Hollywood Prospectus Q&A: Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells on Success, SNL, and Not Knowing What He’s DoingTim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Last week, Sleigh Bells released Reign of Terror, an album of assaulting guitars, breathily melodic appeals, and personal apocalypses, and with it, the duo of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss has further developed a sound that is simultaneously commanding and tender. The constant touring and licensing deals that came with their debut, 2010’s Treats, earned them a rapidly multiplying fan base, while Reign of Terror got them a musical guest spot on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live and some high-profile raves in the press (plus a scattering of passionate attempted takedowns). The emotional inspiration behind Reign of Terror comes from a darker place than their previous work — as the band was just taking off, Miller’s father died, and not long afterward his mother was diagnosed with cancer. But despite (or because of) the doomed visions this situation conjured, Sleigh Bells still sounds like something that a high school volleyball team would blast in the van on their way to slaughter the home team.
The frequently repeated backstory is that Miller met Krauss when he waited on her and her mother at the Brooklyn restaurant where he worked. The former guitarist in Florida hardcore band Poison the Well was desperately looking for a female vocalist to front the new project he was developing, and Krauss turned out to be the perfect co-conspirator. Miller remains the group’s main creative architect, handling everything from production to most of the songwriting to the album art. We got him on the phone the afternoon before a show in Seattle to talk about how things are going. He sounded pretty confident for a guy who repeatedly made it clear that he has no idea what he’s doing.
How’s the tour been so far?
It’s been amazing. We did two weeks in Florida with Diplo and Liturgy, that was pretty wild. Now we’re doing these fly-in dates, which are a little bit of a pain in the ass. It’s get up at 6:30 a.m., get on a flight, do some press, sound check, and then play. But the shows have been great.
During the Florida shows, was there anyone who followed you around the state?
We have these crazy, amazing fans in Miami. There are three of them, actually, and they were at like four shows. They always make this crazy, customized merch. They roll in with their own T-shirts. Alexis corresponds with them all the time.
Were they out in the parking lot making grilled cheese sandwiches and selling tie-dyed Sleigh Bells shirts?
Nah. They’re just always right up front, head banging.
How long is this tour going on for?
It’s indefinite. We’ll put a record out and tour for 12 to 14 months, then go right back to the studio. A lot of bands describe that as a soul-crushing experience, but I kind of love it. I have no problem working on the road. I can write or record anywhere — airplane, hotel room, backstage. We’re going to be out for a while, but we’re going to take some breaks. We’re going to go to Europe tomorrow for two weeks, then we’re going to go to Austin, then do a spring tour that we’re just finalizing the dates for.
So it’s not like you know exactly what your 2012 is going to look like?
None of it’s confirmed, but a lot of it is already routed. There’s one master Excel document, and I’ll look at it once and then never again. I go one day at a time. I’m not super comfortable with the fact I can know exactly where I’ll be on August 17, 2012, but it’s my work, so whatever.
How do you prepare for that? How do you put your life on hold?
This is my life, and I don’t want anything else. I don’t have a wife, a kid, a dog.
Do you keep your apartment?
Yeah, I have an apartment in Brooklyn, but I’m rarely there. I was there for six months making Reign of Terror, but I’m not going to see it for a while. But I prefer it that way. This is what I asked for.
What’s your process for constructing songs? Where does it start and how does it develop?
There’s no identifiable pattern, at least from where I’m standing. The more I do it, the less I know about it. As I get older, music has become more and more important to me. And I understand it less and less. It’s a strange and amazing experience. I don’t want to sound like a hippie, but it’s the truth. I don’t know what I’m doing any more than I did when I was 15. I’m just chasing this abstract concept of a good song, whatever the hell that is. There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of accidents. Brian Eno said, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” It’s one of his oblique strategies. It sounds a little pretentious, but it’s true. I wait for those mistakes. Basically I just have no idea what I’m doing.
When you started the band and set up the template of guitars and vocals with machines to handle the rest, was that a reaction to your time playing in bands with more players and instruments? Was it your attempt to get more control?
I definitely wanted more control. That’s definitely a reason I left Poison the Well. Too many cooks in the kitchen, that whole thing. I was excited to be in a studio environment where I didn’t have to argue with anyone over creative decisions. But the songs themselves being skeletal, I just naturally gravitated towards that. Some of the stuff on Reign of Terror is slightly more “musical,” potentially, but Treats has more of a caveman thing going on. I don’t prefer one to the other in terms of approaches, but generally I like to keep it simple.
You’re touring with a second guitarist now. Are you slowly edging toward making Sleigh Bells a larger group experience?
No, this is it. I have zero plans to add anything else. I feel like this is permanent, and I can almost guarantee you that I will never expand past a three-piece. There are so many guitar harmonies that I can’t cover on my own, and I’m not going to put guitar parts on the track; that’s kind of corny. I’m super into symmetry as well, and I feel like there’s a little more focus on Alexis onstage right now. That’s sort of her domain, and the studio is where I’m most comfortable. I prefer to be in the background in the live setting. When it was the two of us it was a little confusing, like, “Who do I look at?” Now she’s definitely the focus.
