Write Better Songs: An Interview with Sleigh Bells' Derek Miller
On the band’s fourth album, Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller fought to set parameters for their expansive sound.
Most artists who experience early success set their sights on expansion as they move past the initial waves of excitement into a stable fanbase and signature style. They take in more sounds -- different sounds -- than they have before. On his fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye West created a frigid and paranoid variant of R&B; The Clash surveyed global music on their fourth album, Sandinista!.
Sleigh Bells, the duo of producer and guitarist Derek Miller and singer and songwriter Alexis Krauss, carry the opposite impulse. On their fourth album, Jessica Rabbit, they sought to narrow their focus. It wasn't minimalism, but an intense focus and intentionality.
"If you're a rock band, you make rock records. If you make pop records, that has a different set of rules and parameters, in a way," Miller said in a phone interview. "And I've struggled with trying to create parameters for us so that we don't spread ourselves too thin or genre-hop because I really dislike records that genre-hop and artists that genre-hop. I think it's hack, and I'd like to avoid that."
This is a surprising perspective, because he and Krauss shot to minor fame in 2010 due to a style that took in elements of metal, pop, hip-hop, and abrasive electronic music. Their first album, Treats, is a useful synecdoche for the broad cultural appetites encouraged by the internet. The record is dense and combustible, setting off bursts of noise like land mines. Its broad sonic palette was not incidental to the duo's enthusiastic fandom; it was the core of their appeal.
"Every song on this album merges a noisy kick in the head with a pop enticement, as blasts of low-fi drums and loud guitar bracket girlish vocals. Each whipsaw only whets the appetite for more," New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote about Treats, identifying the bold contradictions that created a buzz around Miller and Krauss when they had only a few MySpace demos to their name.
Miller is still proud of Treats, but he has set about narrowing the band's scope since. He has done this by funneling the unifying quality of his and Krauss' work -- noise -- into more melodic and guitar-oriented contexts. The band's second and third records, Reign of Terror, which Miller described as a "cartoonish fake metal record," and Bitter Rivals, on which Krauss took a larger role in writing vocal melodies, were less sprawling in concept and violent in execution. If Treats was a series of pipe bombs,Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals were controlled blasts.
While working on Jessica Rabbit, Miller worried about the danger of letting concept overwhelm execution. He responded by focusing on the fundamentals of songwriting and production. "We were anxious to try out new things and to move forward, but more than anything, to write better songs," Miller said. "That's always the goal for me is to try to write a great song: the right lyric, the right chords, the right production. You can't beat it when everything comes together, when every moment arrives just when it's supposed to, and three-and-a-half minutes feel like thirty seconds."
Recording the album was a quest for simplicity, to pull order from the chaos of inspiration. The album took on many shapes during the nearly three years it was under production, shifting and expanding as Miller and Krauss took to new ideas.
There was a point, in late 2014, when the record appeared to be complete. Miller and Krauss played that version for Tom Whalley, founder of the record label Loma Vista Recordings. Whalley sensed potential in their work but saw it as a blueprint rather than a finished product. Miller, who would have bristled at that feedback in previous years, found he was able to view it as an opportunity, rather than an insult.
"I've been much more present and taking much better care of myself the past two years. I'm much more even tempered, so when I played the record for Tom...my head was clear and I was calm and I was ready to hear feedback and criticism and not react to it like a child. And it was great. It was intimidating but I think it was healthy."
So Miller and Krauss returned to the studio and worked, struggling to direct their ideas toward a single, coherent expression. Rather than feeling "hemmed in" by their body of work, Miller felt the opposite, "Instead of feeling like we were walled in sonically and aesthetically, I felt like it was almost too wide open -- there are too many options," he said. Miller and Krauss struggled to sort through those options, but they eventually had to put limits on their restlessness.
"It was frustrating" Miller said, "because a song like 'Loyal For' is just basically a loop of delayed cellos and then a song like 'I Can Only Stare' coexists with a song like 'Throw Me Down the Stairs,' which 'Throw Me Down the Stairs' is borderline brutal in terms of heaviness and 'I Can Only Stare' has sort of a melancholy, glassy texture to it, and can those two songs live under the same roof together and get along? Maybe, maybe not. It was a question that was driving me crazy. And that's part of the reason the record took so long. But I had to call it.
