Derek Miller, Sleigh Bells

"You asked me how I was doing at the beginning of the interview and I said I was good, so can I retract that and say that I'm well?" asked Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells when I told him that I used to be an English professor. He explained that his 7th grade English teacher told his class that if anyone said, "I did good," he'd make them write "I did well" hundreds of times.  On one hand, that's a horrible teaching technique. But let's look on the bright side: it was good practice for Miller, who creates all the time, everywhere, wherever he can.

My interest in interviewing Miller was piqued after reading the recent Sleigh Bells cover story in Spin magazine.  He touched on his creative process a bit there, but I was taken by the intensity with which he approaches it.  And when he told me that he's an enormous Henry Miller fan, I was not surprised; Derek's music and Henry's writing are both intense sensory experiences.  

Sleigh Bells--Miller along with Alexis Krauss--are on an arena tour now, opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Read my interview with Derek Miller about his creative process after the video.

After reading the Sleigh Bells piece in Spin, my first thought was that you're an incredibly creative person.  You can't be limited to just songwriting.  What are your other creative outlets?

Visual art, on and off.  I'll have a period of about six months where I can't stop drawing.  I'll use anything in front of me.  This sounds ridiculous, but I was obsessed with Crayola crayons for a number of months and I did nothing but Crayola on paper.  I went large-scale, like massive rolls of paper that I'd just pin on my walls.  This was when I had just moved to Brooklyn.  I'd go nuts.  

I bounce around like that.  I wrote graffiti when I was a teenager, so I love spray paint.  I can't really afford to go around vandalizing every city I'm in, because I'll get arrested and we'll have to cancel shows. Laughs.  But I always have a black book with me, and I'm always scribbling in it. 

Do you do any other types of writing?

Not really.  But I wanted to be a cartoonist until I was about 12 or 13; the only problem was that I could never do anything original.  I was a comic book fan, and I could draw a wolverine perfectly, or really any comic book character.  I could do realistic portraits in pencil, but then I'd rip them up immediately. I'd show my mom; she'd tell me how beautiful it was, then I'd rip it up right in front of her.  

Why?

Not to sound dramatic, but that's part of who I am.  I have a lot of self-destructive tendencies, and that usually translates to what I do with art creatively.  I'm really hard on myself in that respect.  So in a way, I'm still doing this in my head.  Even though it's music now, I'm always tearing it up and trying to do better.

Why is visual art such a powerful outlet for songwriters?

Anything I do for myself is potentially for the band because I handle all of our artwork. And it's a powerful outlet for me because it's just an extension of making music.  It creates a mood and a reaction.  For Reign of Terror, for example, the cover image was a metaphor: with the Keds being pure and bloodied, it's about a loss of innocence.  That's a corny metaphor to make, but it's a striking, simple, and bold image that said everything I wanted to say.  

I hope that's what the music does as well.  I don't want it to be too heady.  I want people to have an emotional response to it and not to have to think too hard about it.  The intellectual approach is bogus from where I'm standing.  I'm all about the visual medium, but I fucking hate galleries, where a handful of people stand around with martinis looking at a painting and talking about what it means.  It makes my skin crawl.  I like simple, bold statements that reach a lot of people.  That's why pop music is the highest form of expression for me.  People look at me strangely when I call our music pop, but if you strip it down, that's what it is.  I like things that appeal to a broad range of people.  My tastes aren't that sophisticated, whether it's food or beer or music, and I'm comfortable with that.

Let's talk about your songwriting process.  What happens when you first sit down?

Basically, I have no fucking clue what I'm doing every time I sit down.  I have no idea what's going to come out or how it's going to happen.  Every time I sit down to write a song, it's like I have amnesia.  I have no idea how I did it before.  I just start messing around.  Nine times out of ten, nothing comes of it, whether I'm on keyboard, guitar, whatever.

But every once in a while, that spark happens.  And that's all I need.  Then I start making mistakes.  When accidents happen, then things--and I don't want to sound pretentious--get out of my control.  My ears are clashing and suddenly there's chemistry.  By the fact that it's unpredictable, it's almost like I'm not responsible for it. And that's when I get the best stuff.  It's all about chemistry.  How a rhythm relates to a melody or a guitar part.  When they collide randomly, those are my best results.  

Usually, it's been about me pushing that first domino, but now Alexis is getting more involved and our music is getting better because of it.  "Comeback Kid" is my favorite song off the new record, and it was the first time in Sleigh Bells that I just gave her a song.  I gave her an instrumental and a lyric, but I had no melody.  So I told her that it was her baby and to do whatever she wanted with it.  And within five minutes she had the whole song. I did a little bit of work on the melody, but that's hers.  I was blown away, and it was so much better than anything I could have done.  When we finished, there was this a-ha moment where we said, "This is what we need to be doing."

