At the start of the year we spoke with Alex, bassist and laptopist from Sydney progressive instumental rock quartet sleepmakeswaves. A lot has happened since then and Alex has now kindly put aside a couple of hours to let us know how things have gone this year. We know you’ll agree that this interview gives a great insight into a band hitting the next level.
(((o))) You first spoke with us at the start of the year. Your album was still reasonably new and you were getting ready for spots at SXSW and dunk!festival as well as a national tour of your own. For many that would have been a big enough year as it is, but even more was in store for sleepmakeswaves. Supporting Boris and Tortoise; supporting Karnivool on a national tour; being nominated for an ARIA award; recognised on a list of the top 250 post-rock songs of all time; getting started on some new songs; touring Australia yet again; and now preparing to support 65daysofstatic in January.
Before I ask about those specific events, can you tell us what effect all this has had on you in your personal lives? What impact has this year had on those around you and on relationships? How has it changed the way you view every day?
As you’ve mentioned, so many doors were suddenly opened to us and we knew we wanted to experience those opportunities to their fullest. We figured that for a band to hit the small- time big-time like we have is rare. It may only happen once in a musician’s life, if at all. So we decided to express the depth of our gratitude by working as hard as we possibly could. This was our way of paying back the unexpected faith in us that fans and the industry had shown.
For a band of geeky introverts, it’s a weird but wonderful experience to have some of your musical dreams realised. We all now take a hell of a lot of pride and positivity from what we’ve done, where we’ve come from and the love we’ve been feeling from people that fall into our trajectory.
Personally, the couple of years in which we planned, recorded and released “…and so we destroyed everything” were very different to how I live now. I made a conscious decision to make a 180° turn and a big part of that was committing to sleepmakeswaves as my focus. Being a guy that tends to see the glass as half-empty, having our hard work return to us as opportunities and acclaim beyond what we ever could have imagined has definitely given me a tremendous sense of optimism and determination.
But we’ve all made some big sacrifices along the way, most significantly, lacking the kind of job and relationship security that many of our friends are settling into. We’re always exhausted and we embody that stereotype of impoverished musicians. Money is always tight because the band is a greedy beast. Sometimes it feels like we’ll never get our heads above water. This occasionally gets quite depressing and you have ridiculous moments where buying new shoes (because your old ones let the water in) seems an unjustifiable luxury, because the band simply has to come first.
This single-minded commitment mode fucks with you during the downtime. You’ll be flat-out 24/7 for weeks because a tour’s on and then you come home back to a different kind of life. It’s a weird, sometimes alienating, adjustment to be continually making and sometimes I wish I never needed to go home at all and could just tour all year. It’s even harder for some of the other guys in the band like Otto, who juggles a full-time nine-to-five job with our increasingly busy schedule. The upshot of this is that you really begin to live life day-to-day because a band at the level of sleepmakeswaves (busy-yet-with-little-financial-return) requires so much commitment for very little stability.
The music industry is fickle, our band is a bit odd, our songs are very long and I think we all feel like we’re taking a massive gamble in some ways. But rolling these dice is thrilling beyond words and we’re unbelievably stoked about future tours and making a new record. I think we’re finally beginning to feel that we’re leaving behind something that a handful of people find is worth hearing. That’s incredibly special to us and we feel incredibly lucky that we can follow our passion right now.
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(((o))) With an event as big as SXSW you were always going to be one of hundreds vying for attention. Was it what you expected or hoped it to be? When you think about it now, what sticks most in your mind?
All of us knew ahead of SXSW that we were going to be very little fish in a pretty enormous pond. People don’t see our band and decide to throw money at us, so we weren’t expecting big label offers or anything. What we took away from the experience was the challenge and thrill of being part of such an amazingly vibrant musical scene and testing our sound against the best of what the world had to offer. While I think we represented well, it also opened up our minds to the depth and immensity of what is out there in the music world and how far we have to go as musicians, businessmen and performers.
Watching some of the other bands perform was incredibly humbling. And So I Watch You From Afar set a new standard for us live in a massive way with a passion that was as reckless as it was crafted. In terms of industry stuff, we learnt the most from bands like them, who had lessons to teach us by being slightly further down the road than us. Our manager Mike Solo, who I believe you have interviewed before, could probably tell you more about SXSW from that perspective. I think the rest of us were having fun seeing bands, drinking and enjoying that famous southern hospitality while he did the serious business.
