While we’ve known the San Francisco-based band under its chosen moniker since 2007, Sleepy Sun was initially formed as Mania in 2005, making 2014 the eve of its decade-long existence. Aside from one major lineup change with the departure of co-lead vocalist Rachel Fannan, its core group of founders, who met as students at UC Santa Cruz, has remained firm over the years as it mastered a balance of dark, psychedelic meanderings and softer, melodic moments. Capturing a sonic amalgam of gritty rock and roll and psych-tinged power pop, Sleepy Sun’s fourth studio album, Maui Tears, drops today via Dine Alone Records, and vocalist Bret Constantino took some time to talk to The Bay Bridged about the process behind the record and what the next year holds for his band.
Since the 2009 release of the band’s debut album, Embrace, Bret explains that the group’s basic songwriting process remains as its always been. “It’s purely a collaborative effort. But it can happen in any number of ways,” he describes. “Say one person brings a melody or even a rhythm, a rhythmic pattern, or even somewhat of a loosely structured song, bring that to the table and then we kind of all just work on that together and it becomes something special. But it really continues to evolve up into the moment we record it.”
While the band’s method has remained solid, he feels the natural effects of having been a band for nearly a decade. He explains, “I would say what’s changed most is just our evolution as individual musicians. I know personally I’ve improved a lot and we’ve learned from playing with each other over the years. We’ve learned to play to each other’s strengths and also to encourage each other to explore new and unforeseen territory as well, so that’s always the most exciting thing about making a record.”
Bret also highlights the transformative power of the studio setting. “We work for the better part of a year on songs, structuring them out and conceptualizing material right up until we record them,” he says. “Then we record them and that’s when the magic happens. A lot of times the songs can take a completely hard right from wherever they may have been heading. They can, a lot of the time, transform at the very last minute,” he continues, “even then, when we go and record them, the producer – we encourage them to give their opinions and kind of bring them into the circle and that’s how a lot of influences can be had that way.”
When I offer the idea that the producer can become part of the band during the recording process, and Bret affirms, “Absolutely. There were even a couple of songs where we had them pretty much there, as close as we could get them, but we knew there was–we were kind of counting on that last minute magic touch that either the circumstances would provide or the engineer. The producer in this case, Tim Green, had a lot to do with finishing up a lot of the songs.”
Green also recorded Sleepy Sun’s last LP, Spine Hits, which was released in 2012, but together, the band and producer tried a completely different recording method for Maui Tears. Tracked entirely on tape, the new album captures much of the group’s raw energy.
“Sonically, its a lot more pleasing to the ear,” Bret explains, “especially the drum sounds and a lot of the bed tracks. We’ve never recorded a full-length record onto tape, so it sounds a lot better to the ear.”
While he admits that “most everything else these days–vocals and guitars–you can get it to sound pretty close to that digitally,” he asserts that, for him, “It’s more about the process of it.”
He points to one particular benefit of analog recording: “After a certain amount of takes you can almost hear, faintly in the background, you can hear previous takes. You can record a number of time over and over again, but after a while I feel like the quality degrades a little bit. I don’t really know too much about it. It was definitely a new part of recording for me, but more of the spontaneous energy is captured on tape. We didn’t do any tape splicing or anything, but when you record digitally on Pro Tools you can always go in and fix something that’s off key or off rhythm. On tape, the purpose is to capture raw energy.”
That raw energy is what makes Sleepy Sun shows so electric, and the band is equally as excited about harnessing that power as its fans should be. “We’ve never really felt like we were able to capture that on record, and for the first time I think we did capture a lot of that live energy.”
In addition to recording with Tim, Bret attributes the natural spontaneity of Maui Tears to the analog tricks that are made possible by recording on tape. “On ‘Galaxy Punk,’” he describes, “we recorded claps, but we recorded by flipping the tape over and then putting a reverb effect on that and then flipping it back over. So you achieve this reverse delay which is completely analog. Its not a reverse delay effect. Actually flipping the tape over and recording it backwards.”
In one of the LP’s darkest moments, “11:32,” nestled right in the middle of the album’s nine tracks, offers sinister overcurrents that leaning toward the grittier side of the rock and roll spectrum, as opposed to Spine Hits, which was, at least instrumentally, very pretty and melodic. For that particular song, he admits, “We went for the grungiest, darkest tones we could possibly get, for that one in particular, we tried to make evil sounding music.” He laughs and continues: “There’s this microphone that I used… Tim had made some modification to, and it was called the ‘Evil Mic.’”
