Back in January, an interviewer asked if there were any surprises in store for fans of Sleepy Sun, the Santa Cruz-spawned psychedelic folk-rock outfit, on their forthcoming album, Fever. One of the band's six members replied, "It's the soundtrack to a burlesque adaptation of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Surprise!"
Months before the album was released, that seemed like a smart-ass deflection of the question. But listening to Fever, (released May 17) it begins to dawn on you that he might have been serious. It turns out to be an uncannily apt description of the nine-track record, which features slinky, salt-water infused rhythms, alternately propelled by echoing electric and ambling acoustic guitars — songs that could as easily accompany a strip-tease at one moment as a solo rowboat trip the next.
Fever is the follow-up to Sleepy Sun's debut album, Embrace, which earned rave reviews upon its release last summer. Such acclaim helped the band land a few coveted South by Southwest showcase gigs, plus an opening slot on a tour with the Arctic Monkeys. It was a promising launch for the relatively young band.
In its current incarnation, Sleepy Sun includes six members: two guitarists, Evan Reiss and Matt Holliman; Jack Allen on bass; Brian Tice on the drums; and vocals provided by Rachel Fannan and Bret Constantino (who also plays harmonica).
Brett, Brian, Evan, and Matt met while attending UC Santa Cruz, "We met each other at your typical college party scenario, and we started to shoot the shit, and then we were writing songs," said Constantino. The band first recorded blues-influenced rock songs under the name Mania, which eventually evolved into Sleepy Sun. Along the way the band attracted vocalist Rachel Fannan, who was performing around Santa Cruz as her solo project, Birds Fled From Me. They invited her up to British Columbia to record a few tracks for Embrace, and she eventually became a full-time member. Shortly after the release of the first album, Jack Allen replaced the bassist Guy Hubert to complete the current lineup.
The way that the band has casually picked up and interchanged members is consistent with its collaborative philosophy — each person brings a particularly individual contribution that's folded into the whole. As a result, each album — in some cases each song — is a vividly detailed aural tapestry that shifts any number of times, and often spans several genres.
"There's no formula to it," Constantino said, when asked about the band's creative process. "Sometimes someone will come to the table with, it could be a chord progression on acoustic guitar. It could be as simple as a riff or vocal melodies, or even a concept. And then its brought to the table, it's a bit like a panel discussion, you know, or like a brainstorm, and we communicate further with our instruments."
As with Embrace, the songs on Fever are guitar-driven, adorned with experimental effects and dripping with reverb. Harmonica and cymbals also occupy prominent space.
"We're super big fans of the record as being auditory documentation of a particular time and space," said lead singer Constantino. "The space that you are in consciously as well as physically — where you're absorbing the vibes."
The records sound similar by virtue of circumstance, he said. Recording both albums, "We left everything behind us — with Embrace it was Santa Cruz and our undergraduate careers, and with Fever it was our just recently established homes and jobs ... and I would say the naïveté was to an equal degree both times."
That naïveté is something Constantino acknowledged Sleepy Sun was still struggling with. On May 10, a week before the release of Fever, the British trip-hop group UNKLE released its fifth studio album, Where Did The Night Fall, which featured collaboration with Sleepy Sun. But Constantino expressed some doubt about how "collaborative" the exchange really was.
"They sent us two tracks, very minimally orchestrated and composed, a lot of room — a lot of room — for writing." Constantino says. "One of the songs more of the band contributed to as a whole, and one of the songs Rachel kind of took under her wing and built from the ground up, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, no disrespect to UNKLE, they're talents, but Rachel wrote that song, and the melody, and there's pretty much not any other Sleepy Sun element on that song. ... It was kind of just a weird situation for everyone to be in."
Such missteps are one of the pitfalls of being a young band, but Constantino says Sleepy Sun is maturing, both practically and musically. "Fever and Embrace could almost be released as one record," he says. But that the material the band is currently working on, before leaving on tour again this summer, is distinct from those albums. "The stuff that we're recording right now is definitely, you could almost say, is our real sophomore record." That is to say, while you shouldn't expect another burlesque Old Man and the Sea, there are definitely more surprises to come from Sleepy Sun.