Bitter Rivals: Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller on LSU Football, Leonard Fournette, and Alabama

The Florida-born guitarist talks Tigers on the eve of Saturday’s SEC matchup.

Tomorrow evening, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama will play football against one another for the eightieth time. Since former LSU coach Nick Saban left the Miami Dolphins to coach the Tide in 2007, the annual meeting between the two teams has been fraught with a tension that is borderline Shakespearean. And while the first few games in this new era produced the kinds of for-the-ages tilts that you’d expect from a pair of perennial national championship contenders, the past few years have been pure tragedy for LSU fans.

Derek Miller should know. The Sleigh Bells guitarist grew up in Florida in an LSU family. While indie rockers long ago stopped hiding their sports fandom—Stephen Malkmus’s prodigious fantasy-basketball abilities are the worst-kept secret in both music and sports—few are as upfront about their allegiances as Miller. The LSU marching band flashed through a few grainy moments of the trailer for Sleigh Bells’ 2012 album Reign of Terror, while in the video for “Bitter Rivals,” from 2013’s album of the same name, Miller’s white #7 jersey—and his tiger-striped guitar—are front and center. He somehow even convinced singer Alexis Krauss to sit for an interview while wearing a helmet.

That jersey’s turned out to be a good investment. When Miller bought it, it represented Tyrann Mathieu, the infamous Heisman finalist better known as the Honey Badger. This year, #7 may go one step further. Leonard Fournette, who wears the number in honor of New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, is the leading candidate for this year’s trophy, and is so good that opposing defenders apparently whistle in admiration as he runs past them.

Like Miller, I grew up in an LSU family, my own fandom reserved for me in Tiger Stadium years before I was born. So with Fournette and the Tigers rolling into T-Town tomorrow night as the second-ranked team in the College Football Playoff poll, Miller and I emailed to talk about Fournette, the bonds of fandom, and our shared hatred of anything crimson and houndstooth.

Your family all went to LSU. Did you cheer for them growing up? Or was it a gradual appreciation?

Everybody in my house cheered for the Tigers, but I spent most of my time playing in bands and listening to music. My dad, an alum, was a straight-up fanatic. I got more serious about them in 2007/2008 and haven’t looked back.

As a Floridian—and a Floridian in the ’90s, when Steve Spurrier’s Gators were routinely slaughtering LSU, and FSU was at their height, and Miami were still a big deal—what was that like?

Oh man, the UF rivalry was incredible. My dad’s best friend and business partner of thirty years is a Gator, and they were constantly talking shit. The losses were not easy for my dad, I can tell you that much. They planted sugarcane together about an hour from where we lived. I went out to the fields with them a lot and have vivid memories of them fighting about it in the truck. All friendly, of course. Mostly.

What would you say is your relationship to LSU football now? Are you the kind of person who won’t sleep the night before the game, who can’t really talk to anyone or socialize while they’re playing? Or are you a more well-adjusted human being than I am?

Full disclosure: I actually do sleep the night before games. I’m not a maniac about it like I am with anything music related. But it’s more than just football. We lost my dad a few years back, so it’s become something else for us. I love the game, but I also love LSU because it triggers all manner of very warm, positive memories for myself and my family. Even just seeing purple and gold together, anywhere, gives me a good feeling. It’s an intense thing.

I was able to go to both the 2003 and 2007 National Championship games (and the 2011 one, but we won’t talk about that), but the 2007 Florida game was actually the most thrilling LSU game I’ve ever seen. What’s yours?

Shit, man, my favorite game? That’s too hard. The painful losses stick out more. Go figure. The 2011 ass-whooping that Alabama handed us was just awful. Like a black hole set up shop in my stomach and went to work. Talk about a nightmare.

You recently tweeted that you’re proud to wear #7 in the “Bitter Rivals” video because of the lineage from Patrick Peterson to Tyrann Mathieu to Leonard Fournette. As good as those first two are, have you ever seen anything like Fournette before? Are we biased because we’re LSU fans, or is he really that much better than everyone else?

What to say about Leonard Fournette…I think it’s pretty clear at this point: he is the genuine article. All the hype and bias on our behalf wouldn’t mean shit if he didn’t show up and wreck it every Saturday. You cannot argue with what he’s achieving. No idea where his ceiling is yet. I hope he stays healthy and has a long, productive career. From what I can tell, he’s grounded and already has a respectable set of priorities. Godspeed, Leonard.

Most LSU fans have a complicated—to put it mildly—relationship with coach Les Miles. Are you pleased with the job he’s done? Do you like him as a dude?

My position on Les Miles has evolved over the years. Clearly the man has a passion for winning, but I get the sense he doesn’t take the losses home with him. Now, this is disturbing to admit, but that bothered me initially. Nick Saban, by all accounts, cannot escape the game. Being the same type of jerk who takes what he does way too seriously, I kind of admire that. But more and more I appreciate Coach Miles’s perspective. He cares about his players. There is warmth and concern there, which probably has a lot to do with why they respond to him. I back the man.

You guys tour the south pretty regularly. When you’re in, say, Athens, do you talk on stage about Mark Richt’s inability to win the big game?

Funny you mention Athens. The Georgia Theatre is one of our favorite venues in the country. My grandfather on my dad’s side is a Georgia alum, and a good friend of mine, Trevor, is a massive fan, so I’ve got room for the Bulldogs unless we’re playing them. As a band, I’d love to play Tuscaloosa. College towns are always super live. I have approximately zero love for the Bama football program, though. I hope we crush them.

What are your thoughts on Saturday’s game? Can you give me a score prediction?

I hate to disappoint, but I find that predictions of any kind jinx us. I’m nervous as hell for Saturday. I will be watching at home, alone, screaming at the TV like a maniac. FL

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