By Tamara Vallejos
Last month, on an episode hosted by former cast member Maya Rudolph, Brooklyn-based Sleigh Bells made its network television debut in a way most indie bands can only dream of: with an appearance on Saturday Night Live. The noise-pop duo dropped its sophomore album, Reign of Terror, just three days later, and SNL gave band mastermind Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss a chance to showcase a couple of their new songs to millions of people.
“I’ll be honest with you,” says Miller, immediately after the topic is brought up. “I’m pretty unimpressed by our performance. I don’t think we sounded very good.”
“We never do late night shows because I can’t stand the way people sound and look on television. You really do have to compromise all the production values; you’re not mixing what’s being broadcast to three million people. You might have a say, but in the end there’s a dude on the show who’s going to mix you however he sees fit. I’m a producer; I’m extremely picky, and it just drives me insane to think of somebody else mixing my music. And us being judged based on that.”
“That being said,” Miller continues, “it was an incredible experience.”
He laughs at this point, fully aware that his perfectionism is showing. And he goes on to clarify that SNL was a privilege Sleigh Bells couldn’t turn down, even if a little control had to be sacrificed in the process.
Miller and Krauss may have introduced themselves to a large portion of America via SNL, but neither is particularly new to the music biz. Ten years ago, Krauss—a tattooed, raven-haired beauty with an enviable punk-chic style—was the lead singer of an all-girl pop band named Ruby Blue. At the same time, and at the complete opposite end of the musical spectrum, Miller was in the midst of a six-year stint as guitarist for hardcore band Poison the Well. If it seems like only the hand of fate could push these two together, it’s because that’s exactly what had to happen.
In 2004, Miller left Poison the Well, a band he had originally joined when he was just in high school. But after three albums, including a major label debut the year prior that had a brief entry onto the charts, it was time to go.
“I’ve always been really ambitious, but my abilities [at the time] didn’t quite match up to my ambition,” he explains. “I just got way ahead of myself, and I think I bit off more than I could chew. I tried to do everything on the fourth Poison the Well record, which, when I left, kind of disappeared because they started over on it.”
What followed was four years of bar back duties and waiting tables, as Miller tried to sort out his next steps. He was still working on material, though none was released or performed live, as he pushed for his skills to catch up with his vision. Part of that included a shift from his guitar-heavy past to beats and electronic compositions.
Then, in 2008, Miller was ready to get the ball rolling, and all he needed was a vocalist. So he moved from his Florida home to the nation’s haven for artsy young folks looking to make it: Brooklyn, New York.
“I was just hustling [to find someone], to the point where I was even talking to the people I was waiting on,” he says of his first few months Brooklyn. He was waiting tables at a Brazilian restaurant in Williamsburg, the borough’s hipster enclave, when he struck up a conversation with Krauss’ mom, who happened to be dining there with her daughter.
“When Alexis spoke up and said, ‘Actually, I’m a singer,’ I was ecstatic. I was like, ‘All right, here’s my e-mail address. Feel free to walk out of here and throw it in the gutter, but if you want to take a chance, I’ll gladly send you some music.’”
Within a year, the two were recording demos, playing gigs and earning some famous fans. Like filmmaker Spike Jonze, who passed some tunes along to his pal, M.I.A. Impressed, the outspoken superstar promptly signed Sleigh Bells to her young N.E.E.T. label. (They’re also on the Mom + Pop roster.)
So, then how does it sound when you pair up a former hardcore musician with a former wannabe pop star? Actually, it sounds like one of 2010’s best albums. Treats, Sleigh Bells’ debut, rocked listeners with bombastic beats, pulsating synths and sweet, fuzzy vocals that still carried an edge. Friendly melodies gave way to distorted, head-banging rhythms, making the record feel like a soundtrack to the most pleasurably exhausting party ever.
