Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells are still riding a wave of plaudits for last year’s Treats, which set new standards for earth-crushing distortion despite the tunes themselves being total bubblegum. We phoned guitarist Derek Miller on tour in Richmond to find out what they plan to do next, and whether or not it will involve Beyoncé. The band plays Webster Hall tonight at 7pm, with CSS, and tomorrow night at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
How old were you when you blew your first amp?
12. It was really small. I think it was a tiny Fender Solid State. Yeah, my neighbors loved me.
Was it intentional, like you were just trying to go as loud as you could?
Nah, I don’t think it was intentional. I’ve always been a volume addict.
Did you achieve the ‘pop’ and ‘noise’ extremes you wanted on Treats?
No, I don’t think so. Alexis and I are both very unimpressed with ourselves. We’re very tough critics. But it’s not like I was on a mission to try to make something that was both heavy and melodic or whatever. I can’t really change it. That’s just the way it comes out you know? I try to make as few decisions as possible. And I think with anyone that writes music, you just sit there and work on it and work on it, until it’s not embarrassing.
I like the idea that the band made an album just documenting all accidents, and then you have to make them happen again and again for the live show. The lyrics from “A/B Machines” [“Got my A machines on the table/ Got my B machines in the drawer”] could be from an inside joke or something.
That’s one secret actually where Alexis would kill me if I told anyone what it was.
Can you give me a hint?
Well now, I’m gonna contradict myself because that was actually… I remember I was actually sitting in the Roebling Tea Room and “All the Tired Horses” came on, the first song off of Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait. And it’s just a single lyric—“All the tired horses in the sun/ How am I supposed to get any riding done?”—that just cycles throughout the entire song and it never changes and I just thought that was incredible. So I do believe that I had that in the back of my mind, that I wanted a song with a single lyric. And I want to be clear that I’m not comparing it to Bob Dylan. [laughs]
Have you gotten any feedback from your ex-bandmates in Poison the Well about Sleigh Bells?
Absolutely, they’re still my brothers. Ryan [Primack], the other guitar player, is actually our production manager, he’s in the next room. Again we’re on tour together. I just saw Jeffrey [Moreira], Poison the Well’s vocalist down in Miami. And Chris [Hornbrook, drummer], lives on the West Coast. We don’t get to hang out because everyone’s busy doing their thing but we run into each other here and there. We did a lot together, we worked really hard. Six years in a van is a pretty incredible experience.
Are there any other bands you like who you feel are exploring loudness the way you are?
Most of my favorite bands have a marriage of disparate elements in common, I guess is the academic way of putting it. Nirvana, of course. The songs were incredibly catchy, and I think even Dave Grohl compared them to nursery rhymes at one point. The story goes that Kurt had to make the guitars really loud and really heavy to make up for the fact that they were just pop songs. So right there you have noise and melody. The Pixies of course, were doing the same thing. I love the Pixies to death. They could be absolutely ferocious, very scary. And then of course they have “Here Comes Your Man.” The friction that goes on between these two things is usually what I’m drawn to. And the Pixies do it literally, Nirvana does it literally. But I also love Motown so much because Martha Reeves and Diana Ross, they could simultaneously sound really hard and really tough but also heartbroken. My favorite vocalists tend to have those qualities: very tough and very vulnerable. I think that’s what makes a great singer.
What kind of trouble did you have translating the recorded arrangements and levels of Treats into a live show?
It’s the album tracks, with the vocals and guitars muted. So I just have the rhythm stems and we run them, and we play live over them. So it’s closer to a DJ set than it is a band. I think in the beginning I feel like we got a little bit of heat for it. Understandably, that’s fine, because people want to come and see a band and they were confused because it’s a guitar. But we’re not a band. I didn’t want this to be a band. I prefer that people come and just pretend like it’s a DJ set and they just dance. I was really attracted to that. Like when I stopped touring with Poison the Well I was able to actually go out. I’d never gone out to clubs, I was at a hardcore show every night. And I realized everyone else was going out and dancing and having fun with their friends. You went for the music and you went for the environment, and it wasn’t just like, we’re gonna go see a band so we can stand and watch them and clap between songs. I think that format…if the band’s great then it works but otherwise it can get a little tired.
Have you written any new songs?
Yes! Absolutely. We’re dying to…we start tracking June 25. We’ve got most of it demoed out. We stop touring June 9 and then we’ve got two weeks to decompress and then we’re gonna get started immediately.
Is it very different from Treats?
It’s much heavier, actually. “Tell ‘Em” and “Riot Rhythm” are the newest songs on Treats, like the last ones we wrote, so that should be an indication of where we’re going. There’s a pretty pronounced metal influence on a lot of the new stuff. So yeah, there will be no “Rill Rill”s.
I love “Rill Rill,” but I love “Straight A’s” too, so…
Yeah, yeah, I mean, it won’t be as half-assed and tossed off as “Straight A’s,” not that it’s…I like “Straight A’s,” but it’s more of just a riff and not really a song. The other big difference in the new stuff is that arrangements are much, much stronger. It’s more memorable in my opinion.
What’s something that people don’t know about M.I.A.?
I don’t know, she’s pretty extroverted. If you listen to her record, like her aesthetic, it’s a very, very good representation of who she is. She’s just very…she has a million ideas. She’s kind of all over the place, she’s very inspiring. And she has great, great, great ears. For example, I sat down with her and played her six beats, and she likes elements of each of them. She likes this from that one, and this from that one. She’s an excellent curator I would say.
Tell me everything you can about this secret Beyoncé collaboration.
Oh, man. You’re going to be disappointed. They’re gonna give me shit if I say anything. And the truth is it’s probably not that exciting, really. I have no idea what’s going on with it, and I’ve pretty much got to leave it there, sorry.
Can I just ask if you’ve actually heard what she’s done with it?
Oh yeah, yeah yeah. I’ve heard it, absolutely. But I can’t really say anything else about it.