the process by which you record it as unique as well?
Derek: There’s really no manual. I have no idea how anybody else does anything, I can only imagine. I’ve said this before, and I don’t wanna sound like a broken record, but I really and truly still feel super wide-eyed about what I do. I don’t understand it completely! I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing half the time...or all the time! I’m sort of just stumbling around in the dark waiting for an idea to occur or an accident to happen. That’s one of the initial fears that I – and anyone who ends up doing anything on their own for themselves – has to get over: the fact that no-one is going to tell you that it’s okay, you can do this career now. You just start, and you make mistakes, which are usually beneficial to the creative process and usually what makes whatever it is you’re doing unique.
ILM: I read that on one of the tracks you recorded your friends jumping up and down in a gym...
Derek: Yeah, the gym incident was amazing. We were in a high school with these old-school bleachers, so we had fifteen of our friends show up and we mic-ed up the room and just stomped and created a bunch of samples, which you can now hear on the record. I love it, because that particular set of bleachers, the shape of that room, the mics and pre-amps, everything we used; those are unique to our record. You won’t hear that sound anywhere else. I really like that idea.
ILM: Did any other strange methods find their way into your process?
Derek: A lot of it can be boring technical stuff, like when I’m creating kick drums it gets kind of nerdy. Things like taking six or seven existing kick drums, stacking them on top of each other and compressing them into one giant single kick.
ILM: How would you describe your partnership together?
Alexis: [Currently doodling on a t-shirt for an ILM competitionLooking at the t-shirt] They’re incredible, it inspires me! No, it’s constantly growing and changing. We’ve known each other for almost four years now. That’s crazy! Not that it’s a long time, but a lot has happened. My life has changed in so many ways since I met her. When we started it was more like a working relationship: I had a lot of songs and we collaborated a little bit, but it was mostly my project. She’s done a lot of session work in the past, so it was a little more like session work for her. You know, it wasn’t like “sing the songs, here’s a couple hundred bucks...”
Alexis: No, he never paid me.
Derek: Haha! Fuck you! Once we started touring on Treats we got to know each other a lot better, got closer, and because I was writing every new idea whilst on tour, she was there for them and would shape it and push it in different directions. By the end of Reign Of Terror it was a full-on collaboration. For Comeback Kid I gave her the instrumental, I had some lyrics, but she did pretty much everything. I think that’s when we do our best work, and I’m sure we’ll continue in that direction. I like the idea of being focussed on production and instrumentals. I still really like writing lyrics, but in terms of melody she’s a thousand times better than I ever will be.
Alexis: That’s not true!
Derek: It’s very natural for her. My melodies tend to be stiff and linear, hers are more sophisticated. That’s her strength. Like it’s natural for me to make beats and write music..
ILM: Though your music is very direct, Reign of Terror has some soft, gentle moments on it. Where did they come from?
Derek: I was feeling a lot of different things this time around. I had a really difficult time...my family went through some really horrible things. Those naturally made their way onto the record. I felt pretty vulnerable, and I’m pretty self-destructive anyway, so there was a lot of internal fighting. I feel like I was at war with myself. Like Comeback Kid is about me. As corny as that sounds, I wrote a song about myself, just trying to pick myself back up. When you disappoint yourself, or you’re vulnerable, you’re not gonna write something like True Shred Guitar. It’s gonna be something like You Lost Me or End Of The Line. So yeah, there’s a lot of darker material on the record, and I would definitely attribute it to events that occurred in my personal life...
ILM: Do you see Sleigh Bells as a separate entity from your personal life, or do the two overlap?
Derek: I don’t have anything else besides the band. It’s my life. I feel like I’ve worked for the better part of fifteen or even twenty years to get into this position, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love it, I really do. Every morning I wake up and I do pretty much exactly what I would do if I could go anywhere on the planet. I’m not married, I don’t have a goldfish at home, y’know... I go into the studio when I have time off. I don’t go on vacation. I’m not good with downtime! Every time I’m not playing I’m usually listening to music or I’m working on it. It’s my life.
ILM: How do you guys define success?
Derek: I was talking about not knowing what I was doing in the studio earlier; I think staying in that headspace creatively is success for me. If every time we leave the studio we have the feeling that we had for Treats and Reign Of Terror then that’s the meaning of success to me. When we finished Treats we felt so incredible. When you’re doing something in the moment it’s just the most important thing in the world to you. Looking back it’s never quite as good as it is in the moment, and that’s okay. The important thing is that when it’s happening it’s the best thing on the planet. You have zero perspective on it. It’s like every new song is the best song that you’ve ever written, and then you get a week or two along and you’re like “okay, it’s pretty decent, but it’s not the best thing in the world.” It’s not We Will Rock You!
