They were never bitter rivals, but in the early days of Sleigh Bells, singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist/producer Derek Miller weren’t exactly friends, either. The Brooklyn-based heavy-metal-meets-pop duo famously met in a restaurant where Miller was waiting tables and Krauss was a customer. A shot-in-the-dark conversation led to some Myspace demos, which led to a label deal, which led to “Treats,” their zeitgeist-capturing 2010 debut that made several best-of-the-year lists and went on to sell 180,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But behind all the buzz, chemistry between Miller and Krauss at first remained cold-they were bandmates, not besties.
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“We didn’t know each other that well in the beginning, and it’s hard to put yourself out there in the studio or onstage when you don’t really know or trust the other person,” Miller says. “You have to build that trust before you can get vulnerable.”
The distance between the two wasn’t helped by Sleigh Bells’ trademarked and rigid formula, in which Miller provides ear-splitting blasts of electric guitar and Krauss kisses the wounds with pillow-soft vocals. “Treats,” and 2012 follow-up “Reign of Terror,” were almost uniformly driven by the guitar aspect-meaning Miller called the shots and Krauss was the role player.
But on new album “Bitter Rivals” — out Oct. 8 on Mom + Pop-Sleigh Bells have, ironically, found harmony. For the first time, the duo approached the project as fully equal partners.
“It’s definitely fair to say that the first two records were my records and this is the first one that’s our record,” Miller says. “Alexis was more hands on with Reign of Terror than on Treats, but nowhere near as much as she was with this one. It was a true collaboration.”
Krauss’ added prominence makes “Bitter Rivals” Sleigh Bells’ most melodic album yet-a pop record with a metal coating, not the other way around. There are shades of mid-2000s R&B/dancehall artist Lumidee on the song “Young Legends,” and the hook on album closer “Love Sick” wouldn’t be out of place on a JoJo album. Throughout, the vocals are full and high in the mix, for once giving them a fighting chance against Miller’s malevolent shredding.
The shift in the balance of power was inspired in part by Sleigh Bells’ live show, during which Krauss often faces the unenviable task of cooing into a microphone while submersed in a torrent of deafening noise. After a particularly frustrating experience playing “Saturday Night Live” to promote “Reign of Terror” last year (one blogger wrote: “It sounded like she was singing into a tin-can phone”), the band vowed to mix things up.
“She was sick and tired of having to whisper in the middle of a hurricane,” Miller says. “So this time around we were like, ‘Fuck it, something has to change.’ And we couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out.”
Its third album in as many years, “Bitter Rivals” is also a bid by the band to avoid the fate of other acts that receive early hype only to burn out as quickly as they blew up. Miller says he needs to keep releasing music every one or two years to stay sane, a pace that Mom + Pop doesn’t mind matching. “Bitter Rivals” was handed over in July and announced early this month.
“There’s something to be said for the purity of putting music out in a timely manner as to when it was made,” label founder/owner Michael Goldstone says. “That they’re so prolific and want to keep putting music in the hands of fans as opposed to doing a long campaign is inspiring.”
The release of the record will coincide with a two-month North American tour, several dates of which will be opened by salacious Detroit rapper Danny Brown. The band will also appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Oct. 17 and on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on Oct. 21.
Miller admits to reading early reviews of his albums, the negative of which always seem more memorable than the positive ones. “Bitter Rivals” is his favorite Sleigh Bells project so far, but still he remains his own harshest critic.
“I’m the type of person where the second I’m done with something, I’m pretty much already over it-either that or it’s become obvious to me why it’s terrible,” he says with a laugh. “We’re very rarely satisfied. The moment I have one or two ideas that I think improve on anything we’ve done before, I start jumping up and down like a 10-year-old and want to show it to Alexis and get started immediately. That’s what sustains me. That’s what I do this for.”