They say that opposites attract, and sometimes that applies to friendships too. Take Brooklyn noise-pop act Sleigh Bells, whose lauded 2010 debut album 'Treats' turned them into one of the year's buzziest bands – a mixed blessing that the duo has managed to outlive
“I’m a clichéd, tortured bastard,” says guitarist Derek Miller in the dining room of a plush, if nondescript, AirBnb in Hackney, east London. “Whereas you will not meet a more balanced, healthy musician than Alexis. It’s actually much cooler to be balanced and well-rounded. Guys like me are a dime a dozen.”
Laughing, Krauss agrees: “Derek is a man of extremes and his impulse is to create. If he couldn’t, he’d explode. I don’t have that obsessive nature. And it’s beneficial to the band, because we complement each other.”
It’s clear that there is some alchemy at work in Sleigh Bells. Many buzz bands find that the online excitement that fuels their intro is short lived, but, six years after debut album ‘Treats’, ‘Jessica Rabbit’, the band’s fourth record, sees Miller and Krauss subtly reinvent their bombastic guitar- and drum-pad-driven sound. It’s still recognisably the work of the band whose deliriously upbeat 2010 single ‘Rill Rill’ was used in a 2013 iPhone advert, but there are quieter, more reflective moments too. Take the understated ‘I Know Not To Count On You’, which sounds suspiciously like a piano ballad (albeit one intermittently laden with marching synth).
Such moments sit alongside the bombast of old. A desire to create cohesion within this tension meant the record was more than three years in the making. Compare this with the first three Sleigh Bells albums, all made within a year of one another.
“It’s been a slow accumulation of material that we have loved enough to hold on to,” Miller says. “I strive for range. I wanna have my cake and eat it too. I wanna write a song that’s acoustic and vocals, then bludgeon you over the head. I wanna put those back-to-back and I want you to be able to deal with it. ‘Jessica Rabbit’ is a demanding listen.”
Miller is the primary songwriter of the pair, though production duties are split between them. Miller also writes the band’s (often obscure) lyrics, which Krauss contributes to and attempts to interpret. “I’ve learned a lot about Derek through his lyrics,” she says. “I feel very privileged to have those insights, but I also feel very pressured to do right by them.”
DIRECTED BY DEREK MILLER DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY: CHARLOTTE KAUFMAN, NICK KRAUS PRODUCED BY JASON SELVIG EDITED BY SLEIGH BELLS, NICK KRAUS, CHARLOTTE KAUFMAN COLORED BY DAVID O’BRIEN, SLEIGH BELLS EXECUTIVE PRODUCED BY WILL HUBBARD HAIR/NAILS/MAKEUP BY RIA LOPEZ From the album ‘Jessica Rabbit’, to be released November 11th, 2016.
Sleigh Bells formed when Miller served Krauss at a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2008. Their current way of working, Miller says, requires deep trust built up over the years: “[If you show someone your lyrics], they’re gonna see a little bit of the monster. If they see that part of you and they don’t run away, that’s when you know it’s the real thing.”
The band took time off the road to work on ‘Jessica Rabbit’, and for personal reasons Miller wants to avoid this approach in the future. “I don’t want to take a year or two without playing shows [again],” he says. “If it’s January and I don’t have a show until November, that could spell disaster for me. I’m self-destructive. You give me a lot of time and no accountability and I can turn my phone off for two weeks, and you can’t find me. Then it can get dark.”
Miller has spoken in the past about his alcohol and substance abuse. He made an earnest bid to quite drinking in early 2013. “The first couple of years I was a fucking mad man,” he says. “And not in a fun, party way. There was darkness. I started taking good care of myself, which meant I was sober. I was home, reading voraciously. From 8pm to 5am I’m no longer obliterated; I’m focused and present and clear.”
Sleigh Bells are bright and breezy throughout their encounter with NME. They finish each other’s sentences, and sometimes they seem more like siblings than best pals. One such occasion occurs when they discuss their court case against American pop star Demi Lovato, whom they’ve accused of pinching drums from their 2010 track ‘Infinity Guitars’ and using them on ‘Stars’, her song from this year. Initially Miller doesn’t want to approach it, but Krauss assures him it’s worth talking about.
“I am 100% certain that those are our exact drums” he says, leading Krauss to differentiate their case from last year’s ‘Blurred Lines’ trial. In that instance, the Marvin Gaye estate successfully sued Pharrell and Robin Thicke for aping the aesthetic of Gaye’s 1977 track ‘Got to Give It Up’. Some commentators objected on the basis that musicians have always been influenced by one another; this train of thought suggested that the ruling could limit creativity.
“We both agree that the ‘Blurred Lines’ case was a dangerous precedent,” Krauss says. “Artists are constantly listening to and borrowing from other artists. Especially when there’s a revival of 60s and 70s soul. You listen to a Bruno Mars album – you know he’s brilliant but he’s certainly not the first person to use horns.”
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Music video by Sleigh Bells performing Rill Rill, currently featured in the iPhone 5C ad campaign. Download The Song: //smarturl.it/rillrillitunes Pre-Order The New Album Bitter Rivals: //smarturl.it/bitterrivalsitunes (C) 2011 Mom + Pop
Indeed, ‘Rill Rill’ is hooked around a sample of Detroit funk group Funkadelic’s 1971 song ‘ Can You Get To That’. The track has, justifiably, remained an enduring footnote in the band’s history. During a recent stay in West Virginia, Krauss was approached by a woman who thanked her for the song’s lyric, “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces / What about them? / I’m all about them.” Krauss says, “She was like: “When I was in high school and I had braces, I felt so self-conscious. I would listen to that song and be like…”
“… ‘I’m all about them!’”, Miller finishes, with an air-punch. “That’s beautiful!”
There’s no denying, though, that Sleigh Bells are no longer the buzz band they once were. Well, who could be? The internet barrels along at a brutally fast pace, unearthing culture and casting it aside with reckless abandon. Krauss and Miller say they’ve made it to their fourth record through modest living. Jessica Rabbit is released through their own label, Torn Clean, after their three-album deal with the independent imprint Mom + Pop came to an end. Besides watching the pennies, how have they achieved their longevity?
“We like each other,” Krauss deadpans. Miller agrees and says, “There’s a very real friendship at the heart of the band. There’s respect and trust, and we’d be friends even if there was no band. A lot of bands consist of people who are competing for the same things – attention, girls, money – whereas we don’t compete for anything.”
You could also argue that Sleigh Bells still sound fresh because a (rather neutered) version of their sound has entered the pop mainstream since Treats was released. Look at Swedish pop star Zara Larsson’s frenetic, bombastic hit ‘Ain’t My Fault’: pile on a dozen guitars and it wouldn’t sound unlike a Sleigh Bells song. Miller and Krauss bat this idea away, not wanting to sound arrogant.
That modesty is Sleigh Bells all over. They’re not attempting to be the biggest band in the world. They’re just two best mates who, for all their differences, are still doing their own thing. In a way, that’s far cooler.