Santa Cruz’s brightest export, Sleepy Sun, is master of its own orbit
They shuffle in from who knows where, likely not from around here, arriving at a poorly-lit warehouse in the blighted neighborhood of West Oakland known as “Ghost Town.” Feathers and beads adorn their heads, earthen-toned overalls, Baja hoodies, and organic cotton dresses their bodies. As the sickly red light fades away and the fog machine hisses into action, it becomes apparent that they are not the only ones here: light from a digital projector is reflected from the lip piercings of a metalhead who towers near the front, a group of athletic-looking frat-row types jostle for position in the crowd, even a lone tattooed bicycle punk can be sighted, leaning against the filthy concrete walls. Suddenly, the thunderous, tom-heavy drum opener to Sleepy Sun’s “New Age” tears through the fog-heavy room, punctuated by bass, and there is a sense of certainty as to why all have gathered here. Singer Bret Constantino (perhaps the most outlandishly clad of all) steps up to the microphone and breathes rhythmically; the groove locks in, and markers of identity, concepts of place, and the rest of life’s trivialities become meaningless.
This scene, now being replicated and amplified in venues of ever-increasing size across the United States and Europe, is a far cry from Sleepy Sun’s early Santa Cruz days (though there are similarities aplenty). Originally a thrashing, ’60s garage and freakbeat- informed quintet known as Mania, the band rechristened itself after careening through the Santa Cruz house party scene, leaving destroyed living rooms and hyperinflated noise citations in its wake. This week, Sleepy Sun returns home to join Vetiver at the Brookdale Lodge on Saturday, Oct. 17 before hitting the Treasure Island Music Festival.
My first encounter with Constantino and his compatriots was in an overstuffed garage near Soquel Avenue. Backed by a wall of muddled, sludgy guitars and a straight-ahead rock beat, Constantino wore a Union Jack tank top, wailed as if possessed, and stomped repeatedly on a foot-operated fog machine which dispensed directly into my face. The vibe was less Sabbath then, more Stooges or Stones, but nearly as powerful and just as fun as their later incarnation (fog machine hijinks aside).
As its college years drew to a close (all five original members went to UC Santa Cruz), Sleepy Sun began to withdraw from the party-centric house scene, showing up at mellower venues such as the Big Sur Festival in the Forest and touring the Pacific Northwest. Whether through conscious decision or through a subtle process of folk osmosis, a stylistic shift began to occur. First, gorgeous psychedelic demos began to surface: in 2007 I wrote that Sleepy Sun’s scratchy, home-recorded jams found the band “deep into ’60s psych-folk territory, conjuring celestial metaphors on the reverb-drenched ‘Golden Artifact’ and using plenty of shimmery acoustic guitars.” There were sporadic live appearances as well. At a live in-studio with the band at KZSC, I looked on as they sang mesmerizing, seemingly-structureless acoustic pieces that would become tracks on the band’s 2008 debut album, Embrace. “Amazing,” exclaimed a breathless undergraduate DJ.
Then they were gone, off to Canada to record Embrace with Black Mountain producer Colin Stewart, a perfect fit for the new tack their music had taken. It was an audacious step for the young band, a gamble whose odds were improved by Sleepy Sun’s obvious profusion of talent and drive. “Embrace was a collection of tracks that we had worked on for quite some time before we finally decided to go and record what we had,” says Matt Holliman, the towering, long-haired guitarist for the band (he is joined by fellow shredder Evan Reiss). Recorded while the group was still “juggling school and work,” the sprawling 45-minute-plus neo-psych epic feels at once restless and focused, endlessly creative but with an ambitious pop sensibility. “We wanted each song to have a different tone to it,” Constantino says, echoing a sentiment he had expressed to me two years prior. “If each song has a different sound, the record as a whole becomes more interesting.”
Indeed, Embrace’s emotional breadth and sonic range is what sets Sleepy Sun apart from the classic rock revival scene (for example, the aforementioned Black Mountain) as well as the waning, insular “freak folk” movement of the mid-2000s, while assuring its appeal to fans of both. The band will open a piece on an introspective, downtempo jam, such as on the album’s thematic centerpiece, “Sleepy Son.” Soft, processed vocals are beamed in, courtesy of Constantino and singer Rachel Williams; the listener is lulled into a hazy reverie. A lesser band might settle for maintaining this easy, natural space. Sleepy Sun, of course, lets everything drop away except Williams’ plaintive melody, and then roars back to life with a guitar assault that puts The Fucking Champs to shame.
If moments like these are commonplace on Embrace, perhaps the unconventional songwriting process of the band has something to do with it. “We were just commenting on how we never really sat down with paper and said, here are the drums for these measures, and here’s how the guitar parts go for this measure here,” says Holliman. “Normally what we do is throw down as much as we possibly can. We’ll start with drum and bass tracks with scratch guitar and then just start layering from there; taking little pieces out, adding and subtracting elements and then stepping away from the song for a little while.”
Sleepy Sun seems to think of its songs as living creatures, things that move, breathe and evolve. “It always seems that the stuff that’s recorded is only one point in time of this constant, ever-changing process of any given song,” Holliman adds. When the song is put on tape, he says, “That’s how the song is in that moment. Then we sort of have to re-learn how to play the song the way we recorded it. Soon, we find ourselves getting to the point where we change the song further and further, adapting and evolving any given work indefinitely. So, the live performance will always be different from what’s on the record.”
Though different, the live performance is certainly in demand. Sleepy Sun has been touring incessantly, and is heading to Europe in late November to spread the gospel there as it prepares for the release of a sophomore album in the spring of 2010. The band will also appear at the Ten Years of All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in England mid-December. “There’s something about the people that go to those festivals,” a road-weary Constantino tells me, referring to his label’s well-curated music events. “The people that go are just really passionate about the music and they’re there because they want to be. And they have an open mind.”
Sleepy Sun performs with Vetiver at 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17 at Brookdale Lodge, 11570 Hwy 9, Brookdale. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 338-1300 or visit Folkyeah.com.