Monday, 25 October 2010

Sleepy Sun- Keeping Santa Cruz Weird...

This was published in the last print issue of HV, but I thought I'd put it up here...

On the eve of their set at the Edinburgh Fringe, HV managed to get Sleepy Sun’s frontman, Bret Constantino to take a break from his busy day and have a chat. An hour was then pleasantly passed talking about everything from downloading, “I wrote papers about it in college,” to life lessons, “it’s basically about prevailing over what you’re faced with,” to rather controversial vinyl fanboyisms- “CDs will soon be obsolete- they don’t last anyway! Ten or fifteen listens and they’re scratched.” Sleepy Sun, touring their recent ATP-released Fever record, are going from strength to strength, playing a string of European festival dates before returning to the States to play at ATP in New York. 

“We’re having the time of our lives!” is the answer I get to my first question, which is encouraging in a role where you often hear mainly doom-and-gloom from emerging artists; apparently, life on the road suits this band- “every job or lifestyle has highs or lows- we face the same problems as everybody else, just on a different canvas… we don’t have a ‘home’ to go back to, but it’s quite liberating to have no anchor.” Bret elaborated, “you get to see a lot of the world, and it’s a good experience. Hopefully it’ll be the fuel for the new record…”

Pre-empting my next question, he was eager to talk of their plans for the follow-up to Fever- “we’re pretty much touring ‘til the end of the year… but we’re already marking off time for it.” A well-earned rest then? “we do our fair share of partying. There are certain legs of the tour where we are more exhausted than others.” I asked whether that been the best part of the tour, and he explained that it was different for different members of the band, but for him, “meeting people is one of the best things about touring” and reflected that “being in comfortable and uncomfortable situations builds character.”

Sleepy Sun’s sound spawns instant associations as well as questions; what influenced them more- their environment, or bands like The Grateful Dead and guitar players like Hendrix and Santana? Turns out that it’s a mixture, as these things often are; Bret was more than happy to tell me about how his early life and the band’s formation had influenced their music: “I grew up in a very small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada- rural environments are a huge influence on me obviously, recreating that peaceful and serene… vibration, I guess.” Unlike the other band members though, music wasn’t his focus until rather more recently- “I’ve always been into music, but I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start playing until college in Santa Cruz when I met the band. The environment there is special” Special? “well, there’s a famous bumper sticker that says ‘Keep Santa Cruz Weird’- it’s that kind of atmosphere.”

Lyrically, Fever lurches between the oblique and enigmatic to the simple refrains of a song like ‘Oh Boy’- so was there a consistent theme to the lyrics on the album? “Spirituality is a common theme. The lyrics are directly inspired by the melodies- I try and create some rhetoric out of them, describe what I’m hearing or what the music makes me feel. There’s ambiguity; the listener can derive different meanings. Spiritual experience, relationships, fear and the feeling of being overwhelmed, states of consciousness, love and things larger than I can possibly imagine; these will always find their way into songs.”

Bret talked of their slightly unconventional approach to the songwriting, where the instrumentals weren’t all planned out in advance, and left to await the vocals- indeed, from the construction of various tracks on the album, it’s clear that each cut’s genesis was different to that of the last. “They take form in a lot of different ways, from a concept or from a guitar riff or a drum rhythm pattern, and then we feed off each other; we try not to define roles. The drummer can pick up a guitar or vice versa. [That way] everyone’s got their own essence in different parts… that’s where we get the dynamic.

This seems obvious when you look at the desert-at-night quasi-prog of ‘Desert God’; with its fluid transitions and repeats upon themes and motifs, the song develops in a conspicuously natural, organic fashion. “Oh yeah, that song took different forms- it kept evolving and didn’t take definite shape until the day we recorded it.” Was I right there in suggesting an element of progressive rock to the band’s sound, I wondered? Lavishing praise on Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon opus, Bret said of ‘Money’- “I dig singles… but I’m attracted to the concept of having an overall theme or a sense of continuity- telling a story.” Did this affect individual songs on the album at all? “Yeah, each song should be a journey where the listener experiences transformation.”

Though Sleepy Sun has apparently only been a serious band for “two or three years”, they have already had some clear career highs and Bret obliged with a couple of stories. “When we played Primavera was the first. It was a beautiful setting, and we got to see Neil Young and Sonic Youth later… everyone was smiling and having a great time. We also performed with a children’s choir at SXSW this year- there was just an ecstatic sense of joy in performing.”

Bret isn’t sitting on the fence over downloading; Sleepy Sun gave away their debut, Embrace, free “for about a year” before ATP picked it up. He explained, “we just wanted people to hear it and react to it… that ended up working really well for us.” When it comes to downloading others’ music, he’s no less candid- “I download music, but if I really like it, I’ll go out and buy it.” He added that he couldn’t afford to buy all the albums “his ears demanded”, but shrugged “If I had the money, I’d pump lots of it into the industry by buying records, but it’s better to go to a show and buy a t-shirt or a poster anyway.”

He’s similarly black and white about what makes a great band- “mak[ing] a connection with the audience… you have to try and reach them in some way.” Winning them over in the first place is important, Bret says, because if they aren’t receptive then you can’t connect at all; but how do you do that? “The fact that we believe in our music can be very convincing. People can tell right off the bat if it’s a genuine expression, real or fabricated. We just try and conjure positive energy and entertain.” So, clearly the band have learned their Stagecraft 101 well, but I had to ask- is there any life or career advice he would give to his younger self that he’s learned along the way? “Uhm, life is much simple than sometimes it’s made out to be… sometimes you need to breathe and forget the extraneous distractions.”

With that, we were out of time. Time for the Closing Question: what does Bret love about music?

“Wow, ok. Let me think a sec… I love that it can be anything- everyone hears everything differently. Nothing is the same from person to person. Listening to music with people is fascinating- you can learn a lot about a person that way.”

The final word- how should I convince my friends to listen to his band?

“We’re nice people!”

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