In March 2008 guitarist Derek Miller, formerly of Florida hardcore band Poison the Well, moved to Brooklyn to find his fortune and took a job as a waiter. Over the past few months, though, what began as his home-recording project has become one of the buzziest bands in the country. With a string of MP3s that combine Miller's howling guitars and booming beats with pop-chart-worthy vocals from Alexis Krauss—formerly of short-lived all-girl band RubyBlue—Sleigh Bells have earned accolades from Pitchfork, top honors on a year-end list compiled by New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones, and a spot on the roster of M.I.A.'s new N.E.E.T. Recordings. Their first physical release, Treats, hits shelves May 18, and last Thursday in Chicago the pair opened a sold-out Metro show for fellow blog-beloved Brooklynites Yeasayer.
Tell me about how you guys came together. I heard you were waiting on her table?
Miller: I was working at a Brazilian restaurant in Williamsburg—South Fifth and Wythe. It was kind of late, and Alexis and her mother were at a table that I was waiting on. And Alexis's mom, she's really friendly and very talkative—so, we just sort of started talking. It wasn't that busy. And she asked me what I was doing in New York. I told her that I was looking for a female vocalist, and Alexis was standing right there and was like, "Oh, shit. I sing." And her mom was like, "Yeah!" So I told her what I was trying to do. It sounded interesting to her. We got together and started recording two weeks after that.
And you had sort of a mission going up to New York, right? You had a certain idea of the music you wanted to make.
Miller: I always try to remember exactly what I said, 'cause I was kind of in the habit of describing it . . . if I met a girl at a bar or something [laughs], I would pretty much be immediately like, "Are you a singer?" Most of them were not amused. I think I usually describe it as rhythmic and heavy, but melodic and sort of still like pop music—but super rhythmic. Which, I guess, you could describe all music as rhythmic. . . . It sounded really idiotic.
It seems like a lot of what you guys are trying to do is work current pop into a more art-rock framework—stuff that sounds a lot like the Top 40, which is the antithesis of underground music and hardcore punk, where you come from. Is this a conscious thing?
Miller: I think it's just we're both big fans of pop and Top 40 from any decade, you know what I mean? I think it just very naturally—those influences come out, you know? I love really slick female pop music . . . I use Belinda Carlisle's solo career as reference a lot. There's a Cathy Dennis single, "Too Many Walls," that I always go back to. I love those sounds, you know? Those records are incredible. But then I also like volume and grit . . . and tempos—like, stuff around 70 beats per minute really gets me. It just has this nod, which is kind of typical of a lot of southern rap or something. It wasn't like, "Oh, these are disparate elements, aren't we clever?"
Krauss: We're both big fans of melody. It's really important to us. We love great hooks and we want our stuff to be memorable. In terms of vocals, I worked a long time in pop music, so it's sort of the natural way I like to sing. . . . But no, it wasn't like I was going to deliberate, "I'm like this and we're going to take this song and try to infuse it with . . . " It wasn't like that. Pulling references out of a hat.
There's a really super-heavy buzz around you guys. Sasha Frere-Jones put you as his number one pick of 2009 when you only had a few songs on MySpace, and you still don't even have a record out. What's it been like becoming this kind of New Yorker-approved, Pitchfork-approved buzz band?
Miller: It's weird, because hardcore is pretty much ignored by the critical establishment. I think a lot of people are bitter about that, but I never really cared. I never really noticed. I read Pitchfork, and I read the New Yorker like anyone; some of the stuff is real interesting. It's really flattering is the simple answer. It's nice because you never know . . . if anyone is going to give a shit. It's like, "Really, you're going to start a band? There's so fucking many."
With that kind of popularity there's inevitably a backlash. You guys are on the verge of having a backlash and your record hasn't even come out.
Miller: It's totally cool. It's just a natural process. It's going to happen. Some people are going to hate you . . . they don't need a reason, and maybe they've never heard you, they just look at you and don't like you.
Krauss: Yeah, something that irks them.
Miller: There's always a group of people, the only thing they're looking for is that newness. That's kind of what they're interested in. It's less the music and more about finding what's new before anyone else, and that's their currency. Really, when they ditch you, it's not very surprising.
Krauss: That's why we're very cautious about indulging the hype of it—because we know as quickly as things come, they go.
How much does wanting people to like your music have to do with the amount of pop you're putting into it?
Miller: Like ambition?
Yeah, like ambition.
Miller: Sure, yeah. I don't think it can affect the output because I don't know how to change what it is that we're doing. Half of it is mostly accidents anyway, just fucking with stuff when a loop starts running and then you hear a kick pattern or something. If I could control it, then I would make every song as fucking good as I possibly could, you know? . . . It's not a light switch you can turn on; you just fucking pray it's not boring as shit. I don't know. I don't know where I was going with that.
Krauss: We've never sat down and had a conversation about who our audience is going to be.
Miller: It's kind of absurd.
Krauss: That's why we still don't even know what the fuck to call our music in terms of genre: it's poppy, it's rhythmic, it's loud. You hope that those elements will come together and form something people ultimately don't want to just stand there and think about but want to . . . react to, and feel and dance and move.
Miller: We always say that our priorities start at your feet and end at your head. It has to make you want to move or dance, and you don't even have to think about it. Maybe somebody comes to a show with a girlfriend, they dance, they don't even fucking look at you.
Krauss: They just make out the whole time.
Miller: Then they go home and they have a great night, and you did that. It's almost what happens at, like, club nights with DJs and dance acts. I was always really jealous of that.
Krauss: You want that sort of visceral reaction to come from it, that mindless . . . you're just in the car and you're singing along. You're not really sure what you're singing along to, but it feels good.