Miller wrote and produced the entirety of Treats, which showed off a multi-dimensional talent, no doubt sharpened by a genuine disregard for genre. He credits his mother, who played around the house everything from Led Zeppelin to George Michael, for building up his massive love of music. In fact, Michael’s Faith remains to this day one of Miller’s favorite albums of all time.
“It’s high art to me. It’s flawless,” he says of the Michael’s 1987 solo debut, following the breakup of Wham! “Some people see how successful he has been and think there must be something inherently illegitimate about his music. But it’s successful because it’s so damn good. And everyone, from the press to his managers, was telling him no one was going to take him seriously and that he would fail. And he was like, ‘Fuck you. I want to make serious pop records. I want to do something that has integrity.’ And he fucking did!”
That’s a self-assured, take-hold attitude Miller can get behind; it’s no secret that Sleigh Bells’ musical direction has been almost entirely in his hands, at least up until recently. And although Krauss has begun asserting herself more as the duo’s bond has strengthened, Reign of Terror, the recent follow-up to Treats, is an intensely personal record that came out of a dark period in Miller’s life: in the span of less than a year, his father passed away in a motorcycling accident and his mother was faced with a cancer diagnosis.
“I wrote Reign of Terror when we were on tour for our first record, and I was going through a lot of really difficult personal issues with my family,” he says. “The record was sort of therapeutic in that way. I don’t want to be too precious about it, but it helped me a lot, and was my only outlet.”
Pouring himself into Reign of Terror resulted in a record that, when compared to Treats, has a far greater emphasis on aggressive guitar and features lyrics that skip the party vibes of earlier days. This rawness is perhaps most apparent midway through the record, on “Leader of the Pack.” The song shares a title with the 1964 hit by The Shangri-Las about a deadly motorcycle crash, and a careful listen amidst Sleigh Bells’ signature beats and distortion reveals Krauss hauntingly crooning, “Now your mother cries and nothing matters much . . . don’t you know he’s never coming back again?”
In fact, simply examining a copy of Reign of Terror before giving it a listen quickly illustrates the emotional wallop that brought the record into existence. The title bluntly sums up Miller’s emotional state at the time, the cover art—a pair of white canvas Keds shoes, stained with drops of blood—references a loss of innocence, and the track listing features titles like “Demons,” “Road to Hell” and “D.O.A.”
“Reign of Terror comes from a very specific time and place, and I’m no longer in that place, thank God,” says Miller. “For me, it’s this really interesting document of that period of my life. But mentally and creatively, it’s very much in the past.”
Its themes may be behind him but the record is still firmly in his day-to-day life, now that Sleigh Bells is on the road, touring in support of its sophomore effort. Miller and Krauss just wrapped up a string of European dates and make their way to Pomona on April 4, where they’ll turn up the amps at the Fox Theater. (Visiting the Inland Empire is a blast from the past for Miller, who spent some time living in Corona and Riverside back in the Poison the Well days.) Audiences can expect to sweat it out during the typically high energy set, but if anyone favors Treats over Sleigh Bells’ latest turn, they can rest easy.
“Reign of Terror is sort of this anomaly. I’d been listening to a lot of guitar music, which in previous years I’d focused less on. I think moving forward, future records will have more in common with Treats.”
Given Krauss’ growing input regarding on the duo’s direction, there may also be a greater emphasis on melody.
“As we’ve gotten to know each other a little better, it’s emerged as her strength,” says Miller. “I think we’ll probably go further in that direction, because it’s more satisfying when we work on something together, as opposed to me just coming to her with the finished product and going, ‘Here’s the song.’”
And you’d think most people would find some relief in taking a little weight off their shoulders and passing it along to someone else. Then again, most people aren’t Miller.
“I mean, I’m just a music fan. I’m a fanatic, it’s my life. I will gladly spend every waking hour of my time on this planet listening to music, playing it, writing it, recording it and producing it.”
Sleigh Bells at Fox Theater, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 784-3671; www.foxpomona.com. April 4, 8:30PM. Tickets $22.50 advance, $25 at the door.