Sleigh Bells' Derek Miller talks collaborations, Florida hardcore and the follow-up to 'Treats'
As a boy, Derek Miller’s clothes were stained with the rich black soil of Pahokee, near Lake Okeechobee. He played in his father’s cane fields, hacking sugar stalks with a machete and eating fresh fruit from his grandma’s backyard.
“I would just run around in the muck,” said Miller. “We left when I was 5 because of my asthma. They’d burn the cane fields after they shuck it, and it literally would rain ashes all over Belle Glade. That put me in the hospital a few times, and then we were forced to move.”
It was a fortuitous decision. Because if Miller’s family hadn’t moved to Jupiter, young Derek wouldn’t have joined a hardcore metal band at age 16. He might not have moved to Brooklyn, where in 2008 he met a former teen-pop singer named Alexis Krauss. And he never would have discovered that Krauss’ airy sing-song voice was a perfect salty-sweet complement to his own colossal guitar riffs and woofer-shaking beats.
In other words: If the Millers hadn’t moved, the world wouldn’t have Sleigh Bells.
The duo’s unique amalgam of pop, metal, hip-hop and indie rock — all cranked up to the highest, noisiest levels imaginable — has made them one of the most electric new bands of this decade. Their debut album Treats earned raves from critics, as well as influential fans like M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem and Beyonce, who reportedly sought them out for a studio collaboration.
Before the band launched their spring tour at Coachella — they’ll play the State Theatre in St. Petersburg Friday night (click here for details) — we chatted by phone with Miller about his roots in South Florida and the band’s next album.
Sixteen. That’s an early time to start with a band like Poison the Well. How would you characterize the Florida punk and hardcore scene when you were a big part of it?
Being 16, I was a fan of the band. They were called An Acre Lost, and right when they changed their name to Poison the Well, I talked my way into it. And honestly, I was thrilled. It became my whole life, my identity. Hardcore kids in Florida can be obsessive. It totally takes over your life. And so it was incredible. I left high school, went to college for a semester, then went on tour. It was amazing. Those were my college years, basically.
You being 16 — did that pose any problems for the band? Did you only play all-ages shows?
No. It’s South Florida. (laughs) We picked the places were playing. There’s a place called Club Q in Davie that was kind of the spot, and they certainly didn’t have any issue letting me in. They want their cut of the door and they want their bar, and that’s all they’re really worried about.
Do you have any particular memories of playing around the state?
Yeah, I mean, they’re really good memories. Nothing bad. It was all really exciting. I have some of the best memories from Vero Beach — we played the Vero Beach Women’s Center a bunch. I saw Refused there a week before they broke up. I got arrested for writing graffiti a week before Earth Crisis played Club Q. I was grounded, and I was the only one out of everyone I knew in South Florida who didn’t go see Earth Crisis. I was pissed.
Was it hard to stand out and get your musical ideas across?
Ryan Primack, who’s the other guitar player, is still one of my best friends today. We started collaborating pretty much immediately. My input starts with The Opposite of December. Then we did Tear for the Red, and You Come Before You is my last record with them. I’m not necessarily proud today of all of my ideas — I’m not sure if everything holds up. But it was the best that I could do at that time in my life, and I’m okay with it. I’m proud of what we accomplished — a group of 18-, 19-year-old kids from South Florida that really had no help, and we built it by ourselves.
The hardcore scene in South Florida is very intense. Was there a moment where you felt like, “I gotta get out?”
Yeah. Well, Poison the Well left. By 2001 I think, we were basically a full-time touring band. But it’s typical — you start out somewhere, and then you leave, and you’re no longer a part of the scene. I sort of feel that way about hardcore in general. That’s why I quit. Because I knew that I had other ambitions and I wanted to do something different, but it was going to take a while to get away from that world. It became like a cage, you know? You feel trapped in it, and hardcore fans are pretty unforgiving when it comes to trying out new sounds. I got tired of that real quick.
For somebody who came up in that scene, (A) is it now weird to you to feel so accepted by the quote-unquote “indie” crowd; and (B) have you heard from any hardcore fans in South Florida? Do you feel that group is accepting of Sleigh Bells?
There are always a few kids at every Sleigh Bells show with a Poison the Well shirt on, and I always end up talking to them. They’re great, because those are usually the music fans. They were a little less interested in the scene, and they just liked the sound, you know? They’re like me — when I was in high school, I would listen to Earth Crisis or Converge or Coalesce or Acme, and in ’97, ’98, (Radiohead’s) OK Computer comes out, and suddenly some of your friends are listening to it, so you start listening to a little bit of Radiohaed, and you’re like, “Wait a minute, there’s something other than hardcore?” So something happened to these kids — they’re like, “Wait a minute, how come you’re not playing hardcore anymore?” I’m like, “I dunno, the same reason you’re not at hardcore shows anymore.”
When did you start putting together the songs that ended up on Treats? Were you writing them before you met Alexis?
Not all of them, but a few of them. We have a B-side called Holly, and Infinity Guitars, in a radically different form, has been around since ’07 and ’08. I met Alexis in July of ’08, so none of them were more than a year old. Infinity Guitars is a little older now. I still actually like it, which is rare. Usually I hate everything. Anything I have my hands on, I kind of get pretty sick of quickly. But I’m happy to say that I haven’t turned on that stuff entirely yet.
A song like that, which you obviously wrote and were working on before you met her — what comes first, the riff or the beat?
