July 23, 2009

Juxtaposing the Sacred and the Psychedelic: Sleepy Sun

Words by Ryan Faughnder; Photo by Kristie Shanley

Sleepy Sun – who relocated from Santa Cruz to San Francisco after they realized they had outgrown their hometown’s mellow scene – are, in many ways, ahead of their own game. Neither sleepy nor particularly sunny, this band of overachievers writes and records music faster than they can release it, unlike the multitude of groups that take years between albums. Their debut, Embrace, an eight-song tempest of a record, came out on June 16, and they have already recorded the follow-up. All the more impressive, the sessions took place in the middle of a massive tour of Europe, which included spots on the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in England and the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona. Not bad for a group whose music reeks of green fields and cannabis.

Embrace constantly beguiles the listener. A song that begins with a vintage metal riff could become an acoustic dance at any moment, and even that could spiral into a psychedelic freak out. For example, “White Dove,” a nine-minute epic filled with cryptic social commentary, attempts to take the listener on some kind of spiritual voyage out of chaos and into peaceful existence. But unlike a lyric-driven song, the instrumentation alone conveys the narrative.

“It’s definitely harder for me to write music to words,” says singer, songwriter and harmonica player Bret Constantino. “I’m almost always inspired by melody first, and then write the words to the melody. I’m really just inspired by what the music makes me think of, or what I envision. Lyrically, ‘White Dove’ is just as much of a whirlwind as it is instrumentally. I’m not a fan of straightforward words. I make it a point not to write love songs, because it’s too easy for me. I try to challenge myself every day with what I’m writing.”

From listening to a track such as “White Dove,” it’s evident that each of Sleepy Sun’s members contributes heavily to the songwriting and recording process. A song will typically originate as a Led Zeppelin-like guitar riff, melodic hook or bass pattern that emerges out of a jam session, and the band will develop the idea and make a full track of it. “I think the reason for the eccentric sound and the diverse arrangements that we have is because we write songs together, and each individual has their own special influences, aside from our common ones,” Constantino explains. “And then also, structurally the songs are constructed by all of us, so then, how they transcend from, like, a Black Sabbath riff, say, to a folk jam – I think that happens really naturally, because we’re all sort of appreciators of one another’s inspiration.”

Disparate elements crash together on Embrace. “Lord,” with its jaggedly-timed gospel piano and wah pedal-laced guitar solo, juxtaposes the sacred and the psychedelic in such a way that questions why church goers and hippies don’t sit together at Sunday brunch more often.

Another remarkable aspect of the music is the interplay between guitarists Matt Holliman and Evan Reiss. The jam format of Sleepy Sun’s arrangements allows the two to flex their chops without distracting from the songs’ overall ideas. This is why the group could fit in at Bonnaroo just as easily as it does at ATP. “By working in a group, we encourage each other to grow in each of our crafts, and naturally, since our music is written together and pretty organically, it allows for them to play a little bit more improvisational guitar licks,” Constantino says.

As many listeners have found when experimenting with jam bands, soloing can quickly grow monotonous, which is why Sleepy Sun’s guitarists constantly switch up their sounds. Listen to the difference between the crackling bite of the first lead on “New Age” as opposed to the rounded tone of Holliman’s descending lines on “Sleepy Son.” “We didn’t use the same guitar/mic combination for any one or two songs, you know,” Constantino claims. “I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so dynamic is that we’re constantly switching up and finding a different tone. That’s where we get a lot of the Sabbath, Zeppelin and Floyd kind of critique, is that we use a lot of those types of tones.”

Constantino shares the vocals with Rachel Williams, the last member to join the band. Their harmonies on “New Age” – a song they apparently whittled down from 15 minutes of material – sound as if they’re calling from either 30 years in the past or 30 years in the future, an effect generated by old studio tricks that sound remarkably unconventional today, as Constantino explains. “There’s a lot of, like, plate reverb. Up at The Hive where we recorded, they have this real plate reverb, you know, from the seventies. And we used a lot of tape delay, a lot of analog delay. A lot of post-effects. We used a lot of, like, vintage tape effects to get that grainy sound – you know, running vocals through guitar amps – that kind of thing.”

Sleepy Sun begins a two-month U.S. tour in September, after several CD-release shows in California. The tour should be quite a draw, because the band approaches live performances as energetically as it approaches recording. The challenge, Constantino says, is translating the energy of the album to the stage, which is a feat that they cannot accomplish solely with musicianship. They have been know to make a spectacle of their concerts, sometimes even applying face paint, a choice that reflects the tribal rhythms of drummer Brian Tice and bassist Jack Allen in many of their songs.

“The visual aspect to our band is huge, yeah,” Constantino says. “I guess sometimes it helps to be a little bit more dramatic. You know, we can all appreciate, like, David Bowie and people who used to make more of a drama out of it.

“You can tell immediately if a band believes in what they’re playing or not – or if they get a rise out of what they’re doing – if they’re inspired to do something other than just stand there, I guess. I’m not talking down on people, though. I mean, to cite an amazing band like The Jesus and Mary Chain, they used to stand with their backs facing the crowd, and that was their shtick, which was completely respectable. But yeah, I think in this day and age, there’s not enough of that. I mean, there’s a handful of bands, but those are the ones you remember, at least.”


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