By Ashley Zimmerman
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Even after being christened by the music media elite as an "it" band, the noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells has yet to forsake its Florida roots.
It's true that singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist Derek E. Miller got their big break not in the Sunshine State but in Brooklyn. But Florida native Miller hasn't forgotten where he came from, and the band is launching the first leg of a national tour with a two-week jaunt through our often musically neglected peninsula.
"I only moved to Brooklyn to find a singer," says Miller, who famously met onetime Tampa resident Krauss while he was a server at a Williamsburg restaurant she visited with her mom. "I'm by no means part of the scene here. I just live and work here," the guitarist said of the Big Apple.
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When the time came to shoot the first video for the group's second album, Krauss and Miller booked flights for Florida to film at the Jupiter home where Miller grew up, an apt location for a song called "Comeback Kid."
"Alexis is jumping on my mom's bed," laughs Miller, of the opening scene. "She's wearing my mom's robe and holding my rifle." The outside scenes were shot in the home's cul-de-sac, with Miller goofing around on a skateboard that belongs to his nephew.
Portions of the video have a faded, gauzy look, as if they were recorded with a camcorder. The wardrobe also invokes a bygone era. Miller wears a Nirvana T-shirt and letterman's jacket — very '90s — while Krauss' leather jacket and shredded jeans would be the envy of any '80s punk-rock kid. They seem, in some ways, to look backward to move music forward.
Except for the screeching of Miller's guitar, it might have been a montage for Sixteen Candles or Teen Wolf. "Yeah, I'm 30, and it's a common reference for people my age," Miller says. "I love Back to the Future, Goonies, and all those John Hughes films."
In the video's final scene, while walking through a grocery store, Miller does a fist pump, and the frame freezes, just like it did for Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club. "I do fist pumps often and unironically," Miller says. "I think it's badass, like, 'Fuck yeah!' "
He's had plenty of reason to fist-pump in the two years since the release of Treats, the common denominator of so many rock critics' Best Albums of 2010 lists.
A regular member of the audience at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach during the mid-aughts, Miller found himself taking stage as a headliner in July 2010. "I'm not going to lie — that was very satisfying," he says, "because Florida's my home."
Miller made his first musical mark as a member of Poison the Well, a hardcore band with a fiercely loyal constituency. Although he's stayed friends with his old bandmates, Miller ventured out to forge a sound that was more accessible than hardcore and yet more challenging than traditional pop music.
There's still a hardcore edge to Miller's deafening guitar riffs, but the pop sweetness of Strauss' voice is what creates the contrast that has become Sleigh Bells' brand. There's a subversive quality to her lyrics, because the instrumentals in pop music are hardly ever so ferocious.
Not that Sleigh Bells are mocking pop — both Miller and Strauss have professed a love of Top 40 tunes from the 1980s and early '90s. The two credit those mass-marketed songs as powerful influences. They wanted to hear how pop music sounded against a guitar and drum machine turned up to the volume of a shuttle launch. Sleigh Bells resulted.
Last year, during the downtime between shows, Miller and Strauss began to craft what would become Sleigh Bells' second album, the ambitiously titled Reign of Terror. In December, a trailer for the album appeared online, with Miller's trademark riffs and Strauss running a brush through her ink-black hair, totally reminiscent of a villain from a sci-fi flick.
"I think this is a darker record, lyrically and thematically," says Miller, when asked to compare the second album to the first. "I feel like my life has changed pretty dramatically since before I recorded Treats, so it comes from a different place."
Reign of Terror will be released this year on February 21. The idea to promote the record with a Florida tour came during a consultation with world-famous producer and DJ Diplo. He got his big break working with the flamboyant and noisy Sri Lanken M.I.A., whose N.E.E.T. label signed Sleigh Bells in 2010.
"We were out one night drinking, just shooting the shit, and we jokingly talked about how we should do a two-week tour of Florida, from Pensacola to the Keys, because we're both proud Floridians," says Miller, referencing Diplo's time at the University of Central Florida. A few weeks later, the "Paradise Lost" tour was announced. Though Diplo was originally on the bill for the Fort Lauderdale show at Revolution, he's no longer performing that night. He will rejoin the tour when it reaches Miami three nights later.
Sleigh Bells haven't played live since Bonnaroo last June, which came at the end of an international tour to promote Treats. Miller is looking forward to seeing how the hometown crowd responds to the band's new material. But mostly, he wants a Sleigh Bells show to be an escape from the fans' daily routine.