Few bands are as intriguing to me as Sleepy Eyes of Death. My first exposure to them was live at a show early last year, and I’ve done my best to not miss them since. I had questions that, as a fan, needed answers, and met with Andrew, Joel and Keith prior to Friday’s incredible Chop Suey show for beer and interrogation. My Q&A with them is below, followed by more show photos – Sleepy Eyes were fierce on Friday, rocking Chop Suey’s stage and bashing out a terrific set.
I suppose a Band Spotlight should involve a bunch of research on my part, but Sleepy Eyes’ responses to my questions were so frank and interesting that I’ll let them speak for themselves. We met at McMenamin’s Roy Street pub and passed a french fry basket full of my questions around the table. Even though Cassidy (guitar) and Brandon (lights & fog) were unable to attend the interview, their presense in the band was certainly felt.
Question: What’s next on the recording front for you?
Keith: In the immediate future, we’re just wrapping up a CD of remixes that we’ve had our friends do of Dark Signals, and there’s going to be a B side that we recorded awhile ago that didn’t make it on Dark Signals. There’s also a remix that I’m doing that’ll be on there. That’s going to be out in June, but it will be just a digital release. And then we are tracking for another EP that we’re aiming the release for November 1st – hopefully before 2010. It’s going to be another six song EP. We’re going to go with Matt Bayles again to record the drums and hopefully guitars. We were really happy with Dark Signals so hopefully it will be better than that. Then we’re not going to record anything again for a really long time.
Question: I often fall completely in love with bands that I see live and am utterly disappointed by their recordings. This is 100% not the case with SEOD. How did you so perfectly capture your sound and why do you think it so often just doesn’t work with other bands?
Andrew: Our CD and our live sound are two different things, but I guess they both work in their own different ways. With our live show we have Brandon doing the light and fog, so that’s a big part of it, but it’s also the sheer volume, the way it’s often mixed. You can’t get that on the CD. But I guess we compensate in other ways on the live recording because you hear more of the smaller embellishments that maybe don’t come through on the live show. Keith’s really good with the recording process and adding those things and having a good ear. And with Brandon’s help on the live show, he’s good at augmenting our sound with the lights. Keith mixes our levels sometimes. What we do now is mix all the keyboards through one channel on our own, rather than running ten channels to the venue. Keith’s really good about dialing those sounds in – there’s a wide frequency coming through live.
Question: You’re kind of mysterious onstage. Not a lot of audience interaction. What should your fans know about you?
Joel: The music already is pretty mysterious on its own and we try to make that happen with the lights and the fog. We don’t have a lead singer in the band on purpose – none of us can sing very well. (all laugh) We do a lot of stuff through vocorder and that’s really fun. And we try to emphasize different people onstage with the lighting.
I think fans should know that we’re working on confidence live, the majority of the band are pretty shy dudes and we’re working on having more fun live and just getting into the music more.
Question: Any good away show stories?
Andrew: We just played Portland on Wednesday and that was our second time ever. Holocene both times. At our last Sunset show, we were setting our gear up, we were the last band to play, and everything’s set up and I go for my keyboards and they’re not there. I forgot our keyboards. We have a ton of gear – that’s how I’m justifying it. Everybody gave me a hard time, which was totally justified. Cassidy’s job is merch, he’s responsible for that and we were setting up the merch at the Holocene show and all the T-shirts were out, but the CDs weren’t there. Cassidy forgot all our CDs, so that was kind of funny.
Question: I read somewhere that you practice with the lights/fog – is that true? If so, why?
Joel: Not every practice is conducted with Brandon – Brandon does all of our lighting and fog onstage and it’s important to run through the set a few times with him before a show, just to make sure he gets a chance to practice as well. That’s his instrument. We have so much gear that we bring to every show… other bands can kind of just jump up there, plug their guitar into their amp and just do it. We require a little more patience from the sound people and from the venue, from our audience as well.
Question: You were forced to play last year’s Capital Hill Block Party without the fog, and the lights really aren’t the same without the fog. I have to say that set was absolutely mind-blowing from an audience standpoint. I’m going to dredge this up a little – it was obvious you were frustrated, yet you handled the whole thing completely professionally. How was that set for you?