Two things stick in my mind:
One was how SXSW, and America, tested us as musicians like we never had been before. Before we hit Texas for the event, we played five shows. We touched down in the US and had a show in Los Angeles that night, New York gigs the following two nights, Philadelphia the night after, Houston at 7pm on day five and our SXSW showcase in Austin at midnight that same evening. We had so much fun, but it was also a brutal schedule full of sleep deprivation, alcoholism and laptop-rig failure. By the time we arrived in Austin we had discovered a new level of tiredness, borne of five shows in four states in four days and the past 50 hours without REM. It was a kind of automaton mode where we were mute, distant, single-minded. There was only playing.
We didn’t know if we had the energy left to pull what we needed for that show, which felt like the culmination of everything we’d done at that point. But somehow we managed to dredge up a kind of energy that was more reckless and real, precisely because of how tired we were. For me, it felt like the band kicked up a level there with us as performers – and to do it at SXSW was unreal.
The other thing that sticks in my mind is all of us standing in an industry tent under the Texas sunshine while our manager Mike told us we’d been offered the national support for the Karnivool Australian tour later that year. So many hugs, so much dopey bromance. We knew that just being at SXSW would give us a big boost back at home and at that moment, we felt like things were really taking off.
(((o))) Dunk!festival saw you sharing the stage at a three-day music festival with the likes of The Samuel Jackson Five, 65daysofstatic, Atlantis, If These Trees Could Talk, Pelican, This Will Destroy You and many more great progressive rock bands – mostly instrumental post-rock, post-metal and the like. It must have been strange not being the odd one out for a change? How do you think you stacked up among that lineup?
dunk!festival is unlike anything we have ever experienced; a whole festival single-mindedly devoted to post-rock. And you’re right: unlike some other gigs we’ve played this year, we didn’t have to win punters over to the idea of instrumental rock. The trust in the music was already there. The response from the crowd at dunk!festival, and indeed from fans in all of Europe, was so passionate it surprised us. The sense of community that seems to drive the underground music scene in Europe was out in full force at dunk! and the place was all smiles, great music and exquisite Belgian beer. It was awesome.
We were billed second to last on the final night, just before 65daysofstatic closed the festival. This displayed a fair bit of faith in an untested band from Down Under and I think we did ourselves proud. We had so much energy from being at that festival, amongst that line-up, that we brought some of our most passionate playing to that show. We also realized how far there was for us to improve as a live band, because we got to see some of the finest groups in post-rock doing what they do best. It’s cliché, but we were humbled and inspired. Having said that, the notion of competition or assessment between any of the bands was not something I felt at the festival. You could feel that the fans, organizers and musicians were just thrilled to be coming together around a cluster of styles that everyone believed in.
All those artists you mentioned were inspiring to watch (we actually arrived the day after TWDY played but we had seen them at SXSW) and 65daysofstatic were another game- changing live experience in a big way. Later on in Europe we shared stages once again with Beware of Safety and The Samuel Jackson Five and we’ve just organized a remix collaboration with Gilson from Atlantis. We formed new friendships and got plenty of tips from old hands about how to make our European jag go smoothly, which definitely helped.
(((o))) Do you think you returned from the two overseas trips with a new confidence?
Absolutely. America was one thing, but Europe was by far both the hardest and most rewarding thing we’d done as a band by that point. Having pushed through anywhere from 400-1200km of driving per day and slept at all hours in crowded bedrooms and stairwells; having got drunk each night for a week and eaten sporadically and poorly from service stations and truck stops; having wiped a Slovenian kid’s vomit off our merch… we just feel that there is way less that can phase us these days. It’s a good feeling. Our schedule was pretty punishing due to some issues with our booking that left us with huge distances to drive. It was enough to make our unflappably stoic driver confess, around 5am near the end of the run, that it was one of the hardest-travelling tours he’d ever done. By the end of it we were exhausted, elated and knew that we had to do it again (bigger and better) at some point in the future.
