When the Waiter Met the Singer | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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When the Waiter Met the Singer

Sleigh Bells on their unlikely status as band du jour

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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.

There's a pretty big difference between musicians in it for themselves and musicians in it for the crowds. House is all about making people move and that's its number one goal.

Miller: Absolutely.

Any artistry on top of that is sort of a bonus.

Miller: Yeah, exactly.

Krauss: And that's very important to us. We want an active engagement with our music. It's no fun for us, especially live, if it's just watched. . . . I look like a dumbass if I'm up there giving the level of energy I'm trying to give and the crowd's just like, "OK."

In a Pitchfork interview you were talking about how you blow things out. You seem to be subverting pop influences by making them noisy and weird, like the guitar tones you use. Is there anything specific you're trying to do with that?

Miller: That's actually really simple. I had two really shitty beat stations, which I made all the demos with. I had an Alesis SR-18 and an Akai XR20. They're $250 apiece. You can get them anywhere. Those were my tools. Basically, we started recording, and those things sound like shit—and not in a cute way where it's part of the aesthetic. It just sounds like garbage. So I started turning up the master and was like, "Oh, that's interesting." That's how simple it is. I didn't think it was challenging to take "Crown on the Ground," which is essentially a pop song with a very traditional pop arrangement, and then blow it out, like roar! That's the only way I could even think about sharing it and showing to anyone else and not being embarrassed.

Krauss: He's so deaf, he needs everything—

Miller: Oh, I can't hear a fucking thing. I never used earplugs in my hardcore band.

Has there been any sort of crossover with Poison the Well fans?

Miller: Actually, you know what's funny? I feel like a lot of kids my age that are listening to Sleigh Bells or following sites like Pitchfork or whatnot were in hardcore. I get a lot of like, "Dude, I got [Poison the Well's] The Opposite of December." And they were my age, they were 18 when it came out, so we were all on the same wave. . . . Then I eventually stopped listening to it. There's still some hardcore records that I love, you know. By and large, it's something you go through. It's like, am I supposed to play muted E until I'm 30?

There's an element of pastiche in what you're doing. Isn't Crown on the Ground" your interpolation—

Miller: It sounds like DMX.

No, it sounds like the Cure's "Close to Me."

Miller: Oh, really? Oh, wow. We always get DMX's "Party Up." "Close to Me"? Oh, wow, it's the same chords. [Laughs.]

I totally wrote my preview like that was on purpose.

Miller: No, no. You're right. I hadn't even thought of that just because the tempos are so different and "Crown" has got swing, you know? But, it really is. Wow.

Well, specifically, I was really amped on—because "Ring Ring" was the first song I heard from you guys, and it samples Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That" . . . for my own curiosity, how did you guys end up keeping that?

Miller: I didn't get Maggot Brain until two, three years ago, and I was like, this shit's amazing. I've never sampled anything in my life, you know? I plug a fucking guitar into an amp. Same with beat production; I just had to teach myself. I just loved it and wanted something like that, that was kind of summery or acoustic, and I always imagined I would do it, but . . . I didn't know how to chop samples. So actually the song drifts. I couldn't quantize any of the beats. I had to do everything manually, which was funny. . . . I couldn't get the perfect edit and I was like, oh well, we'll just settle for this. The new version I truly like. I've added a few things. It's very subtle but it sounds, like, kind of richer and harmonically more interesting, but—

It's definitely, I mean, it's maybe a function of my love for the Funkadelic song, but "Ring Ring" gets stuck in my head a lot.

Miller: I put a doorbell in it now, which sounds even more annoying. The song kicks off with boom, boom, ding. I'm tempted to play it for you because it somehow works.

I'd love to hear. That's one of the funny things about pop music—the really annoying things work so well. Like the baby sample in the Aaliyah song. It's so naggy. Baby's voices are genetically designed to annoy you so you pay attention to them.

Miller: "Crazy Feeling," I'm thinking about. Lou Reed. Those doorbells: ding, ding, ding! I was like, "Doorbells! That's the key!" No, I'm kidding. I love when songs use these odd noises to, like . . .

Krauss: When they work, it's amazing. When they don't work, it's the worst thing in the world. Exactly like you said—that Aaliyah thing.   

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