Interview with Sleeper Agent

Sleeper Agent have recently pummeled their way to the top, becoming one of the most buzzed-about bands of the summer. Originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, the garage pop act have kept themselves busy by opening shows for the likes of Manchester Orchestra, Cage the Elephant, and Company of Thieves. Currently, the six-piece are tearing through cities left and right and will be heading out in October on a string of dates with Circa Survive and Maps & Atlases. The group’s upcoming debut album, ‘Celabrasion,’ is due out August 16 via Mom + Pop Music. The band packed the effort full of incessantly catchy tunes, all while keeping in mind not to take themselves too seriously.

Vocalist Alex Kandel and guitarist/vocalist Tony Smith took some time to talk to Rock Edition about their forthcoming record, touring, and mysterious bumps in the night. Check out what they had to say below.

How are you guys today?

Alex: Good. It’s been like a curse down here, it’s too hot. It’s been a hundred and something degrees for the last few days.

Ouch. Are you taking some time off to relax?

Alex: Yeah, we have a couple days off before we get back on the road.

Where are you headed to next?

Alex: Canada.

Nice. So most of you had experience in bands before Sleeper Agent. What makes Sleeper Agent different?

Tony: This current lineup is actually kind of a mish mash of several members from different bands over the years. We all know each other so well, so we know how to work together. We used to call ourselves Count Incestuous because we mixed all the different bands to make this one. I’ve been with Scott [Gardner, keyboardist] the longest. It’s been about nine years now. We’ve been working together since we were about 14 or 15 years old. I’ve been with Justin [Wilson, drummer] for three years now. The newest addition would be Alex — we’ve been together for about a year now.

Nine years is a long time. Have you seen each other grow musically since then?

Tony: It’s almost like a married couple thing. [laughs] We know our body language, you don’t have to speak very often, and you kind of just understand each other. We kind of learned how to understand how each other works a little better.

Alex: Yeah, and then I have like a completely different perspective. I’ve gotten to hear the demo CDs they did when they were in high school and I heard their bands on the local radio station before I even knew them. I’ve gotten to see from an after the fact perspective how much they’ve changed with the different bands. It’s really easy to see where the different elements come from. Justin definitely adds that manic quality with how he drums, and Scott and Lee [Williams, bassist] are more technically trained. It all kind of just works out, I guess. We balance it really well.

Is it sometimes hard to have six heads working together for one album?

Alex: I don’t think we’ve ever had any trouble as far as writing goes. I think we all pretty much know if a song is working or if it’s not. We all tend to be on the same page, and it comes together really fast.

Tony: What’s really nice is that when it comes to writing and performing, everyone is working for the song instead of working for their part.

You just wrapped up a tour with Cage the Elephant and Manchester Orchestra, you’ve played SXSW, and are set to play Summerfest in August. Is it somewhat of a shock going from playing local shows in Kentucky to touring the country and playing huge festivals?

Alex: I think it’s a welcome change. I absolutely love it. You never know what kind of crowds you’re going to get and you can see the different personalities in different cities. It’s really nice seeing what kinds of listeners really receive our music. For example, I was really shocked when we went to Portland. We’ve never been that way and to have kids singing our music and really getting into it was a huge surprise. We haven’t toured there ever, and to have a good reception was really nice. It makes it more fun to perform. I always have fun, but when you feel like there’s that give-and-take between you and the audience it makes it even better. When we play here in Bowling Green it’s like everyone has known you forever. Of course, it’s fun to perform here, but it’s more like just hanging out with friends. It’s not like performing for an audience that hasn’t seen you before.

Tony: That’s another thing with being in so many bands for so many years. I feel like people have seen my face in coffee houses and bars for so long, there’s almost a certain nonchalant expectation like, “Oh, there’s that dude — again.” [laughs]

You’ve been getting really positive feedback while out on tour. Have any specific experiences really made this all sink in?

