Infinity Guitars Ring, Are You Listening?

A once-doomed brazilian restaurant turned out the be the place Sleigh Bells found their voice.

Sleigh Bells
With Neon Indian
Monday, May 23, 6 p.m.
Starlite Room
Tickets: $25 at Blackbyrd and Ticketmaster

Derek Miller may be known for crafting frantically offbeat electro tunes, but many of his early rhythms were redundantly dull — the squeaks from rubbing down tables, the hollow clatter from stacking chairs, the faint scratching of his pen as he jotted down special orders instead of the lyrics and notes he craved to craft.

“When you’re trying to do something creative there’s nothing better than an awful boss, it lights a fire under your ass, for sure,” he says of the dead end stint he worked at a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn, to scrape by as he tried to pry his way into the music industry. “Every day I’d get there at 10 a.m. and start setting up tables, and just thinking about how badly I wanted to leave.”

Between shifts he’d amassed a considerable stash of bold and brazen beats, tapped out on his Akai xr20 drum machine. His shifts, however, allowed for too little down time to go see shows, much less the needed respite to try and book his own gigs or even find a few musical cohorts. But the job he thought was stifling actually ended up offering him the inspiring fresh gust he needed.

One evening in the summer of 2008, with pad and pen in hand, he tried to stem his brooding long enough to stride over to another table and take another order. But the pair of patrons sitting there were more interested in small talk than the day’s special — the younger of the two, named Alexis Krauss, grinned as the elder asked Miller what he was doing in New York.

“Her mother was very talkative and she ended up wondering whether or not I was Brazilian, because it was a Brazilian restaurant,” he says of the fateful conversation. “We got to talking and her mom asked me what I was doing in New York. And I told her I was looking for a vocalist, which is a strange thing to tell someone you just met, but I was in the habit of doing that because there was no other reason for me to be in New York, the rent sucks and it’s cold.”

His peculiar frankness paid off — Krauss’s mother volunteered her daughter on the spot. Her singing career had stalled after early glimpses of celebrity as a child, starring in a hokey Nickelodeon Magazine commercial and working a brief stint in the sugary teen pop troupe Rubyblue.

The sweetness in her voice turned out to be the perfect antidote to the rabid frenzy in Miller’s manic beats. In the weeks that followed he would meet Krauss to play her the instrumentals he`d been working on and offer her a chance to sing over them. Over the next two years the duo dubbed themselves Sleigh Bells, began a fittingly eccentric mentorship by way of frantic Sri Lankan songstress MIA, and recorded their lauded debut, Treats. It was not an album so much as a sonic spectrum, with singer and composer sitting on opposite ends.

“It’s just how I hear music,” Miller says of the deranged yin and yang between Krauss’s voluptuous vocals and his voracious instrumentals, the mingling between edgy and elastic that has garnered the pair so much critical acclaim. “I’m surprised more people don’t do it, because it’s a very honest love, respect and reverence (I have) for something like a Madonna record and a metal album. I know it sounds pretentious, but I can’t separate the two when I write and play. If I could change it, I would, because there’s all sorts of problems with our songs for me. But I just kind of do my best.”

The problems lay in the limitations of the equipment he used — the cheapest Akai xr20 and Alesis sr 18 drum machines he could find, hammering out tinny, brittle beats on their sticky key pads and nubby dials. It left his instrumentals with such low fidelity that he had to crank the match volume all the way, simply to get patches of concrete notes, until the songs started clipping and breaking up.

“In my mind I’d say ‘OK this will work for now, and when I get into a proper studio I’ll get a better sound.’ Which is a mistake bands make often; they ruin it by rerecording it.”

He almost made that fatal error himself, hiring a session drummer to polish the beat of “Crown On the Ground”, a highlight of Sleigh Bells’ debut, before scrapping the glossy version in favour of the demo that would go on to be one of the album’s most aggressive and beloved tracks.

“The flaws and limitations ended up being the strength of the song,” he says, adding that fans could relate to that sentiment deeply on a completely intuitive level. “It sounded really raw and nasty ... an obsession for me is the physicality of big music in general, when the subwoofer can make every cell in your body shake.”

Miller says Sleigh Bells’ next album, which the duo plans to record this summer, will hopefully move fans on more than just a literal or cellular level.

“Moving people physically and soulfully, that’s not a common combination. With club music in general it’s usually one or the other,” he says of Sleigh Bells next balancing act, now that the pair has bridged the gap between brash beats and lush vocals. “For a lot of producers it’s more about working a room, but it’s definitely a goal of ours to offer more. To give the ability to dance without thinking and then simultaneously feel something, have an emotional response ... if you can do both then that’s incredible.”



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