‘If things sound like there is some coherent core to them, that’s thrilling’ A pre-LouFest interview with Sleepy Kitty
One of the many great things about being a writer at KDHX is that you get to write about bands that you love. No one is lining us up to talk to a Top-40 artist.
So when the email went out about interviews for LouFest, I happily got the chance to hang out for an hour with St. Louis duo Sleepy Kitty at MoKaBe’s coffeehouse, just a few blocks from the KDHX studios. The band will be kicking off the first day of LouFest 2012 in Forest Park on August 25.
Nick Cowan: You guys started in Chicago, right? Around 2007?
Paige Brubeck: That’s right.
What bands were you in before Sleepy Kitty?
Brubeck: I’m really proud of our previous bands. I was in a band called Stiletto Attack. There was an EP called “What the Cops Don’t Know” that I would have loved to go further. I really like it. It was three cool rock girls. Well, I though we were cool (laughs). All three of us wrote songs and we would switch instruments, we played for a couple of years. That band ended as Evan and I got more and more into similar kinds of music.
Evan Sult: We eventually excluded ourselves from our own band to be in this band.
Brubeck: That’s when I started playing guitar seriously. I kind of messed around, power chords and barre chords so I could write songs. I started playing guitar when I was 14, but bass was my first real rock ‘n’ roll instrument.
Sult: And your first songwriting instrument
That’s interesting because you can hear a lot of the rhythmic melody in your playing that a bass usually carries.
Brubeck:. I think I still play guitar like a bass player, I miss playing bass (laughter), so if anyone has a bass amp they’re willing to trade…
Evan, what were your previous bands like?
Sult: In Chicago I had one other band, but came into town from Seattle where I was in Harvey Danger.
The band from “Flagpole Sitta,” the one song everybody knows?
Sult: Yes, the shepherds of Flagpole Sitta. You know what’s interesting? It’s been more than a decade since that hit the airwaves in 1998. It’s a common factor that people have heard “Flagpole” — which is pretty much everybody because it was everywhere. But I’ve been really surprised and pleased at the number of people who have said, “Hey, your second album was really cool.” I just had no idea anybody had heard it. Let alone people who are making music I like that had heard it when they were younger.
After Harvey Danger ended, which none of us knew would be temporary, I came to Chicago and started a band called Bound Stems, and we played the whole six years I was there. We put out two albums and an EP, toured all over. We did great in Chicago, went to New York all the time. It was a really demanding, very fun thing to do.
Brubeck: Really cool music too. Really tricky.
Sult: And there were five of us so I could play as wide out as I wanted to, or as tight in as I wanted, and there was somebody playing in that zone.
That seems like a rare thing because people play one way or the other unless it’s the big jam song or the single.
Sult: I really love the drumming from early Spoon and Pavement and Blonde Redhead. The Fall is also a really great example because they have no meter. I totally dig that stuff. Eventually, right at the outset of our second album the band was done. By then Paige and I had been playing together.
Brubeck: The first time we worked on a piece was with a friend of ours and it was total, straight-up, experimental sound collage for an art school class room audience. We just needed a title for the file so we called it Sleepy Kitty.
Evan and I kept making a lot of sound collage stuff; we were listening to a lot of Steve Reich and doing field recordings and adding drums and harmonies to it. Just having a lot of fun and seeing what sounds we could make.
Kind of a general question: Who does most of the writing?
Sult: I’d say there are mainly two paths, with a possible third path which is collage stuff. One path is that Paige arrives with a song pretty much 80% done, and then you figure out how to do it. And one is that we’re making sounds, and Paige leaves the room for a second, I do something, and then we come back and she starts singing relative to it and then we might throw that into something too.
Brubeck: Yeah, a lot of the ways, well, it’s weird because Sleepy Kitty started as this experimental sound collage kind of project. Part of me feels very natural just writing a song: Here’s the start, here’s the finish. A lot of the way I write is that a melody will just show up and I just have to finish it.
So it was interesting to figure out how to make the same band that can do “Heavy Mother” also do songs like “Gimme A Chantz.” I think those are two examples where one is totally from the practice space and from field recordings, playing together until it feels cool. And then “Gimme A Chantz” was more like, “Check it out, this is how it’s gonna be.”
Sult: The main thing about the way we write, that I found out over and over again, is that I only hear a couple of parts when Paige is in the middle of writing. She’s actually in the middle of writing a dozen parts, literally, during the song. But she can only sing, I mean — we use pedals and stuff to make more — but even then that just means that more stuff is happening. Whenever we get in the studio Paige starts unfurling the parts along with all the stuff in her head. And then she says, “See, that’s what I meant.”
Brubeck: That’s what’s great about playing with Evan. He’s really patient. I kind of have to be in a band with a person that trusts me. Someone that has the patience to let me lay everything down when I have a thing like that and trusts that it’s not a waste of time.
Sult: And one thing that sometimes happens is that I’m writing into this piece with drums, and occasionally with vocals, and I don’t know what I’m not hearing — so sometimes I play something that doesn’t rub right, like I’ll want to change the dynamic, but I can’t hear 3/4 of what’s off stage.
Brubeck: Another way that we write songs is that I’ll play a riff that Evan will start to sing along to in a way that makes that riff into a song.
How do you get the different styles? “Heavy Mother” has that metal feel, “Seventeen” has that awesome groove, “Gimme A Chantz” that girl-pop breakdown. How do you get that variety of styles and still keeping the same core? Each song sounds like Sleepy Kitty.
