Q&A: Sleigh Bells Guitarist Derek Miller's Musical Identity Was Forged in the Fires of SoFla
Ear-searing crunk-rock duo Sleigh Bells reps New York today, but the Sunshine State can take plenty of credit for its formation.
In the early '00s, guitarist Derek Miller played ragged post-hardcore in South Florida as part of Poison the Well. Meanwhile, vocalist Alexis Krauss' mother is from Thonotosassa, a small town right outside of Tampa. These two regional tidbits helped cement Sleigh Bells two summers ago, when Miller chatted with Krauss (who grew up on the Jersey Shore) and her mother as their waiter at a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn. "If you ask Alexis, we're a New Jersey hardcore band," Miller says via phone from the Rock im Park fest in Nuremberg, Germany. "And if you ask me, we're a South Florida hardcore band."
Calling Sleigh Bells' music strictly hardcore is a bit of a misnomer. A record deal with M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. imprint, Miller's past association with West Palm Beach's Surfer Blood, and tours with decidedly un-hardcore Major Lazer and Yeasayer better identify the type of audience gravitating toward the music. True that "Crown on the Ground" and "Infinity Guitars" on debut album Treats amplify instruments to speaker-blowing fuzz, but an arsenal of hip-hop beats, Krauss' deft vocals, and even a Funkadelic sample help provide a pop salve for all the noisy inflammation.
Miller tells New Times that Sleigh Bells' first South Florida show holds a special significance not only because Respectable Street used to be his regular hangout but because locally based opening act Nerve City features one of his old Poison the Well cohorts.
New Times: How do you describe your relationship with Poison the Well today?
Derek Miller: They're still really good friends of mine. Ryan [Primack]'s going to be playing with Nerve City that we're going to be going on tour with in July. I don't know how to describe it. It's kinda loud, kinda screechy and dark. Really great. We're going to be back on the road together. Everybody's taking a little break. They've been on tour for so long. Ryan's in West Palm right now. I think Jeff [Moriera] is in Miami.
How did your approach to guitar differ from Ryan Primack's?
Ryan's more about lead guitar playing, and I'm more about rhythm. That's the main difference. Besides that, Ryan's — technically speaking — just an incredible guitar player. He knows a bit of theory as well, which both helped and limited him. A lot of times, I would be trying to do things that didn't make any sense. And he'd be like, you can't put that there. You can't lay a fourth over a diminished whatever. I had no idea. That shit's Chinese to me. I think that's definitely — our guitar parts were very different because of that.
Now that you're playing a headlining show at Respectable Street with Sleigh Bells, what memories do you have of the venue from over the years?
When I left [Poison the Well], I moved back to South Florida in July of '04. My friends and I started going to Respecs in late '04, and for the next couple of years, I went once a week. I was in California for a little while, and it's actually been a couple of years since that was a staple of mine, but I think it was Thursday night they would play a ton of really good stuff. Pop, hip-hop, whatever — it was just a good club scene. I'm actually really psyched to be going back and playing. That was just my first experience with going out and dancing.
What was it like playing with J.P. Pitts and T.J. Schwarz from Surfer Blood for a bit during your time here in Florida?
We played music for a while. We just played with those guys in Barcelona. Awesome dudes. I don't really know what's going on there right now, but at the time in West Palm, if you were a musician — the pool of musicians was very small, basically. You would end up playing with dudes who were taking it seriously and who could actually get shit done, which was J.P. and T.J. It was different from what Alexis and I are doing. There were definitely some leftover riffs and whatnot that I took with me when I moved to New York, but that was more like a band thing. This is more electronic, and there's beat production and programming and whatnot. It was a blast, though. T.J.'s sister was really young. She was like 16. She was still in high school. Crazy.
It must be great to see that they're doing so well now.
Of course. I couldn't be happier for them. We went our different ways; they had started doing their own thing, and I heard it progress. I'm really psyched for them.
How many times have you listened to Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain," which you sampled for "Rill Rill"?
[laughs] Quite a bit, but it was more just an obsession with the track "Can You Get to That." It's a really great record, but I tend to latch onto singles or individual songs. I'm more of a singles guy than a full-length dude. When they're done really well and they're solid front to back, I'm down. But that's difficult, as anyone would tell you. Nearly impossible. Obsessed with that song. I wanted something like that. That was the first time I've ever sampled anyone. It's probably the last as well, if I'm being honest. It just worked perfectly.
Expensewise or creatively?
Both. It just complicates things when you have to deal with a third party. I prefer just coming up with original material anyway.
Did you ever think about sampling the Poison the Well catalog?
Not seriously. I thought it might be fun at some point to sample the band. I don't know how I'd ever get away with it. I thought about it, and it could be funny. What do you think about that, Alexis? Sampling a Poison the Well song. [laughs] We joked about it. But rather than doing that, I'd rather come up with something that could straight up be in a Poison the Well song as opposed to rehashing something.
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