Sleigh Bells have never been a band particularly interested in subtlety. That’s been apparent since the opening seconds of their debut single, “Tell ‘Em” (from their 2010 LP Treats), which kicked off their career with an artillery of kick drums and overdriven guitars, which soon found itself juxtaposed with the vocals of singer Alexis Krauss, whose dreamy voice seemed to float over the chaos below.
That energetic, maximalist approach to music has extended throughout the duo’s discography, from 2012’s Reign of Terror, which leaned heavily into the idea of Sleigh Bells as a Black Sabbath-esque heavy metal band — to 2013’s less successful Bitter Rivals, which flattened the band’s frantic song into a claustrophobic, treble-heavy mix that multi-instrumentalist Derek Miller describes as “crispy.”
But after releasing three albums in four years — and perhaps sensing a need to creatively regroup — Sleigh Bells took a welcome breather, waiting just over three years before releasing their fourth studio album, Jessica Rabbit, in 2016. The resulting album still sounds like Sleigh Bells — you could probably slot lead single “It’s Just Us Now” into any of their previous full-lengths — but it’s a little more ambitious, a little more sprawling, than anything they’ve tackled before. There’s breathing room — provided by relatively low-key tracks like “Torn Clean” and “Loyal For” — which makes the album seem like less of an endurance test than previous records. And there’s the unpredictability that comes from a band experimenting with their established sound — which arguably makes Jessica Rabbit the band’s most engaging effort since their debut.
Recently, Miller spoke to Weld about the chaos behind Jessica Rabbit, the value of self-criticism, and his plans for new music.
Weld: Did taking more time to make Jessica Rabbit change the sound of the album compared to previous releases?
Derek Miller: I think one of the best and worst things about this band is that it’s slightly amorphous. It can be many things, which is liberating creatively. … The thing with Jessica Rabbit is that we just wrote a s—load of material, a ton of different songs. It took a while to assemble a record that felt even slightly coherent. This is a little pretentious, but my life was anything but coherent at the time, and I definitely wanted the record to mirror that. And again, I know that’s a little ridiculous, and I’m willing to accept that.
Weld: One thing that’s really striking about Jessica Rabbit, especially compared to other Sleigh Bells albums, is that you’re exploring a much wider range of dynamics on some of these songs.
Miller: There was a big question: Do we put a track like “Loyal For” on the record, which is essentially just vocals and a cello with a delay on it, or do we leave it off? It changes the record. There’s a track called “Torn Clean,” the second track, which is similar in that it’s an abrupt shift from the track that comes before it and starts the record, “It’s Just Us Now.”
I enjoy that. I like that in terms of pacing. It just sort of f—s with you. “Fluid” is not a word that I would use to describe the pacing of the record, and that was deliberate. We just toyed with a bunch of different sounds.
Like any band, there’s a fair amount of the material that we recorded that’s just embarrassing and terrible, and those songs will never be heard. I even feel that way about one or two of the tracks that made the record. I’m not going to say which, because I don’t want to bum out any fans if that’s their favorite song. But, you know, it’s four records in, and to be honest, I’m used to that type of indecision and doubt, and we just push through it and put s— out and keep going and get on with your life.
Weld: You’ve talked a lot about messing with fans’ expectations with the album’s sequencing. But Jessica Rabbit has also been seen as a departure for Sleigh Bells as a whole. Was the goal for this record to subvert expectations of what the band could or should be?
Miller: It wasn’t. I was aware of the fact that that was how it would be perceived, but that was not a conscious decision. On any given day, when I’m working on music, I’m really just trying to excite myself. My favorite songs, frankly, make me really happy to be alive.
They’re a major part of me dealing with what we’re all dealing with right now. I can wake up, read the front page of the New York Times, and get on with my day if I listen to “Bernadette,” for example. How do you read the Times in the morning without wanting to jump off your f—ing roof? How? That s—’s troubling. It’s kind of an intense statement, but for me, a lot of my favorite records — and it’s not even limited to records; it’s whatever I’m reading, whatever I’m watching — it kind of redeems everything for me. It just helps me get through the day, keeps me inspired.
