Interview: Sleigh Bells

The first thing you notice about Sleigh Bells is how abrasive their sound is. The mangled notes of Derek Miller’s guitar come at you with all the volume and deadliness of helicopter blades, but beneath all the eardrum-shattering noise, the band’s pop roots take hold. Thanks to Miller’s carefully constructed riffs and Alexis Krauss’ delicate, ethereal vocals, Sleigh Bells’ high-energy, lo-fi rock is much more inviting than it is off-putting.

Miller recently took some time out of his crazy touring schedule — which includes stops at just about every major music festival on the planet — to answer a few questions for us.

Owl and Bear: When we spoke briefly at your show, you mentioned that pop music is a major influence on the way you produce music. I found that interesting, considering what your musical past is like. Can you talk about your approach to producing, whether it be for Sleigh Bells or another project, and how pop music influences it?

Derek Miller: I view pop as a framework. Arrangement-wise, it provides restrictions and limitations which I like: time, structure, etc. I also really like pop vocal treatments: multiple overdubs, hard pans, etc., which make it sound “slick.” That, combined with harsher instrumentals, sounds good to me for some reason.

Owl and Bear: I know you guys are touring non-stop in support of your debut album, Treats, but have you been able to find time to write or otherwise work on new material?

Derek Miller: I’m always working on new material, but I haven’t recorded anything yet. Can’t wait to get back in the studio — I prefer recording over touring.

Owl and Bear: You’ve personally achieved a certain level of recognition with Poison The Well in the past, but how are you handling Sleigh Bells’ success? One minute you’re waiting tables at a Brazilian restaurant and Alexis is teaching kids in the Bronx, and the next minute you’re the most blogged-about band on the internet and Spike Jonze is recommending you to M.I.A.

Derek Miller: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. There is so much work to do, we usually focus on what is in front of us. I have also had a number of awful things happen in my personal life that make the business of music feel like a ridiculous circus. I care very much about making music, but I have an extremely healthy perspective on the rest of it.

Owl and Bear: How has it been working with M.I.A. so far? She is portrayed as a very polarizing personality in the media — do you think that is a accurate portrayal?

Derek Miller: Completely inaccurate. Maya is down to earth, sincere, and an incredible artist. She has a ton of opinions and an outlet for them. Naturally, some people will disagree with her.

Owl and Bear: When I met Alexis at your show in Pittsburgh she came across as very sweet and soft-spoken, but onstage she transforms into this possessed rock goddess. When you two first started recording together, was her stage presence always that intense, or was there a moment where she just let go of any insecurity and went for it? Was there a moment for you when you were like, “Holy shit, my search for a female singer is over — a star is born!”?

Derek Miller: [Laughs] “A star is born” — that’s great! When we first started it was just the two of us standing there. I think once we started getting a crowd response, she opened up. It was sudden — I remember looking over thinking, “Oh, Alexis is standing on top of my amp, that’s new…”

Owl and Bear: You guys have such an interesting sonic template. The mix of metal, pop, electronic, and even hip hop elements really make for a unique listening experience. Where do you see the sound going? Do you think you will keep the aggressive nature of your music intact or will you experiment with more subdued songs like “Rill Rill,” which is a slight departure from the rest of your album.

Derek Miller: We will probably go further in each direction. I like “Rill Rill” because it doesn’t rely on dynamics, but then I love the dynamics on a song like “Crown On The Ground.”

Owl and Bear: An M.I.A/Sleigh Bells album would be great. I know you played guitar on a song of hers, so should we expect more collaborations in the future?

Derek Miller: It’s likely! Producing for her was amazing — really fun.

Owl and Bear: The music industry has essentially been flipped upside-down, with downloads and blogs everywhere. There is no longer a black-and-white business model. What is your take on the state of music these days?

Derek Miller: The old model is definitely out for 99% of artists. Anyone that has a creative approach and good music can make a living, even if it’s modest. Making it sustainable is more difficult since everything changes so rapidly, but overall I’m psyched about where it’s going.

Owl and Bear: What do you hope a person who listens to a Sleigh Bells record or sees your live show takes away from the experience?

Derek Miller: Energy, confidence, excitement. Anything that feels good.

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