Rhythm. That’s sort of the entirety of the record — all of Treats started with rhythm. For me, the rhythm does the heavy lifting for the record. Which is sort of how the new record — which we have yet to record, but which we’ve been working on pretty intensely — differs. This one is much heavier; it’s much more melodic though. And I think the arrangements are much more satisfying. This sounds like a corny soundbite, and I’m sorry about that, but Treats sounds like it’s more for your feet, for movement, and a lot of the new stuff kind of hits you in your chest a little more. There’s an emotional resonance. There’s something different to it. I’m excited to do something different.
Are you bringing more instruments into the fold? More musicians?
No, I actually mean the literal arrangements. Rill Rill, for example, has a very traditional arrangement, and I like that about it. The mood of that song is miles away from a lot of the new songs, because that song is almost sunny, for lack of a better word. It’s very easy to listen to. We’re not really doing anything like that anymore. It’s like that, if it was more abrasive.
That’s a song that changed from demo to album. It kind of expanded and got a little fuller, bigger.
Absolutely. I got a better chop of the sample, used a much better 808, better reverb, better compression. I was using junk, which was fine, but a song like that — like, Infinity Guitars benefitted from the fidelity of the recording. But Rill Rill, we worked with an amazing engineer whose ears are much better than mine. He can stack frequencies and do a lot of things that I can’t. That’s really not my strength.
You guys have been collaborating with a lot of people. I know you get this question in every interview, but Beyonce — have you really been working with her?
Yeah, I can’t say anything about it. (laughs) No comment. So yeah. We’ll see what happens, you know?
Diplo or M.I.A. — have you done anything with them?
Yeah, I worked on Maya’s last record. I’d love to work on her next one, but I think we’re both gonna be too busy. Wes (Pentz, a.k.a. Diplo), I’ll definitely work with at some point in the future. He’s a friend. But I don’t think I’m ready to bring anyone else into the studio yet, as far as Sleigh Bells. I’m a little bit of a control freak about it. I like making all of the decisions. I’m starting to collaborate with Alexis more and more, which has been really great, but it’s hard for me to let go of any of it, if I’m being honest.
How would you describe it when you guys are in the studio working together? Coworkers? Boss-employee? Husband-wife? Brother-sister?
Ninety percent of the time, it’s the two of us trying to get the song to sound right in terms of delivery with her. She’s done a lot of session work, which means she’s used to having a guy on the other side of the glass speak very specifically about what he’s looking for. And she enjoys that challenge. She wants to get it right, and she’s very good at it.
Are you writing more with her voice in mind?
What I’m doing now is changing keys when something doesn’t work, because a lot of things are out of her range, or they don’t suit her range as well as they could. So I’m using capos and stuff, actually changing keys, whereas before, I would be like, “This doesn’t work.” Which is not thinking your way around the problem. So yeah, I think it suits her much better. It’s a much better marriage with the instrumental this time around.
What’s the best part of being a duo as opposed to a full band?
Less mouths to feed. (laughs) I’m only partially joking. That’s half of it. What I learned from Poison the Well is, too many cooks in the kitchen is a bad thing, that whole cliche. I made a conscious decision to keep it down to as few people as possible. It’s nice because Alexis and I don’t fight, really. We’re not a band that creatively benefits from that type of friction. We get along well, we communicate very well, and the music happens much easier that way. I think it’s for the better.
I see a ton of the White Stripes in Sleigh Bells. Is that a comparison you guys get a lot?
We don’t get it a lot, but we do get it. And I’m always very, very flattered when I hear that, because as a guitar player — and as somebody that doesn’t really like to compromise very much — I’m really happy to be compared to Jack White. He’s one of my favorites. And you know, our sound is very dense — our record is very, very dense — but there’s really nothing going on in it. It’s skeletal. There’s a lot of low end, but there’s no bass guitar — there are pitched 808s, electronic sounds, but a lot of times, it’s just drum, guitar and vocals. I’m sort of obsessed with that sound.
Aesthetics and backstory are very important to the aura around the White Stripes, in terms of how they present themselves. Is that important to you? How important do you consider the aesthetics of Sleigh Bells?
If you’d asked me a year ago, I would say it’s irrelevant. Now, I will tell you that it’s very important. And I feel like that was our biggest weakness the first time around. We had no idea how we wanted to present ourselves. I didn’t want to present myself. It would be great if we never even had to show our faces, to be honest. I was very into the idea of, “We’ll let the music do the talking!” That’s fine, but as a music fan, I have an inherent interest in the people that are making the music that I love. I have to accept that, being on the flip side, people are going to be interested in us, what we have to say, and how we look. I can’t hide behind “Let the music speak for itself!” anymore. So now I have a year’s worth of pictures to look back at and cringe. But that’s okay — nothing’s perfect, and we have a lot of great ideas for this next record, visually, aesthetically. Not like it’s some big plan. It’s just things that work well with the music.
Can you define your sense of style? Your aesthetic, your vibe, your je ne sais quoi?
No, no. Next time we have a chance to do it better, we will. It’s too early to start talking about it now. But yeah, it’s definitely a much more unified and cohesive thing.
Every time I see you guys on TV, I think 21 Jump Street. I mean that as a compliment.
(laughs) Yeah, that makes perfect sense, especially with Alexis. She has one jacket that’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say that. That’s pretty awesome.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Phil Knott.