In this week’s magazine Jeremy D Larson speaks to Sleigh Bells about the grief that defined their first two LPs, new album ‘Bitter Rivals’ and facing their fears. Here, Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss take us through ‘Bitter Rivals’, track by track.
Alexis Krauss: I had my dog in the studio, and they were setting up to do guitars, and I was like ‘OK this will be a good time. I’ll take my dog out to go pee and I’ll be back up by the time they start tracking’ and this was literally five minutes, and in one take, it was just like the scrappiest, gnarliest sound. You know? There was no tweaking, there was no fucking around with it. We knew it was good and we just left it.
Derek Miller: It’s a swing, I loved it. It’s two chords, and I’ve been playing guitar for twenty years and I was so psyched to write a song with just two chords on it, with what is essentially a horn line. I can’t wait to play that live.
AK: ‘Sugarcane’ is lyrically probably one of my favorite songs.
DM: That’s a personal song. The first lyric is, “So so sleeping on the ground tonight/ I couldn’t breath so I had to move east.” I was born in Pahokee, Florida which is in south Florida in the middle of the state. And I was raised in Belglade where my dad was a sugarcane farmer. You have to burn the fields as part of the harvest, to shuck the cane. And it literally rains ashes from the sky. It sounds like a very nice, apocalyptic image. It’s not poetic, it’s insane. It’s crazy, it’s surreal. And I remember that at the age of four, and I had terrible asthma so I couldn’t breath. That’s why we ended up moving east to Jupiter, to the Ocean. The doctor said, “this kid needs clean air” and I’ve since grown out of it. It’s a really personal song…
AK: Sugarcane to me seems like a perfectly packaged pop song for us. It has a proper verse, a proper pre-chorus, a proper chorus. It’s funky.
DM: The little chimey opening guitar riff reminds of the first little guitar riff in ‘And Then He Kissed Me’ by the Crystals.
AK: Structurally, it’s more traditional than most of our songs.
DM: I was super into distorting acoustic guitars on this record, especially on the end of ‘Sugarcane’. That was sort of my jam.
DM: The name comes from Minnie Ripperton. The chorus, the horn stabs fall on the backbeat, and that was lifted from a Minnie Ripperton song ‘Les Fleurs’. That’s my favorite Minnie Ripperton song. I get a kick of doing stuff like that. And then it turned into its own thing.
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Sing Like A Wire
DM: Quincy Jones, his autobiography definitely changed my life. If you listen to those horn stabs in the intro, it’s the beginning of [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Bad’. It was sort of done as a joke? But besides that I just think it sounds bad ass. The tempo as well it’s like, 108 bpm.
AK: Derek had this part, in the song from like 2005, and it was one of the first things I sang when we got together in 2008.
DM: I didn’t know what to do with it from a production standpoint. I tried it on ‘Treats’ but it was too macho and meaty and big-sounding. IT was too muscular. So I had to thin it out. That was sort of the opposite approach, to sort of thin it out which is why the verses are really tiny sounding.
AK: Initially the verses were going to be shouted, but then it went down to this little melody.
DM: There’s little [Latin] freestyle references in there, like Nu Shooz ‘I Can’t Wait’, with that second to last riff. Quincy Jones. It doesn’t approach any of those. ‘I Can’t Wait’ is perfect. Oh god, I hear that? That bass line? That shit’s perfect. Someday. [laughs] We’ll get there.
DM: My favorite song on the record.
AK: It went through so many different stages, my parents didn’t like it, and then finally getting it.
DM: It’s built around a distorted nylon string, which is my favorite trick. I would take them through this modified preamp called Telefunkin. We just kind of fried it out. It’s not super distorted, but it’s a hell of a lot cleaner than it is sitting in a room playing it. I was listening to ‘Thriller’ ‘Bad’ and ‘Off the Wall’ a lot and hopefully some of those records rubbed off on it a little bit. Especially with the horn riff. I latched on to that. It’s my version of a horns section, or a brass section. Like software, soft-synths, and just regular fucked nasty, gritty synth sounds. That was one of the few chorus ideas that came from me, the phrasing and the melody, and she tweaked it and added this four-part harmony.
The chorus, lyrically, it means a lot to me. It’s about all the people who have some talent that they never get to develop. This record deals with that a lot. “How many Mikey Mantles never stepped to the plate.” That could be in Young Legends. Whether it’s a Mikey Mantle somewhere in the Midwest who has it in him but never gets developed. Or a Jordan who just never gets a break. For me, if I never met Alexis, I think about that all the time and how different and painful and frustrating my life would be if I couldn’t do this with her. It’s so easily I could not have met her, it’s a freak occurrence that I met her. I have an enormous amount of empathy for people out there like me. I knew I could make these records, I just need to find that person. I was lucky enough to do it, I was very lucky. Most people don’t. It’s winning the lottery. These people are so great but maybe they’re just never even discovered and it’s just eats them alive. It was eating me alive. I was going nuts and then I finally met her and started working so hard because it was like ‘Oh my god it happened. Alright, let’s fucking go.’ Yeah, that’s what that songs about.
DM: This song…
AK: I just remember when I sent you the demos, and I sent you my vocals, I just said ‘I think this is probably terrible because it reminds me –“ Not that it’s terrible, we love these songs, but it reminded me of Sugar Ray and Smashmouth.
DM: We like those bands!
AK: And it turned out one of my favorite songs. Fuck you if you don’t like those songs!
