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 back yard.
"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. 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 the perfect salty-sweet complement to his own woofer-shaking guitar riffs and beats.
In other words: If the Millers hadn't moved, the world wouldn't have Sleigh Bells.
The duo's one-of-a-kind 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. and Beyoncé, who reportedly sought them out for a studio collaboration. Even Madison Avenue digs 'em — Infinity Guitars and Riot Rhythm surfaced in commercials for the Windows Phone and Honda, respectively.
It's all a long way from Pahokee. But Miller will return to Florida this weekend for three shows with Sleigh Bells, including one Friday at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Much, he said, has changed since he left a few years ago.
"It's typical — you start out somewhere, and then you leave, and you're no longer a part of the scene," said Miller, who started in the hardcore band Poison the Well at age 16. "I sort of feel that way about hardcore in general. That's why I quit. 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?"
Miller was already writing strange, new material when he met Krauss, a former schoolteacher, while waiting tables at a restaurant in Brooklyn. He thought she'd be a good fit on some songs, including an early version of Infinity Guitars.
"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," he said. "And she enjoys that challenge. She wants to get it right."
In concert, the tattooed Krauss is the focal point of Sleigh Bells, delivering breathy, chirpy cheerleader vocals while the boyish Miller riffs away on the side. It's just them onstage, backed by a laptop and a wall of speakers. Which is exactly how Miller wants it.
"I'm a little bit of a control freak — I like making all of the decisions," he said. "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."
The band is working on a followup to Treats and will probably hit the studio in June. "I'm starting to collaborate with Alexis more and more, which has been really great," Miller said. That means tinkering with keys that better suit her vocal range and adding more ambitious arrangements and instrumentation.
"I really feel like it's better in every way," he said of the new stuff. "Treats sounds like it's more for your feet, for movement, and a lot of the new stuff hits you in your chest a little more. There's an emotional resonance. There's something different to it."