Tuesday, 26 June 2012 10:03

Reign of Sleigh Bells

Written by  Lindsay Patton-Carson
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Before there was Sleigh Bells, guitarist and producer Derek Miller spent six years in hardcore band Poison the Well. The band gained a solid fan base and signed with Atlantic Records in 2002. Two years after the big record deal, Miller quit the band.

He cited creative differences as the reason for the departure. Miller wanted to do more as an artist and grew tired of the scene.

“I will say this for hardcore: Live, it’s pretty f***ing unstoppable. The energy is addictive,” Miller said. “But, the politics of being in a hardcore band and the scene, all the bull**** and baggage that comes with it is so obnoxious.”

Miller spent the next four years writing music, but he wasn’t proud of the results. He says his move to Brooklyn, N.Y. helped him creatively.

“I wrote a lot of horrible music between ’04 and ’08,” Miller said. “When I got to Brooklyn in March of ’08, that was a shift. I feel like I sort of broke through a wall that I had been smashing my head against for a while. I was finally making music that I at least thought deserved to exist.”

Miller set tracks, but he needed a female vocalist to complete his vision. At the time, Miller was having trouble playing his music to potential vocalists. Most of the women he approached thought he was hitting on them, until he met singer Alexis Krauss.

“I think it’s a testament to Alexis as a person,” Miller said. “She’s not a cynic by any stretch of the imagination, and I think that’s a defining characteristic of a lot of the girls I was talking to. They just assumed I had ulterior motives.”

Miller was working at a restaurant and served Krauss and her mother, who offered up Krauss as a vocalist when Miller told them about his music plans. Soon after, Sleigh Bells formed.  

“She gave me her information and we met up in a park,” he said. “We just sat down with a laptop, put some headphones on and I was like, ‘Check it out.’ It was nerve wracking, you know, because most people don’t want to be judged. But whatever, that’s the only way to do it.”

With Krauss on board, Miller could put the finishing touches on his noise-pop tracks, which blends metal, electronic and pop – genres he couldn’t experiment with during his Poison the Well days.

“Hardcore music is pretty much like a cage and it’s not a part of critical discussion, it’s creatively suffocating,” he said. “Fans and critics, they don’t respond to change really well. Whereas … it’s almost expected of [Sleigh Bells], which is fantastic … It just gives you license to do whatever you want without losing your fan base or falling out of favor.”

Sleigh Bells released its debut album, Treats, in 2010. The band got a push from musician M.I.A. when it signed to her label, N.E.E.T. Recordings. Being attached to M.I.A. helped, but it was the combination of heavy guitars and beats with Krauss’ soft and sweet vocals that propelled the band. Now signed to Mom + Pop, Miller and Krauss released their second album, Reign of Terror, in February of this year.

For Miller, the title is literal, referring to a particularly difficult time of his life. While everything seemed to be going in the right direction for Sleigh Bells, Miller’s personal life was in pieces. In 2009, his father died in a motorcycle accident. When the band released Treats and hit the road, his mother was diagnosed with cancer (she is now in remission). Reign of Terror is Miller’s way of tackling his personal traumas.

“It’s a massive outlet for me,” Miller said about coping with the tragedies. “It’s a lot of pressure, being able to get that stuff off my chest.”

There’s an audible darkness to these songs, compared to the cheerleader-esque chants and beats prevalent in Treats. While Reign of Terror is still just as loud, there’s a maturity to it, not only with the lyrics, but Krauss’ delivery. While Treats had quirks such as giggles and high-pitched screams, Krauss is more thoughtful and whimsical on Reign of Terror, a complement to Miller’s dark lyrics.

“Once I met [Alexis], I realized sonically, [the music] could be as punishing as I wanted,” Miller said. “There was never a danger of veering it into chest-beating, macho, testosterone-driven area because no matter how heavy it is, she’s this calming voice that hits right in the center of it.”

And it’s that calming voice that balances lyrics like Don’t you know/He’s never coming back again, in “Leader of the Pack,” and Heard you say suicide in your sleep/Just get on with it you were born to lose, in “Born to Lose.”

With the deep and personal subject matter embedded in his lyrics, how does Miller manage to relive these events each night on stage? For him, it’s not as hard as it appears.

“If I have to sing the lyrics, yeah, it would make me feel really uncomfortable. But there’s a detachment because Alexis sings the songs,” he said. “I feel like a lot of the time, she’s addressing me directly, one on one, even though I’ve written it. It’s almost comforting, you know? It’s a massive outlet for me.”

The deep material on Reign of Terror doesn’t interfere with the band’s live shows, which Miller describes as a “sensory overload.”

“I just hope we make people feel really good. We just have simple, unpretentious goals where the live show’s concerned.”

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