'Bitter Rivals': Inside Sleigh Bells' Lean, Mean New Album - Rolling Stone
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Inside Sleigh Bells’ Lean, Mean New Album

‘This record feels like a fight,’ says guitarist-producer Derek E. Miller

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Sleigh Bells' Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss

Petra Collins

“No one’s even expecting us to put out a record this year,” says Sleigh Bells guitarist-producer Derek E. Miller with a devilish grin. He’s hanging out with singer Alexis Krauss at his Brooklyn apartment, one week before the shred-pop duo plan to spring news of their third LP, Bitter Rivals (due out October 8th), on the world. They began recording the 10-song set in February, just as they wrapped their tour for 2012’s extra-dark Reign of Terror, and completed tracking in April. Now they’re itching to release it. Says Krauss, “We don’t have the patience for taking it slow.”

Bitter Rivals‘ creation coincided with some big lifestyle changes for Miller. “You should see him,” Krauss says. “He went from beer cans and chicken wings to bowls of granola and fruit and water.” Miller clarifies that he’s not exactly straight-edge: “I still get down,” he says with a laugh. “But I just got bored with going out every night. You can only act like a cliché for so long before you become one.” For similar reasons, he’s also chosen to ditch his signature shades for good. “I will never, ever wear sunglasses again,” vows Miller. “I haven’t since February 1st. Even on bright days.” (“It’s because I’m no longer hungover,” he jokes. “No, it’s really just that I don’t want to be the guy wearing sunglasses inside anymore.”)

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There’s a pair of bright red Everlast boxing gloves leaning against one wall of Miller’s living room, and they’re not just for show. While they were recording Bitter Rivals at Brooklyn’s Treefort Studios – where they also cut 2010’s Treats – both Krauss and Miller took up boxing at a nearby gym, working closely with trainer Mike Camarra. “I’m not the halfway type of person,” says Miller. “Now I’m up at 7:00, training like a motherfucker.” They found that the new routine energized them creatively. “We would go in, box, go to lunch, go to the studio,” says Krauss. “Working out like that just pumps up your brain.”

Sleigh Bells describe Bitter Rivals as their most collaborative album yet. “We decided everything together on this record,” Miller says. For each song, he recorded an instrumental track and wrote lyrics, then left the vocal melodies up to Krauss. “It never ceased to be an incredibly anxiety-producing process,” she says. “I would fully arrange [my vocals] and harmonize everything, and I’d be like, ‘He’s gonna fucking hate it.'” Miller laughs: “And then I’d call her and be like, ‘This is brilliant!'”

As the record took shape, Miller sharpened their super-distorted sound to its core. “I was bored with the dense high-gain thing we used on the last record, so I started fucking with other treatments,” he says. “Not a lot of over-dubs on this record.” Several key tunes feature blown-out acoustic riffs and R&B-ish vocals: “I was interested in doing something Beyoncé or Janet Jackson would do,” Krauss says, “these slow-winding, sparkling melodies.”

Miller has been on a pop kick lately, too. He recently read and loved Quincy Jones’ autobiography, and one song on the new album opens with a direct reference to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” intro. When he opens his laptop to show me the video for Bitter Rivals‘ title track, a bunch of Katy Perry songs in iTunes show up on his screen.

But don’t worry: None of this means that Sleigh Bells have mellowed out musically. “This record feels like a fight to me,” Miller adds. “It’s just scrappier and leaner. And Alexis sounds really pissed.”

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