Three years ago, Derek E. Miller was a struggling waiter in New York City. Now he's working with some of the biggest names in popular music and lending his music to national TV campaigns.
In part, he attributes this success to his origins on the South Florida hardcore scene. "Hardcore was right there," says Miller, a native of West Palm Beach. "It was a good outlet for all that useless, 14- to 15-year-old angst that isn't directed at anything."
But while boredom and seething disgruntlement might have initially attracted Miller to hardcore, he became a fixture on the local scene thanks to a six-year stint playing guitar in the band Poison the Well, a perennial fave among punk fans in Palm Beach and Broward counties. "I just wanted to do something different," Miller shrugs. "There's not a whole lot else going on in West Palm."
During that period, Poison the Well recorded its highest-charting album to date, 2003's You Come Before You. Yet within a few years, Miller was packing his bags and heading for New York, already eyeing more ambitious undertakings. And this Saturday, he will revisit his old stomping grounds for the second time in seven months to perform at Miami's Grand Central, alongside the singing half, Alexis Krauss, of his NYC-bred noise-pop project Sleigh Bells.
The duo is on tour with Cansei de Ser Sexy, a Brazilian quintet, led by a little female singer named Lovefoxxx, that records raw and dirty electro-tinged indie pop. But in late March, CSS played the first day of Ultra Music Festival, so the band won't be able to play this week's Miami show because of an Ultra exclusivity agreement. Similarly, contractual stipulations prevented Miller and Krauss from joining their tourmates at the three-day Bicentennial Park blowout. If circumstances had permitted, though, Miller admits he would have been eager for an Ultra slot.
"Yeah, I would have been down," he says. "But there's always the question of where we fit, because we use guitars and we're not quote-unquote electronica."
Tour snags and genre distinctions aside, Sleigh Bells has risen to the forefront of the music world's crossover scene in swift, virtually unprecedented fashion. One moment, Miller and Krauss are recording their debut, 2009's self-titled EP. And the next, they're fielding lucrative work offers from a cornucopia of prominent artists, including pop diva Beyoncé Knowles and hipster music mogul Wesley "Diplo" Pentz.
Miller stays tight-lipped when asked about his future endeavors. But the prospect of the Brooklyn resident collaborating with a marquee singer like Beyoncé — whose slick, streamlined tracks have little in common with the music of Sleigh Bells — elicits both excitement and befuddlement. More than anything, though, the speculation is evidence of the duo's increased clout in an unpredictable industry.
To be sure, Sleigh Bells' trajectory has been unusual. But it's also one that's been paved with good fortune and glowing reviews, especially when it comes to the duo's 2010 debut full-length album, Treats. Driven by luminous pop choruses and a stunning sense of the dramatic, the record is a harsh and provocative collection that's also strangely warm and inviting. And rather than settle for subtlety, the group goes big, brash, and occasionally portentous. Tracks such as the Funkadelic-sampling "Rill Rill" reconcile the grace of '70s soul with the bombast of noise pop. Others cull their hooks from '80s New Wave, postdisco, and drum 'n' bass.
Treats is a taut and frantically paced album, with half of the songs clocking in at less than three minutes. And no idea, no matter how strange, is off-limits. It might not work, but Miller and Krauss will try almost anything. In fact, when asked about the artists who helped inform his musical worldview, he grabs names from multiple genres and eras. "I'm influenced by any and every decade," Miller says. "Everyone from [Motown drummer] Benny Benjamin to early Timbaland." (He has previously cited psych-rock pioneer Iggy Pop as his largest influence.)
But while Miller and Krauss occasionally mine Timbaland's psychedelic space-funk aesthetic for Treats, the album is distinctly their own. It is a deliriously colorful display of sounds and textures, ripe with unrelenting theatrics, frisky grooves, and window-shattering synths. "Riot Rhythm" rides a stabbing keyboard line and percussive vocal loop, and "Infinity Guitars" packs as much rhythmic punk-rock punch as anything Miller ever recorded with Poison the Well. Other highlights include the seamy "Rachel," the erotic floor-burner "A/B Machines," and the synth-heavy romp "Kids."
Plus, getting experimental, the pair mostly does away with any sense of traditional song structure. "Rhythm in general does most of the heavy lifting on Treats," Miller explains. "It's less about structure and melody."
Yet for all of Sleigh Bells' sonic adventurism and quick success, Miller remains a natural worrier. He is always concerned, for instance, about how his music is perceived. "Who knows if anyone will give a shit," Miller deadpans.
But still, for a man who until recently was barely surviving on the tips he earned at a Brazilian eatery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Miller doesn't sound fazed by the speed and peculiarity of his ascension to stardom. Of course, this is 2011 — the line between fame and anonymity is more difficult than ever to decipher. Thanks to the interconnectedness of blog culture, unknown musicians are able to translate a hot Internet profile into global recognition.
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"People mention blog bands and it's like, how else do you get noticed?" Miller asks. "You're not getting on TV. The Internet's the reason we have a career, period."
So far, Sleigh Bells has crossed over into the mainstream (via promo ads for MTV's Skins, no less) without alienating its hipper-than-thou fan base. In March, Miller and Krauss performed at the MTV Woodie Awards alongside more established acts such as the Foo Fighters, Two Door Cinema Club, and Wiz Khalifa. "I've heard weird things about awards shows in general," Miller says. "But [MTV] let us perform with a drum line, which was cool. No one [else] would let us do anything different."
Not that the group's every move is exemplary. In fact, a few of Miller's more regrettable compositions — such as "Meds and Feds," one of the shrillest tracks on M.I.A.'s lukewarm 2010 album, Maya — lend credence to the theory that Sleigh Bells songs are just generally obnoxious.
And while Miller acknowledges that his group is an acquired taste, he relishes the divisive reaction that its output tends to provoke. "It seems to be polarizing," Miller says of Sleigh Bells' deliberately aggressive music. "But indifference is [more] offensive to me."