My favorite songs bring a lot of joy into my life. That’s all I’m ever really trying to do. The right chords, the right voicings and changes that give you a certain feeling and just make you feel good about [expletive], even if it’s only for a couple of minutes.
Weld: It’s interesting that you bring up politics, because one of Sleigh Bells’ early advocates was M.I.A., who is one of the most ardently political musicians working today. But your music is never explicitly political; you’ve described Treats as being an album meant to “bludgeon you into numbness.” Is politics something you choose to avoid in your music? Do you see your music as escapism from those topics?
Miller: I don’t know if I would write a political song that was topical, per se, but it’s all a reaction to what’s going on around you. I actually have a session open right now, and the track sounds incredibly frustrated. It’s fair to say that right now, I’m feeling incredibly frustrated.
You know, frankly, people can use it however they’d like. If it’s an escape, if it provides a brief respite from s—, then that’s great. For me, the whole project is just deeply personal. It’s becoming a little more idiosyncratic. I try not to overthink it. If you want to just take it at face value, just sonically, it makes you feel good.
I know a lot of people said they work out to Treats, and I think that is a great compliment. If it gets you out of bed in the morning and gets your feet moving, then that’s a good thing. I need that on a lot of days. I wake up with a black cloud over my bed, and I just need help.
Whether it’s your wife or your kids or your favorite records, or whatever it is that brings joy into your life and helps you get through this s—.
Weld: You’re often openly critical of your first three albums in the press — but that hasn’t really been the case for Jessica Rabbit. Is that because you’re more confident about the record?
Miller: Yeah, I just feel like the quality of a few of the tracks — I’m just really proud of a lot of them.
If I’m critical of our band, it’s because I don’t measure myself against what came out today or this year. I’m constantly measuring myself against the best, my favorite songwriters of all time, my favorite producers of all time, and it’s just never going to stack up in my mind.
It’s not my job to enjoy. It’s my job to make it as great and inspiring and as creative, and hopefully, ultimately, if I’m lucky, as beautiful as I possibly can make it. That’s really what I’m trying to do. I feel like there was enough of a progression on this record that I can live with it. “I Can Only Stare,” for my money, is one of the best things we’ve done. “Rule Number One” is my favorite song on the record. At the risk of sounding self-satisfied, I think it’s excellent. I’m really proud of that piece of music. I feel like it’s singular. I’m not sure there’s anything else on the planet like it. Maybe that’s a good thing. People that don’t like our band are thanking God for that. I love it. I’m glad that it exists, and it was a b— to make.
I don’t want that to come across as arrogance, because it’s not. I’m just happy with it. It’s not arrogance. There’s not an arrogant bone in my body. But if I feel good about something we’ve made, it’s hard-won, and I’m not going to be shy about it. I’m not a big fan of false modesty.
Weld: Before you started working on Jessica Rabbit, you already had a title picked out for the album and an idea of when you wanted to release it. Does having such a clear end goal shape the way you approach recording?
Miller: Yes, absolutely. And I could tell you right now that it’s not going to be three years.
Honestly, more than anything, it just excites the hell out of me. The second I have a track that I’m dying to play for people, then the next record starts. And I’ve got a handful of those right now.
I’ll probably put out a single this summer, just a standalone. [Then] I think the next thing we put out will be somewhere between a very long EP and a mini-album. Definitely next year. I have a title, I know when we’re going to be putting this out, I’m right in the middle of it, and that’s just a very good place to be for me, mentally and emotionally. I have a lot of energy right now, today. I’m excited to be awake and to be out of bed, as opposed to being crushed into my mattress by a black cloud of horrible s—.
I can read our 45th president’s tweets and not f—ing stab myself in the neck, because I have this [project]. It’s hard to balance paying attention and staying active and staying informed with the parts of your life that are actually good, because it can make you forget all about them. I think that would be a tragedy.
Sleigh Bells will perform at Saturn on Tuesday, March 7. Tunde Olaniran will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.