“The guy that made Treats would hate Jessica Rabbit,” says Sleigh Bells guitarist Derek Miller with an almost uncomfortable laugh. Half of the aggro pop duo sits on the edge of a bed in a Chicago hotel room hours before one of his band’s only gigs this year, drawing a comparison between he and singer Alexis Krauss’ breakout 2010 debut album and their forthcoming new LP, the first Sleigh Bells release in three years and undoubtedly their most full-bore pop effort yet. “But fuck that guy!” Miller continues. “Fundamentally it’s not who I am. My ears need something very different now.”
The Brooklyn-based duo, who act like siblings when in each other’s company – they playfully interrupt each other at every opportunity – have been extra self-critical this go-round. That trend goes a long way in explaining the three-year gap between albums for a band that previously released a trio of full-lengths in as many years. “If you look at our work rate for the first three records, it was pretty clear that I was trying to avoid real life,” Miller says. “I couldn’t sustain that.” For Jessica Rabbit, due November 11th, they scrapped nearly a third of every batch of songs they wrote. “It was a ruthless process,” Krauss tells Rolling Stone while sitting on a reclining chair a few feet away from Miller. “Any song that made us feel the slightest bit iffy was gone.” For the first time the band also enlisted outside help: They spent 20 “intense” days in an L.A. studio with producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and received counsel from a former chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Records before retiring to Miller’s Brooklyn apartment to finish the record.
And whereas previous albums saw Krauss using her voice as an almost instrumental accompaniment to what Miller calls “big, dumb dinosaur riffs,” on the 14-track Jessica Rabbit the singer showcases her dynamic vocal range like never before. “I’m tapped into that more emotional, intense delivery,” she says, referencing tracks like “Crucible,” on which she sings, “I just can’t argue with what’s in front of me,” and belts over massive drums and Eighties synths; on lead single “It’s Just Us Now,” her manic wail takes center stage as guitars swirl around her on the hook.
Miller is also in a better physical and mental space than he was throughout much of the band’s nonstop recording and touring cycle that ended with a run of shows in support of 2013’s Bitter Rivals. “I was kind of out of my mind for a couple years,” he says in a tell-all interview during which he and Krauss dive into the band’s “selfish” new album, their collaborative writing process and why the biggest news to date about the band – their recent lawsuit against Demi Lovato – was completely unexpected. “But I moved through it all. And ultimately we have this record.”
All of your music had pop elements to it, but Jessica Rabbit feels like a full-on embrace. Does this feel like a sonic shift for the band?
Alexis Krauss: We’ve always been comfortable saying we make pop music.
Derek Miller: In the beginning, though, we made a concerted effort to have a very dead, slick vocal that was almost devoid of emotion completely. We would jokingly call it the “dead baby doll.” As a visual I would imagine a brick with a really slick film on top of it. So the music was really crunchy and extremely loud with zero dynamic range.
AK: It was more of an instrumental really. And in the booth I would channel that. It was a very still delivery. Very robotic. It’s very different now.
DM: Now she’s belting.
Alexis, your voice really stretches out to new places on this album.
AK: This is the first record that Derek and I have collaborated much differently. Where I have been writing the melodies and using my voice in a way that feels most natural to me. You started to hear my voice differently towards the end of Bitter Rivals when I’m tapped into that more emotional, intense delivery.
DM: It’s not as coached. In the beginning we made an effort to sound a certain way. Sure, I’m giving her feedback. But this is how she really sings.
Alexis, was there a point in the past few years where you felt an urgency to assert yourself more from a vocal perspective?
AK: When Derek and I met I had worked for a long time for a session singer. He had the material: Treats was his vision and I kind of stepped in almost as a session singer. We would record those sessions – I was teaching at the time – and he was like, “Dude, this could be a thing. We could have a band together.” And I slowly opened up to that. And then the band became my life and continued to become my life through [2012’s] Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals more and more. So absolutely that creative conversation shifts. And me needing to flex those creative muscles and write.
I also became a better songwriter. I hadn’t been writing music my entire life. I had been writing for certain projects. The more I came to work with Derek we developed this bond and this friendship and this love and this respect. That takes years. So we finally now are developing this songwriting partnership. I think initially my main influences, which are predominantly pop and R&B, they didn’t suit the earlier material. They wouldn’t have worked. But now I feel like when Derek is sending me material, there is that space for me to have the voice that I like to write for. I could have never written “Infinity Guitars.” I just can’t write that way. I can’t write that chant-y simple stuff.
DM: The guy that made Treats, I’m a very different person. I was in a state of shock and denial reeling from a ton of shit. That record for me is sort of a numbness. That was the whole point: to bludgeon you into numbness. I didn’t want to feel anything. Reign of Terror does a similar thing. Sonically it’s almost identical. There’s more of a cartoonish misery on that record. It’s way over the top. It’s all bold strokes, which I like. But it’s different now. A lot of that shit is years behind me. I had shut down as a pure survival instinct. That’s what you do in a state of shock: You turn into a robot so you can put one foot in front of the other. And now it’s OK for me to feel shit. At this point it’s been seven or eight years so it’s OK when a vocal of hers makes me feel something.
Was it clear from the outset that this new material was better suited for a strong vocal presence from Alexis?
DM: I despise hearing this come out of artist’s mouths but it was a natural progression [laughs]. We’ve been talking about this from the beginning, actually. Treats, I wrote that record. Reign, she did a little more. Bitter Rivals even more. Now this is truly an even-split songwriting partnership. I don’t want to write melodies anymore. I can only write really simple, dumb caveman melodies and it worked really well on Treats. But that’s not me anymore.
