In the three whirlwind years since Sleeper Agent released its debut, Celabrasion, its members have played everywhere from the Coachella festival to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. They've opened for Weezer, Circa Survive, and fun. And "Get It Daddy," their dizzying anthem about growing up, has appeared in Taco Bell ad, while their bustling high-five to indefatigability, "Not Never," has soundtracked a Nike clip.
Celabrasion immediately garnered the affectionate attention of the blogosphere straight to the top of the nation music media. Rolling Stone hailed them as a "Band To Watch", describing their sound as "lusty garage rock with loads of retro smarts." SPIN declared, "the Kentucky-based quintet's playful, Southern fried, boy-vs.-girl power pop is instantly lovable." Esquire said, "these co-ed garage-rock saviors-in-waiting offer two minutes that sound like the most original - and forceful - introduction to a new band we're likely to hear all year."
"It's so hard to define success by one thing. Everything was so new...." says frontwoman Alex Kandel, looking back at their steep ascent. She pauses to think. "The first time we had a rider! When people gave us bottled water, I knew this was a career." Sleeper Agent will make good on that early next year, when they release their second album, About Last Night (RCA/Mom+Pop).
These days, the sextet--which also includes singer/guitarist and principal songwriter Tony Smith, bassist Lee Williams, guitarist Josh Martin, drummer Justin Wilson, and keyboardist Scott Gardner--are bent on jettisoning past their title as the Little Act That Could from Bowling Green, Kentucky. "Sleeper Agent started out as a fun, goofy side project," explains Tony. "I don't want this to be silly for the rest of my life. I want to embrace this seriously and treat it with respect for the people responding to it. About Last Night is a stepping stone."
Though their ambitions have grown, Sleeper Agent's approach continues to be disarmingly simple: delivering joyously melodies, even when they're bumming out. For instance, About Last Night's first single, "Waves," manages to be both plaintive and percussive--ruminating on the rigors of touring, then snapping out of that depression. Concedes Tony: "That was me, excavating my emotions."
About Last Night was born after Tony started scribbling together song skeletons on tour. The group fleshed out those compositions after decamping their tour bus to shack up together in a log cabin in Middle of Nowhere, East Kentucky. It didn't even have mobile service. "The cabin was hand-built by a World War II general," interjects Alex. "And actually, it was like a sanctuary."
Instead of killing each other in their secluded camp, they watched The Godfather, cooked family dinners, and emerged five days later with 10 solid tracks--among them, "Waves." The songs were recorded in Nashville (with Jay Joyce) and Charleston (with Eric Bass), and both encouraged us to "quit over-thinking it," says Tony. "We did a great job on the last record with melodies but tried to cover them up with distortion. We were scared to be melodic. Jay and Eric were like, 'Go for it,' and made it shimmer a bit."
That didn't always come easy. "The biggest pain in the ass on the entire record is a song called 'Eat You Up,'" says Tony. "It started off as a dark, slow song, reflecting its lyrical content. Then as we kept messing with it, it became very dancey. That song probably went through 10 variations." What emerged, when they stopped trying so hard, was a simmering synth-take.
"We really pushed ourselves," adds Alex. "We rewrote songs over and over again until they felt right. We spent a week on the last record, but got to spend almost a year on this one." The sauntering, lower-register "Haunting Me" was her white whale. "It had a lot of vocal subtleties," she says. "And it went from sounding like something that could end on the cutting-room floor to being one of my favorite songs on the record." Still, Alex admits true validation will come from road-testing these songs. "I can't wait to get back to doing what we do best, and that's touring."
Two years ago, the band played Santa Barbara for the first time. "It was such a strange and beautiful show. It was the perfect day--a rainbow circled the sun," she says. "Fifteen minutes before we went on, Tony got a call that one of our good friends passed away unexpectedly." It was, at once, one of their most challenging and rewarding shows. "All of that emotion...I can remember every second of that day--the scent, the temperature of the air. It made me understand why I do what I do."
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