The Sleepy Jackson
With every new year comes a handful of pop bands that are just the right combination of listenable, attractive, and young, thus gaining the whole-hearted support of their label, which does everything in its power to make the band Big. They send them off on a ride that starts with an ineluctable flow of media hype which culminates in a headlining United States tour that, god willing, will be the difference maker.
This year the Sleepy Jackson is one of those bands. Don’t be confused by the “group” name though. All of the band’s marketing efforts and press prop-ups have drawn them as a one man show starring Luke Steele, a swarthy Australian native who has a penchant for pouty poses, blue eyeliner and attention-mongering theatrics. Unsurprisingly, Steele also gives oblique interviews and has a history of driving away his fellow band members—one of whom was his own brother.
Yet the Sleepy Jackson are doing better than ever these days. They are in the midst of their first headlining tour through the U.S., and Steele claims that he has done some straightening up, trading in his Jack Daniels for King James. Indeed, it sounds like he has a dose of the Jesus-act syndrome, and the more one learns about him, the more it makes sense that people might get sick of his shit. But Malcolm Clark, who’s been the band’s drummer for three years now, says that it’s more complicated than that.
“There’s been so many members come in and out of the band, and that’s probably why they mainly promote Luke—he’s the only original member, you know? But at the same time he could have any day turned around and gone ‘I’m going to go solo, and this is the Luke Steele Band.’ But I think deep down he really wants it to be a band.”
Clark says that despite his rep Steele is a democratic leader who encourages the other members to contribute to the songwriting process.
“Luke is so into writing with other people; he really doesn’t want to do it all himself. I’ve been with the band for three years so I’ve probably done the most songwriting with Luke. He still instigates the writing process—he comes up with a song, and then I’ll write some strings or piano to put over the top of it.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. Even if you’re turned off by Steele’s posturing, you can’t deny the ethereal pop splendor of “Good Dancers”, the first track off of their debut album, Lovers. The Boston Herald described the sound like this: “Imagine George Harrison adding slide guitar to a Pink Floyd country song performed by the Flaming Lips with backing harmonies by the Beach Boys.” Add to that the hazy sense of shimmering purity that ripples through their sound, and you can’t blame fans for thinking that Steele just might deserve the genius tag he seems to covet.
What’s not so hazy, however, is the pervasive influence other artists in their music—particularly George Harrison. The choral guitar line from their most recent single, “Come To This”, sounds like it was lifted directly from Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (a song that did a borrowing of its own, if you’re keeping score).
“Whenever we hear that kind of thing, Luke takes it as a compliment, and that’s probably because he likes George Harrison so much, you know? If someone says ‘You sound like such and such,’ he’s like, ‘Cool.’ He’s not denying his influences, and he has never denied the bands that he likes. Like everyone, he’s got little pieces from certain songs and certain bands that he really admires.”
So Luke likes the Beatles, then?
“Yeah definitely, Luke’s a big Beatles fan. In fact, one of our early EPs has a song on it that sounds just like Oasis. So it’s kind of interesting, because I know that Luke isn’t an Oasis fan, but I think, especially in the early days, he was influenced by certain individual songs, but not so much a certain band.”
Even if the Sleepy Jackson do sometimes confuse “writing” with “mimicking,” it’s refreshing to hear them be so open about it. After all, the Strokes have made millions passing off their bouncy Velvet Underground distillations as some kind of New Thing. To their credit, the Sleepy Jackson, unlike the Strokes, have a truckload of colors on their palette, and the result, at least on Lovers, is a gratifyingly schizoid affair.
“We like the fact that each song on Lovers has a different vibe, and yet the whole album fits together,” Clark says. “On the other hand with a band like, say, Jet, every song sounds fairly similar to the other songs. I don’t really find that so much on our records. In fact I was a little bit concerned toward the end of recording Lovers that it was almost too different, too complicated. But once we got it mixed and mastered, the whole album to me is just like one song, one motion that goes up and down. We’d like to keep that same kind of vibe with the next album—rather than pulling a Radiohead and doing the opposite of what people liked you for in the first place. We want to do the same thing, but take it to another level.”
Sounds like a good tack, even if it’s not exactly what Steele has in mind. Steele has said that the band’s next effort will be “bigger and broader, and maybe a bit more screwed up.” But the more I talked to Clark, the more I got the feeling that he may well be the steadying hand to Steele’s amok-running imagination. Clark himself never said as much, but he did admit that Jonathan Burnside, who produced and played on Lovers, helped keep Steele and the band in check.
“That was the good thing about working with Jonathan Burnside. He worked really well with Luke. Luke’s got so many ideas that sometimes we need to simplify the songs a bit in order for them to work, and Jonathan was really good at doing that. He has this way of, rather than building the song, actually taking stuff out of the song to make it bigger. When we write a song, we’re experimenting with new ideas and things, so it’s good to have someone there who can make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”
You’ll find no such restraint when the band plays live. Earlier this year at a London gig, they stopped in the middle of a performance and shaved guitar player Jules Cortez’s head. And when not submitting to an impromptu head-shaving, Cortez, who recently joined the band after leaving a mental institution, brings an entirely new element to Sleepy Jackson’s live show.
“He’s got a really, well, interesting style of playing guitar,” Clark said. “It’s almost like he’s in the Darkness or something. It’s great. We’re all happy again, we’re laughing on stage, and when I go see a band there’s nothing better than seeing four people pissing themselves laughing.”
“He’s just got some really funny ‘80s moves, you know? He’s such a good guitarist, he just plays really funny. It’s just something you’ve got to see.”
And see it soon you may if you live in the States. The Sleepy Jackson played SXSW in mid-March, and are following that with thirty stops across the country before wrapping it all up with an appearance at the Coachella festival in California. After that? Clark said that as long the band can maintain what they’ve got going, he’ll be satisfied.
“We’re just happy to have the opportunity to travel overseas and play our music. That in itself is a goal that’s been reached. Anything else is a bonus.”
Matt Gonzales is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Ind.