Alex: There are certain moments when it really hits you. I think recently it’s been because we’ve been away from home for so long. I was working at PacSun at the time we finished the record, and I ended up getting fired after I didn’t show up [because I went] to play a show. I was shopping at the mall recently and I went into the store, and it was my first time back there since October of last year. We walk in and of course the only person working there is the one who hired me, so I was really uncomfortable. I ended up talking to him, and while we were talking our song came on over the speakers of PacSun. I just kind of laughed. It was really strange, and as soon as that happened this girl came up and asked for a picture. It was really weird and was the first time anything like that happened since we got home. When I used to work at PacSun they’d always play Cage and Manchester, and at that time I was really good friends with Cage. It’d always be me stuck folding clothes being like, “God, I just wanna be on tour! I don’t wanna be here. I know these guys! Why am I doing this? I just finished a record!”

That’s awesome. I’m sure being on tour is better than being stuck at PacSun forever.

Alex: [laughs] Yeah, definitely.

How do you know the guys from Cage?

Tony: They were in a band called Perfect Confusion when I was in high school. We used to open for them and we really got to know them once they became Cage. We’d go to after parties at their house and we’d play demos back and forth. I remember my favorite story about Matt Schultz: We played a show together and we went to this after party and he looks at me and goes, “Hey man,” and I’m like, “Hey.” I think I was like 19 or something, and he goes “Ready to do this for the rest of your fucking life?” and I was like, “I guess?” [laughs].

Is that the plan?

Alex: Oh yeah. I want to ride this out as long as possible. I think I always want to be involved in music in some way or another.

Tony: I know I definitely don’t want to be like 35 in skinny jeans and a T-shirt jumping around like a maniac, but I definitely want to be involved in music whether it’s being a songwriter, producer, or whatever.

Definitely. There are always possibilities. People have compared you to The Strokes. What was it like to actually meet them?

Tony: It was really insane. I think our drummer is the biggest Strokes fan. I guess we’ve met quite a few bands that we’ve idolized. I know it’s a little cliché, but they’re just people like you. They’re really cool. I’m surprised how much they were talking to us. Nick [Valensi] talked to Alex and I for like 30 minutes about random bullshit.

Alex: Yeah, we talked about the show we had in Bakersfield, CA; it was like meeting anyone [else]. I think It was kind of nice for us to see a band that’s been working together for so long. They’ve had a crazy long career and have had so many things in the press, but when you actually sit down with them, they’re not so far off from a band that’s just starting.

Tony: I’d go as far to say that they were a lot cooler than some of the more up-and-coming bands, whose egos are huge.

That’s interesting. How do you think you guys keep your egos in check?

Alex: [laughs] Each other.

Tony: Which is probably a little crazy because every day for us is like being in an amusement park. There are those long stretches where we’re waiting around in soundcheck for like four hours and we’ll read a book or start throwing food at each other. There’s really no in-between. It’s either 5 mph or 60 mph.

Alex: Everyone kind of takes their turn to have a bad day. Whenever there’s someone in a bad mood or just being a dick, everyone else kind of balances out. When you realize you’re the only one in a bad mood and being mean, you kind of snap out of it. We lived in a house together, for how long, Tony?

Tony: Almost a year, I think nine months. Could’ve had a baby in that time. [laughs]

Alex: I lived there right after I turned 18 and was there for two months. I think after living with everyone in the band in a house that wasn’t the nicest of houses, we can go through anything. I mean, we all learned everything — probably too much — about each other during that time.

Tony: I think it’s safe to say it was a total shit hole. The term paper thin walls was more true than it’s ever been.

Alex: [laughs] We learned everything about everyone and their friends.

Tony: Especially lady friends.

[laughs] I take it you’ve heard some pretty disturbing things.

Tony: [laughs] Oh my God.

Alex: I don’t think we need to go into any of them.

Tony: I mean, there’s a great story about Scott, the keyboard player. It was six in the morning and we heard a bunch of screaming. It kept on going on for like three more hours. I thought they were playing video games or something. Around noon I went down and asked him, “What was all that screaming about?” and he was like, “What are you talking about?” [It turned] out he was having night fits and had no idea.

Alex: Yeah, and then he got really embarrassed. It was really funny. I think when it comes to strange noises, Scott was the one who caused the most bumps in the night.

Are there any other bands you’d like to meet or play a show with in the future?

Alex: Normally, I’d say Wavves, but I’m actually getting a chance to do that on the Weezer Cruise, so that’s going to be really sick. But I just got the new Ida Maria album and I’m a huge fan. I’d give a toe to play that tour.

Tony: I’d like to play with Girls. Two of my favorite bands are Spoon and Wilco, so I’d love to meet those guys and have a show with them, though I don’t know where we’d fit in.