If one part of the confidence came from the sense of being toughened up, the other came from the dedication of the fans. We met kids in all places through Europe, often in small towns that we’d never heard of, who were massively into our music and had covered a lot of ground to make it to our show. Maybe we had hit our stride by that point, but Eastern Europe particularly sticks in my mind as a place where the passion for our live show was really tangible. Mike Armine of Rosetta had told us back in Philadelphia that Europeans know how to do live music at a grassroots level but we were not prepared for the cavalcade of glorious European hospitality. We’d never been put up in a hotel as a band before, never been fed for free (and so well) before and never had such dangerous quantities of booze thrown our way.
That, combined with the sheer sensory overload of seeing Europe speed by through our van windows, led to the tug-of-war between exhaustion and wide-eyed excitement that I expect most bands probably experience on their first big tour overseas. We felt that massively in Europe and it’s definitely made us more confident, sharpened our performances and brought us together as a band. I remember feeling on the second last tour night, in Nurnberg, Germany, how lucky I am to play with such excellent musicians and excellent dudes. Naw.
I think that having spent the time out of Australia definitely put us in excellent stead to take on something like the Karnivool tour once we made it back home. I doubt we could have handled a run of that size or scale so positively unless we’d had to make it on our own headline shows in Europe.
(((o))) How important was it to the band to get the gig supporting Karnivool on their national tour?
It’s raised our profile in Australia immensely. Being associated with a band of their reputation and size has meant that a good many people, both fans and those in the industry, have been exposed to our existence when they otherwise would have had no reason to know about us. This was incredibly important as it has enabled us to cross some genre lines with listeners that might not be as into the whole crescendo-core thing as much as our long-time fans are. So yeah, I think it was a massive boost for our career to be able to hitch our caboose to their prog-rock gravy train for a few weeks.
The other way it was important was the opportunity to see a full-time pro band do their thing and do it so well every night. Not just in terms of their performances (which usually ranged between ‘really good’ and ‘stellar’) but their overall attitude to logistics, the way they do their sound, run their stage and support each other. Karnivool are a band that has built a viable career with a style of music that is unashamedly complex and fairly demanding and have done so with very little support from mainstream press or radio. They’ve got to where they have by dint of hard work and being really fucking good at what they do. It’s inspiring. Also, a very intimidating standard to live up to, but we did our best to get as close as we could and definitely learnt a hell of a lot.
(((o))) Reading your Karnivool tour diary two things stood out most for me. One was the amount of damage you did to your livers, and the other was a realisation of the size and dedication of your growing fan base. What did you learn about your fans on that tour?
Yeah, we did enjoy a drink or two on that tour.
I know every band probably says this, but we love our fans. I try to get down to the merch desk after each show to meet the punters. I like the fact that they are not all the same; they seem to be into all different kinds of music and very passionate about what they like. There is also a relatively healthy mix of guys and girls, which, as an instrumental band with songs of prog proportions, is quite a relief.
While I think we made plenty of new friends and fans during the Karnivool tour, many of them struck me as people who wouldn’t typically see local live music and would instead head out occasionally to see a more established band at a bigger venue. They might have bought our record at the show or downloaded our stuff when they got back home but I think many of them are not going to be packing into our smaller headline shows – and that’s totally cool with us. But some of them will, hopefully, follow us up and come to see us do our thing in the clubs and pubs.
I think it’s cool that we can play to these kind of people at the same time as having fans who are passionately into any number of underground styles and get involved in their local live scene. It’s probably one of the benefits of being an instrumental band, since the look and sound of one particular singer, while being a big draw to some people, is a deal-breaker to others. There’s enough ambiguity in our mix of loud rock, prog, indie and electronica which means we draw a pretty diverse crowd of people along.
(((o))) The crowds at Boris, Karnivool and Tortoise were quite different. For many punters you would have been their first experience of progressive instrumental rock, for others it’s the stuff they generally listen to. Did this affect your state of mind when you played? Did you feel you were under more scrutiny or pressure in front of the Tortoise crowd?