"At the end of the day ... the records are three years apart. It's okay, but you don't want to wait any longer than that. I certainly didn't. I wanted to play shows again and I needed to just take even a month off from writing because I had not taken a month off and it was really unhealthy, turning me into a psychopath."
The end result is, from moment to moment, the duo's most restive effort, executing frequent pivots in melody, timbre, and tempo. It is the sort of album, like The Avalanches' Since I Left You or Frank Ocean's Endless, which preserves the energy of inspiration, approximating a tangled rush of ideas and sensations, rather than forcing them into conventional shapes. Where Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals strived toward concision and order, Jessica Rabbit allows for a certain wildness of spirit.
But, in talking to Miller, it becomes clear he had something else in mind, something tidier and more consistent. You get the sense that, like many artists, he would have continued to revise it had he been free from the biological and economic limitations inherent in any creative project.
"I feel like that's one of the weaknesses of this record, to be perfectly honest," Miller admitted. "I feel like it's a little bit uneven, and I drove myself crazy trying to put the tracklisting together and sequence it."
"Still, I'm glad we took the time we did, and I think it's a better record for it," he adds.
While Miller and Krauss were grappling with their musical identity, they were also defending it. On November 2, 2015, Miller tweeted, ".@ddlovato Demi Lovato flattered you guys sampled Infinity Guitars & Riot Rhythm for 'Stars' but we were not contacted. Gotta clear those."
.@ddlovato Demi Lovato flattered you guys sampled Infinity Guitars & Riot Rhythm for "Stars" but we were not contacted. Gotta clear those.— SLEIGH BELLS (@sleighbells) November 2, 2015
The samples in question were two percussive tracks on Lovato's "Stars", one of which appears at the beginning of the song, the other at the end of the first chorus. Miller was alerted to them by fans on Twitter, who thought he had produced the song. Miller listened to it and recognized the beat.
"This is a master usage. It's not a replay, it's our exact beat," he said. "That beat is so specific the second I heard it I knew it was the master. Especially the clap, I mean the whole thing, but there's a clap between the one and the backbeat which is the main snare -- it's the two and the four. And myself and our manager, Will Hubbard, recorded that in his apartment. That's just us sitting on his couch clapping, and his apartment sounds so specific. And it's not a clap that's in a sample pack; we created that ourselves. I was really surprised how blatant it was.
"So they just snatched them, and I was truly flattered, but we've sampled artists before in the past just once with Funkadelic, and we went through the proper channels and cleared it and they get some of the publishing and whatnot, and that's how those things work."
Though Miller and Krauss decided to sue Lovato for copyright infringement, Miller harbors no bitterness toward Lovato. The legal action was a statement of principle, and a protective effort to fend off uncleared samples in the future. "If you let somebody steal your lunch money once when you're a kid, they're gonna get you every day," Miller said.
He and Krauss held to another principle when deciding how to release Jessica Rabbit: the requirement that they have complete control over the album's final form. After working with the independent label Mom + Pop for their first three albums, the two looked elsewhere this time around. The decision was not a reaction to Mom + Pop -- who Miller was quick to clarify provided them with the creative support and freedom they required -- but to a feeling that change, for its own sake, was necessary.
Yet many of the labels he and Krauss spoke with were not willing to grant them the autonomy they needed. "Most of the labels that we spoke to over the past two years when we were trying to figure out who we were going to put this record out with, all of the work relationships would have been conditional," Miller said.
"So that was the main thing that changed, which I understand because that's the music industry in 2016 and just about every number is getting smaller across the board for everybody, so people are uptight and I respect that. But I can't let that affect the way in which we work."
Miller and Krauss decided to start their own label, Torn Clean, to ensure they would not have to bend their art to the shaky economics of the modern music industry. For now, the label will function as an outlet for Sleigh Bells albums and videos. But, in the future, they may use it to create space for artists to operate with the same freedom they've been granted.
"If an artist opens for us and they're badass, and we feel like we could help them by signing them and getting some ears on their music, then we would. But we didn't start the label with the intention of doing anything right off the bat but putting out our own records. But we'll see where it goes. I really have no idea, to be perfectly honest."
The options, you might say, are endless.