DM: It was pretty straightforward. You know what? I have a problem with this song because of the guitar sound. My problem with this song, I never really got the guitar sound that I was looking for. I really like the second verse, because when [Alexis] sings “Never trust a tiger that can’t be tamed” It’s got like that Rhythm Nation reference. I think we were both really into Jimmy James and Terry Lewis fans. We’re both huge Janet Jackson fans. I think you killed it, you have a lot of attitude. The guitar sound blows.
AK: It doesn’t blow!
DM: The guitar sound is just not what it could be. And it will always drive me crazy. I will always hear that song and know what it could sound like, which is a problem. It has the closest thing we have to a solo on a Sleigh Bells record, I guess. It kind of rips off Jimmy Page. There’s a little sample from one of my synths, too, from the LP 1. That was a little Beasties thing in my mind. I always listen to ‘Paul’s Boutique’ – It shows me something new every time, it blows my mind, and it’s unlike anything ever. We were rarely out of ideas, but I’d go to Florida once a month to see my mom and my sister and everybody and for some reason I’d always listen to ‘Paul’s Boutique’ exclusively in Florida. And I couldn’t wait to get back to work, because I had so many ideas. You can never be hyperbolic with that record, I love everything about it. And Tiger Kit is heavily indebted to the Beastie Boys. I love ‘em.
‘You Don’t Get Me Twice’
AK: You know what I love about this song, is that I never thought we could do a song like this. It just surprised me. I remember listening back to it after we tracked it and I was like ‘What is this alien?’
DM: It started off as a song with two unrelated parts. I had also never done interlocking finger-picking for a Sleigh Bells record. I could never imagine a context where I would do it. This is the type of song that leaves it wide open for the future, as well. There’s a lot of different shades in this, and to me they all work. None of it feels forced. It comes back to that ceiling, you know, what can’t you put in a song. You can go so much further. I think that’s why we turn around records every 18 or 20 months. Because for me the definition of what a Sleigh Bells song could be is constantly changing. Now it can include fingerpicking! Not that I’m going to be making beats over whale songs. But maybe! For me that song reminds me of the possibilities.
DM: It’s a comment about what a lot of people want in life.I think what constitutes maybe a lot of people’s American Dreams terrifies me. I mean a car, whatever. You want a nice automobile? Wonderful. But the spoils become the thing itself sometimes in this county. It’s easy just to sit here and have this conversation because we have power and money. By which I mean lights are on in my apartment right now. So I’m keenly aware of that. I almost want to tell you where the main lyric comes from but I’m not. But you would laugh. You would say ‘Oh shit, that’s fucking funny as shit.’ I can’t I gotta keep it a secret for now.
To Hell With You
AK: We did a demo with this that was totally different. We sped this up dramatically. This was a much slower, sort of sparse little thing we did. The vocal delivery was super high and sweet. Little marching band snare. This is actually one of my favorite songs. There’s a whistle on it. The one instrument Derek did not play!
DM: Yeah, no I like that song.
DM: We had tracked this vocals, that we did this between ‘Reign’ tours, and we had vocal takes that were not dissimilar to the stuff that you’d hear on ‘Reign’ and they were sung very quietly and hard panned, like something you were hear on ‘Reign’. It sounds like something you would’ve done. And then you went in and you basically belted it, and it became one of my favorites. I remember you did and it was like two takes and it was done. This is an example, in terms of expression and being emotive, the vocal range expanded. The verse – she wasn’t singing this way before.
AK: This is definitely one of the more lush songs on the record.
DM: The guitar part is a huge debt to Johnny Marr. I’m a massive Smiths fan. I think for my money he’s my favorite guitar player, he’s one of the best to play the instrument. There’s nothing like him. The Smiths there’s nothing like them. There was a Smiths website online – because I was typical Smiths fanatic – and it was called the Arcane Old Wardrobe and it had scans of press pieces of every Smiths feature that ever ran. All the NME features, all of them. And one of them was like, ‘Yeah I just wrote like five new songs yesterday. I don’t want to be playing ‘This Charming Man’ when I’m 21.’ That sentence alone, I mean, you’re like 19 when you wrote that song. You’re just like… That man’s genius is unparalleled. That chorus on that is definitely indebted to him, it’s jangly, lots of chorus. So, thank you Johnny Marr for being so brilliant. I love you.
DM: This was the last song we recorded. When we finished it, we knew we were done with it. There’s a porn sample on there that’s on every one of our records. By the end there’s just this mess of emotion and ideas. Not disaster, but, and the lyric just flips last second at the end. “There’s a heart in my chest where a hole used to be. There’s a hole in my chest where a heart used to…be” And then it’s like “I’m sending gummi bears to the electric chair,” which is so ridiculous, it’s gotta be the most ridiculous lyric ever written and I love it. I love it. I remember we were like, ‘Can we do this? Can you sing this? Can you sing this and get away with this?’ You know, the jury’s out. But for me, I was like ‘cool, the record’s done.’ You know what I mean with that? You know, ‘Bitter Rivals’ and then of course ‘Minnie’ and ‘Sing Like A Wire’ and then you know it starts to shift on ‘Young Legends’ but then I feel like, yeah it just turns into something very different by the second half.
It was an inspired moment, it happened very quickly. That song has immediacy and sounds very inspired to me. And that’s where we were at. We were at the end of the record, and you’re supposed to be tapped out. But we’re still on our toes, and I was like my first thought was like ‘How am I going to get through a year without making another record.’ But that was a good feeling, we just finished and I’m already dying. That song, it was like, it feels like we can go anywhere from here. I feel like we can go anywhere from here.