Derek is excited. Derek is ecstatic. No, Derek is pumped. Along with Sleigh Bells other half Alexis Kraus, Derek Miller has done a one two combo, springing the release of the band’s third album, Bitter Rivals, and the record’s self-titled single on their fans without any warning to create the ultimate knock-out. The only low-blow thrown was when an Amazon 'admin error' threatened to ruin the whole surprise (more on that later), but right now Derek is way too hyped too care.
As soon as he picks up the receiver his energy level is already up to 11; even going over the boring formalities he’s spitting out his words faster than Blossom’s Sixx with a tongue full of Popping Candy. “If it starts cutting out when I’m talking just cut me off, I won’t be too precious about it…How dare you!” Throughout the interview his passion for his band and their new album is a tidal wave of adjectives to the point where questions prove to be almost superfluous.
Being thrilled about a new release is understandable, but coming off the back of their last record, Reign Of Terror, for Sleigh Bells it’s even more poignant. The release of Reign added a bitter taste to the bumblegum beats the duo had first forged on their debut, Treats, as the record masticated over themes of death, loss and pain, prompted by the personal tragedies occurring in Derek’s life at the time as he tried to come to terms with his Dad’s sudden passing and his mother’s cancer’s diagnosis.
Eighteen months on, Bitter Rivals signals somewhat of a rebirth for Miller as he’s reconciled with the past and been able to start living again with renewed positivity. It’s an ethos that’s spray painted all over the new album - from the cute ‘hi!’ of the self-titled opener, to the sugary sweet Janet Jackson pop melodies of ‘24’ and the playful lyrics of ‘Tiger Kit’ that have Alexis screaming, “make like a banana and SPLIT”. It’s a record that sheets of vinyl away in mood from the gnarled growl of ‘What the fuck’s up!’ that started Reign.
Over the course of a highly-charged 20 minute transatlantic call, Derek, like a baseball player on a straight home run, touches upon this reawakening from Reign, how working on Bitter Rivals is his most 50/50 split yet with Alexis, and how taking-up boxing can make you feel exactly like Rocky Balboa.
The release of your new album, Bitter Rivals, has come about as a bit of a shock as no one’s really expecting a record from you this year. Why the surprise?
Because we’re turning around records every 18 to 20 months it just seemed a little wrong to do these huge roll-outs. Y’know, if you’re going to put out a record every three or four years you might spend two or three months hyping it and sort of preparing everyone, but this work rate is comfortable for us and it just seemed kind of greedy or in bad taste to try and hog the three or four months before teasing the record. It made more sense to give people three or four weeks...to put almost everything out a once; the video, the release date, the tracklisting etc, another song or two before release and just start playing shows - that’s what we do. That’s not because it’s not a big deal to us, it is we just didn’t want to be obnoxious about it.
You didn’t want to do a Daft Punk where everyone’s like, ‘come on, when’s it going to come out?’
That was fascinating, like... my god! They definitely elevated the art of the roll-out. I know that it bugged some people, but you know from where they’re standing, fans and pretty much everyone else knew it was coming out. I guess in a way it was successful, but y’know what I mean...
Before you announced you were releasing the record, Amazon accidentally posted a pre-order page to the album and single on their site along with a snippet of one of the tracks. Were you pissed off with them doing that? What was your reaction?
That was disappointing, I won’t lie to you. It was an error on their part that didn’t end up being a huge deal, but we were so close. We were like four days from having kept it completely under wraps and that takes a lot of work and effort to maintain the element of surprise.
It is what it is, y’know? You hear about it and you’re really mad for about an hour and then you remember you’re delivering an album not a baby, and you calm down and life goes on. It made our manager very nervous for about an hour and there were many frantic phone calls and then it went away and who cares? It’s really not that big a deal.
As you said, you’re doing albums on an 18 month basis. Where have you had time to record this album as you only finished touring your last album in February?
