Sleigh Bells' Derek Miller Talks Sampling, "Blurred Lines," and French New Wave | Phoenix New Times

Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller Talks Sampling, “Blurred Lines,” and French New Wave

Sleigh Bells' instrumentalist is a man of many interests.
Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells.
Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells. Sleigh Bells
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You never see Derek Miller on a bootleg Sleigh Bells YouTube video. All the iPhones keep their gaze on the noise-pop duo’s charismatic lead singer, Alexis Krauss. She is onstage confronting the audience and pushing herself to the top of her range. The vocalist rides such a fine line between singing and screaming that after a show, she has to give her vocal chords a rest.

This gives Miller an opportunity to mercilessly tease his bandmate.

“It’s very juvenile of me, but I’m not above that,” the producer says over the phone with a laugh.

Miller is in his element when the show is over. Well-versed in music and film, the Florida native behind Sleigh Bells’ boards talks a mile a minute about everything from Robert Altman’s Popeye to the French New Wave films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Don’t be fooled by his self-described “middlebrow” tastes. Just because Sleigh Bells’ latest album, Jessica Rabbit, takes its name from a big-breasted cartoon character, it does not mean Miller is incapable of creating deeply felt art.

“It comes down to the concept of not believing in the concept of guilty pleasures,” Miller explains. “You like what you like. You don’t really have to explain yourself beyond that.”

Miller once believed it was the end of the world if someone disagreed with his tastes in pop culture, but over the years he has refrained from taking that perspective, because he “sounds like Donald Trump.” Miller feels more comfortable in his own skin. You can hear that mature, relaxed approach in Jessica Rabbit. The fourth full-length release from Sleigh Bells veers in a more pop direction, yet maintains the assaultive tone that has become the group’s trademark since their impressive debut, Treats.

There was a time when Miller felt he had to defend his music. Many a music blog took Sleigh Bells to task for sampling the Funkadelic track “Can You Get to That” on their song “Rill Rill,” only to accuse the producers of pop star Demi Lovato’s track “Stars” of lifting “Infinity Guitars” and “Riot Rhythm” without their permission several years later. Miller says the duo paid a fee and forfeited a portion of their publishing to sample the Funkadelic track, which is something he claims the former Disney star’s team neglected to do.

“It set a dangerous precedent for us to not stick up for ourselves in that respect, because you’re essentially going to get punked over and over again,” Miller explains, “I won’t allow that to happen. I truly am flattered they used our drums. I have zero beef with [Lovato]. It’s a principle at work here.”

Miller acknowledges it’s hard to differentiate the distinction between tipping the hat to your heroes and musical plagiarism in an age where Pharrell and Robin Thicke are found guilty of stealing Marvin Gaye’s music for “Blurred Lines.” Miller can put himself in Pharrell’s shoes. He paid tribute to the Arby’s-hat-wearing producer by “ripping-off” the sound the Neptunes made for Clipse track “Grindin’” on “Riot Rhythm.”

“I didn’t think that the ‘Blurred Lines’ case was very fair,” he says, “For Gaye’s estate to turn around and attack them, I’m sure it was disappointing and probably hurtful.”

Miller is constantly writing new material. Despite some personal setbacks, he says he is just as energetic about music now as he was when he was 18.

“I feel really clear and focused right now,” remarks Miller, “I’m taking care of myself. I feel that I am doing really good work. I’m in a really good place.”

Sleigh Bells is scheduled to perform Monday, March 27, at Crescent Ballroom.

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