I think we have been happily surprised at how well our style has been received at the larger gigs we’ve played this year, where many punters go in knowing nothing about us. This was pretty clear at Karnivool shows, where fans would turn up early to see us and Redcoats, implicitly trusting the opening bands must be OK if they are on a Karnivool tour. Even though the crowds were big, we felt like we were playing to rooms of genuinely interested folks and so our performances were comfortable and passionate. While we will always get the obligatory “have you guys ever thought about adding vocals?” spiel from time to time, I felt like plenty of people got exactly where we were coming from. That was awesome. I like being the odd band out and having people come up and say “holy shit, I’ve never heard music like the kind you guys play before – are there other bands like this?” Why, yes. Yes there are.
Speaking personally, I felt the pressure a bit at the Tortoise gig, because they are seen as forefathers of our style. While they are one of my favourite bands, I feel our music is way different to theirs (this difference kinda shows why post-rock is a bit of a meaningless genre tag) and I got the vibe that there would have been a fair chunk of the crowd left wondering what this loud and obnoxious band was doing supporting the elegant and psychedelic Tortoise. Having said that, I was happy with how we played and the dudes in Tortoise were very chill and accommodating, so our state of mind must have been pretty good!
We’ve realised that we can’t please everyone with our style of music and have more or less given up trying. Funnily enough, the hardest people to please tend to be those that are really, really into instrumental rock. You know, dudes who have an opinion about whether “Laughing Stock” by Talk Talk or “Spiderland” by Slint is the better first-wave post-rock record (Laughing Stock edges Spiderland, by the way). Those kind of people, who are probably more inclined to go to a Tortoise show rather than a Karnivool one, are those that judge us the most stringently since they know our sound and influences like the backs of their hands.
(((o))) You played some dates of your own around Australia in September. Was it a relief to get out there and play a full set after the support gigs? Did Otto have to pace himself or was he able to run around the stage for over an hour?
It was really good to play our own headline shows again. Having said that, it was definitely a reality check after the Karnivool tour to having to go back to our DIY touring style. In the capital cities, we noticed that there were more of those diverse fans I was talking about at the shows. Melbourne and Sydney felt like some of the best headline shows we’ve ever done in Australia. The crowds were epic. Although it’s awesome to play those big city shows, we do also like to get off the beaten track a bit. We loved playing to a small but dedicated bunch in Port Macquarie and one of the best times on that tour was heading down to Tasmania for the very first time to play a show in Hobart. We also started road testing a couple of new songs, which felt great. We’d had them ready since the Karnivool tour started, but we felt we had to play our best and chose our more confident songs for those shows, so we didn’t break them out until we had longer sets to play.
We always have to pace ourselves on stage, but I think Otto would be up for the challenge.
(((o))) What was the response to the new songs like? What does the timeline look like for the new record?
At the moment we don’t really have a definite timeline. We’ll certainly have something out by 2014, with late next year being the absolutely earliest. Anything sooner would be an EP and not a full record. We feel a little behind on song writing because with all the touring we’ve been doing we haven’t written as much as we’d like. We spend a lot of time writing, re- writing, tweaking and scrapping our material, so getting the tracks record-ready can take a long time. Right now, we’re deep in demoing new material and will be refining some of it live on the upcoming tour.
Having played the songs off “…and so we destroyed everything” at about 100 shows since it was released (not to mention plenty of shows before that) it’s felt really good to get some new songs out on stage. The response to the new stuff has been really good so far and long-time fans have been very positive on the new directions we are going in. I have a little bit of a hard time describing where we are headed clearly. But I’d hope our new stuff sounds stylistically adventurous for post-rock. It’s becoming a little more involved rhythmically, due to Tim’s drum approach, and our songs are getting more detailed.
We’re always careful to tread the fine line and not sacrifice the epic melodies and textures at the altar of prog wankery. Also, we’re trying to write songs that will work as well live as on record because we feel that in the past we’ve overdubbed too much in the studio leading to some songs that are near-impossible to reproduce live, like the title track off the last record. So it probably makes sense that rhythm-driven live powerhouse bands like Battles, At The Drive-In, Russian Circles and And So I Watch You From Afar have been big influences all of us have been feeling when writing new riffs.
I’ve also been thinking lately about what kind of collection of songs our next album should be. We are far from a perfect band, but I think one of our strengths is the kind of genre diversity we can smash inside what started as some pretty standard post-rock and how we can go from a vibe that is really dark and brooding to moments that are unabashedly euphoric in tone. I love hearing that emotional range and breadth of styles in music and I think that attitude will be a bit of a touchstone for whatever the next record ends up being.
