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Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller on Reign of Terror, Learning to Collaborate, and Really Loud Music

Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells. Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

For their 2010 debut Treats, Sleigh Bells were the raucous twosome who met in a Williamsburg restaurant, released a fantastically noisy record, and had a deluge of complimentary synonyms for bombastic thrown at them. Now the duo, comprised of Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller, returns with Reign of Terror, an album that keeps the volume cranked while weaving in more deliberately layered arrangements and threads of maturity. Miller, the band’s creative brain, got on the phone with Vulture to break down his love of loudness, the family trauma that formed the record, and how he’d have handled Bon Iver’s Grammy moment.

No matter how many fancy adjectives writers throw down, noise seems like the core for Sleigh Bells. How big a focus do you place on loudness?
I’m not gonna lie, I’m a volume addict. I need it. I do not listen to music quietly, nor do I enjoy it when it’s at a reasonable volume. So it’s a big part of the process for me. When we were tracking Reign of Terror, friends would periodically come in and hang out and listen to what we were doing, and I’d blast ’em. They’d be plugging their ears and I’m like, “Sorry.” But you know, I retract that, I wasn’t sorry. That’s the way it’s gotta be for me.

How does your body hold up against that?
My ears get fried out after about six hours, so I don’t do the kinda cliché twelve-, sixteen-hour sessions grinding it out. I work for six, maybe seven hours, and then I’ve gotta go home because I can’t hear anything.

No earplugs?
I’ve tried it; I’ll just wear ’em down and that’ll be that.

So was Reign of Terror a more collaborative writing process than Treats?
I wrote pretty much all the lyrics, all the music, I played every instrument. We did work a little more closely on the melodies. It was more of a collaboration in the sense that I wrote Treats pretty much on my own; I had a lot of that finished when I met Alexis. And this record, I wrote it on tour, so Alexis was there every step of the way. She’d hear me fucking around in sound check and be like, “What’s that? Let’s do something with that.” Or I’d play her a demo and she would nudge it in a different direction. So in that respect she had a much larger hand in it. But we’re still learning how to collaborate. More specifically, I’m still learning how to collaborate, because I can be pretty controlling when it comes to the creative process. Now that Alexis and I are closer, we’ve become better friends, I’m slowly letting her into the process.

Is there a spot on the record people can hear you two coming together?
“Comeback Kid” was the last song we did and that’s our true, true collaboration, and actually that’s my favorite song from the record, probably because it’s the newest. I had the lyrics and the music but I gave her the instrumental and I was like, “This is yours, go to town.” And I think she did a great job. It’s a little more sophisticated than something I could write. It just feels very much like Alexis. When I hear that, it’s got her personality written all over it. She’s sweet as hell — she’s strong, but she’s kind and she’s sweet and she’s a happy person. And that melody just makes you feel good. The second it starts, my mood lifts.

Did you work to bring in any new influences this time around?
Def Leppard’s Hysteria was my single biggest reference for this record aesthetically and from a production standpoint. Mutt Lange’s a huge influence on me — just big, fat, clean, sparkly recordings.

Did you retire any sounds?
The whole “in-the-red” thing, I abandoned completely. Nothing on this record clips. Everything on Treats is clipping. And I’m still really happy with that record, but I definitely don’t listen to it. I didn’t want to repeat any of those production techniques; I wanted everything to have its own space. That record sounds … it was a time and place for me. I don’t feel like that person anymore. So when I was making Reign of Terror I just made different decisions.

The New York Times profile alluded to some dark times you went through, with your father dying and your mother battling cancer.
That’s really the story of the record for me. My family went through some really difficult stuff and this record was the only bright spot for me. In that respect, it’s probably personally the most important record I’ll ever make. I feel like it kind of saved my life because without it I don’t really know what I would’ve done with myself. It got pretty dark for a while.

Is it easier being on the second album after the massive buzz the first time around?
I’m so glad that period’s over. Everyone’s gotta push you, prod you, test you, see what you’re made of. They wanna know how tough you are, if you’ll have any longevity. And I guess that sort of has yet to be seen with our band, but I like being on the second record. Now it’s interesting because this time around, with the press, I’m able to have interesting discussions as opposed to just endless fifteen-minute phoners explaining how Alexis and I met in a restaurant.

You should channel that experience into an “It Gets Better” video for Lana Del Rey; she got anointed in all the same circles as you, but the blowback against her has just been ferocious. Maybe you can let her know it won’t always be so bad?
I don’t have a ton of thoughts about Lana Del Rey other than I can imagine it’s pretty difficult when that many people are slinging shit at you. She’s a public figure so it comes with the territory, it’s part of the job, but that hurts. They’re not just criticizing her record, they’re going in on her. I think people should be ashamed of themselves for that. There’s nothing wrong with how much effort she’s making. Although I did read somewhere she’s retiring from music, that she said everything she wanted to say with his record and she’s done. I thought that was a little ridiculous.

How about Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — any thoughts on his half-gracious, half-weirded-out Grammys acceptance speech? He was kind of playing torchbearer for indie acts by default, and that’s how he played it.
I guess I kind of have a funny stance on the Grammys. If you’re up for it and you lose, it’s like, “Aw, fuck the Grammys, they don’t mean anything.” And if you win then it’s like, “Yo, check it out, I’m a Grammy winner!” I think people will hate on it, but if you win one, it’s pretty solid, even if the Grammys mean absolutely nothing — it’s an award for music, what the fuck’s that all about? But yeah, sure, you wanna give me a Grammy, I’ll take it.

And you’d be completely psyched onstage? No blowback?
I’d go up there and I’d say, “Hi, mom,” lift it up in the air and look up and be like, “Yo, this is for you, dad!” and walk off just like any other dude. I don’t like to draw attention to myself and I don’t like to make statements. I want to make records, do everything on my own terms, and be left alone.

Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller on Really Loud Music