ABOVE: SLEIGH BELLS’ DEREK MILLER (LEFT) AND ALEXIS KRAUSS. PHOTO COURTESY OF PETRA COLLINS
Bitter Rivals, the third album from Brooklyn-based rock duo Sleigh Bells, is not an album to chill out to. If you’ve missed out on them, here’s an elevator pitch: Derek Miller plays guitar and produces the band, which is sort of a cartoon version of guitar music that plays during movie fight scenes. Alexis Krauss, vocalist, has a sweet voice that belies the aggression of the overall project. She’s like the glee-club leader sprawled out on the hood of the local malcontent’s I-ROC. Over the phone, Miller is quick to laugh and has an obsession with choosing the exact right word. You get the sense that his mind moves much faster than his mouth; that he needs a second to catch up to himself to get his thoughts just right. We talked about boxing, pretentious literary quotations, and Jackson guitars.
MICHAEL HAFFORD: You’ve talked about getting more into boxing as you made this record. Are you a fan of boxing?
DEREK MILLER: Not the sport. I don’t feel like the sport, at least on a larger level, has much integrity anymore. For me, it’s more of a personal challenge. I love the way that it makes me feel. The confidence. More than anything, it’s a way for me to get in shape. It reminds me a lot of when I learned to play guitar. The progress is extremely slow and you have to be very patient, which I am. I remember being frustrated early on when I was learning how to play guitar. Six months in, wondering why I wasn’t better, but I was certainly able to do a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do when I just started with it. That’s a lot like boxing. I remember complaining to my trainer four or five months in—and I was going four days a week for eight months solid before we left for tour, which is a lot of work—and I just didn’t think that I was getting any better. I thought my progress was too slow. He called out a 15-punch combo, which I nailed without even thinking, and he was like, “You think you could do that two months ago?” And I was like, “Okay, point taken.” It’s a very slow process, which I like. I’m pretty good at that. My ability to focus is definitely a strength. It’s very intense, too, that burst of activity. I guess the polar opposite of that would be running a marathon—slow, steady, and paced—I prefer more impact and intensity in a shorter time frame.
HAFFORD: That’s what your songs sound like.
MILLER: I know, yeah. [laughs] It’s ridiculous, because I could be describing the music but I assure you that I wasn’t. I know that there are parallels.
HAFFORD: I feel like there’s a music critic’s fallacy where people try to describe songs with a false tactility, but your songs sound very violent.
MILLER: That’s fair to say, for sure. Personality-wise, I’m very manic. Nothing in my head is ever gray. It’s always black or white. The music is a reflection of that. It’s a reflection of the way that I feel and the way that experience things. I’m never really even. I don’t have very many friends that are super mellow and even-keeled and never too up or too down. I’ve never been that way. I usually have extreme reactions to almost everything. I never really shrug my shoulders about anything. I’m usually like, “Ah, I love this about this or I hate this about this,” and yada yada. Some people probably think that’s obnoxious, but I don’t know. That’s just me.
HAFFORD: To switch tracks a little bit: this album opens with the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. Are you a reader?
MILLER: I am. I think this band has always skirted the line of being distasteful and moronic. I also think that that’s part of what makes it really great, and I love that about us. It’s such a lazy reference. “Oh, Dickens, wow. You guys are really deep.” And I get it. I think that people who understand that the band itself is aware will think it’s funny. People that think I’m trying to be intellectual will just see it as a lazy reference. Those people just aren’t giving us enough credit. They can sit there and feel superior and self-satisfied and good for them, but I’m in on the joke. That’s the point of this whole thing. But it’s not a joke. In a way, it’s very literal. The lyric itself is an accurate description of sort of the beginning of the band. Again, my dreams coming true right in front of me in the middle of the largest personal tragedy I hope I ever have to face. That had to be it. It really just comes down to how much credit you want to give us. People that know what we’re all about and know that we’re not just vapid fucking sunglass-wearing idiots… they know that we think it’s funny, too.
HAFFORD: I don’t want to sound like I’m accusing you…
MILLER: [laughs] No, no, not you, not you. I was very conscious of that. I was like, “People are going to think that it’s really funny and maybe kind of awesome or they’re going to think that I’m trying to be profound.” So [laughs]…
HAFFORD: Well, it’s not like you’re opening it with “All happy families are alike.”
MILLER: No. [laughs] It could have been much more… I’m trying to think what the laziest, most obvious literary reference would be. Maybe we nailed it, actually.
HAFFORD: Maybe “Call me Ishmael?”
MILLER: Oh, yeah, yeah. “Call me Ishmael.” That would be perfect, actually. [laughs] Whatever man, there’s fucking no shame in that. Ishmael was pretty awesome.
HAFFORD: How important is image to you as a band?
MILLER: It’s not really important so much as… You’re going to project something, you may as well think about it. You may as well be a reflection of things that you like, or find agreeable. For me, I’m a child of the ’80s. Those are a lot of my references and a lot of things I grew up loving—and still do. For Reign of Terror, having a bunch of custom letterman’s jackets seemed like a really good idea. So that became a part of the aesthetic of the band. I always thought heavy-metal bands looked incredibly cool, and I’ve always been very attracted to Jackson guitars, which are the short of pointy, sharp, shred guitars that I play onstage. I just love them. I think they look great. And I think they’re unique in this context. We are, by and large, for some reason, an indie band. And that’s fine, whatever, but I certainly don’t feel like an indie band. Those guitars are usually reserved for metal bands. And I don’t know, maybe we are a metal band. I have no idea.
HAFFORD: That Jackson guitar is significant.
MILLER: Oh, absolutely. It makes me want to play. I don’t know how else to describe it. They look like these strange, exotic weapons. I have a few that are custom, that are one-of-a-kind, which are really special to me. They also don’t have as much baggage as a lot of other guitars. When I see a Les Paul, I see Jimmy Page. When I see Tellies [Fender Telecasters], you could say any number of people. I guess most people think of Springsteen, because of the cover of Born to Run. Stuff like that. Of course, there is a long list of incredible guitarists that have played each. When I look at Jacksons, I don’t know what I think. Slayer, maybe? Maybe not. I think Kerry King played B.C. Rich [guitars]. For me, in this context, it feels like mine. And I love that. Or something more current—and I’m blanking on the model—Jack White’s guitar. You see it and you just associate it with him. I like that idea and I feel like I have a little bit of that with Jackson. We’re a much smaller band, but I feel a very personal connection to the instrument, and I feel like that’s a big part of the band.