You’ve mentioned that you did the record in a week. Was there already a set idea for the album or did you just go for it?

Tony: I was always a pessimist while we were making the album since I’ve been doing this for so long and have had so many similar chances that just never panned out. I kept hearing that this producer Jay Joyce wanted to work with us, but I never really believed it. He called me one day at 10 in the morning and I was barely awake, and he was like, “I need you to send me some demos,” and I was like “Uh, okay. I’ll do that eventually.” Then I get a call the next day from him being like “Where are the demos?” and I’m like “Oh, shit you were serious!” So we all drank a bunch of coffee and holed up in our little basement and knocked out like eight demos. They were all really rough one-take things. I sent them to him at like two in the morning and he called me the next day like, “Wow, man. These are raw, but I love them.”

Alex: All of those demos have no lyrics, they’re just gibberish over vague melodies. As for [Jay]’s relationship with the band, he is very well-matched with our personalities. Everything he says is very sarcastic and joking. He’s very blunt, too. I remember when “That’s My Baby” didn’t have lyrics yet and it came time for us to do our vocal parts. We were all just sitting there trying to churn out lyrics as quickly as possible.

Tony: We were actually reading them off of our phones.

Alex: Oh yeah, that’s right! Jay just looked at us and he was so fed up and said, “Alright, I’m giving you 20 minutes and I’ll come back,” and he just left.

Tony: It was kind of like one of those “what happened to rock and roll” things. [laughs] We’re all just sitting there, looking at our phones. No pen and paper.

I’m sure a no bullshit attitude helps when it comes to making a record.

Tony: Yeah, we were so vulnerable. We didn’t have any time or any money, so if we messed up we wouldn’t have a chance to go back.

Alex: It was definitely a sink or swim time for us. Everything after the record felt very unstable and things could go either way. I could’ve had to crawl back to mom like, “Whoops, I messed up!” Luckily, we met Mom + Pop and fell in love with the record label. They take really good care of us and are willing to fight for us. I think if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be in such a good spot that we are now.

The name Sleeper Agent is a Battlestar Galactica reference. Are there any songs on the album that also have sci-fi inspirations for them?

Tony: I’m not really sure.

Alex: I think as far as a band name goes, it’s not an idea that represents the band. It’s just something cool that Tony heard. It’s not this all-encompassing idea; it’s not very symbolic. It can be, I guess, if you want to think about it like post-creation.

Tony: Yeah. I guess we could say it’s like being in a relationship, or your lover is actually a sleeper agent or some shit. Nobody I had ever worked with liked the name, so I just had this fantasy idea of a rock band called Sleeper Agent.

There’s an interesting story behind “Get It Daddy.” Hopefully there aren’t other songs on the album that are also about unfortunate sexual encounters?

Tony: There was one that didn’t make it. [laughs] Our other friend wouldn’t appreciate it, so I’m glad it didn’t make it.

Alex: [laughs] Yeah, definitely. That’s important, because that friend does our artwork.

Tony: The rest of it is all just circumstances in my personal life and Alex’s personal life that we somewhat fictionalize.

Alex: A lot of them are very spontaneous and off-the-cuff. There are songs like “Far and Wide” and “All Wave and No Goodbye” that are actually complete thoughts.

Tony: I think “Love Blood” is about the band itself and how we keep ourselves in check.

Does the closing track “Far and Wide” intend to sum up your experience together as a band?

Tony: Yeah, I’d say so. It’s also about Alex going into the next part of her adolescence. Or, her step away from adolescence.

Alex: Yeah, Tony wrote the song from my perspective. It’s so different from when someone’s daughter goes off to college and there’s that adjustment period, because I was going off and running away with a rock band. I’m sure I’m not the easiest daughter to have just because of how stubborn I am. I think I’ve caused my parents a little bit of stress because of how overly spontaneous I can be. I’m also a little overly trusting in my own ambitions sometimes, but luckily this time it worked out for me. I think the song was more about me trying to get to that next step.

Pre-order Sleeper Agent’s upcoming album, Celabrasion.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their Facebook page.

  • Jenn Aguinaldo

    I can’t wait to hear their new album! They seem like such a fun band to hangout with, judging by this video of them on the road!