Lauren Dukoff Yep, it's time for CMJ, aka five nights of running -- or…
- Posted on Jul 7th 2011 5:00PM by Theo Spielberg
The gut-shaking rumble of the kick drum evolves slowly into a thunderous boom. The sound guy fiddles with nobs and dials on the mixing board and the kick drum's thump crescendos accordingly. Snare, toms and cymbals morph similarly before the band moves on to sound check the other instruments and finally the vocals. Without the 300-plus bodies in the room to absorb this sound, it is absolutely cacophonous in the house. Sleeper Agent's main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Tony "Tutone" Smith, 24, steps to the microphone and begins to sing.
People often say that Smith sounds like Jack White and sometimes he does. And, certainly, there could be a worse comparison, but who would want to stand in that shadow? If one character trait runs through Sleeper Agent's lineup it is that they uniformly buck any classificatory girdle
Tony gets his nickname "Because he's got two guitar tones. He's got clean and distorted" the band will later explain to Spinner. The rest of Sleeper Agent is comprised of singer Alex Kandel, bassist Lee Williams, keyboardist Scott Gardner, drummer Justin Wilson and lead guitarist Josh Martin. After several well-received sets at SXSW, the sextet has become rising indie darlings.
They are still very much in their formative period as a band. Though their sound is a fully formed garage-rock assault, there are still many components of the Sleeper Agent camp that have yet to crystallize. They have no road crew; other than their manager they really have no crew at all. Lee serves double duty as their tour manager.
Sleeper Agent are defiantly their own. As the music industry is wont to do these days, industry outlets are branding the band as the new Jack and Meg, the next Paramore and any other combination of boy-girl dynamics or southern roots music comparisons that might hook listeners. Because they are from Bowling Green, Ky., photographers need horses in the shot. They want to dress them in all denim or all-denim jumpsuits. The band refuses.
Sleeper Agent are kids, young adults. At 26, Josh "Junior" Martin is the most senior member of the band, and the tallest. They digest pop culture with the voracity reserved for adolescence (they each list off their RSS feed to us, enthusiastically, unprompted). They play with the abandon of seeing life sprawled out before them. Youthful, charismatic, they struggle to retain their personality in the cookie cutter record-label, marketing bonanza, sub-genre hell.
As sound check finishes, bassist Lee "Grizzlee" Williams invites us backstage. Williams has a hairy face, hence the nickname and a penchant for stand-up comedy. "We've got Madden on XBox" he assures in a we-don't-bite sort of way. Wilson has face-planted and lies prone on the floor. He is suffering from a lack of energy and will be more or less comatose until the band hits the stage again.
The band makes a quick detour outside for a cigarette break before reconvening in the green room. "Everybody wants us to be really Southern, but we're the most un-Kentucky people ever," Smith protests as he lights his smoke. "Why can't they just photograph us with some Jim Beam or something cool at least?" Lead singer Alex "Kidd" Kandel has similar complaints. Photographers have tried to capture her as the girly force of the band, a role she vehemently denies, as seen in the conversation below:
Kandel: I'm not much of a girl anyway.
Smith: She has the Lady Gaga complex where she may or may not be the only girl.
Kandel: They all treat me like equals, and sometimes I don't like how equally I get treated. I
[The rest of the band releases a unanimous sigh]
Smith: OK, I carry what I can.
Williams: I always think it's funny, though I understand. I'll be wheeling my [amp] head in and that monster cabinet, and then she'll walk by just holding my bass and I just think ... [shrugs]
Martin: I saw her trying to grab my pedalboard one time and I know that thing's heavy as sin. I took it from her because it almost outweighs her.
Gardner: I've carried your suitcase a couple times.
Kandel: My suitcase is really big. I can't help it!
Smith: You know how little women drive huge-ass Broncos? Same thing with her suitcase.
Martin: She could fit in that thing.
Smith: I just have a duffel bag.
Kandel: My suitcase has some of your clothes in it too!
With that, the topic of Kandel's girlishness is laid to rest. In person, Alex is goofy, almost naif-ish. At 18 years old, the skinny, waivy-haired brunette is the youngest member of the band. Lifting heavy equipment would not appear to be her strong suit. On stage she's a firebrand. Her body convulses in the manner one might expect to see at a revival. She sings with the conviction and natural ease of a born performer; her voice is deep and powerful.
When she was 16 years old and still in high school, Kandel opened for a nascent lineup of Sleeper Agent in a Bowling Green coffee shop. She pressed Smith to be in the band, a request he initially denied on account of her young age. After several months of pressure, during which Kandel sent him routine Facebook messages, Smith finally acquiesced.
Sleeper Agent formed in earnest while living together in a dilapidated house that resembled the house in 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' At the time, the residents of the house comprised two separate bands. "Tony was the overlapping factor," Gardner explains. "Then [Sleeper Agent] started to pick up and that's when we all started to collaborate instead."
"We had a big broken-down treehouse basically," he elaborates. "We didn't have heat or electricity for a good amount of the time we were living in it. We didn't have water pressure once we turned the heat on." The house wasn't grounded, so the bandmembers had to practice with shoes on to avoid electrocution.
Sleeper Agent are preparing to roll out their debut album, 'Celabrasion,' on Aug. 16. The album is a rollicking set of impressive barnstormers that aptly reflect the title. The songs balance jubilant, melodic pop hooks with fierce, at times discordant waves of distortion.
Their first single and album opener 'Get It Daddy' epitomizes their sound in a sub-3-minute microcosm. As with all of their songs, Smith wrote it from Kandel's perspective. The Freudian song title however, is a product of one of their friend's sexual misadventures.
Sleeper Agent's music is so convincingly precocious, comparisons to older, more established acts seems unavoidable. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can withstand the hype and carve out their own niche in the garage-rock pantheon.
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