When you play “Rill Rill” and “Kids” live, you and the other guitarist leave the stage and it’s just Alexis.
There’s no guitars on those songs — they’re just sample-based. I guess the alternative is I could set up a little DJ station in the center of the stage, but that’s kind of a dangerous territory. It’s kind of rap rock. All I’d be doing is pressing the space bar on a laptop, so I might as well just leave.
How did you feel about your Saturday Night Live experience?
My actual Saturday Night Live experience of playing the songs was trumped by meeting and hanging out with P.T. Anderson. He’s together with [episode host] Maya Rudolph. We had a rehearsal on Thursday and she told me he was going to be hanging around, so I made him a mix. We just talked a lot of shit. He’s a really, really nice dude. A smart guy. I’ve been a fan since Boogie Nights. That was pretty amazing.
Was playing Saturday Night Live something you ever imagined happening?
No. That whole week was kind of surreal. We played Terminal 5 [in New York] the night before, and Phil Collen from Def Leppard was at the show. He came backstage afterwards and he’s just a straight-up dude, a nice guy. We nerded out about [producer] Mutt Lange, nerded out about guitar tones. Typical stuff for guitar players.
Did he know you were a fan?
Absolutely. The first thing I said to him was, “Are you angry or are you flattered?” I’ve stolen so much from Def Leppard, shamelessly and unironically. He laughed his ass off and said, “We all do it. It all goes in a circle.”
I’m not bringing this up just because this is a sports-related website, but you guys have used a lot of sports imagery and there is almost a unified team mind-set behind how the group presents itself.
I’m a big Saints fan. My parents are from New Orleans, everyone in my family went to LSU except for me, so I just grew up surrounded by sports. I’ve always really admired the aesthetics of professional athletics. It’s always so powerful and so simple and so bold. Absolutely everything about that appeals to me. Not to mention the game itself. I only have about five NFL seasons under my belt, but I’m quickly becoming kind of a fanatic.
Growing up being into music and being into punk, did you cross the stereotypes and also get into sports?
I was less into sports growing up. I was playing in hardcore bands and touring a lot. It wasn’t on my radar. As soon as I quit Poison the Well, I was working in restaurants. I always worked double shifts on Sundays, so I might have watched a Monday-night game, but my schedule didn’t permit me to watch any Sunday games. But it’s a little more open now. I was really excited that our tour cycle for Treats ended right as football preseason began. We took every Sunday and every Monday off, and eventually every Thursday as well. I didn’t miss a game. Also, I lost my dad, so I started watching more football. It reminded me of him, so it gave me a connection there, not to get too soft about it. That was a big part of my attraction to it.
One of the criticisms I hear the most about Sleigh Bells is that the band is too constructed. There’s this idea that you’ve thought it all out — the sound, the look, the dynamic — in a contrived or manipulative way. So I guess my question is, how much is planned out?
The answer to that is simple. The most important thing, and the only thing that really matters and the only reason anyone gives a shit, is because of the records. And the records are not planned out in the least. I don’t play the whole lightning-rod “this shit gets beamed to me” game, but I really mean it when I tell you I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how it happens, and every time I start something new, I have no idea how to approach it. It just sort of happens, and I feel extremely lucky when it does. If I could somehow change it or shape it, I’d make it better than it is, but I can’t. I’m at the mercy of my limitations, I have to live with what I’m able and unable to do. If every song on the record could be “Comeback Kid,” it would be, but you’re lucky if you get one like that. Everything outside of the music is totally micromanaged by me to the last detail. Because if you don’t do it, someone else will do it for you, and it’s your life, so you may as well take control of it.
What do you mean that everything else is micromanaged?
Choosing the bands that we tour with, I do all the artwork, everything. We control what gets put out there because it’s a representation of the band. Right now I’m at the Experience Music Project and I was just walking through a Nirvana exhibit. They have a massive collection of a lot of personal things, guitars, stuff Kurt [Cobain] wore in videos. There was a quote on the wall from Everett True, the Melody Maker journalist, and it said something like, “Nirvana weren’t three guys who set out to takeover and change the world, this is real rock & roll, it just happened.” Which is utterly false. The idea that any ambition negates the thing itself is really wrongheaded and ridiculous and inaccurate. Because [Cobain] wanted to win. Sorry to piss on anyone’s fantasy, but that dude wanted it badly. Not to use a cliché, but he just got more than he bargained for.
There’s this idea that music should be a purely artistic ambition, and if you make music as a purely artistic expression it will find millions of fans, and that’s just not true.
It’s a lot of work. But there’s also a lot of magic. There’s a lot of things that happened between Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl that weren’t planned, like the fact that they met. You need that cosmic luck to set things off. And in our small and largely insignificant band, that spark was me meeting Alexis. I’m not comparing us to Nirvana, but us meeting certainly wasn’t planned. Was I working really hard to meet somebody? Did I spend every waking minute nagging everyone and anyone I met? Yeah. But none of that meant that I would meet somebody like Alexis, somebody who complements me and understands me so well.
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @mrducker.