Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells Treats Jackson to His World of Music

By Morgan Brunner

May 1, 2017

Since their formation in 2008, Brooklyn-based indie electronic duo Sleigh Bells have been bringing their own flavor to the music industry with a collision of genres that the band defines as “other.” Singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist, songwriter and beat creator Derek Miller comprise the one-of-a-kind duo, and their constantly evolving sounds has led to the production of four albums, including latest release Jessica Rabbit.

Miller took a break from their North American tour to talk to Jackson about their unique sound, writing process, how Jackson fits their music and aesthetic, and the many influences (from rap to pop to hard rock) that inspire him to create music to the beat of his own drum.

Q: Given the electronic vibe of your music, do you strive to make the guitar stand out or do you want it to fade into the background as another element of your sound?

A: It’s not any more or any less important than any other element in the mix. I don’t think that my guitar playing on its own is that special. I’m not being self-deprecating. What I think is if there is something unique about us, it’s my beat making mixed with the guitars and the synths together. How I arrange those things is what makes us Sleigh Bells. On my own, I don’t think I’m a particularly capital “G” great guitar player. I’ve played for 20 years and certainly I can write and that’s the main focus for me —writing, composition. I’m not much of a shredder. I don’t play much lead. I can appreciate other artists who do, but that’s never been my thing. When I was 13 and got into heavy music for the first time, Deftones’ Adrenaline was the record that got me into aggressive stuff. And Steph never shreds. He’s almost purely a rhythm player and it’s really melodic and I love that about that band. I loved his playing and he’s been a huge influence on me.

Q: What software and effects do you use to achieve the guitar tone you are after?

A: I use Guitar Rig for all of our records, but on the first record I used the Korg Toneworks Pandora. I use those. All the kind of low-budget models. The settings on there are not warm or tonal or rich and I really like that about it. I want it to be sort of plastic-y and really overdriven and hyper-processed. I use a lot of chorus, a lot of slap on the sound and it just sounds more industrial and less rock and roll. I think those are more of my references when it comes to heavy music. I’ll listen to the Stones all day but for my own sound I like something that sounds a little more processed, ya know? I don’t want it to be warm. I don’t want warmth. For lack of a better way to describe it, I’m being very reductive but more metal and less rock and roll.

Q: How to do you translate your sound from the studio to the stage?

A: All the electronics run out of Ableton. That’s our playback unit. Essentially instead of having a DJ, we just trigger the songs ourselves. Otherwise, that’s what it would be. I saw Public Enemy recently and they had a live drummer but they also had a DJ and a guitar player and that worked really well. We played with a live drummer for a while, but it felt more like a band. I didn’t want this to be a band, like a traditional four-piece rock band. I wanted it to be “other.” If I had to describe it, I would describe it as “other.” Electronic music with loud guitars and melodic vocals. So yeah, basically I take the tracks, mute the guitars and vocals and we play over them and hype the crowd as much as possible.

Q: What led you to choosing Jackson guitars?

A: Initially, I just loved the way that they felt, the way that they played and the way that they looked. They make me want to pick them up. I think that’s huge. That’s a huge part of your initial reaction to an instrument, and when you’re a kid, well, that never really left me. I played Teles for a couple of years but the necks were, actually, I still love them, but the necks are a little more like baseball bats. They’re a little harder to play. But yeah, Jackson’s are lightweight and I think they are beautiful. When they are sitting around, I just want to pick them up. They make me want to play more.

I played ESP for a while when I was 20, but the Jackson brand is just so classic. With Sleigh Bells, I think people thought that I was playing it ironically because people consider us an indie band, and if you see the show, it doesn’t sound or have a lot in common with indie whatsoever. It’s confrontational. The second record especially is like a cartoonish metal record. It’s high-gain guitars, double bass… the only thing that’s not metal about it would be the vocals, which are more melodic. The Jackson brand is classic and I wanted that as part of our aesthetic. I messed around with an SG for a show or two and played a Danelectro and then I got a Jackson and it just felt right.

Q: Does Jackson inspire your music in any way?

A: I like the way they feel. I like the way they sound. The necks are great. I’ve got a number of Custom Shop guitars. I’ve got a Bengal striped Soloist that the Custom Shop made for me. That’s my main guitar. I would definitely say they are a part of the creative process because they make me want to play more. I know I’m repeating myself here, but that’s the answer. I want to pick them up. They look exotic to me.  I would definitely say it’s a part of the creative process

Q: You’ve acquired a few Jackson’s in your collection now— do you have a favorite?

