For Who The Bells Toll - Sleigh Bells

Face-to-face with their demons
Clash Magazine Issue 72 - Sleigh Bells
Picture the scene. It’s 1934 in the small town of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It’s cold outside - actually, it’s bloody freezing - and the snow, as it tends to on America’s East Coast, has fallen thick and fast. People are wrapping up, trying to keep warm, rushing from to home to work, or vice-versa, while after school and at the weekends kids play in Honesdale Central Park. Richard ‘Dick’ Smith sees this and pens some words that will later be set to a tune by Felix Bernard.

For years - and imagine this as a montage spanning decades with the faces of famous singers merging with bright white landscapes - fires and record players will crackle to Johnny Mercer or Perry Como or Ella Fitzgerald or Elvis Presley as they sing about a ‘Winter Wonderland’. That’s the point at which - the montage having reached 2012 with images of distressed Londoners complaining about the Tube being closed after less than an inch of snowfall - the sound of the record player’s needle scratching the vinyl tears through the song and that immortal first line, skips in perpetuity, repeating over and over and over again: “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”

The racket that Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss make is probably - definitely, certainly, absolutely - not what Dick Smith had in mind when he wrote those lyrics. But some three and a bit years since the pair first met, Sleigh Bells are ringing louder than ever. And with the release of ‘Reign Of Terror’ more people are going to hear than ever before.

If the title sounds ominous, it is. ‘Reign Of Terror’ is not, on the whole, a happy album. On the whole, in fact, it’s a very dark record - thematically, lyrically and, in its brash acerbic bursts of scuzzy, confrontational noise, musically, too. This is because, according to Miller - the duo’s songwriter, producer and lyricist, and former member of defunct Florida hardcore outfit Poison The Well - it’s a much more autobiographical record than both their eponymous 2009 debut EP and ‘Treats’, the band’s 2010 debut.

“I feel like I made ‘Treats’ in a state of denial,” he explains candidly. “I was in shock at a lot of things that had gone on in my personal life. ‘Reign Of Terror’ is me confronting them head on and dealing with them. While we were making ‘Treats’ it was really easy to bury my head in the sand and just focus on the record and band, but eventually you gotta pay the toll. I couldn’t run from it anymore. I was having to deal with a lot of stuff that was not very pretty. It was strange to be vulnerable for such a long period of time, and I had to confront what was going on in my life head on. I know this sounds pretty dramatic, but that’s the reality of it.”



What, specifically, that reality is, Miller is reluctant to say. He doesn’t want to go into details - perhaps he still feels too close to it, too vulnerable. But whatever it was that was haunting him, he dealt with it by writing the songs which would form ‘Reign Of Terror’. Its making - the initial ideas, the writing process, the recording of it - was a pure and necessary catharsis, Miller’s situation and emotions feeding directly into the songs. Ironically, they’re anything but vulnerable - quite the opposite, in fact - but their very fabric is his despair, his desolation, his anguish. Without that, these songs and this album wouldn’t exist. And that’s something he’s all too aware of.

“I think about that all the time,” he says, and you can hear the thought once again weighing down his mind as he speaks. “As much as I love the record and am happy I have a career, I would fucking trade it all in to not have to have gone through that. I know it’s weird that I’m referencing this thing and I’m not comfortable talking about it, but I was living through a nightmare. My whole family was. I’d do anything to change it, but that ain’t gonna happen. So I’ll make records about it instead. It’s a consolation, I suppose, but not much of one.” He pauses for a second to consider the severity of his words. “I don’t mean to make this feel smaller than it is,” he then adds. “It’s my life and I’m fully invested in this and I love it to death and I work really hard at it. But, as a result, I also have this perspective on it that keeps my feet on planet Earth.”

Words by Mischa Pearlman
Photography by Kevin Amato
Artwork by The Kent River 12


This is an excerpt of the cover feature of Clash magazine, out 8th March. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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