Treats Turns Ten: Exploring Sleigh Bells' South Florida Roots a Decade Later

Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss are Sleigh Bells.
Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss are Sleigh Bells. Photo by Sloan Laurits
After the "summer of chillwave" in 2009, the blogosphere was coming down from the palm-tree-laden, sun-soaked microgenre plied by the likes of Washed Out, Neon Indian, and Toro y Moi. So when Brooklyn's Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller, AKA Sleigh Bells, unleashed the bubblegum brutality of their debut album, Treats, on May 24, 2010, the internet took notice. Even a decade later, the record's ferocious dose of noise-pop still holds up.

Krauss and Miller were set to celebrate the album's milestone last month at New York City's Brooklyn Steel, but the pandemic put a stop to that. The band is using the downtime to work on new music.

All things considered, however, this is a very good time to look back at the arrival of Treats and the ensuing declarations that Sleigh Bells were the next big thing out of Brooklyn.

Because back in 2010, nearly everyone overlooked the album's deep roots in the South Florida music scene.

"We never considered ourselves a Brooklyn band. Alexis is from New Jersey," says Miller, a South Florida native. "I think initially our MySpace page said Florida/New Jersey, which really dates us. We didn't have a whole lot in common with what was happening in Brooklyn when we formed."

In fact, the photo on the cover Treats was taken from Miller's mother's Glades Day School yearbook, and the physical CDs and vinyl pressings bear the likeness of Hurricane Andrew hovering over Florida.

Born in the small town of Pahokee on the shores of Lake Okeechobee in northwest Palm Beach County, Miller moved with his family to Jupiter, where he lived until he was 18 years old — and, famously, played with South Florida hardcore outfit Poison the Well. It was his experience growing up and playing in South Florida's hardcore scene, specifically in West Palm Beach, Davie, and Miami, that shaped his formative years and ultimately influenced Sleigh Bells.

"I remember very, very clearly going to my first show [at Happy Days Cafe]," Miller says, describing the first time he attended a hardcore show in West Palm Beach. "I can't describe to you the feeling it gave me in the pit of my stomach. It was like every first date you've ever been on as a kid times ten, that feeling on steroids. Nervous energy, anxiety, but also exhilaration. I just remember walking in the door and feeling like I was home."
Treats' album cover features a photo from Derick Miller's mother's Glades Day School yearbook. - COURTESY PHOTO
Treats' album cover features a photo from Derick Miller's mother's Glades Day School yearbook.
Courtesy photo
He credits bands such as Hialeah's Brethren and Fort Lauderdale's Morning Again as some of the most influential in the scene.

Growing up, Miller was obsessed with pop music — everything from Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 to Madonna's The Immaculate Collection and Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual. Once he hit puberty, he fell equally in love with nu-metal and, eventually, hardcore. But after spending years with Poison the Well, he was ready to explore a new musical endeavor. He wanted to work with a female vocalist.

Miller moved back to Jupiter in 2007 after a stint in California and formed the first iteration of Sleigh Bells with Surfer Blood's J.P. Pitts on bass, T.J. Schwarz on drums, and J.P.'s sister Julia Pitts on vocals.

"I hadn't planned on moving to Brooklyn yet. I was kinda feeling it out with that version of Sleigh Bells," Miller says now. "I think it was going pretty good, but they had their own idea for a band, and I had a different idea. We didn't sound like what Sleigh Bells ended up sounding like. We had an early version of 'Infinity Guitars,' but it ended up pretty different. But it was a blast."

It was childhood best friend and now manager Will Hubbard who persuaded Miller to join him in Brooklyn. Thanks to a bar-back job at Cucina Palm Beach, Miller was able to save enough to finance the move to NYC and a serendipitous meeting with Krauss.

"I asked every woman I met if they wanted to make records, and Alexis was the first one who took it seriously," Miller admits.

As the story goes, Krauss and her mother, Karen, went out to eat at a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn in July 2008, and Miller waited on their table.

"They had a bet. Karen thought I was Brazilian. And Alexis is like, 'That dude is as American as they come,'" he recounts. "So Karen asked me where I was from, and I said, 'I'm from Florida.' And she said, 'Oh, I'm from Florida too. What are you doing up here?' And I said, 'I'm looking for a singer.' And Alexis was like, 'I sing.' And the conversation went from there."

Less than two months after Treats was released, the band played its first Florida show at West Palm Beach's Respectable Street on July 8, 2010. Having the opportunity to play a show at the venue where Miller once dreamed of playing was a full-circle moment for him.

"I would go out dancing there every Thursday night with a group of friends, somebody would be DJ'ing, and we would dance our asses off until 4 a.m.," Miller recalls. "I would look at the stage every time and dream of being able to get up there and do something. So when Alexis and I came through, I was ecstatic."
click to enlarge Sleigh Bells playing their first Florida show at West Palm Beach's Respectable Street on July 8, 2010. - PHOTO BY IAN WILTEN
Sleigh Bells playing their first Florida show at West Palm Beach's Respectable Street on July 8, 2010.
Photo by Ian Wilten
With only an album's worth of material — a very short album at that, clocking in at a little over 32 minutes — Krauss and Miller performed a chaotic 38-minute set. "The hardcore-meets-pop duo's crunk beats, metal riffs, and arena-sized energy unlocked the slam dancers, fist pumpers, and lyric shouters all eager for the license to swarm the dance floor," wrote Reed Fischer, the former New Times Broward-Palm Beach music editor, in his review of the show.

"I loved that show! That show was amazing. I think the power went out like halfway through," Miller remembers. "In my mind, it was like the world was ending. But we got it all back up and running. I remember that show, it was incredible."

Although Miller has fond memories of playing South Florida for the first time, he admits that during his time of newfound success with the band, he was dealing with some deeply personal issues.

"My mom was actually in the hospital just down the street from Respects, battling cancer," Miller says. "So I went from her bedside onto the stage. But frankly, it just made it even more cathartic. It was an incredibly chaotic time." (Miller reports that his mother is in remission.)

"Even right before the record came out, we lost my dad. His death was quick and tragic. I felt like I was being pulled in half," he says, adding that he dove into drugs and alcohol for a few years as a way to cope.

And he credits Sleigh Bells — and Krauss in particular — for saving his life.

"That whole era for me was exactly like your worst nightmare and your wildest dreams happening right on top of each other. It was really tough," he says. "I want to say I did my best. I'm sure I would've been in the ground without Alexis."

Miller says his bandmate's steadying presence during that time goes a long way toward explaining how they're still making music together 12 years later.

"She saw me at my absolute worst and saw me at my absolute best as well," Miller says. "But when somebody sees you go through something like that, sees you in an incredibly self-destructive phase, and really sees how dark it can get, and they don't run for the hills but they stand right next to you, a bond is formed. That's honestly why we're still together to this day. She never wavered, she stayed there and gave me a lot of love and support. I am eternally grateful for the band."
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