A: The white Bengal tiger. It’s my main guitar right now. It’s my newest. I think it arrived summer of 2015. The neck is unfinished, which is a huge deal for me. It’s the first one I had them make with an unfinished neck. It just feels great. It’s light, it stays in tune. It’s well-crafted and it’s beautiful

I’m excited to be a part of the Jackson roster. I’m an artist bringing a different sound and a different aesthetic. I love metal records just as much as anyone. I can just see the comments now on the blog, “seems like an ok guy but fuck that band!” And that’s OK— I get it. There were years when all I could listen to were metal records. But I mean, I’ve seen John Mayer play a hot pink Jackson. And I have one too. It’s in my living room. It’s what I play at home. But I think that’s great. It’s always interesting when you take something that’s known for a single thing and you put it in a new context and something interesting happens. Jackson’s are great metal guitars but they are very versatile instruments. A lot of people saw John Mayer play that guitar and that was an exciting moment for Jackson. I was psyched.

Q: Who are some of your key influences?

A: Public Enemy. Huge for me! Definitely Deftones and ya know, it’s really the first 30 seconds on the first track of Adrenaline —that track “Bored.” Deftones for me are a study in contrast. Chino has this very romantic perspective and his voice is very feminine and really gorgeous. His scream is really high-pitched and shriek-y and both of those are very odd for the type of band they are and the types of bands that they played with. I know early on they were very frustrated with the Nu-Metal tag because all day Chino would be talking to the press about the Cure and the Smiths, Morrissey and Depeche Mode. That’s how I got into those records. I was the 13-year-old kid from Jupiter, Fla. All we had was the mall and a Sam Goody. I had an older sister but she wasn’t a music fanatic, so I really relied on my favorite artists to be my lighthouse and to turn me on to records and I still do to this day. Their press changed my life as much as their records. I was 15 listening to hardcore records and metal records and then I suddenly had Depeche Mode’s Violator in my life, the Cure’s Disintegration and all these favorites that to this day, are excellent records. That was the main idea with Sleigh Bells as well. I wanted that contrast. It’s interesting to me, it’s dynamic. I can have a track that’s 120 decibels, kind of a brick wall, totally in the red and her vocals are this sweet thing on top of it. That’s what interests me. I like that a lot. It marries two things that I like very much, which would be heavier, more aggressive, confrontational music and pop records as well. I got that from my mother. She was a pop fan so growing up, ya know, 5, 6, 7-years old when you start forming tastes, my mom was listening to George Michael, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection was like the bible. On my own I liked Belinda Carlisle and Amy Grant when I was 9 or 10. I still love their hit singles. I don’t want to say I still love the Amy Grant record, but I still love “Baby, Baby.” Those records still mean a lot to me. And then when I hit puberty, I got into hardcore and it was in my backyard in south Florida. Hardcore is great but your fans sort of make a cage for you and they don’t want to let you out of it creatively. I wanted to experiment with melody and naturally, it looks like a play for the mainstream. That’s just always how it looks. We would get our tires slashed. All sorts of obnoxious shit, and I was like, ”Fuck this, I want out.” And I quit. I was like “I’m done. I don’t want to be in a band. I don’t want to argue anymore. I don’t want to fight with other dudes. I don’t want to split a dollar five ways.” That’s why I’m in a two-piece band now and it’s great. We’ve been together for almost nine years. It was a tough decision. I quit Poison the Well and waited tables for four years. We were making a living. We weren’t making a lot of money, but I was making a living and living the dream. I mean, I was so sick of it by the end. I hated it so much that I said ”Fuck this, I would rather clean up somebody else’s shit.” But what I love about hardcore is the energy and the intensity and the conviction. I still love that about the genre. People take themselves very seriously, as dudes in hardcore bands do. And for a while I thought that was lame, but then I got out of it. Now I admire it. Fuck it, why not take it seriously?

Q: So you still have an affinity for both?

A: I do. Sleigh Bells is just a marriage of those two things.

Q: Who do you wish you could collaborate with, dead or alive?

A: My favorite band of all time would be the Funk Brothers of the Motown house band, without question. Benny Benjamin the drummer, Richard “Pistol” Allen, Clyde Stubblefield, who was James Brown’s drummer, um absurd backbeat, incredible groove. I’m a big funk fan. The early Motown stuff is a huge deal for me. Those are some of my favorite records of all time – the Motown catalog. So probably the Funk Brothers. Just to fuck around with them in a room. That would be my number one collaboration. They recorded at Hitsville in Detroit and their studio was called the Snake Pit. I just have this image of them down there playing “Bernadette,” and for me that would not get any better than that.

