13 Apr Sleepyhead- the beginnings- and the videos.
I turned 49 this year, and while some days I feel a bit long in the tooth, in general I don’t have the sense that I’m almost 50. Still, it’s nearly 30 years since Chris, Rachael and I began the band sleepyhead- and that is mind boggling to me. When I was 20 I couldn’t imagine being 30 and now that I’m nearly 50 it’s hard to imagine that 3/5 of my life have been spent with some involvement in making music. From 1989 to 1999 I was in Sleepyhead. We recorded 5 albums together. Two of those, “Starduster” and “Communist Love Songs” are being re-issued on double vinyl today- with a great booklet. I woke up thinking about that time and jotted down some thoughts- below I’ll post a dozen videos I made from those records.
I’m currently playing in a band with friends from high school called Elvis Division. In many ways it’s a lot simpler now. No pressure, just some old dudes rocking. When I was 20 the stakes were a lot higher. The rest of my life has been shaped by that experience.
I spotted Chris O’Rourke across the lobby of my dorm on the first day of my second year of college. By that afternoon we were listening to records together. Chris and I didn’t pick up instruments for the first year we knew each other. We didn’t realize we were in a band yet but looking back it was part of the process. It was a year of research; we spent several nights a week drinking cheap beer while listening to records; and several other nights we went to see shows.
The summer before I met Chris, 1988, was the summer of Guns n Roses. That summer I worked at an Inn in Maine as a waiter and dishwasher. Each night at around 10:30, when I was mopping the kitchen, “Sweet Child o Mine” came on the radio. By the end of the summer it had morphed over to “Welcome to the Jungle”. These were not songs that I appreciated at first, but they came to grow on me. After a few weeks I expected them. The previous spring a friend of mine, who interned for the head of MTV, had told me that “alternative“ was the next big thing – that it had been decided. I kind of rolled my eyes when she said it because it seemed so ridiculously conspiratorial- the idea that the heads of labels and media companies would make a decision like that. When Guns and Roses took over the airwaves I didn’t make the connection, because it was more metal than uderground- or alternative. However, once Nirvana signed to a major label it became more clear that GnR was a gateway band between hip-hop/metal/classic rock dominance on the radio dial to a slightly different alchemy of sound. Art rises up from the underground, but it’s those with power, well outside of that space, that make the real decisions about what we see and hear.
That winter I begin to shoot photos in a mall on Long Island and there’s one picture I took of three people with guns and roses hair in grunge type flannel that says it all. At the end of the school year in the spring of 1989 Chris and I talked about bringing our instruments back to college the next year. I headed out across the country to continue the mall project and obsessively listen to music on those long long drives. It was a very alienating trip. My friend Sebastian and I had a hard time meeting anybody and we wandered somewhat aimlessly, but also with great speed, across these vast United States. We found a creeping sense of homogeneity. The mall project was about seeing the mall as the new “public space”, even though it was private. Almost all the malls had a similar feeling and any sense of regionalism was lost, especially because almost all of the stores were chain stores. At one point we realized that the mall we had visited in Vancouver Washington was almost exactly the same as when we were in in Columbia Missouri. Even the fast food joints in the food court were the same. It was a surreal vision of the industrialization of culture.
That fall I brought my bass and Chris brought his guitar and amp. He’d conscripted his former RA Rachael as our drummer. Once or twice a week I would borrow an amp from a friend of theirs and we’d take it all in the elevators down to the basement of our dorm, to cinderblock room that students could check out as a practice space. I have seen some very loud concerts in my time but that room was louder than any of them. I hadn’t even considered the idea of ear plugs yet and those sessions left my ears clanging for days. I didn’t really know how to play, and I didn’t really want to know how to play. We didn’t go down there to learn covers, and I wasn’t really capable of figuring out how to play covers. Instead we learned how to play together which involved forming a kind of language that helped us to not sound like everybody else.
When I went to college I knew that I wanted to make art, but I wasn’t sure what that might look like or feel like. I didn’t think of myself as being creative or talented enough to actually be an artist, but I obsessed about ideas and what exactly art meant. That year spent forming a band was a powerfully transformative experience for me. It took me from a place of being audience to being an actor, and gave me the first sense that I might find a way to make art in the world. While I was somewhat obsessed with music at the time, in many ways being in a band had more to do with exploring ideas than it did with making sounds. While in class I would think a lot about possible lyrics, but I knew that they weren’t very strong, and that role feel entirely to Chris. However being in a band shifted my perspective as a photographer, and gave me opportunities to make fliers and album artwork.
Neither Rachel or I had the strongest sense of rhythm, which gave many of our songs shambolic looseness that for many was an acquired taste. Overtime our chops improved and we became quite tight but in those first few years that looseness helped us to create our own sound.
By the end of that school year we had half dozen songs and we recorded a demo. It was wild to hear them on tape for the first time. We all agreed to live together in Providence that summer to focus on being a band. It was a make and break kind of summer. We didn’t practice all that much, but we were forced to figure out how to navigate the more difficult aspects of working as a unit. While it was a bonding experience a lot of issues remained on figured out. Band dynamics are dynamic. They are not democracies they are power struggles. Sometimes the struggles are crippling and sometimes that yielded really unique results.
Below are many videos I threw together for our songs- The largest chunk are from Starduster. I also got a few done from Communist Love Songs. More to come.
PlAY- the first song we recorded.
FROM COMMUNIST LOVE SONGS
FROM THE BRIGHTER SHORE