Brubeck: That’s something that I think people either like or don’t like about us. We are kind of all over the place. I like records that sound like a solid body of work but are all in the same universe. I really like diverse-sounding records like the “Velvet Underground and Nico.” So many of those songs sound totally different. The Velvet Underground is one of my favorite bands.
Sult: We recorded it all over the place, 10 different places, some at home, different gear.
Brubeck: Different songs need different things.
Sult: If things sound like there is some coherent core to them that’s thrilling. That’s the answer to why you do an album instead of stream of singles. Hopefully one of the reasons you think that is because you listen to the whole album rather than a song in an occasional playlist on random.
But it’s a fun record for me to listen to on random sometimes.
Sult: I love putting albums on random. Especially if I’m having a hard time getting into something. For some reason it will unlock the record and you can hear the tracks just as songs.
Brubeck: I think the fact that it’s still a two-person band that played all the parts on the record, something is gonna tie it all in.
Well, that brings me to an obvious question: Why is there no bass in your band?
Brubeck: I definitely don’t have anything against bass (laughs), that’s my first instrument. It’s probably because when we were working on these songs a bass wasn’t physically close to me or something. It’s kind of embarrassing to say, but it’s probably because my bass amp wasn’t working. If my bass amp had been working it might be different. You use the tools that are near you, what’s around, whatever that may be.
Sult: I started playing drums like my kick foot is the bassist. It doesn’t play notes, but just played like there was a bass thump there.
That must be what fills out the sound. I don’t miss the bass.
Sult: Plus the fact that Paige is kind of a bassist playing the guitar.
Brubeck: And I tune my guitar down a half step so it has a little bit lower, bassier feel on some of the songs.
Sult: It’s this thing where the third person is just the sheer potential that would be there. With two playing people, there’s something more interesting about that because by the time you get to three people you’ve got all the dimension you need. One of the reasons the White Stripes was great is that they needed to be just two people. And then there’s enough space to consider each of them.
I’ve noticed that you guys watch each other play while you’re on stage. What does that do for the performance?
Brubeck: Part of it is just fun, but I think also we have a lot of things that have to line up, and it’s hard to hear on stage.
Sult: I don’t have some secret line into the stuff; I hear it through the amps.
Brubeck: Pretty much the majority of our loops are live and we have to make eye contact. I’ll make sure he can hear what I’m doing so we can keep the song rolling as it should.
Is that live looping a way to fill in some of that musical space, recreate a bit of the record live?
Brubeck: I think sometimes we do. I fill in some of my harmonies, and it’s always a little different from the record because I have to sing it first for it to be there at all…
Sult: I really think it’s an exciting way to work. It doesn’t tend to make short songs because you have get through a section couple of times.
For me in the audience it builds a sense of “when are they really going to launch into it.”
Sult: That’s exactly how it feels to us. The main thing that I’ve realized is that pretty much everything we do is live, and it just occurred to me for the first time that people might not understand that. They might think it’s the sound of something pre-recorded.
What brought you to St. Louis?
Brubeck: The neighborhood we were in, which we loved, still love, was changing really quickly. Everybody kind of said that Wicker Park was over by that time I got to town, but it was still cool. It was becoming more expensive, chains were starting to move in. I don’t need to pay higher rent to be near a Levi’s store or Marc Jacobs.
So we were going to move out of our neighborhood. We were just starting to screen print in our apartment on the glass table that we had just got. Everything was becoming more about working on art projects together. We both knew we needed to have studio space, a place to practice, and a place to stay. We realized that would have to have three locations or one big huge square footage. We knew that we were going to have move to the edges of Chicago. Our plan was to go to New York or LA and spend all of our energy or go to one that’s less known but is still a cool city, where you don’t have to pay as much rent and actually get some work done.
Sult: We’d already been charmed by St. Louis repeatedly. We’d been here for family, I’d been down on tour. Oh, and for the City Museum. Downtown is beautiful, like a postcard from the ’70s. Like a classy city.
You’ve got a studio on Cherokee. How did you guys start working on print work, concert posters and such? With all that creativity, who does all the bill paying? It impressive to do that along with the music I enjoy.
Brubeck: We prioritized making creating work and living this life we lead over maybe being more comfortable and secure, knowing where your rent check comes from. It’s the clean hustle every month, let me tell you! (laughs)
Sult: The reason we’re able to make all that stuff is because we’re not doing it after our day job. We moved here so it could be our day job. That is our day job. It is a crazy way to live and a great way to live if that’s what you want to do — produce as much stuff as you can at the level that’s satisfying.
When is the next Sleepy Kitty music project coming out?
Sult: If all goes well, our 7″ for a song called “Don’t You Start,” with a B-side “All I Do Is Dream Of You,” a demo we did in our practice space. It’s on white vinyl and we’re really excited about it. That will debut at LouFest. And then we have an album that is coming out sometime after that.
And since we’re talking about LouFest, we’re really excited because we’re going to do some stuff that we haven’t ever done before. We’re going to have some guests on stag. Some of our favorite musicians are going to be joining us.
Very cool. I’m tempted to ask but kind of like the anticipation.
Sult: We’re going to do some songs that we haven’t done in a long time, some songs that we’ve barely ever done in front of people, and some songs in versions that we’ve never done before…. I really want people we know to see this show, we probably won’t do something like it ever again. I would guess the stars won’t align.
Sleepy Kitty performs at LouFest at 1 p.m. on Saturday, August 25. 88.1 KDHX is media cosponsor of LouFest 2012.