Do the lyrics come later in the process for you?

Actually, I'm always writing lyrics, but I never know where they're going to go.  I have a book of lyrics, and a bunch are on my phone.  Whenever they pop into my head, I write them down.  I don't know what it's for or what it even means, but that's not important. Sometimes I'll start working on a song and have lyrics written somewhere, and I realize that the mood of the lyrics matches the tone of the music.  So I might glue them together that way.  But sometimes the melody dictates the words; a lot of times there will be a melody before lyrics, and I'll match the melody with a random lyric I wrote somewhere, and it will fit perfectly.  Like right now there's a working title for a song called "Bitter Rivals." And I'm willing to bet that it will be attached to a song that's a little more aggressive.  So my process is a bunch of random elements, and I start connecting the dots.  

 Photo by Patrick Odell

Photo by Patrick Odell

Was there a difference in the process between Treats and Reign of Terror?

There was.  Before we went on tour for Treats I wasn't playing a lot of guitar.  I had just gotten into beat making and was learning production and using software for the first time. Making beats became an obsession.  For six months, I couldn't stop.  I made my first beat in July 2008 and didn't even look at a guitar for months.  After we finished the record and went out on the road, I suddenly had a guitar in my hand every night.  And that's how Reign of Terror became a guitar record; I always had a guitar nearby on the Treats tour.  

But now I'm a little sick of guitar because I've played so much of it, so I'm moving back into production and rhythm and sample-based music.

Do you ever sit down with the express intent of writing a song?

Nah, that really doesn't happen with me.  Jack White's whole approach to songwriting is a huge inspiration to me.  He says that the song is an excuse to tell a story and that the narrative aspect of music is the most important part of a song.  But I'm on the total opposite side of the spectrum from that.  I'll use My Bloody Valentine's record Loveless, which is one of my favorite albums, as an example.  On that record, the lyrics are indecipherable.  You react on a purely abstract emotional level.  There's no story, just sound.  

I love that idea because it doesn't require any critical faculties.  It's just pure sound.  I don't like when you have to sit and figure it out.  I like music that welcomes you in and wants to please you.  In that sense, it's an extension of my personality. So even when our music is heavy, I hope that it welcomes people.  

Do you make time each day to write?

Not really.  I can go two weeks without writing a thing.  I think a lot about it, but I don't spend a lot of time doing.  The actual execution is fast, but I spent an insane amount of time in my head chasing the arrangement around and thinking about production, like what kind of kick I need, am I gonna put a reverb on the snap, stuff like that. I make all those decisions just walking around the city with nothing in my hands.  

But that's still a part of your creative process, even though nothing tangible is coming from it.

Absolutely.  That's a massive part of my process.  James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem, a friend of mine, says the same thing.  He does all of his arranging in his head.  So when it comes time to actually make the music, it happens pretty fast.  I don't like to labor.

How important is environment when you create?

Because I'm always writing on tour, part of me is tempted to say that environment is irrelevant.  I can do it anywhere: in the back of the bus, in the hotel room, on a plane.  But I always leave things unfinished on tour.  I purposefully leave them unpolished and incomplete so that I can come back later.  Or I'll use sounds that I'm unhappy with, knowing that in the future I'll sit down and spend a lot of time building on them or going through my sound library to replace it with something I already have.  

But when I do sit down with Shane Stoneback, my engineer, it's important where we are because we'll be in the same spot for months.  Reign of Terror was deep in the center of a building in a studio.  It's a wonderful studio, just one long rectangle.  In the center, at the very end, sits the control room.  It's dark, there are no windows, and you forget that you are in the middle of Manhattan.  That definitely influenced the sound of the record. We've already talked about the next record, and for that we're going to rent a house on the coast in either Rhode Island or Massachusetts.  I want to be near the ocean, with more light and fresh air, because a lot of the new songs I'm working on aren't quite as depressed as the Reign of Terror songs.  

You're in great company.  Ernest Hemingway always said that he'd stop writing at the end of the day when he knew he still had something great to say, because he never wanted to start the next day writing on an empty tank,

Absolutely.  Actually, I just finished the new Hemingway biography called Hemingway's Boat.  He's such an interesting guy.  But yeah, I do the same thing.  Since I do produce everything and we are just a two-piece, we don't do marathon fourteen-hour sessions.  I work for six to eight hours max, and I work very loudly.   My ears are usually fried, so I have to go home.  But the second we do something really good, even if we've only been in for three or four hours, we go home.  