We worked a little bit beforehand but we don’t second guess ourselves in the studio, so we usually work very quickly. We’re not flippant about it - we’re not careless, everything is done very purposefully and that’s just our work rate - I don’t really know how else to explain it…Y’know, you spend a few months in the studio and you’re working every single day, and then when you leave, just because you’re not tracking doesn’t mean you stop writing. I never stop.
It’s important for me to keep working - it’s what I love to do and I’m fortunate enough to do it as a living so I can do it as often as I like - I pretty much spend a portion of every day working on new music. Our publicist would kill me if I started talking about the fourth record when the third one isn’t even out, so I won’t do that but I can tell you that I’m already in the middle of it.
I suppose it’s because now everyone’s used to 2-3 year gaps between albums compared to in the 60s and 70s when artists would release sometimes several albums a year. So, relatively you’re quite prolific as a band compared to your contemporaries…
An album is usually a really good way for me to measure where I’m at and based on that rule, if you listen to Reign of Terror, it’s safe to assume that the person who made that record is not in the best place. Reign is a very dark, dense, gloomy record. I do love part of it, but I needed to get past it and my way of doing that was making a record. Half-way through this record it was obvious to me - just listening back - that it was coming from a much better place and I can’t tell you how comforting that was...Reign mainly dealt with very heavy topics. I was finally free to think write about things other than that and that was a relief.
Every time I make a record I feel like it sort of changes my life almost in an embarrassing large way – it’s a big deal for me – I never take it for granted. I don’t want to sound like some self-serious asshole and say it’s sacred, but it’s very important to me… I’m clearly aware of how quickly that… one minute you’re sitting their eating ice cream and an air conditioning unit falls on your head and that’s it, there’s no explanation. I know what that’s like first-hand, so I don’t like to waste any time.
I think it’s when you experience the darker elements of life - things that are hard and real to deal with- it makes you appreciate everything else and realise how fleeting everything can be...
Absolutely. Without getting into a big weighty topic, like how fucking fragile the whole construct is - reality is - that’s true. Again, I don’t want to waste any time and while I’m here I like to stay busy and making records is something that I love very much so I do it as often as possible.
I read an interview where you said that you’ve embarked on a new healthy lifestyle this year and you and Alexis’ have also started boxing together…
I’m actually hanging-up and going straight to train [laughs]! Yeah, that absolutely changed my life completely. I’m not on a sober kick or anything - it was never that bad - but I was certainly spending too much time in bars and wasting time and energy. Once you go from that to the other side you have six extra hours in every day and a tonne of energy and it feels like your brain explodes!
In the studio my creative instincts became much, much sharper. I’ve never been really indecisive, but there was almost zero indecision or second guessing - there was just a tonne of execution, we just worked, worked, worked and loved the results. Again, like I said what was coming back to me was clearly from a very different place, a much better place, and that realisation alone was kind of powerful moment. I think it just compounded it and made me feel even better and gave me even more energy. The record felt like it almost made itself as there wasn’t a lot of hand-wringing or bashing your head against a brick wall.
Even though the new record is still heavy instrumentally it does seem to be coming from a lighter place, especially lyrically.
Reign is almost exclusively about death because that’s all I could really think about coming off of some really horrible events in my life. It was liberating being able to think and write about other things - it changed everything for me. I’ve said this before but I think that it’s true, the band are cartoonish in a way that I like because we’re so over-the-top - there’s certainly no elements of subtlety to what we do it just is what it is - but it’s not frivolous in any way. We’re not afraid to make fun of ourselves but we’re also not a joke.
At a risk of sounding pretentious, the records have a very real beating heart. I think our records do resonate, at least for our fans, in a very meaningful way - it’s not all just explosions and fake blood there’s something else going on - but we’re not afraid to laugh at ourselves as the band is slightly ridiculous and I’m comfortable with that.
With every album there’s always a level of aggression and determination there. I know that you’ve said that this record seems like a fight and that seems to be what connects with people, like people saying they use your music to work-out or personally I’ve used it to get over break-ups.
