During their Spring tour opening for living legends, the dance-hardcore duo took notes on mega-stardom.
On the day of their last show opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells stepped out into the Philadelphia sunshine wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and Tom Cruise shades. Padding over the asphalt of the Wells Fargo Arena’s loading dock, he pointed beyond the 18-wheelers to the Sleigh Bells tourbus, which had a little caboose.
“All our gear fits in that little trailer,” he said. A dozen Marshall speakers stacked onstage, red lights to make them glow, and a huge American flag backdrop — it’s a simple setup but evokes all the themes — suburban high schools, classic rock, cheerleaders — that pervade Sleigh Bells’ music and artwork.
In just four years, Derek and his creative partner Alexis Krauss have gone from waiting tables and teaching children respectively, to being a buzzed about Internet band, to selling over a hundred thousands of copies of their debut Treats, to following up with a deeper, equally interesting sophomore album, Reign of Terror – all while touring festivals and sold-out club shows.
Since April 27th, they’ve opened for the Chili Peppers. Having seen my share of opening acts bomb in front of the fervent Californication-oriented audience, I was expecting boos from the impatient crowd who don’t appreciate the duo’s indie mystique. But even playing for a half-empty stadium to uninterested listeners, Alexis, Derek and their touring guitarist Jason Boyer gave the audience 100 percent energy. By the end of their fiery set, a few lone figures were actually standing, dancing and whooping.
This was no accident. “Derek and I approach our performance like a game. It’s about conquering, winning over a crowd,” said Alexis in her dressing room post-show, still looking like a punk bombshell with sparkly eyeshadow in peacock.
Though they’re used to seeing packed 1,200 capacity venues, seeing the scale and level of organization of the funk-punk legends has them both looking skyward.
“Playing here, we’re kind of getting comfortable on these stages. You’re like, sure, why not? One day, let’s do this,” said Alexis.
Derek has a huge laugh, which he deploys often in conversation. On the other hand, Alexis, like the former educator she is, chooses her words judiciously, and her voice is velvety and warm. She’s definitely the kind of the teacher you’d have a crush on, whether you’re a boy or a girl.
In her dressing room after her performance, she sat on her couch holding Rizla, her bull terrier who had just joined her on the road, wearing a tank top with a unicorn graphic that she’d designed to sell at their merch table.
Here’s an aside. One important aspect of awesome music is that some people hate it. In a cultural moment where the critics, the masses, and the industry are synchronized in their unreserved adulation for the slickest pop from Rihanna to Adele, Sleigh Bells offers some relief — they’re a band that’s popular and simultaneously pissing people off for being an unholy sin against music itself. Alexis tried to explain the controversy.
“It’s combining elements that for some reason aren’t normally combined – saccharine female vocals with extremely heavy, noisy guitar and bombastic beats. So I think the mix and combination of elements tends to be jarring for some people,” says Alexis. “But you know, to each his own.”
Derek put it a little more bluntly.
“People are either really into it or we are just extremely offensive to them. And I fucking love it. And we’re very join or die too. You’re either for me or against me. I’m not like a hippie about it, like ‘That’s cool, man.’ Fuck you, you know?”
This is the kind of drive that has pushed Sleigh Bells to the top of the indie charts, but the irony is that Derek and Alexis’ own tastes run so liberal that when asked to name a song or genre they hate, they both stare for a second, flabbergasted.
Like musical diplomats, what came easily to them was actually naming musicians that others might dislike but that they DO like: LMFAO, Foreigner, Chicago.
When I asked Derek if a Cranberries song had really been playing in his apartment when he was interviewed by the New York Times earlier this year, he said probably, because, ”I f-cking looooove the Cranberries. I love Dolores O’Riordan’s voice. Well, it’s actually just ‘Linger.’ ‘Dreams.’ And ‘Sunday.’ From the first record. ‘Ode To My Family’ from the second record is pretty good as well. But ‘Linger’ is one of my favorite songs of all time.”
Derek started out saying that he felt “disgust” for slick contemporary country, but he then ended the thought somehow by saying he had a soft spot for Billy Ray Cyrus.
Backed against a wall, Alexis admitted to hearing Blues Traveler on the radio and hating it, but added the qualifier that “Derek and I fight about this.”
Makes sense. Both Treats and Reign of Terror draw from diverse sources. Treat’s big single, “Rill Rill” borrows the acoustic riff from Funkadelic’s 1971 track, “Can You Get To That?” while the Reign of Terror’s soundtrack of shrieking guitar is an homage to Mutt Lange’s work with Def Leppard.
At a Sleigh Bells party, everyone is invited to hang. They cherry-pick from sample-heavy subgenres from crunk to baile funk, and draw inspiration from rock history’s guitar attacks, from hardcore, to punk, to eighties hair bands. Guests just have to like the volume cranked to ten.
Another reason why they might not talk sh-it about other musicians is, maybe they’re just nurturing people. At a point during the interview, Rizla started barking at her metal bowl of dog food, making Alexis sigh.
“She tends to do this,” she says as she walks over to the bowl and tosses a few dried bits on the ground. “This is your food, it’s in a bowl. There ya go.” Addressing me she explains, “I like to put a little on the ground. Dog neuroses.”
Check out more exclusive self-portraits by Sleigh Bells.