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Derek Miller is trying to explain his urge to make music, to the hilarity of Sleigh Bells bandmate Alexis Krauss. "It's like taking a piss," he insists, as Alexis giggles. He perseveres: "I can hold it but, eventually, it's going to happen. It might not be pretty but it's always ... warm and relieving."
"It's always warm?" Alexis guffaws.
Derek pauses to consider: "That is going to look ridiculous in print."
This Brooklyn duo can be prone to grandiose gestures and statements but it's all part of the plan. Right now they kick off their incredible live shows with True Shred Guitar, the song that opens their new album Reign Of Terror. Against a wall of feedback and fake crowd noise, Alexis screams: "There you are/ There you fucking are/ Here we go/ I wanna see all your fucking hands in the air/ All right, here we go/ One, two, three, four … " It's like she's opening Live Aid, if Live Aid took place in hell.
"I was in the vocal booth," explains Alexis, whose howls sound like Joan Jett and who's looking very Jett-like with her black fringe, tattoos and shredded jeans. "I was pretending I was standing in front of 200,000 people, losing my shit."
"We jokingly hoped that it would be prophetic," adds Derek. "Cos it's an arrogant way to start a record. It's brash and tasteless, and more and more we flirt with tastelessness."
You could argue that the whole idea of Sleigh Bells depends on a considered trashiness. Their music is obnoxious and anarchic, a crossbreed of pop, beats and hardcore that's half pumping jock-rock and half rave abandon. "Most of my tastes are middle to low," he agrees. "I'm uncomfortable with sophistication. I'm inherently drawn to things that are inclusive like pop music. Or pizza."
"And if you listen to True Shred Guitar, it makes you want to get up and sound like Joan Jett," says Alexis. "She's a huge inspiration. Nobody's as badass as her."
Sleigh Bells began with a fateful meeting in a Brazilian restaurant, after Alexis and her mother had a bet over whether their waiter was Brazilian or not. "I was like, 'That's the most American boy I ever saw,'" recalls Alexis. Her mother disagreed and Derek was called over to be checked out.
"Her mom asked me and I said, 'No, I'm from Florida.' And her mom said, 'Me too!' She asked what I was doing in New York, I told her I was looking for a vocalist. Alexis said she sang. And here we are."
Alexis grew up in New York, and had a short stint singing in a poppy girl group called RubyBlue. Derek spent his teens and early 20s as guitarist in hardcore band Poison The Well, before leaving his home state for a long bi-coastal mission to find his perfect female vocalist. Why was it so hard? "It wasn't," he smiles, goofily. (The pair have a younger brother/older sister dynamic; Alexis, calmer and quieter, seems to take care of him, helping with everything from his choice of outfit to literally mopping his sweaty brow). "I don't know. Nobody took me seriously. In Brooklyn, girls just thought I was hitting on them. Everyone's a musician so if you're out in a bar on Friday night and you start talking to a girl you're like, 'I'd love to play you some music.' And they're like. 'Yeah, sure.'"
'There's nothing wrong with the old sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. But for me, it's just the rock'n'roll part' - Derek MillerDerek Miller of Sleigh Bells onstage in in NYC, 2010. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty
Alexis picks up the story: "Derek was never self-deprecating about his work. He was never like, 'Yeah, I got this project, it's whatever …' It was clearly his baby and he spoke about it like he committed every waking second to it. That was one of the things that convinced me to stop doing what I was doing."
"I think a lot of people like the lifestyle," says Derek, "and there's nothing wrong with that, the old sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. But for me, it's just the rock'n'roll part, specifically the music, and I think that's why she took me seriously from the beginning."
Sleigh Bells didn't take long to catch fire. After hearing them through a friend, Spike Jonze played his pal MIA some of the early demos, and she immediately fired off an email to Derek, asking them to sign to her label NEET. "She was one of our first fans," he says, "and she was and still is one of my favourite MCs. So that blew my mind. I read the email three times and was shaking a little, because something like that changes the direction of your life. It was an intense moment and I'm forever grateful to her for that."
