Music News

Derek Miller on His Evolution From Poison the Well to Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells strike a nifty balance. The Brooklyn-based duo creates experimental cacophonies, yet somehow the music is instantly accessible. New Times caught up with Derek Miller, the band's guitarist and producer. He explained this dichotomy: "It's my way of reconciling all the records I love. I grew up with my mom's influence of Michael and Janet Jackson, George Michael, and Madonna. Then I got into the hardcore scene, and then you throw in Alexis [Krauss, Sleigh Bells' singer], who comes from an R&B background — who did demos for Top 40 records — and I guess this is the sound that spits out."

No stranger to South Florida, Sleigh Bells have played here several times in the past few years and already plan to return to Miami in the spring, after Saturday's show at the Culture Room. This is no accident. Locally bred Miller said growing up in South Florida influenced him "in a thousand minuscule ways," noting "its melting pots of culture and the dynamic of the west side of I-95 being completely different from the east."

Born in Pahokee, Florida, by age 5, Miller had suffered violent asthma attacks from the raining ashes of burning sugar-cane fields. To remedy this, his family moved closer to Jupiter, near the ocean. Miller focused on music and joined the hardcore band Poison the Well. This band of five guys couldn't be more different from the Sleigh Bells' partnership. "The makeup of Sleigh Bells is no accident," he says. "When I left Poison the Well, the scene was stifling. We had seven or eight hard-working guys living in a van together."

In this less divisive environment, Miller and Krauss have been incredibly prolific. Their latest release, Bitter Rivals, is their third in a little more than three years. Miller explains: "I'm a music fanatic, and I lost my father in a motorcycle accident. I don't believe in wasting time, since I know this can all be over in a snap of the fingers."

This attitude has pushed Sleigh Bells to great success. They have appeared on Saturday Night Live, and their songs are the soundtrack to countless advertisements, movies, and TV shows. "We approve each instance where we license a song. Licensing it to companies pays the bills, but it's not creatively fulfilling the way it was when we were in L.A. and Alexis and I got to see an early version of The Bling Ring. Here was a song ["Crown on the Ground"] we did on $500 worth of equipment, and it's in a great movie."

After raving about what a great director Sofia Coppola is, especially in her first endeavor, The Virgin Suicides, it became obvious that Miller was a film fanatic, but when asked what movies influenced Sleigh Bells, he stumbled. "I know I'll think of something when I hang up the phone. Can I mention a book?" Sure. "Quincy Jones' autobiography. He's a great music producer and a wonderful human being who inspires me to no end. When he talks about God's divining rod as anytime the hair on the back of his neck stands up and he knows he had a hit — anyone who has worked in music can relate to that."

A second later, he mentioned he also really liked ESPN's 30 on 30 sports documentaries. Which brought up another question: Since Miller's a Florida-born sports fan, why in the video for "Bitter Rivals" is he wearing a Louisiana State University football jersey? "I'm wearing the Tyrann Mathieu jersey, the Honeybadger, who I can relate to because I also have a lot of demons. But my family is from Louisiana before they moved to Florida. My parents went to LSU, and so did my sister and brother-in-law, so it's me flying the flag for my dad."

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David Rolland is a freelance writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Miami New Times. His novel, The End of the Century, published by Jitney Books, is available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland