Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells talks about past, his creative partnership and the artwork for Treats.
Sleigh Bells is Derek Miller (from left) and Alexis Krauss
So the story goes: Derek Miller met Alexis Krauss one day when he was serving her and her mother at a restaurant, and Krauss's mom pushed her into working on music with Miller. Until a few years ago, Miller had been living in southern Florida where he was a member of notable metalcore outfit, Poison the Well. When Miller moved to New York, he couldn't find anyone to work with on his ideas for some new music until that faithful day when he met Krauss.
For her part, Krauss had been part of a teen pop band called Rubyblue. Together, the duo has produced a confrontational, noise pop with a sound akin to the more aggressive moments of Peaches and M.I.A., the latter of which signed Sleigh Bells to her imprint after her pal, director Spike Jonze, played the band's demos for her. Treats, the act's debut full-length has drawn attention for its tough yet playful sound. We caught up with Miller in advance of Sleigh Bells show at the Larimer Lounge tonight and talked to him about his upbringing in music, his creative partnership with Krauss and the unique cover art for Treats.
Westword: What got you into playing music in the first place, and how did you end up joining Poison the Well?
Derek Miller: I joined Poison the Well when I was sixteen. I got a guitar when I was eleven or twelve, and that was it. It kind of took over. I never really wanted to do anything else but play music.
What kind of music did you start out playing?
My first band was kind of heavy, when I was fourteen or fifteen. Back then, I was really into nü-metal like the first Deftones record and the first Korn record. I grew up in Jupiter, Florida, which is on the beach, but it may as well be in the Midwest. So there wasn't a lot going on, which isn't a slight against it. So it was Deftones, Korn and whatever Victory Records bands were distributed at the Sam Goody in the mall. Whatever was available there and was heavy.
Growing up before that, I was raised on pop music. My mom, especially, was into Belinda Carlisle, Madonna, Cindy Lauper -- stuff like that. My dad was really into Credence Clearwater and the Beatles. That was the stuff that lead me into hardcore and joining Poison the well in '96.
What prompted your move from southern Florida to New York City, and did you have any musical projects in New York before Sleigh Bells?
A good friend of mine named Will Hubbard, who I actually work with now, was living up there and so were a couple of other friends. I actually played a little music with J.P. Pitts and TJ Schwarz. I was roommates with TJ and we all lived in Northwest Palm Gardens together. We worked on stuff together and Boom Boom was actually kind of cool, but I ended up moving to New York still looking for something else.
Before you met Alexis, it sounded like you were looking for a while for a female vocalist to work with. Why do you think it took as long as it did?
I don't know. It just wasn't happening, and I asked everybody. They either didn't take me seriously, or, for whatever reason, I never found anyone no matter how hard I tried. It was hard to find someone that works creatively and personally.
When you first started working with Alexis what music common ground did you share?
Pop music, really. We're both huge fans. We both like Motown and soul, but beyond that, we're pretty different. We never talk about music except when we're making it. I think it was exciting for her because, she's been doing music for almost her whole life, this is very different from anything she's done before. It was also challenging. She had never done anything as hard or as rhythmic as what I had written, and it had more of a percussive delivery and less vocal acrobatics, which she is more than capable of. It was crazy for me to finally be able to share these ideas I had. They'd been kind of driving me crazy for a few years.
Your guitar sound is interesting because it sounds part really processed and part organic. What kind of rig do you use and what inspired the sorts of sounds you use in your songs?
Honestly, there was no set sound concerning guitars. That company Belkin? I think they made this thing called the iMic, and I actually plugged directly into that thing, and from there to Garageband, and that was me pre-amp. Then I pushed the master a little and that made it break up. For something like "Crown on the Ground," I used this thing Electro-Harmonix makes called Octave Generator POG. That's basically layer on layer of Octave Generator -- I think there are ten overdubs on it.
Every time I put a mike on a Marshall amp, which is what I use live, it sounded really boring and really like, "Here's a rock and roll guitar sound. Great. Another one." I wasn't using unconventional means as a rule because that's kind of ridiculous. I just had to go about it in different ways to find sounds that were interesting and worth keeping.
Your performance style seems pretty bombastic and confrontational without being violent. Is that something you've always done with this band?
I played hardcore music growing up, and it was confrontational, as well as very violent and aggressive and very testosterone-driven. Lots of tough guy shit. I really loved the energy of hardcore and metal, but with this, it's all of that without all the cons. It's a totally different context, and I feel like I'm getting the best of both worlds. It's more like a dance party. There's a lot of movement and a lot of energy but it's all positive and there are no fist fights.
What lead to your putting out Treats on M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. label?
She approached us. A friend of hers played the demos for her. She really liked them and got in touch pretty immediately and got involved. It's also a split release with Mom+Pop, the label run by Michael Goldstone and Craig Winkler.
They were in the Q Prime Management office forever, which is a management firm. It's an independent label, technically speaking, but it has a lot of muscle so you get all of the benefits of a bigger label: The record is distributed well, they have the budget to promote record. There's no bureaucracy. They get things done very quickly with very little bullshit.
It's a management firm so it's artist friendly. Their philosophy is, "How can we keep our artists happy?" There's going to be disagreements, but at the end of the day, they say, "If this is what makes you comfortable and you feel like it's what you need to do, we fully support you." It's amazing to have that relationship with a label.
On the album artwork in the center, are those childhood pictures of you and Alexis Krauss?
Yeah, that's the two of us. Since it was our first album, it felt like our baby. Everything was brand new. We were giddy when we were making it because we did it very quickly, and there was very little friction in the studio. The pictures are also kind of eerie, and there's a vicious quality to them, and I don't know why.
You helped to design the cover, right?
Yeah, it's a photo from my mom's old yearbook.
In the original picture, are the faces of the cheerleaders blurred out?
No, we did that [laughs].
Why did you blur out their faces but not the faces of the people on the back?
That's a really good question. We talked about doing it, and I think I saw a mockup and didn't like it so much because there were so many of them. It felt better because I wanted the cheerleaders to be super anonymous. It's a pretty powerful image as well.
Are you currently on tour with Pictureplane?
Yeah, he is. We're playing twelve shows together. We just met Travis, but he's a really nice dude, and he makes really cool records. Our agent gave us a list of bands and artists that were up for doing the tour with us, and I was already familiar with Travis' production and work and we just went for it.
What are you favorite and least favorite aspects of touring?
Honestly, the only time we get bummed out is when we show up to a club, and it's ill-equipped, technically. We've been in a number of situations where the P.A. shuts off or there's just not enough power for the sound to really translate. Because, you know, it's electronic music, so we're kind of at the mercy the P.A.. We're not a band that can set up in the corner and bash it out like the good old days. That's the only time we get stressed out and freaked out.
Our favorite thing is just playing the shows. I like to run around and try to hype people up and try to make something memorable. When we can see that happen, it's incredible. It's amazing making a living doing that sort of thing and we're pretty happy about it.
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