Sleigh Bells’ fourth LP was guided by Infinite Jest and Yeezus
If you see a terrible review of Sleigh Bells’ fourth album, Jessica Rabbit, check the byline carefully. Derek Miller, the sonic architect of the band he shares with vocalist Alexis Krauss, is threatening to review his own LP.
“I could eviscerate each of our records and just completely discredit them. I could also make cases for why they’re singular and really inspiring. I should write the worst review of my own record and just publish it,” says Miller, laughing at the thought.
Not that Miller isn’t happy with the album, which is, by far, the duo’s most adventurous, dense and varied. Jessica Rabbit is still explosive, still built on hard riffs and thunderous drum-machine beats, but it pushes farther at the edges, venturing into sweet electro-pop and bruising hardcore while adding dense sonic layers and disorienting tempo shifts. Whereas Treats, the Brooklyn band’s 2010 debut, was hook-heavy and singsong catchy, Jessica Rabbit is complex and challenging.
“Some people are going to fucking love it; some people are going to fucking hate it,” says Miller. “I enjoy both reactions, as long as they’re both considered. As long as the person on the other end is passionate about it, I can handle it.”
Sleigh Bells is all about extremes. Early songs like “Infinity Guitars,” “Tell ’Em,” and “Crown On The Ground” were stark and immediate. Part of the band’s original concept was for Krauss to sing in a detached, unemotional voice that would contrast with the visceral power of the tracks. “We called it, jokingly—I’ll probably regret saying this—the dead-baby-doll voice,” says Miller. That timbre quickly evolved, however, and especially on Jessica Rabbit, Krauss occasionally shifts to abrasive yelling that verges on unhinged.
Miller is in a very different place now than when the duo created Treats. “I probably would get in a fistfight with that dude if I met him today,” he says. “I don’t like where I was when I made that record. I was reeling from a tragedy and I was getting fucked up a lot. With Treats, by and large, there was just a black cloud hanging over me the entire time. Reign Of Terror as well. Had it not been for Alexis, I would probably be in the ground.”
Miller began to get himself together at the end of the Reign Of Terror touring cycle in early 2013, and “was much more present” during the making of and tour for Bitter Rivals.
A scan of song titles on Jessica Rabbit suggests that the black cloud is not forgotten: “Throw Me Down The Stairs,” “Hyper Dark,” “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” and, perhaps most succinctly, “Unlimited Dark Paths.”
“Yeah, there are quite a few ways that you can destroy yourself,” he says. “But I try to counter those things. I try to create a balance so it’s not just a straight downer the entire time because that’s not how I experience life. It’s not all sunshine and flowers. But now it’s OK for me to address those things without feeling awful.”
On Jessica Rabbit, that balance often comes abruptly. “Unlimited Dark Paths” jumps from a minor to a major key at the end, and the video ends with a banner that declares “Keep Faith.” “I hope it leaves you with something soothing and hopefully inspiring after a little bit of punishment,” says Miller.
Tempos shift radically and unexpectedly in the middle of songs; harsh synth lines juxtapose with electric guitars. Kanye West’s 2014 Yeezus album (Miller’s favorite of the decade thus far) and tour prompted Miller to experiment with the arrangements on Jessica Rabbit.
“It was just incredibly inspiring and had a profound effect on me,” he says of seeing West’s Yeezus performance. “More than anything, it made me believe in myself. I left really believing in any and every idea that I had, and I was willing to execute the wildest shit that I could think of. A track like ‘Rule Number One’ arrangement-wise would have been really different had I not heard Yeezus. Some of the arrangements on this record are a little more challenging and frustrating. I enjoy that.”
David Foster Wallace also inspired Miller. “I finished Infinite Jest for the first time in 2012 or 2013,” he says. “Without even getting into the book itself or David Foster Wallace, I couldn’t believe the amount of work it would take to complete something so considered and so focused and so long. It’s 1,076 pages. It made me feel really lazy, and that’s a good thing. I realized I wasn’t working hard enough, so I just really tried to step up my game in every way, shape and form. I just busted my ass on this record. Lyrics were never a thing that I really considered; they were just something that needed to be done because a song needs lyrics. Infinite Jest changed that for me as well. I felt like I was ignoring this whole other facet of a record that you could engage with.”
Miller is proud of Jessica Rabbit, but he’s already rethinking it. For one of the first live performances of “Hyper Dark,” Miller overhauled the song. “I went and started fucking with it,” he says. “I bounced a bunch of new stems, made a new intro to it, cleaned up some of the verse parts, wrote new guitar parts, etc. I’ve never done that before, and I really enjoyed it.”
Not that he’s going to act like Kanye West with the ever-evolving versions of The Life Of Pablo and revamp Jessica Rabbit. But he could still write that scathing review.
“I wanted to make the best thing that I had ever made, and that was it. I don’t feel that I have; I do feel like I failed a little bit. There are about five or six tracks that I still love deeply, but I already have issues with about two-thirds of it. This is not what I should be saying to our fans right now. I should be saying it’s the greatest thing in the world! I tried; I did my best.”