Feature: Sleigh Bells at the Newport

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From the November 8, 2012 edition

Sleigh Bells’ strong cocktail of blown-out heavy metal and bubblegum pop is direct and to the point, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the project’s mastermind, Derek Miller, is among the bluntest and most practical musicians in rock. It’s just uncommon to hear a man in show business speak so transparently.

“She basically runs the stage, and I run the studio,” Miller said of the dynamic between himself and Alexis Krauss, the singer who brings his creations to life. “Playing live, to be honest, is a lot of fun. But it’s secondary. Going into the studio to make the records is my No. 1 priority.”

On the phone last week, Miller explained that he’s content to let Krauss spearhead the live show and even to let her face be the one splashed across magazine covers if that means he gets to keep being a studio rat for a living.

Fortunately for Sleigh Bells fans, that doesn’t diminish the thrill of hearing Miller’s ear-searing compositions test the limits of a P.A. system, and Krauss’ pep rally/striptease/rock star routine goes above and beyond in terms of entertainment. They put on a hell of a show.

Still, Miller more or less dismissed the significance of concerts like the one his band (pardon, “not a band”) will perform Thursday at Newport Music Hall with sampler virtuoso AraabMuzik, rescheduled from last month after Miller broke his arm skateboarding with his nephew.

Maybe downplaying the live show isn’t the most profitable party line, but it was refreshingly honest. And Miller has a point when he postulates that future generations will only have the albums to measure Sleigh Bells by.

“I don’t really care how good the Clash were live, to be honest,” Miller said. “All I have is the catalog. Those records are going to follow me around for the rest of my life.”

So far, so good on that front. Since exploding out of the gate with the crackling demo “Crown on the Ground,” the sugar-coated Hulk smash that established the Sleigh Bells archetype and made the group instant underground stars, Miller has kicked out two superb full-lengths.

He had never produced an album before Sleigh Bells, just played guitar in Florida hardcore band Poison the Well. So the in-the-red production values on 2010 debut Treats were less an aesthetic choice than a function of entry level studio skills.

But sonic assailment was definitely a goal when crafting this year’s follow up, Reign of Terror. Miller wrote most of the album while coping with the dual blows of his father dying in a motorcycle crash and his mother getting diagnosed with cancer.

“It wasn’t a whole lot of fun,” Miller said. “Naturally that just sort of made its way into the record. That record almost exclusively deals with those types of feelings. They’ll always be there, but I feel free to write about other things now.”

He’s also writing in new ways, crafting cleaner, softer songs that lean more on Krauss’ knack for melody. It sounds like a radical departure, but Miller isn’t worried about stepping out of bounds.

“I feel like we could make any type of record. It’s an open canvas,” Miller said. “In the past, especially playing with Poison the Well, usually your fan base abandons you immediately when you try something new. I feel like with us, almost the opposite. I feel like the moment we start repeating ourselves, that’s when people will lose interest. Which is extremely refreshing.”