Alexis: But it’s crucial that you always hear that in your music. That you always hear the weaknesses and hear that there’s room for improvement. We’re really hard on ourselves. We’ll be the first people to shoot ourselves down.
Derek: We are so brutal!
Alexis: We’re not self-deprecating necessarily. I think there’s a balance between being confident and standing behind what you do, but also being able to look at it creatively. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of forcing ourselves to do that.
ILM: Looking at Reign Of Terror now do you wish you could change anything?
Derek: Oh God! How much time do we have!
ILM: Really? There's that much?
Derek: Oh....I'm just working on new songs now. That's it. I’m not thinking much about the old ones because I can’t change them! I don't even want to get into it! It’ll be really boring and sound whiney; my issues with the record.
ILM: That feeling is only natural.
Derek: Of course, I think everybody feels that way. You just live with it.
ILM: It’s just a matter of seeing things as a constant process and evolution.
Derek: Precisely. The next record is a chance to not make the same mistakes again! Inevitably you will, but you’ll have another record.
ILM: You've worked with MIA in the studio and your debut album Treats was co-released with her label. How would you describe her approach to making music?
Derek: She’s similar to me in the way that she’s not like a musician, and she doesn’t necessarily sing. What she does is so unique to her, and that’s what makes it special. That’s what people respond to and it’s why they love her. She’s an ideas machine, and she’s got a really great ear. She hears something and immediately she knows that she likes it and can tell what’s good about it. The first day in the studio with her was significant. She gave me a lot of confidence. I hadn’t been in the studio yet, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to produce Treats on my own. I went into the studio with her in October 2009, and I was terrified - she’s one of my favourite MCs. I figured that was something that I’d do three or four years down the line, if ever! Doing that before I even made the Sleigh Bells record was intimidating but gave me a lot of confidence. I’d play her nine beats and she’d take elements from each and then we had a song. She was sort of more of a curator...
ILM: What’s currently influencing you, both in terms of music and otherwise?
Derek: We’re obsessed with The Wire. I think that came through in the record! We had a Wire marathon about a year ago when we watched the first three seasons straight. A lot of what’s coming out of the West Coast: I love Lil B, who’s an MC from Berkley, and Clams Casino. He’s my favourite producer right now. Arab Music, Air Supply, Chicago...always loved Queen. Always Def Leppard.
Alexis: We actually got to meet Phil Collen.
Derek: The guitarist from Def Leppard. He was at our New York show. He’s one of my favourite guitarists, so to have him there was actually quite terrifying! To me it’s like taking a test and you’re certain you’re gonna fail! But he was so gracious and thought it was amazing. The first thing I said to him when I met him was “are you flattered or are you angry?” A friend of ours was sitting behind him at the show, and we played Born To Lose second, and I basically stole the guitar sound from him; our friend says to him “you know he stole that guitar sound from you,” and Phil Collen turns round and says “I know.” But he’s like “that’s good, we steal all the time.”
Alexis: I think they were genuinely flattered to have a current band that was shamelessly referencing them. I don’t think that happens to them very often. There are only certain bands that have gone down as bands that people feel really comfortable citing as huge influences.
Derek: If you’re forty maybe it’s The Velvet Underground or something. Lou Reed enjoys a different position creatively than Def Leppard, even though in my mind – nothing against Lou Reed, who I’m a huge fan of – I just prefer Def Leppard. They’re just not a big part of the critical discussion, even though they should be. So I don’t think they mind very much!
ILM: What can fans expect from you next?
Derek: A year to a year and a half of touring and then another record. That’s what we do. We’ll be over here a bunch, we’re probably going to do festivals this summer, and the whole time we’ll be working on music. The next album already has a working title, but we’re not going to tell you it!
Alexis: The Wire!
WIN: A t-shirt doodled on by Sleigh Bells!
During the interview, Sleigh Bells doodled on a t-shirt! We want to give this away to one Sleigh Bells fan... To enter, LIKE US on Facebook, then leave a message on our wall telling us why you should have this one of a kind, world unique Sleigh Bells t-shirt!
We will announce the winner on Tuesday 27th March!