It's an old trick for me.  Once you get that spark, take advantage of the moment and get some good work done, but then just cut it off and make sure you are still exploding with ideas when you go home. I never go home burnt out.

There's a risk in that, though.  Aren't you afraid of losing momentum or the emotion of the moment?

It's a balancing act.  You have to know when to stop.  I won't stop in the middle of a take when everything is going great, of course.  I get out of the way and let moment happen. But part of the skill set is knowing the right time to stop. That's nothing but instinct.

But what you're doing ensures that you avoid any writer's block, since you always have something to build on the next day.  That's how Hemingway did it.

Absolutely.  But the best thing I can do when I'm working creatively is to tell myself that I'm doing it for someone else other than Sleigh Bells.  I did this on Treats. Afriend wanted me to make him a beat.  So I did, and I thought, "I can do anything in the world now.  It doesn't have to be for Sleigh Bells. I can whatever I want in this moment."  I finished the beat, and it was the best thing I had ever done up to that moment.  So I called him and told him there was no way I could part with it.  I gave it to Alexis, and it ended up being "Kids," the second song on Treats. I had tricked myself into taking down any creative limitations that I thought existed, since I told myself I could create anything. That's how I get my best work. Bob Dylan said something like that in a 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley once.  I'm paraphrasing, but he said that the second you know what you're doing and start thinking about what you're doing, you're in trouble. 

How much revision do you do to your lyrics, or do you think that what comes out first is usually the best?

I do a lot of revising, and that's where Alexis has an impact on the lyrics.  We'll sit down and she'll tear it apart.  I like my lyrics to be abstract.  I'm not into storytelling or narrative. I'm into moods.  Treats is more abstract than Reign of Terror, but Reign of Terror is still all over the place.  The second-to-last song is called "Never Say Die," and it's my favorite song.  It's about two things.  I don't want to get too specific because I want people to figure things out for themselves, but a good chunk of the lyrics are from the movie Goonies, from the scene where they're at the bottom of the well. It's the turning point in the film. The conversation they're having at the bottom of the well is in "Never Say Die."  So I can get my lyrics from something as obvious as that, but a lot of the time I don't even know where they come from or what they mean.

Last year I interviewed Paul Banks from Interpol, and he talked about the non-sequitur nature of his lyrics as well.

That's so funny, because the first Interpol lyric that comes to mind when you say that is from "Not Even Jail," when he says, "I'm subtle like a lion cage."  I mean, what is that? Laughs.

He told me that he'll always sacrifice a word for a melody.  Melody is the most important thing, and he will always take a word out--even if it's more meaningful to the song--if it means improving the melody. 

 I'm 100% on the same page there.

So who are some of your favorite authors besides Hemingway?

Henry Miller changed my life.  I first read him in 2005.  I was living in Florida, and a friend told me to buy everything from Miller and to read it immediately.  The first one I picked up was Tropic of Capricorn.  On the first page, he mentions how he's living in Paris with no money, no hopes, no resources.  And he says, "I'm the happiest man alive." Then he says how he used to sit around thinking about how he was an artist. "I no longer think about it. I just am," he finally realizes.  

His language is so ferocious, but that line "I just am" blew my mind wide open. I was about 22 when I read that; I'm 30 now and still very much unsure of myself.  But at some point you stop apologizing for things and just say,"Fuck it. This is me." That was a huge step for me in becoming a producer.  I was looking up to everyone else like Timbaland and Diplo, thinking how they were producers and I wasn't. Then I bought a beat station and made my first beat.  I loved it, and kept learning. Suddenly I was a producer, and I realized that no one comes around with a wand and taps you on the head and makes you one.  That's what Miller did.  You don't have to wait.  Get started, make mistakes.  Those mistakes will turn into strengths.  Miller didn't wait for anyone to give him the OK. And for that, he changed my life.  

So whatever you think is limiting you is actually part of what's making you great. Our early demos stuck out because I didn't know what I was doing.  I thought it was part of my weakness, but it was a strength. There was such an intensity to those demos. Without stumbling around in the dark when I was first starting, I never would have gotten here. There's a Woody Allen interview in the Paris Review where he talks about artistic risks and how he finds it silly and pretentious when people talk about them.  Artistic risks are laughable, he says.  By all means take your work seriously, but it's not like we're delivering babies, I remember him saying.

The great poet William Stafford says that the easiest way to rid yourself of writer's block is to lower your standards and stop thinking that everything you have to say is so important.

That's perfect.  I love that quote.  It's like, "Yeah, maybe I'm not going to make the White Album, but I'll make something." I think that's a great way to look at it.

Also read my interview with: