“It’s Kind of Funny What We Do”: Life on the Road with Sleepy Sun
San Francisco’s Sleepy Sun tells how the loss of a vocalist made the band stronger and more secure on their new record that aims straight for the spine.
San Francisco’s Sleepy Sun rose to fame quickly, releasing two well-received albums in two years, 2009’s Embrace and 2010’s Fever, all the while incessantly touring. When they started, the band’s hazy yet heavy psychedelic rock had a distinctively nuanced sound -- not quite stoner rock, but also not hippie folk -- with two guitarists and two vocalists creating interweaving layers of harmony. In late 2010, however, just when the band seemed most secure, Sleepy Sun was rocked by the departure of Rachel Fannan, whose shared vocal duty with Bret Constantino clearly contributed to what made the band so unique. Fannan quit mid-tour and still the band soldiered on, making no mention of the loss. But now, after taking time to regroup, writing and recording a third album, Spine Hits, Sleepy Sun in 2012 is a more confident and well-seasoned band.
Although Sleepy Sun initially received attention by being “lumped into the psych revival stuff,” the band doesn’t consider itself to be part of any particular scene or developing any particular genre, since such movements come and go. According to Constantino, the music needs to be “progressive” somehow. “I don’t really subscribe to that buzz scene,” Constantino says, “and I think that’s why it’s a slow growing thing for us too. We’re still playing in front of 100, 200 people. But I think we can outlast a lot of these bands that are drawing 500 or selling 10 times as many records as we are.”
Sleepy Sun has toured with bands that are all over the spectrum, from more psych-minded bands like White Hills to bigger draws like the Arctic Monkeys and most recently the Dandy Warhols. Avoiding any ready-made categorization frees the band to develop its sound, yet also takes away the instant niche market. Opening for a band like the Arctic Monkeys allows Sleepy Sun a chance to broaden their audience because it isn’t hampered by narrow expectations. As Constantino explains, “A band like that has such a dedicated following which means the reception is much more prevalent. [The audience is] open to whatever we’re doing. So different bands draw different types of people, but I think that’s a good thing. I like playing with bands that would draw a completely different type of crowd.”
Sleepy Sun may be well established, especially after surviving a major blow like the loss of a singer, but the band still sees itself as in development, which goes hand in hand with always being on the road. Constantino spoke to PopMatters the day after the band’s hometown record release party, just a few blocks from his apartment: “I just have a spot. It’s a small windowless room in a ground floor flat. It’s cheap enough that I can hold onto it when we’re on tour, and it’s got a living room so a lot of the dudes end up crashing here when we’re home.” Like most bands, touring is “the principal source of income,” but Constantino also sees it as “the best way we can progress.” He adds, “the idea is that eventually if we have enough records under our belt and enough of a following, then we can sustain some sort of level in the industry.”
Constantino isn’t complaining. In fact, the band’s strenuous tour schedule has arguably given the band the confidence that is so apparent on the new album: “We’ve grown as musicians and players. You become closer with each other. I think there’s a great amount of respect and trust that continues to grow between us, members in the band, which definitely helps in the songwriting process. Working together and playing to each others’ strengths is something that we continue to work on, and it helps to tour because you put yourself into really difficult situations. It’s very challenging to get along -- I mean not for us so much any more, but a lot of that has a direct effect on the music we make together.”
As Constantino refers to the difficulty of getting along on tour, perhaps he has in mind the troubles with Fannan. Part of her decision to leave the band was due to the strains of touring, though she also mentioned the difficulty of being the only woman in a band of men. Constantino explains, “when Rachel decided she wanted to leave, I was like, I really don’t blame you. She wasn’t having fun anymore and everybody else was kind of burning out on it. She’s an extremely passionate feminist as well, but at the same time probably one of the only women I know who could have stuck it out as long as she did. We just need to move on, everybody does.”
When asked about the gender imbalance in rock and roll, Constantino reflected, “I think maybe one of the reasons why that’s the case is it’s kind of a rough and rugged life to tour as much as is required to do this full time. It’s dirty, and I think maybe women are uncomfortable with being tired and sleeping in a van or sleeping on someone’s floor, not showering, eating shit food.” The life Sleepy Sun has chosen obviously takes a certain level of commitment, regardless of gender -- and certainly a fair amount of ambition.
At shows, however, Constantino notices “a great mix of gender". “When Rachel left, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to see us anymore, were not interested in the band because Rachel left. A lot of people like seeing a woman singer. I don’t know, it does make for a vibe. But I still see people on first dates to our shows. I like to think we’re charming gentlemen, despite what Rachel may have said to the media about us. I’m confident that we’re respectful of women.”
But does touring take a toll on the men of Sleepy Sun?