Keith: That was a crazy show, for sure. Frustrated is a good word, I suppose. We didn’t even find out the whole story until we read about it. I think if I knew exactly what was going on with the sound guy, I probably wouldn’t be as composed as I was. When we were told we could play how we were set up as it was… I think we played that set down two keyboards… we had to decide, do we just get off the stage or do we try to make it happen and we just collectively said, we just made these people wait an hour when they could have been outside, drinking a beer and watching Fleet Foxes. Instead they were all sweating inside in a crowded stinky venue. Once the music started, it was great because we had an outlet for the frustration. I think it made for a very unique set because we only ran through two or three songs, so we had to condense all this extra frustrated energy into a short set. It felt great to do that – it was a different kind of set, for sure. I knew right away it was going to be something special. I think people walked away thinking they had a story to tell.
Question: What are your non-musical influences?
Andrew: Probably pretty obvious – movies, but maybe in a slightly different way. We’re cinematic, I guess. It’s more influenced by specific tones or a hook.
Keith: To elaborate, I’ll be watching something like a film trailer or a car commercial that might conjure up an emotion and I’ll try to recreate that emotion. Like on Dark Signals, all the songs that I came up with for that EP were actually all solely based on something that was going on with my wife’s stepfather. He came down with cancer and within six months he was diagnosed and then passed away. I wasn’t even that close to the person, I only met him once, but watching Karen go through it was kind of like digesting mortality and death, but removed. Almost like in a cold robotic sterile way, like watching a science experiment or something. That was in the summer of 07, and it spawned a lot of what happened on Dark Signals. Actually, “Final Heart Beats Black” is a specific pull from that experience.
Question: Are any of you in other bands – side projects?
Joel: Andrew and I have been playing music in this town for ten or eleven years and we used to be in a band called Primrosa which featured Jonas and Sera of Sera Cahoone and half the band went off that way and the other half was Andrew and I and we went a totally different direction and formed this group. I make music with a guy Tomo who’s the lead singer of Grand Hallway and I’ve been playing with him for eight or nine years. As of right now, I’m the only member in the group who has another project – Grand Hallway.
Question: My day-job takes place at an architectural office. Care to share about your day-job experience?
Keith: I’m a freelance illustrator so I work out of my house. I draw editorial illustrations for magazines. They will call me up when they have a story that they want an illustration for and I’ll read the story and come up with an idea, sketch it out, send them some sketches, they pick one and I final the sketch, color it, put texture on it. It’s kind of nice; I wake up, roll out of bed and go right to work.
Question: Plans for the summer?
Andrew: For the band, we have some good festival shows. We’re playing The Block Party again this year. We also have another bigger festival show that happens close by. The recording stuff takes so much time too. Then we have the remix release and I think there’s a listening party for that next month.
Question: Do you hang out a lot as a band – band bonding?
Joel: Keith, Andrew and I are the founding members of a Honda scooter gang. It basically consists of five or six people. I don’t think it will ever grow into a real club.
Keith: More specifically, Honda C70s.
Joel: Honda C70s, Honda Passports. And we ride around on those, when they’re running. Every week we meet up someplace, usually Dad Watsons in Fremont. Cassidy and I are roommates, and Andrew lives about four or five blocks away. We all have gamer tags. We all own the same games so we can play online together. Through the winter it’s great because we never have to see each other (Joel and Keith laugh) except at band time and you can communicate your entire day through the headset, which we do. We’re extremely tight. I’ve been hanging out with Andrew about 15 years, maybe longer, and Keith and Cassidy just fit right in. We do a lot together – camping, basketball, other shows, hanging out at bars.
Question: I’ve resorted to making up my own lyrics to “Final Heart Beats Black” since I can’t tell what you’re saying. Are they Elvish? Klingon?
Amelia: I feel kind of bad about this now knowing what you said about this particular song, but I have to ask it. Are they in English? God forbid – I’ve listened to it 400 times.
Keith: (laughs) No, they are in English.
Keith: But they’re definitely masked on purpose. That’s a deliberate technique. Sigur Ros is a great example, but even Radiohead… there are a lot of bands out there that their lyrics are pretty indecipherable and those tend to be my favorite songs to sing along to, because like you said, as a listener you bring your own meanings to it. It ends up being a much more powerful song. If you don’t understand what they’re saying, you just assume it’s something amazing.