(((o))) You’ve been nominated for an ARIA award which caught me by surprise. My observation is that a few Australian acts seem to get a huge amount of attention here while other great acts go unnoticed. Apart from playing good music, what do you think contributed to getting noticed by the people responsible for the nominations?
We felt astounded and incredibly lucky to be nominated for the ARIA. I mean, being part of the mainstream music industry had never been on the cards for us. We just assumed that we’d potter along unnoticed and were pretty cool with that, to be honest. What made us really proud was to have not just our music, but more importantly the scene and sound we come from, counted among the mainstream rockers and pop stars. The event itself, while a bit surreal and probably too glitzy and fake, was a hell of a lot of fun. We had a really good time suiting up, riding in limos, snarfing hors d’oeuvres and hanging out with the fancy and famous. After we didn’t win we went ahead and got pretty blitzed on the AC/DC-branded wine. Otto got within one metre of his coveted Taylor Swift and the rest of us spent the red carpet walk amused by all her screaming fans.
I don’t really understand a whole lot about the ARIA nomination process but from what I know, our music was submitted by MGM, who distributes for our label Bird’s Robe Records in Australia. Then a mysterious panel selects the nominations and eventual winner. So there’s a business aspect that I think helped us make the cut. If there was anything else, I’d say it would have to do with the profile kick we got from SXSW, Europe, Karnivool as well as playing Peat’s Ridge festival back in 2011. I suppose someone, somewhere, must have thought the record was alright too.
I’d like to think that a big part of our ARIA nomination was due to a change in the Australia’s musical landscape. Over the past five years I’ve seen progressive and instrumental rock music go from strength to strength around the country and there’s a growing and devoted group of fans and musicians that have made it happen. So to me, it’s not just about sleepmakeswaves, but also about the kind of music we play getting accepted as something real and happening. I kind of agree with you that Australia focuses too much on a handful of massively promoted artists and I personally think we aren’t too adventurous in the kind of music we like. But I also like to think there’s a push for new sounds coming and a band like us landing implausibly in the ARIAs is an example of that.
(((o))) Next year sees you supporting the awesome 65daysofstatic. What’s been behind the string of great international acts you’ve been able to play with?
Luck? I think a big part of it is our manager Mike and our booking agent Dan, who mean we can punch above our weight and pitch for supports we otherwise wouldn’t be in contention for. The rest would come down to the fact that whoever is organizing these tours thinks our music is worth having there on the night.
The 65daysofstatic tour is a bit of an exception to all that. That tour is only happening because of the fact that Mike got to meet 65 at dunk!festival earlier this year, got their back catalogue released here and was then able to book them their first Australian tour. He obviously thinks we’re alright, because we’re on his label too – we’re a good fit for their sound, will bring a crowd and they’ve seen us play before, so they were happy to have us on the bill.
(((o))) I shouldn’t give the impression that we don’t have world class bands of our own here in Australia playing in pubs every weekend. Who do you enjoy getting out and seeing?
I’ll preface this by saying I don’t see enough local live music, but I’ve seen a fair few bands through all the touring.
Out of all the bands I love that play in pubs, I feel privileged to see Tangled Thoughts of Leaving so often. I know I’m biased as they’ve been great friends ever since we released a split EP together back in 2009, but their live show is stupidly good and their skills as musicians and improvisers continually go from strength to strength. The kind of subconscious musical telepathy that their drummer Ben and pianist Ron have going on is awe-inspiring. I know plenty of very, very good musicians, but with those guys it sometimes feels like you’re seeing genius at work.
I’ve seen a local Sydney band called Serious Beak play a few times this year and have found them pretty impressive live. It’s gnarly polyrhythmic metal with a really downlow stoner-fuzz touch that goes over oh so nicely live.
(((o))) Last time we spoke Tim had seven Donkey Kong T-shirts. Has his collection grown and is there any truth to the story that DK was on his birthday cake?
There is definitely truth to that story! It tasted even better than it sounds. Criminally, Tim’s collection hasn’t grown (shame) but the DK shirts have seen him through this year. I wouldn’t want to take them off him. It would be like giving Superman kryptonite. Or cutting Samson’s hair. Or something.
(((o))) Thanks again for your time.