I think that’s wonderful, that holds water. When I listen to this record - when we were making it at least and I was listening to it constantly and tweaking the mix and what not - I could sort of feel that a little bit for me because it was so fresh. It will probably sound lame for me to admit this, but it felt empowering. Even at the end of February we’d finished the first song ‘Bitter Rivals’ (it wasn’t the first song that we’d tracked), and it just gave me a tonne of energy. There was almost clichéd Rocky images occurring [laughs], because I was running from my apartment to where we train in the icy slush - it’s eight in the morning and it’s the last place in the world that I want to be at that moment, of course, until you start just dragging yourself out of bed - and I just felt that the record lifted me up and I hope that other people get that from it. I think that’s a wonderful quality for a record to have and if ours has it I’d be very proud of that.
Your music has always had a pop edge. I was reading MTV’s site and they went further and compared your single ‘Bitter Rivals’ to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. Did you want to go even more pop with this record?
The huge difference with this record is that I gave Alexis instrumentals and lyrics and I got out of the way and I let her do all of the melody work. I don’t want to say ‘I let her’, it’s not like ‘I allowed her to' - that’s ridiculous - but I encouraged her to and she embraced it completely and I think she did an incredible job. It feels like our best yet because of the collaboration. She’s infinitely better, her melody work is so vastly superior to mine I’ll probably never write melody again and I don’t need to because I’m in a band with her.
She comes from RnB, soul, and pop - that’s her world. She comes from a musical family, her Dad is a working musician, she was born into it... She’s a massive Sam Cooke fan, Aretha, we’re both massive Motown fans that’s her default setting, that’s what she knows, that’s her foundation and that’s what she brings to it.
I can’t wait to see where we go from here as it was so incredibly satisfying and it was really and truly about the chemistry between us this time. I’ve said this in one or two of the interviews I just did, but I’ll say it again because it’s true: the first two records were very much my records and this record is our record. This band is finally our band; this is record is our first record together really.
She had more of an input on Reign, but the majority of the record could only really come from one person. I’m excited and it also explains how quickly we turned it around as there are now two heads instead of one.
You can tell as it plays to both of you strengths, drawing on your hardcore background and Alexis’ pop background. The melodies get more intricate as the record goes on. Like on ‘24’. The album itself goes so fast with so much in those ten tracks…
That’s wonderful, I’m so glad. I mean it as only our friends and a few people we’re doing press with have heard it and our friends care about us so they’re always going to say nice things.
I’m so excited you brought up ‘24’ as the record does start off much more primal. ‘Bitter Rivals’ …it’s two chords and a groove and there’s not even any music on the chorus. It’s just a beat and single lyric. I like that about it. By the end it’s a very different animal and especially ‘24’, that’s one of my favourite tracks. I tend to do that - I like putting a song like that as the ninth on the record.
There’s not a narrative but the record goes from ‘a’ to ‘b’ and it ends up somewhere very different from where it starts. I don’t want to start using adjectives, but the melody on ‘24’ is one of my favourites….
The album was mixed by Andrew Dawson. Why did you choose him and what did he bring to the table?
The head of our label, Michael Goldstone, has worked with him on a number of projects. He put us in touch. Andrew brought fresh ears to the record and killer mixes.
You directed the 'Bitter Rivals' video yourself in conjunction with the Creators Project. How did you decide on the treatment?
I thought it would be great to reference the Beastie's classic image from Licensed To Ill, which was my contribution. Alexis wanted fly girls and some choreography so that's what she did. I had worked with my friend Greg Kohn in the past but was confident enough to do it on my own this time. We wanted the video to look great and be badass, but not take itself too seriously.
Your music and visuals always have a strong 80s influence with big riffs, heavy drums, leotards, leather jackets. What do you like about that period?
Not sure why that stuff appeals to me...it just does. It's about being true to yourself, you have to be completely honest about what turns you on and off. That's when everything starts to resonate...people can tell when it's real.
When are you going to tour the UK?
Soon I hope!
Bitter Rivals is out this week. Read the DiS review here.