“I think no matter what you do, what job you have, you ask yourself at some point, ‘Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this the feeling? Where am I going after this?’ The satisfaction you get out of your job -- and you should be asking yourself those questions. But there are times when it gets extremely tiring -- and monotonous even. It’s hard, it’s rough, but it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. And I love it. I love traveling. I love meeting all the great folks and sharing our music and our vibe. Just trying to make connections with people and move people. It’s worth it.”
Sleepy Sun is a band of committed road warriors. But having reached a new security, coming back from Fannan’s departure and years of touring, the remaining five members have tried to focus more on songwriting. While Embrace and Fever established Sleepy Sun as a band not shy of long, jam-inspired songs, Spine Hits finds them exploring tighter compositions. “We paid more attention to the structure of the songs, to structuring them while simultaneously forming the idea of the song, the message, the story, the vibe. I think we’re really trying to learn how to write songs in a different way, to pay attention to -- like when you write a paper you have the bing-bang-bongo, three part [structure] -- which would be the verse, and then you go back to your thesis, which is the chorus. Thinking about it like that was something that was new for us. Writing songs, especially with five people, it’s really hard to come up with a cohesive structure. In the end, I think that’s what’s distinctive about our band. It’s the product of five songwriters.”
Though a major inspiration lyrically came from characters Constantino developed and inhabits for each song, the overall feel of the song often comes from a strong sense of a particular place. “A lot of the inspiration comes from visions, a conscious effort to create a vision within the song, within the auditory landscape. You begin to put yourself in a different place and I think that psychedelic music is music that moves people, that is transportive in some way -- it puts you in a specific type of environment.”
Spine Hits was recorded at a furious pace, with the help of Dave Catching (known for his work in Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal) at his studio, Rancho de la Luna, in Joshua Tree. Constantino explains, “The songs were pretty much completed when we went in. We tracked them in seven days; there was kind of a sense of urgency in the recording which came off sounding very raw to me.” Though the songs were done, the album obviously benefitted from the extraordinary location in which it was recorded. Constantino describes the scene: “It was super dry out there. Arid. High desert. And the vibe out there definitely affected the record. I could definitely hear the desert in my voice. Just being out there in such an open space where there’s a huge sky above you, every time you step out of the box of the studio, there’s the most gorgeous sunset. Even though it was a very intense and concentrated experience, you were still able to kind of get away from it by stepping out into the desert.”
Spine Hits features a distinctive cover, which was also picked up from the band’s time in the desert. It is a photograph of a sculpture by Bobby Furst, who has a studio in Joshua Tree: a bucket with different colored mannequin arms sticking out. Constantino's grandfather said, “Well, it’s uglier than a bucket of elbows.” But how does this relate to the provocative title of the album, Spine Hits? “I don’t think we’re going to divulge the literal origin of the title, just to preserve the mystery. In some ways it was tongue in cheek, in terms of the reference of a song being a hit, and what that means. We were going to be working with this guy who wrote some pretty famous songs. He’s purely a man of hits, he hears the hit. Long story short, we didn’t end up working with him, but we put together a record [with] hits to the spine. These are songs, these are hits, but they’re from the core of our physical being.”
Though Sleepy Sun has a powerful urgency in its sound -- like there is something dire to be expressed -- Constantino thinks the band also has a good eye for the absurd. Both of these sides come out in his description of the title. Constantino has some insight into the need not to take things too seriously, especially as it pertains to recording: “I think the imperfections, not just vocally -- that’s something in a record that makes you want to listen to it over and over again because you hear something different each time. Just as soon as you recognize a perfect melody it becomes extremely mundane to me and kind of lifeless.”
A band needs this breathing room, otherwise it risks being too sincere, which is one step away from apparent insincerity. Constantino advises, “You take yourself seriously just enough to lay down the performance but ultimately it's kind of funny what we do. Especially relative to what everybody else does, writing songs and singing about things most people would care less about or don’t want to put the time in to listen. But we still do it, even if just a hundred people come to see us and we sell a thousand records.”
Although the band has established an intense pattern of touring and performing over the years, Bret shows that perspective really matters. This gypsy lifestyle takes its toll, yet affords its luxuries -- and it was never what Constantino expected his future to be. After hitting the ATP Festival in Europe and doing some more dates with the Dandys on the West Coast, Sleepy Sun will finally wind down for the summer to begin writing a new album. In the meantime, Constantino offers one more bit of wisdom for (and from) the road: “That’s what makes performing fun. And that’s what I really try and do: get people to go out of their comfort zone. It’s not supposed to be serious. People who have really critical reviews of our record or our live show -- it’s like you take it that seriously? It is what it is.”