Q: Who are some of the bands that you are listening to lately?

A: A UK producer called Burial, who has been putting out records since 2007. He’s a huge influence on me the last six months, like non-stop. Specifically, these two EPs. One is called Rival Dealer and the other is called Untrue. If you haven’t heard those, I highly recommend them. They take a while to develop. They’re kind of crispy sounding but really melodic, loop-oriented and they have this rainy, melancholy vibe with undercurrents of club music as well. That’s the best I can describe it without sounding pretentious. I love that dude’s records. Public Enemy. They are one of my favorite bands of all time. I love them to death. There is nothing that I have to say about Public Enemy that hasn’t been said. But they are a very big deal for me.

Honestly, this is a portable rig right here so I have been recording a lot. I have been listening to new Sleigh Bells material. I am writing and recording. I’m not sharing walls with neighbors, which I do in New York so I’m just sitting back here deafening myself all day. There’s nobody to bang on the wall. It’s just great.

Q: Wow, so Jessica Rabbit was just released in November and you’re already working on new material?

A: We will put a single out in the summer and I want to put a record out next year. We have partners but we are essentially our own label now. So when we have something that’s fresh and that feels exciting, we can just put it out. So probably next summer we will put out a full-length album with a new single this summer.

Q: As far as Jessica Rabbit — it was a pretty experimental process for you and it was a departure from your previous recordings. How would you say your writing and sound have evolved?

A: Mostly just… I don’t know how it’s evolved. I think you would have to ask our fans. For me, the most important thing is that it excites the hell out of me. I think that’s the main thing. I am going to quote Quincy Jones here. He was always looking for the moment when the hair on the back of your neck stood up. He called that “God’s divining rod.”  God’s in the room with you when you’re making something new and you get that feeling that your favorite records make you feel. That’s the goal, and that’s always been the goal for me. The second I have something and I’m like kicking my friends’ doors down to play for them, that’s a good sign. So when I’m working back here and I rush to the front lounge and I’m like, “Alexis Get the fuck back here ASAP” —  that’s a good sign. That’s all I’m ever looking for.

Q: How do you know you’ve hit that moment?

A: Well, if I’m not ready to show her yet, then I just know I need to keep working. You just have to trust your instincts. That’s the most important thing. It’s all instinct for me. Just if it feels right. If it gets me psyched, I’m confident it will get our fans psyched. That’s usually the main thing. I don’t feel that I am looking for anything different than they are. They want to be inspired and they want to feel good, and you can dig deeper than that. I have records that have saved my life. There are records that I can tell you my life was going in one direction and then I got a certain record and I am in a completely different place now because of that record.

A lot of people don’t have a lot of time to commit to music. Or it’s like kind of a peripheral thing in their life and I respect that too because they have a lot of shit on their plate. If we’re like 10 minutes while you’re stuck in traffic driving home from the job that you hate and you’re listening to Treats or the new record Jessica Rabbit, and it makes your shitty day a little less shittier or a great day even better, then mission accomplished. That’s the whole goal for me. Or tonight after our show, I hope kids walk out and feel that it was an hour well spent. The last great show that I saw was the Yeezus tour in 2013 and Yeezus was my favorite record of the decade— regardless of how anyone feels about Kanye. People spend too much time worrying about who he is and how he behaves. The records for me are divorced from the baggage that he brings with his many, many antics. I expect that from a lot of my favorite artists. He’s polarizing. I think that’s great. But he had a giant white mountain assembled in the middle of the arena and he would run around on it. He was just this madman running around with a mask on screaming and clawing at himself. I left that show really believing in what I was doing and believing in myself, and that’s a beautiful thing to give to somebody. That’s a hell of a thing to do. So I hope that’s what people get from our shows. It’s mostly about energy. It just can’t be the two of us, but if the crowd’s on our side, I usually feel we can pull that off.

Q: What are some of your must-have things on the road?

A: My laptop, Apogee One interface and a Jackson.

Q: What was the first song you learned how to play on guitar?

A: “Plush” Stone Temple Pilots. I was in sixth or seventh grade and was like twelve or thirteen. I haven’t played it in ten years, but I think I could still play it.

Q: What are some of your guilty pleasure records?

A: What most people would consider to be guilty pleasures would be top 40 pop. I mentioned Amy Grant. Belinda Carlisle “Heaven is a Place on Earth” was one of my favorite songs growing up. I still love that song to death. One of my favorite songs. Please make it clear that from other people’s perspectives they would be considered guilty pleasures. I know people that would consider Sleigh Bells to be a guilty pleasure, and maybe they are right. I am dead serious.