Beyond that track however, he asserts, “I don’t know if there was a conscious effort to make a more dark sounding record versus a pretty sounding record. But I think both of those themes are important, just as important to each other.”
He continues, “I think we always strive to make that juxtaposition between dark, sinister, foreboding themes as well as enlightening, beautiful,” arguing, “you wouldn’t really be able to achieve one without the other. I think they’re both necessary.”
Maui Tears certainly achieves a seasoned balance of light and dark, particularly on tracks like “Words” and “Everywhere Waltz,” with its heavy, humming guitars and surprising, anthemic vocal ending.
For the title track, the closing number and another stand-out moment on the record, the band stepped far from the brevity of its previous album and into an over-ten-minute long song that acts as an epic finale.
“For that song, we knew we wanted it to be long. That song was planned more conceptually than, perhaps, any other track on the record, but it didn’t take its form until we recorded it,” he explains. “We knew there was going to be this kind of build up, kind of abstract mediation on the rhythm and groove, and we had the chorus and the verses written. But a lot of that, like the flute part of that, we had our friends Camilla and Isaiah, who play in a band called Golden Void together, come in. So certain parts came together very last minute. So that song did actually come together very spontaneously, but we had a conceptual frame work to it and we wanted it to be the epic of the album. And like I said, we leave a lot of space for improvisation in the studio, you know, in order to capture that type of energy. At this point we’ve learned that that’s really a big part of the magic of our records, I think is leaving a lot of space for improv.”
Sleepy Sun will embark on grueling North American tour next month, during which it will play 35 shows in the span of a month and a half.
“We’re going to be touring the record a lot,” Bret explains, “and I think our live show is the best it’s been. It’s amazing that we’ve still got the same group of guys and we’re all committed to putting on a show and I think that speaks for itself. The fact that we have the same dynamic, that we’ve managed to keep together over the years, so I think the live show is going to be a big part of our next year. We’re going to be doing lots of traveling.”
While the band usually plays San Francisco at the opening of its tours, they will be playing the city at the tail end of this trip, when they stop at The Chapel on March, 27 before wrapping up in Los Angeles the following night.
After laying out the politics of never playing a single city too much, particularly San Francisco where festivals like Outside Lands and Treasure Island place restrictions on bands’ pre- and post festival appearances, Bret adds, “I also think that it’s better to play San Francisco when we’re well-oiled and have been playing a number of shows. We always seem to play SF at the very beginning of the tour and I feel like we’re still working out the kinks. So it’s a project at this point, especially now that I live out of state, we’ve got to think more about when we’re playing and we’ve got to plan it in advance how we rehearse and prepare for the run.”
Maui Tears hits stores today, and before you pick up a copy for yourself, you can have a listen to the entire album above.
Sleepy Sun Tour Dates:
02/13–Santa Cruz, CA–The Catalyst
02/15–Pioneertown, CA–Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
02/16–Phoenix, AZ–The Rhythm Room
02/18–Dallas, TX–Three Links Dallas
02/19–Houston, TX–Fitzgerald’s Downstairs
02/20–San Antonio, TX–Limelight
02/21–Austin, TX–Red 7
02/22–Baton Rouge, LA–Spanish Moon
02/24–Atlanta, GA–The Basement
02/25–Birmingham, AL–Bottletree Cafe
02/26–Nashville, TN–The End
02/27–Asheville, NC–The One Stop Deli & Bar
02/28–Columbus, OH–Rumba Cafe
03/01–Cincinnati, OH–MOTR Pub
03/02–Pittsburgh, PA–Smiling Moose
03/03–Philadelphia, PA–Johnny Brenda’s
03/04–Brooklyn, NY–Knitting Factory
03/06–Montreal, Canada–Divan Orange
03/07–Toronto, Canada–Horseshoe Tavern
03/10–Chicago, IL, Schuba’s Tavern
03/11–St. Paul, MN–Turf Club
03/12–Fargo, ND–The Aquarium
03/13–Winnipeg, Canada–Union Music Hall
03/18–Calgary, Canada–Broken City
03/20–Vancouver, Canada–Biltmore Cabaret
03/21–Whistler, Canada–Garibaldi Lift Company
03/22–Victoria, Canada–Lucky Bar
03/24–Seattle, WA–Sunet Tavern
03/27–San Francisco, CA–The Chapel
03/28–Los Angeles, CA–Think Tank Gallery