Before speaker-abusing rock duo Sleigh Bells wrecks Denver’s Bluebird Theater on Wednesday, Reverb spoke with guitarist/producer/songwriter Derek Miller about the new album, “Bitter Rivals,” ditching the wall of sound and the possibility of a hip-hop collaboration.
Reverb: You guys just started the new tour on Friday. Got all the kinks worked out?
Derek Miller: Yeah actually, we’re surprisingly on point for where we are. Everybody’s really focused. The crew that’s travelled with us has been with us for a while now. The biggest change is our drummer. He’s excellent — he absolutely kills it. The show’s have been great. The new songs feel real good live.
At the beginning of the Reign of Terror tour, I remember having a lot more anxiety. We had a guitar player, our playback system was totally different, I split up all of our STEMs, which are the electronic components that make up the beats, and [we were] using new software. This time around, it was a lot less stressful.
How does the drummer work with the pre-programmed beats?
They play against each other. So, he’s playing along with the beats, accompanying them. So we kinda get the best of both worlds.
We usually change something up for each record live to keep it interesting for ourselves, because we’ve been playing songs from the first record for a couple years, so the new album keeps it fresh for us.
Do you still bring those walls of sound with you?
No, we actually completely reconfigured our live setup. Whereas before it was this massive wall of speakers, now we’re using much smaller combo amps, which each have two 12-inch speakers. We pretty much went in the complete opposite direction. What we were doing before was a lot of fun, but it was almost cartoonish and in a good way, but it’s not a thing I wanted to do year in and year out. It worked really well for the last record but that’s it.
Did you tote that speaker wall with you into bars when you were first starting out?
In the very beginning, no. I just slowly kept adding them — more and more and more until it was just completely over the top and sort of comic for me. It almost makes me laugh. It’s just a much leaner set-up now, which I feel suits the new [material] better.
Did you have any concepts in mind when you started writing “Bitter Rivals”?
No, we just built on it moment by moment. I have no idea where I’m going to end up when I start working on a song. I’m usually surprised by where we end up. By the time we finish a record, I kind of stand back and only then do I know what it is.
What’s up with the weird sound effects throughout the album? There’s swords, a dog, a cow…
Honestly, just making ourselves laugh. I put the cow in as a joke. It just cracked me up — I liked it. “Reign of Terror” was a very dark, depressed record. I had grown out of that and was in a different headspace. Records were always a fight for us. This one, we were just laughing a lot and it happened very quickly. I didn’t second guess any of that stuff; I just thought it was hilarious.
Are you surprised at how divisive the reception for the album has been?
Oh, has it been? I don’t know — I don’t read anything anymore. It’s always been polarizing and I think that’s a good sign. I did see the Pitchfork review, but I don’t dig around. I love it, and that’s the thing that matters. You read that stuff, close your laptop and walk into soundcheck. (Laughs) You’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m living my dream. Nevermind.” Haters are just part of life — that’s just how it goes.
I pick up a retro, ’90s vibe from the album. Do you hear that?
Yeah, I do now! We were listening to a lot of Michael and Janet Jackson. I read Quincy Jones’ biography, which was beautiful. He produced Michael Jackson and many others through his long and incredible career. He’s just a very inspiring human being. That stuff makes it way onto the record somehow.
“Bitter Rivals” ends with a sweet love ballad. Do you see yourselves turning down in the future?
I don’t, honestly. We finished recording in June and here we are, almost in November. That’s quite a bit of time and I’ve got a lot of new material already. And no, it doesn’t feel any quieter. If anything it’s sort of…I don’t know how to describe it. It’s so early that it’s still developing. But no, it’s not necessarily quiet to answer the question. That could change — we’ll be on tour for the next five to 10 months.
There’s a lot of hip-hop influences in your beats. Do you see yourself collaborating with rappers?
Absolutely. It’s something I would be pretty picky about. I’m not in the business of throwing together zip files and emailing them off to people for their consideration. That seems strange and impersonal to me. It goes against what making records is all about for me, which is chemistry. If anyone wants to work with me, I’m not that hard to reach. Give me a shout or come to the studio and let’s work.
Maybe save it for a Kanye or Kendrick.
Well yeah. Those guys have every producer in the world clamoring to work with them. But yeah, I’d absolutely be down. If they were fans, definitely.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.