Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller Dissects ‘Reign of Terror’

Derek Miller is opening up. The XY chromosome of the blitzkrieg guitar duo Sleigh Bells claims to have difficulty spilling his guts, but for the band’s sophomore release — February’s bluntly-named, arena-rocksized breakup record, Reign of Terror (which is — he’s finally letting it all out. “I hate to get into the details of it,” he explains over a recent phone call from Brooklyn, “but it was not pretty. This record was sort of my way to deal with that nightmare.”

During the conversation, he remains cagey about the nature of his crisis, so decoding Reign of Terror might be your best way into the heart of Miller’s darkness. Recorded last summer at a Manhattan studio, Miller and his bandmate, vocalist Alexis Krauss, spent more time collaborating on Terror than on their 2010 debut Treats. (Krauss and Miller hadn’t yet met when he wrote the material.) And whereas that record was built to start parties, Reign of Terror wears its heart on its tattered sleeve. Here, Miller opens up about the ingredients — emotional, but especially musical — that went into each track on the no-holds-barred album. “A lot of people are nervous about owning up to this stuff,” he laughed. “I kind of like it.”

“True Shred Guitar.” I’m super into first impressions and this — with the arena crowd noise and Alexis screaming at them — is such a brass, arrogant, tasteless way to start a record. But also, it’s supposed to be humorous. You’ve got to split the difference. In that way, it’s okay. We don’t come off like assholes. It just seemed called for.

“Born to Lose.” Writing this, I was remembering the first time I heard double bass, which was on Metallica’s “Blackened.” I was thirteen and on vacation with my family in Key West. I went into a record store — when they still existed — and bought …And Justice for All. We had a Jeep Cherokee. I sat in the front seat when everyone was inside somewhere, and just listened. The double bass started shaking the rear-view mirror. It was vibrating. My head was exploding.

“Crush.” There’s a guitar solo on this track indebted to [Queen guitarist] Brian May. We’re massive Queen fans, as if you didn’t know that from hearing all the bleacher stomps. It’s borderline homage. Jazz is by far my favorite Queen record, and was endlessly inspiring. For the stomps, we had a ton of people meet us at this high school in Brooklyn, Benjamin Banneker High, where they have these super-old rickety wooden bleachers, and we had fifty of our friends show up. We mic’d the place up and sat there for four hours, making our own samples. I felt like I was getting away with murder.

“End of the Line.” This one was very much my song. Lyrically, quite possibly the darkest I’ve ever written. I remember writing it at a couple of very, very low points. We were listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins as we made this record.

“Leader of the Pack.” This one has sort of a Phil Spector/Brill Building thing going on. The chords are really old. That little bell intro thing, which sounds very twee? We just laughed and started the song with that. I’m still trying to figure that one out, whether or not I like it. They fall in and out of favor, these songs. That one, I need more time with.

“Comeback Kid.” This was the last song we did. We had two days left, I had a bunch of power chords sitting around — which is all this track really is — finished the instrumental, and sort of handed it over to Alexis, like, What do you got? She listened for five minutes and had the entire track. It was an exciting moment. I let her have her way with it. It’s fair to say I’m ripping off Kurt Cobain slightly with this one. In the video for this song, I had to wear a Nirvana shirt as an admission of guilt. The intro to “In Bloom,” the strum pattern and everything? I definitely lifted that.

“Demons.” Definitely the most aggressive track on the record. I was listening to a lot of Pantera at the time. Lots of Black Sabbath and Def Leppard as well. Are you familiar with the Steve Perry song, “Oh Sherrie”? You know, “Oh, Sherrie, I’m in love!” There’s that unison-bend guitar part: RAWN RAWN RAWN, RAWN RAWN, RAWWWN! I straight up went to that for this song. In terms of the energy or the volume and aggression of the album, it’s at its peak here.

“Road to Hell.” I was listening to “As Tears Go By” — the Rolling Stones version, not the Marianne Faithfull one. There’s an ascending chord progression throughout the entire song. It’s just up and up and up, and… Know what? I just fucked this one up, man. I’m unhappy with the clean guitar sound. My favorite part about this one’s at the beginning. I sampled an M16 gunshot. I had this strange obsession with M16s dating back to when I was really, really young.

“You Lost Me.” There were a lot of classic references that went into this song. It’s safe to say I was listening to a lot of Van Halen. I’m a massive Def Leppard fan. Hysteria is easily one of my favorite records of all time. Lyrically, this is one of the few songs I’ve ever written that actually has a real narrative. It’s not about any two people specifically, but it’s about a double suicide. A young couple who ended up committing suicide behind a Circle K. Imagine a couple in Florida, but maybe even the Midwest, and you’re the only two people in your school that listen to Metallica in 1985. You sort of bond over that, and that you have nothing in common with anybody else. It’s a youthful ignorance, a very romantic notion. It just ended up happening. Alexis and I started talking about it, and stumbled on this story. It felt like this was what the song was about.

“Never Say Die.” My favorite song on the record. You know The Goonies? I ended up lifting bits of the lyrics from Mikey’s speech at the bottom of the well, including the title: “Goonies never say die.” I also really liked sticking my favorite song second-to last. It’s traditionally such a throwaway slot on a record.

“D.O.A.” When I came up with the title, we were going to start the record with this song, which was possibly supposed to be a statement, and would’ve been a really bad idea. Statements are a really bad idea. I don’t know what else to say about it. As a piece of music, it just really makes my ears happy.

Photo by Patrick O’Dell

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