Coming off a laid-back summer on the West Coast, the five-piece will be visiting St. Louis with a fresh batch of material to grind into Midwest cerebra. I talked with lead vocalist Bret Constantino about working on new material, playing festivals and his favorite psych music.
Kenji Yoshinobu: Did you have a good summer in California?
Bret Constantino: We played a couple small shows. For the most part we've been hard at work on our new record. It has been really great to step away from the touring lifestyle and hunker down, listen to new music and in a way reinvent ourselves, which is always a challenge. We got a studio space for the first time in a couple years and we're enjoying being residents of one city rather than residents of the highway.
Do you have a title for the new record?
No, we're not there yet. We're getting ready to book studio time and we want to do it before the end of this year. We're still not quite done with it. Usually the final touches happen in the studio, so it doesn't need to be completely finished before we go into the studio.
Will we be hearing any new songs at LouFest?
Oh yeah! We're going to be playing mostly new songs, and the last tour we went on with the Black Angeles we played mostly new songs. You'll get an impression of the new direction we are heading. It's a little bit different, I think.
How is working on the new songs different from two years ago when you released "Embrace?"
We're definitely stronger musicians at this point with more experience writing songs together. The group dynamic has changed a lot, but I think it has changed in a way that will make stronger songs. The dynamic is still that we're writing them together. They are more concise with less space in terms of length. More concentrated and conceptualized. Whatever felt good we went with. We're trying to take more of a "mature approach," at least that's what we're calling it.
Is the songwriting process different now that Rachel Fannan has left the band?
I don't think the songwriting process will be different, but definitely the live performance process. Obviously we don't have a female voice anymore, but with "Embrace" and "Fever" the songs demanded female vocals and our new songs don't. The older songs we wrote keeping in mind that there would be space for a female and vocal harmony. The nature of the performance now is different, but it feels much better for me. It can be a lot more unhinged with less people on stage.
When you talk about being unhinged, how much of your shows are improvised?
There will definitely be more improvisation because these songs are fresh. It depends on the tour and how long we've been playing the songs. Typically we'll leave a little window for interpretive guitar solos or noise. On "White Dove" there is always a segment of that song that is entirely improvised. But it depends on how long we've been on the road, but these summer shows have been a chance to demo the new songs in a live setting and taking them outside of the studio space. The vibe definitely changes.
"White Dove" was one of the first songs I heard by Sleepy Sun. When listening to that song and other ones like "Desert God" and "Open Eyes" the thing that strikes me is how smooth the transitions are into different parts. Do those transitions come out during jam sessions or are they well thought out in the songwriting process?
They come along with jams, but those songs in particular were well thought out. There was a time when we were considering breaking up "White Dove" into three different songs. The decision to lump it all together into one epic piece was a conscious decision. But it doesn't happen one way—there's no formula. Sometimes it can happen very naturally or other times we will mull over a transition for months. We've been talking a lot lately about how you know when a song is done. How much time should you spend on a song before you leave it alone? I think the best material we've ever written has happened within an hour. Stuff that is created spontaneously and in a short time period is best. When you labor over segments of a song or how to make a cohesive piece it exhausts your creative bursts, which is most important and can shine through almost anything.
Do you guys prep for festivals differently than you would for a regular show?
Definitely. You want to come out with your big guns. The sets that we play at a huge festival like St. Louis as opposed to a show in a small bar would be completely different. You want to grab the audience, get them involved right out of the gate, then chill them out and bring them back again. People that attend festivals really love music, and they are less critical of it in a festival setting, which makes it more comfortable for the artist. That's the kind of vibe I get from festivals. We're out here having fun and there's no reason to stand there with your arms crossed.
These days you definitely have to love music to go to festivals with the prices, the weather, people getting killed.
Right. I was out of town during the Outside Lands Festival that happened at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but someone told me that 180,000 people showed up. They weren't there all at once, but this city is fifty square miles! It was madness! I kept hearing that it was difficult to travel from one stage to another and see all the acts you wanted to see. But I'm excited for LouFest. It seems like a smaller festival.
Yeah. It's in Forest Park, which is a nice scenic area of St. Louis. Have you guys been to St. Louis before?
Yeah we've been a few times. I'm really excited about St. Louis. This tour is kind of strange -- we're not playing too many shows. The guys from Low Anthem invited us to go on tour with them. I don't think we'll be back to St. Louis, but we'll be out in the Midwest.
You mentioned the Black Angels, a band that just came through the KDHX studios not too long ago. You guys were on the bill for their festival, Psychfest in Austin. What was that like?
It was a great time. It is so inspiring to see a band like the Black Angels that can put on a festival in their hometown and bring incredible, legendary bands. They rented out this old power plant in Austin and had two stages there. There were some killer bands. Spectrum played. Unfortunately we were only there for one day, but Psychfest is the coolest thing going on in this genre of music right now.
Assuming you've been listening to psych music, can you recommend any bands?
There are a lot of different types of psych music, like there were a lot of bands that played Psychfest that I wouldn't really consider psych bands. Crocodiles are pretty cool. White Hills is good. Spectrum, which is Sonic Boom from Spaceman 3, is great too.
Do you have a favorite psych band of all time?
Probably Pink Floyd.
I tend to like the early '70s, like the album "Meddle" is one of my favorites. But even the earlier stuff with Syd Barrett and "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn." They were a completely different band then. But I like the ethereal, epic jams with little gems in the middle, like "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" -- the "Wish You Were Here" era.
I was looking at your various web pages and found a lot of the band's artwork to be awesome. What is the process like when you're working with these artists who do your tour posters, t-shirts and album cover art?
We've been working a lot with this artist named Alan Forbes. And he works closely with David D'Andrea, who did the artwork for the "Fever" record. Those guys are making really cool art. Both those artists listen to the Sleepy Sun records while they are making the pieces and get inspired by the music. I think it comes out in their art, which I really like about them. This guy Steve Quenell who did the cover art for "Emerge," he's a collage artist, and he'll work with old images and geometric shapes. I really like the series of releases we did for "Embrace," two 10" and one 7," they all have that diamond, which is the image for our publishing company, Soul Diamond. But they couldn't be more different than Alan Forbes and David D'Andrea's work, but I like it.
Thanks for your time, Bret. I look forward to seeing you at LouFest.
Thanks, and see you in a week!
Sleepy Sun performs at LouFest on Saturday, August 27 in Forest Park.