How does your songwriting partnership work nowadays?
DM: The second I have something I like, I send it to Alexis. The best part of the process is the idea I get back. For 99.9 percent of it for the past two or three years she has brought my idea much further than anything I could have hoped to hear.
AK: I know immediately if he likes what I send back based on the amount of time it takes him to respond to me. I’ll send him a GarageBand demo. I’m like, “He fucking hates it!” Or he’ll send me “Good job” and I know that means he hates it!
DM: If I’m a politician about it and am like, “This is good – we should work on it,” then she knows it’s pretty lukewarm [laughs]. The first listen is very important to me. Half of my favorite records just hit you in the face immediately with something memorable and within three-and-a-half minutes you know you’ve heard something really special. I want to make records like that, but it’s a big challenge. I’m very happy to be self-indulgent about our music now. With Treats, that was the enemy. Even a tempo change I would have been like, “Get over yourself. Seriously, shut the fuck up!” This is a selfish record and depending on what your ears are looking for, you might love it or hate it.
You went through several years and iterations of this album before finding its sound.
DM: It was more of an accumulation. It was not like writing and scrapping entire records. It was like writing three or four songs and one would survive. So maybe after six months we’d written seven or eight songs, but maybe only two or three are going to come with us into the next six months. I started recording when we got on the bus for the Bitter Rivals tour in October of 2013 and we finished tracking in June of 2016. After Bitter Rivals I needed to go away and face some shit and deal with myself and not put something out unless I love it to death. Having that much time gives you the luxury to not despise your record five minutes after it’s finished.
AK: And we had songs on the track listing after we had mastered the record two months ago that are no longer on it.
Derek, has working nonstop served as a coping mechanism for personal issues?
DM: This band is the best part of my life. Sleigh Bells is not a rung in the ladder. You could literally add six zeroes to my bank account and I would still wake up and do Sleigh Bells. The break had a lot of mixed results. There were periods where I was really focused and really productive and then there were months where I was in a really terrible place.
AK: It’s really exciting now hearing all four of the records together now in a live set and seeing our fans respond. Maybe this is just my own insecurities with having contributed more but I feel like we are asking our fans a lot at times to come along with us on this journey. We’ve always been a polarizing band and I completely understand if there are fans who are like “Wait, I have this idea of Alexis as this voice, as this persona on Treats and now you’re giving us [Jessica Rabbit song] “I Can Only Stare.” I get it. It’s a jump.
Though it’s not like you guys have made three of the same records before this one.
DM: I deeply care about what the fans think. That being said, I have to be able to sleep at night. That’s why we formed our own record label. I’m happy to have discussions about what’s going on creatively to an extent but I need final cut on absolutely everything. And that’s hard to get in 2016 if you’re hell-bent on doing everything your own way.
I was pleasantly surprised to see you guys worked with Mike Elizondo who executive-produced five songs on this album. How did that come about?
DM: We were working with Tom Whalley and Loma Vista Records. He’s a legend. I played Tom what I felt like was something close to a finished record in December of 2014. We were feeling really good about it and the first words out of his mouth were “Sounds like a really good start.” I bit my tongue. It turns out he was totally right. Working with him was great and that’s how we met Mike. So we worked with Tom and Mike for about a year, turning music in, getting their feedback. Ultimately we did come to an impasse and it was a very amicable split and they were very respectful. It would not be the record it is without having heard “You can do better.” I had never been told that. There was never room for that. With Tom I was finally ready to just entertain someone else’s perspective.
What made you want to work with someone like Mike?
DM: I was super attracted to his diversity. Here’s a guy who spent a fucking decade with Dre and then he made a Fiona Apple record. He can also make an Avenged Sevenfold record. And then he did the Twenty One Pilots track “Stressed Out,” and it’s one of my favorite tracks for the past year. I love that. I think it’s an incredible song. I listen to it and I can see Mike in front of the MIDI controller writing bass lines.
AK: Derek and I have always kept a very closed process so there was a lot of anxiety going into working with somebody. Mike had a way about observing us, realizing how we would be comfortable and then slowly offering just excellent feedback. Not ever try to control or insert himself in a superfluous way. “Why don’t you think about working on this melody there?” It was just the most subtle and important influence.
How has it felt performing the new material live?
DM: We play “Rule Number One” and “It’s Just Us” and we’re going to be working “Hyper Dark” in. We do two weeks of shows in November. Early next year we’ll go out and do two or three months for a proper tour and play a lot more of the new songs. We’ll of course always play the old ones. I’ll never get sick of playing “Crown On the Ground” and watching the way kids react to that.
AK: The new stuff is feeling good, though. I’ve loved every second of it. It’s felt so good.
You recently filed a complaint in California federal court accusing Demi Lovato and her collaborators of lifting material from “Infinity Guitars” to create “Stars,” which appears on the deluxe edition of her most recent album, “Confident.” Are you surprised the suit is generating as much attention as it has?
DM: We can’t really say anything, but I’ll just say I couldn’t believe it. Our manager was like, “Are you sure you want to do this? Because it’s going to be filed publicly.” And I was like, “Nobody gives a fuck.” And then it was the biggest news we’ve ever had [laughs].
What’s next for you guys?
DM: I have a working title for the fifth record already and we have a ton of new stuff. The material that we left off this record there are little windows that are really great so I’ll just take those, trash everything else and start building from there.