So they’re not Klingon, they’re not Elvish… though I’m not ruling out Klingon sometime in the future.
Question: What is your composing process?
Keith: We write a few different ways. For example, “Crushed By Stars” is one where I more or less composed and arranged the meat of it and then once I get it laid out from start to finish and it’s got most of the rhythms and the textures, I bring it to these guys to layer the lead tones and the lead melodies and some of the filler elements to smooth it out. Then Cassidy will write his guitar parts to it.
It all starts with that emotion where there will be a mood that strikes me and I want to recreate it. So I sit at the keyboard hashing away trying to create a bass line and some kind of moving arpeggio over that bass line. Once I find something that is exciting for me that I don’t mind listening to for four minutes straight, I’ll lay that down in Pro Tools and then from there it’s just layer upon layer upon layer upon layer.
Joel: Keith is really good at making arpeggios, those moving notes, and conjuring up bass lines to go with it. Sometimes he’ll email those to Andrew and me and since we live so close, we’ll meet up and try to flesh it out.
Keith: This new EP that we’re working on will be the most collaborative recording, whereas Street Lights (For a Ribcage) was done in the practice space, kind of rocking out each part until we managed to hammer a song out of it. Dark Signals tended to be almost like a studio album. Some of the songs weren’t even played live or in the practice space until after they were recorded. I feel like with the new one, we’ve kind of got a handle on things in the process and now we’re spawning ideas in the studio environment, we’re bringing those ideas to the practice space to help flesh them out and get a feel for how they need to go live, then bringing those ideas back into the studio.
Question: You switch it up a lot onstage instrumentally – does what we see onstage happen that way when you record?
Andrew: Sometimes. At first, it was like if you’re drumming live, you’re drumming on the recording. Keith might be attached to how he thinks the guitar should be and so if he feels more passionate about it and Cassidy says go ahead, let’s go with your idea, then Keith might do the guitar. Keith and Joel have different drumming styles, so if they’re playing live, that person has to record it. And Cassidy and me too, tonally at least, our guitars sound different. Cassidy is a little heavier and my guitars are more spacey.
Joel: I like Keith as a drummer and I knew that the first time I saw him play drums. He might disagree, but I like the way he plays drums.
Keith: I agree. You do like the way I play drums.
Joel (laughs): Ok, cool! I write songs I want Keith to drum on. Keith writes songs he wants to play drums to. In our current set that we’ve been practicing a lot, I touch the drum set twice, and he’s on it for six or seven songs.
Keith: There are certain situations like on “Pierced Air” from Dark Signals, Joel’s playing the lead in the beginning, and Andrew’s playing the lead on the second half of the song on the recording, but live, I play both leads. We realized it didn’t make sense for us to play musical chairs when I was capable of playing the lead and Joel was capable of just staying at the drums.
Basically, I like to think we’re really democratic and we don’t have egos. Whatever needs to happen to make the song the best it can be.
Question: Favorite venues to play or see shows?
Joel: To play, we rely heavily on a PA system, to the point it affects which shows we allow ourselves to accept. I think Neumos is our favorite venue to play through. You hit the kick drum and it resonates through people, the mix onstage is always really good. Evan and Alejandro have both given us really good sound there. Sometimes it’s way too loud and that’s awesome. Having space to move around on stage, Cassidy loves that. He moves everywhere and he’s probably the most photogenic. We put the drums at the front of the stage. We don’t have a frontman – we don’t have a lead singer. Drums are fun. They’re visual. Neumos is amazing for that. I like Chop Suey. I like the PA there. I like the old Crocodile space. I haven’t been to the new one. Have you been there?
Amelia: Yes. Several times. It’s amazing.
Joel: Yeah – so that’s probably awesome as well. I like playing The Sunset, even with this band I like playing that place. They’re always super nice and the stage is always really intimate. Those are also my favorite venues to see shows at. And the Triple Door. I like to see shows there.
Keith: Neumos, again, it’s amazing, but particularly what’s great about Neumos is the stage is hollow, so all the sub-bass and low end actually vibrates the stage and it sounds massive. Almost to the point where it’s about to fall apart. Hands down, Neumos is always going to be my favorite venue to play.
Andrew: I agree, I think you have to see specific shows at Triple Door, but it’s an awesome place to see a show. The Gorge, but that’s another level. Neumos is the best club.