Words by Tommy Johnson
In the early stages of September, the duo of Sleigh Bells took the stage for the first time in nearly three years. Performing at Webster Hall in the East Village of New York City, Alexis Krauss and Derrek Miller blazed through one of their more pivotal albums, Treats, which celebrated its tenth-anniversary release. During our phone conversation right before Sleigh Bells ventured out for the first leg of the tour supporting Texis, Miller gleefully recalled what occurred that night. “It was one of the best shows that I’ve performed…especially will be in my lifetime,” he stated. “I gained a lot of that thinking from how the new songs were received; the encore was wild.”
Long before the opportunity of playing at Webster Hall came to be, and when Texis got kickstarted, you could find Miller in the depths of a desolate reality. During our conversation, Miller seemed to be judicious in revealing what all entailed in his past. There were moments when he disclosed that he emerged in a life of having a substance abuse issue and having a rather unfit diet. When his father passed, Miller knew that change had to come. Having substituted the harmful things leading Miller down to dire consequences, he discovered a clearer sense of what he wanted to accomplish with his life and felt that he was meeting Krauss in the middle musically.
Together Sleigh Bells journey into a wealth of noise pop and heavy exploration, a welcoming presence that jumps right out of the speakers. The energetic pace that each of the tracks is a welcoming pace and stands alone from its predecessors. Texis is an exemplary work that offers listeners hyper-pop guitar riffs and explosive drums.
Off Shelf: When you and Alexis started working together, did the trust and workflow come quickly, or did it take some time?
Derek Miller: Yeah, it came along very quickly. She had done a lot of session work before, so she was already used to going into a room and singing other people’s material. That’s originally how we started working together. We very quickly fell into being songwriting partners. But initially, I had a batch of songs and was looking to get some vocals on them and thought she could do something with them.
I believe the first time we recorded together was July 2008. We were recording New York, and it was the summer in Brooklyn. We had to turn off the air conditioning because we were going to track vocals, so we were pouring sweat. We had bar stools with old phone books stacked on top of it. Then my laptop was sitting on top of those so it could be eye level because we were using my internal mic. At the end of the session, it felt like something was happening.
OS: I’ve read that you are extremely difficult on yourself about every little thing. Does this come from your days of busing tables, playing with other bands, making music full-time?
DM: I think it’s a part of my DNA. With Texis we finished mastering in April, and once we were done mastering, we couldn’t do anything else, and my relationship with it ended. And here are we six or seven months out from finishing where I love six or seven songs from it… but I could also tell you that I could find a few things that I would change, but I’m always going to be that way.
OS: As far as the recording the album, did the pandemic kind of shift a lot of things as far as how to put it together? Was it already in full throttle before everything blew up?
DM: The pandemic didn’t change the album that much. We did come home and write a batch of new songs – two of which made the final cut – “Knowing,” and “An Acre Lost”. I didn’t come home and overthink it and start tearing it apart.
OS: I saw that the single “Justine Go Genesis” was the track that shifted everything into high gear with Texis. What was it about the writing of this song that helped make the album go where you want it?
DM: We have been writing songs between seventy to ninety beats per minute, a slower tempo. I just woke up one morning and realized that nothing was going to stop me from doing something being safe staying with 70 BPM, which is what I started with “Justine Go Genesis.” And I started to pull out on all of the stops. I mean, one of the characteristics in this record was that I stopped being self-conscious, which is what I tend to do when I’m done. My only goal was to have fun and fuck around.
I think when I was working on “Justine”- maybe a few hours in – it started to sound like something fresh and exciting, with sound input that felt like Sleigh Bells. In the past, that would have been bad on previous records, and I would fight against that. I would worry about if it sounded too familiar. But this time around, when I started that “sound like something” thing I would do, I tried to make it sound more like me. I wasn’t self-conscious about sounding like myself. If anything, I tried to make it sound more like Sleigh Bells and it was fun. I found myself bouncing around and extremely ramped up. I texted Alexis a thousand times, telling her, “Wherever you are, you got to stop what you are doing because I’m about to send you a new track.” That’s the type of energy getting off of that track, and it kicked off our work on Texis.
OS: I also read that you recently moved, so maybe the new surroundings you were in, having released several albums now, helped establish you to take those next steps.
DM: For me, living in Brooklyn meant that I was hearing through walls. So this was the first time in over a decade that I could be ungodly loud. It also made me want to work more. Sitting in a room with a set of monitors in front of you, triggering a kick drum that begins to shake the walls in your house – that in itself is fucking exciting.
OS: Lyrically, did you and Alexis feel differently when writing for Texis?
DM: Yeah, we did. I found myself in a different place, but I have noticed a lot of progress. When you’re in a bad spot like I was, you wake up in fear. You’re constantly thinking about yourself and how terrified you are. What the hell’s gonna happen that day? How long before I fall off? Is that going to be the day where you push it too far?
So for me, the best part about being in a better spot and having a clearer state of mind is that you’re free to write things about things, people other than myself, which is great. You listen to the song called “And Saints” from our EP Kid Kruschev, that is a very inward-looking song; the definition of being in a black hole – that sort of destruction and self-obsession. Those two things go hand in hand, and I know it’s not particularly sharp. Anybody knows that have been around the block; you have to get here yourself.
For me, it allowed to write a character like Justine. She isn’t a constant in the entire album, but she does pop up in a couple of the songs. So that was different in reference to writing about myself, which was a good feeling.
OS: Listening to Texis, I heard a duo that feels like they are starting Sleigh Bells brand new. The album itself, from start to finish – especially with the first single “Locust Laced” – hits you immediately with a surge of sound. Do you have the same thoughts with feeling like this is the start of something special?
DM: That’s exactly what it has felt like! We had this discussion not too long ago; the band started pretty much at the end of this last decade. We are about to start a new decade, and coinciding with this new record, we have had change in our lives. I just turned forty, and we have this new record, and we both feel that it is a hell of a lot like something that we would make, but it feels fresh and inspired in a way that the last few records… I don’t want to be the guy that slams the entire record library. There are songs on the albums that I still to this day really love.
I feel like Texis, for lack of a better word, has a spirit and energy that is representative of where we are not now as people. I think for me, it was about really catching up and getting my life together.