Given that the indie rock act Sleigh Bells balances pop and noise elements, it only makes sense that Sleigh Bells guitarist Derek Edward Miller, who grew up in Florida, would have an appreciation for classic rock and hardcore punk.
“From a very early age, I was really obsessed with music,” he says via phone from his Brooklyn home. “I remember at age 5, 6 and 7 singing along to the big blockbuster records by people like Michael Jackson and George Michael. My mom loved classic rock as well and she also had pop records by people like Belinda Carlisle.”
He says at “puberty,” he discovered the Sturm und Drang of hardcore punk, and he was hooked.
“That manic energy and aggression of hardcore appealed to young men,” he says. “It was happening right in my backyard too. You could form a band and there was a scene an hour south in Fort Lauderdale. I listened to hardcore from 15 to 17. That’s not a lot of time but those were formative years. I eventually got tired of the downer subject matter of hardcore and metal — not that they should be singing about cupcakes. It was fine, but what I wanted was a marriage of the two things, something that was slick and poppy and less aggressively macho and testosterone driven, something like Cyndi Lauper with bigger kick drums.”
That’s the foundation of Sleigh Bells — the records Miller’s mom listened to and the energy and volume of the hardcore records.
Before forming Sleigh Bells, Miller spent some time with the Florida hardcore act Poison the Well. To date, that group has released several records and toured the globe. But despite its success, Miller was ready for a change.
“[I learned] self-reliance and a strong work ethic and a distaste for bullshit,” Miller says. “One thing I love about hardcore is the DIY attitude. It’s supposed to be about making great shit and playing great shows and less about other stuff. There was no social media back then and that stuff is such a large and powerful tool. But I often feel like now the social media is the thing itself and the music is just there to boost the Internet fame. I busted my ass [with that band] trying to make good records.”
When Miller first met singer Alexis Krauss in 2008, he wasn’t really sure she’d be well-suited to sing the songs he’d penned. But one thing he knew for sure — he didn’t want to be in another band with a bunch of bros.
“It was a shot in the dark,” he says of handing a demo tape to the feisty Krauss. “When we met up, and I played her the material I had written up, she got psyched on it. She used to sing scratch vocals for different songwriters who would present their songs to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. She sent me that stuff and sounded great. And I thought we would get along. It’s an intimate process. You’re sitting shoulder to shoulder and eyeball to eyeball in the studio and on the stage. I had propositioned something like 30 to 40 other female singers but none of them were right. I wanted to work with a female vocalist. I didn’t want to be in a band with four other guys. Those guys in Poison the Well are my brothers to this day, and I would take a bullet for them, but I didn’t want to be in a band where you just argue with other people.”
Apprehensive about leaving her job to devote herself fully and completely to Sleigh Bells, Krauss eventually came around to buy what Miller was selling. After all, he was pretty convinced the band would have a fresh new sound.
“I was waiting tables and making rent,” he explains. “I’m not afraid to work for a living, but the music felt substantial to me. It felt like it was worth fighting for. It felt fresh to me. She was a little resistant at first but after a year, it really came together. I was probably pressuring her, but she’s not a kid. She’s an adult. She was able to make her own decision about devoting herself to the group.”
The band’s 2009 EP included a version of “Infinity Guitars,” the choppy track that features distorted beats and a Kinks-like guitar riff. It would become an underground hit when the band re-released it as part of its 2010 full-length debut Treats
“There’s a version of ‘Infinity Guitars’ with guitar, bass and drums,” says Miller. “But once I got into beatmaking, it became a different thing. That didn’t happen until I met Alexis. The first two tracks we wrote together — ‘Infinity Guitars’ and ‘Rill Rill,’ are borderline sweet and cloying. That’s’s a blessing and curse. You don’t want to go too much in that direction. Sometimes, I struggle with the approach.”
He refers to the songs on the noisy 2012 follow-up, Reign of Terror,
as “cartoonish metal.”
“I remember being torn about whether I would do stuff that was sweeter or more pop or something with more angst,” he says. “I don’t want to be too abstract about it. If you’re AC/DC, it’s like McDonald’s with their consistency. They do a thing so perfectly, there’s not need to explore. It’s a flawless band. Their fans love them. I mention McDonald’s because you can get the same Big Mac everywhere. If you ask Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about that, it’s the death of creativity. They operate at opposite poles. I love both approaches.”
The group followed up Reign of Terror
quickly with 2013’s Bitter Rivals
, an album that possesses a more soulful groove, albeit while adhering to the band’s frenetic approach.
“I was trying to avoid downtime,” he says of the album. “I don’t have other hobbies. Beside that, it’s just getting fucked up. I can be very self-destructive. I’ve been better about policing myself. In hindsight, we made that record too quickly. About six of the songs I love. Two or three are some of the worst things we’ve done, and we will never play live. After that album, I knew we would be off tour for a couple of years and not release another record until it was worth releasing. We didn’t want to put something out just so we could go back on tour. Fuck that. A couple of years of not having a schedule was scary. You can’t live in a bubble of the tour and record cycle. I survived it.”
He says that band has just completed recording an album that he’s “really proud of.” It’s due out early next year.
“I started writing and recording in October of 2013,” he says. “It was the day we got on the bus for the Bitter Rivals
tour. I worked from that point until the last track was recorded in June of this year. The songs I kept going back to and the ones that survived are ones I’m still psyched on. That’s tough to do. There are a number of songs that stuck around. We still care deeply about them after having worked on them for 24 months. I worked on the fly on Bitter Rivals
, not second-guessing myself. I thought the speed would somehow sequence the record and forward momentum would color the record but it sounds like a lack of discipline and hard work. I hear flippant creative decisions. This new album is the first one I labored over.”
He describes the album’s singles “Hyper-Dark” and “Rule Number One” as outliers that don’t necessarily indicate what the album will sound like as a whole.
“The result of compiling songs over two years make it eclectic,” he says. “Some people will love that about it. Some will think it’s ridiculous. They’re both album tracks and don’t have a true chorus or traditional pop chorus. I like working in that framework. I chose ‘Rule Number One’ and Alexis chose ‘Hyper-Dark.’ We wanted to show people that we’re not sitting at home fucking around. We’ve been working hard.”
For the dynamic live show, the duo will expand to a trio.
“On the Bitter Rivals
tour, we were a four piece and it felt more like a rock band,” he says. “This is back to something that’s less identifiable as rock music. It’s still going to be sensory overload. I like volume and I like strobes. I want to do it the way I see fit. There will be lots of energy and sensory overload.”
Sleigh Bells, Nights, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-283-1124. Tickets: $25, beachlandballroom.com.