How involved is she now? "We're no longer signed to her label," says Alexis, with just a hint of coolness.
"There's no drama," Derek adds hurriedly. "It was more of a creative collaboration. Then she got really busy and we got really busy, and it's as simple as that."
And what about her one-fingered salute to America?
"It was just classic MIA," shrugs Derek. "That's Maya through and through. She's going to do what she wants to do no matter what anyone tells her. Part of what's great about her is how stubborn she can be. I think she knew what she was doing."
MIA's involvement meant that Sleigh Bells went from a diligent but personal musical project, in which Derek and Alexis would spend a few hours in each other's apartment on their days off work, to becoming the toast of the blogs literally overnight. After only a few performances ("We'd played a handful of really terrible shows," admits Derek), suddenly they were being hyped to the hilt and had big, real expectations heaped upon them. Did they feel ready for it?
"There were growing pains but people were kind," says Derek. "Our first Coachella set was … we were unprepared, put it that way. And we played a mediocre set at the Pitchfork festival in front of a lot of people. But nobody crucified us. They gave us a chance."
There's a plump-lipped elephant in the room, which Derek is quick to spot. "I mean, I don't want to spend 20 minutes talking about Lana Del Rey, but that was lightning fast, way too quick. She should have been allowed room to grow and to make mistakes and to give shitty performances because that happens to everybody, I don't care who you are. Fucking Bob Dylan played bad shows, you know? That's life."
'Oh dude, I'm so in love with Beyoncé. She's one of the few people I'd be a total starstuck idiot in front of. R&B's a huge influence for us' – Alexis KraussAlexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells onstage in George, Washington, 2011. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty
We're speaking just prior to Sleigh Bells' appearance on Saturday Night Live. And, after LDR's experience (already satirised on the show by Kristen Wiig), they're understandably nervous. It's their first-ever TV appearance; they've said no to previous offers. So why now? "The only reason not to do it would be fear of failure," says Derek. "It's a challenge. And I'm up for it. Simple as that. Fuck it. Let's just get up there and try to do something decent." A week later, they pull it off.
The invitation, you suspect, came for two reasons, one of which must be their increasingly thrilling live shows, performing stadium-scale gigs in club settings, against a wall of Marshall amps, a giant American flag, smoke machines and brain-thumping strobes. The other is new album Reign Of Terror, which takes the template of their debut Treats and gives it an extra-shiny pop polish – not an easy ask, when the sweetly sung lyrics turn out to be things like "Enemies, on your knees/ Suffer please", and the songs are given titles such as Born To Lose and End Of The Road.
"It's not a bright record," admits Derek. "It comes from a dark place. My family and I went through a horrible, nightmarish time. I don't want to talk about it specifically, but for a while it was just like, I don't know … I feel like this record saved my life, which is why it's so important to me. Like the title Reign Of Terror, it's not an attempt at being clever. It's literal."
Before Reign Of Terror was finished, there was a rumour, started by their friend Diplo, that Derek had gone into the studio with Beyoncé, for what could have been the most surprising meeting of minds since Jedward shook the hand of Barack Obama. The truth? "I let people run with it," Derek concedes. "She was in the studio with Diplo and Switch, and I think they played her our record, and she really liked Kids. So she asked for the stems and I emailed them over, but I have no idea what happened. I don't think she really works with strangers and I'm just this new kid on the block."
"Oh dude, I'm so in love with her," sighs Alexis. "She's one of the few people I'd be a total starstuck idiot in front of. R&B's a huge influence for both of us, especially on this record."
"Comeback Kid is 100% an R&B melody; it's Alexis's natural mode," says Derek. "She sings a lot. When she thinks no one's around, she'll brush her hair, going [diva warble] 'I'm brushing mah haairrr, woohhoooohh'!"
"I actually do that a lot. 'I'm going to the ba-haha-athrooooom … '" She completes this with Mariah-style hand movements, and they both crack up.
"Comeback Kid is an R&B song," says Derek, "but I'm pretty indebted to Nirvana for the power chords."
So Sleigh Bells are Nirvana meets R&B?
"Don't attribute that to me," he says, grinning.