“This is such a stock, boring answer but I tend to NOT define us. I leave that to you. … To me, it’s all just music.”
That’s easy for guitarist and producer Derek Miller to say, because Sleigh Bells is not an easy band to define. If you like your electric guitar riffs extra crunchy, you’re going to like what Miller is laying down at the band’s show Tuesday night at the IMU Main Lounge in Iowa City. But if you like the sugary sweet vocals of singer Alexis Krauss, you’ll also be happy. They’ve been called anything from dance-punk to noise-pop. If it was up to Miller, you’d just call it Sleigh Bells.
“We tour with so many musicians and so many DJs and producers in many different genres, and what we all have in common is that we have no respect for genre,” Miller says by phone during a recent tour stop in Park City, Utah. “People are just mixing everything together, because everything’s available now.”
Miller, a Florida native who played in the hardcore band Poison the Well in his late teens and early 20s, hooked up in Brooklyn in 2008 with Krauss, a one-time teen pop singer who was working as a teacher at the time. One might think the melding of hardcore and teen pop might be difficult, but Miller says it is the most natural marriage in the world.
“I love Top 40 as much as I love hardcore,” says Miller, who cited other influences as diverse as ’80s icon Cyndi Lauper, ’90s alternatives the Sundays and The Cranberries, and obscure German metal band Acme and their 2000 album, “ … To Reduce the Choir to One Soloist.”
“For me, it all has to go into the pot,” Miller says. “I’m not saying we have some special, unique sound, but I’m surprised that there aren’t more people combining those elements.”
Also, Miller is the band’s main lyricist, but Krauss always has her hands in the mix, especially if “there’s something she just doesn’t like or if I write just a straight-up bad lyric, which happens often,” Miller says. “I really trust her to amend them.” While Miller insists that he’s invested in his band’s words and they’re not phoned in, he compares the lyrics and Krauss’ vocals to My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 shoegaze masterpiece “Loveless,” where the vocals are just another part of the rich, sonic landscape.
”I don’t mind people approaching our records from an abstract angle, just not needing to know exactly what’s being said,” Miller says, adding that for the people who want to dive into the lyrics, they’re readily available to devour. “I hope it works on both levels.”
The band has hit its musical stride with its latest album, “Reign of Terror,” which was released Feb. 21 and highlighted by a performance on “Saturday Night Live.” The band gave up its slot at last summer’s Lollapalooza festival in Chicago to finish the album, and while the band’s breakthrough album, 2010s “Treats,” was truly a studio effort, using a lot of noisy production techniques and a variety of samples, the extensive touring on that album put the guitar back in Miller’s hands on a nightly basis and he found inspiration in his Jackson Soloist model electric guitar.
The Def Leppard-inspired guitar riffs made “Reign of Terror” much more cohesive sonically than “Treats,” but Miller says he’s already moving on from that sound. The new record gave him the chance to deal with a lot of personal turmoil, including the death of his father as well as his mother’s illness.
“The new stuff is more varied and it’s not quite as claustrophobic,” Miller says. “You know, I love it to death, but (“Reign of Terror”) is a very depressed record. I was working through some very difficult stuff and a lot of that ended up on the record. You know, I feel like I worked through it and I got a lot of it off my chest. So I feel free to move on and that’s what I’m doing.”
Miller is excited about the band’s upcoming leg of the tour, saying the Midwest is “by far my favorite region to play.” The band has recently played a big show in New York, but said the major metropolitan areas like that and San Francisco get lots of shows that the smaller markets don’t always get to see. But the college campuses of the Midwest are always eager.
“They’re not as spoiled, you know?” Miller said. “The energy is noticeably higher. Just makes it more fun for us, really. It’s pretty simple.”
Sleigh Bells is a studio band first, Miller admits (“I’m more comfortable in the studio where I can control every variable. I’m uptight about music, especially when I’m making Sleigh Bells records. I care. I’m invested. This is my life. I’m very detail oriented.”), but when he hits the stage with Krauss, it becomes about one thing: the age-old drive for a good time.
”We’re not a big five-piece rock band,” he says. “You know, we have a bunch of lights and a bunch of cabinets, and Alexis and I run around just trying to hype the crowd. That’s our job. It’s fun.”
— Sam Paxton