One of the more celebrated bands to emerge in the past few years as part of San Francisco's new psychedelic-rock underground, Sleepy Sun made waves globally in 2009 with the release of its acclaimed debut album, Embrace. Shifting easily from epic Zeppelin-esque riff workouts to soulful, gospel-tinged ballads to delicate country-folk lullabies, the band built a muscular, mesmerizing sound around the intertwining harmonies of vocalists Bret Constantino and Rachel Fannan.
The group's ferocious live performances made them a festival favorite, playing All Tomorrow's Parties on both sides of the Atlantic, Belgium's Pukkelpop, and Primavera Sound in Barcelona, as well as headlining their own Noise Pop show at home. While Sleepy Sun's follow-up effort, Fever, earned them more solid notices in 2010, the band experienced some turmoil that fall with the sudden, acrimonious departure of Fannan mid-tour.
Carrying on as a five piece, Sleepy Sun answers some of the questions that loomed after Fannan split with its new third album (and first for The End Records), Spine Hits. Stepping back from the riff-heavy epics heard on the band's earlier efforts, Sleepy Sun mix pop concision with some deeply psychedelic exploration on the new songs. Recorded at Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree with co-producers Dave Catching (Queens of the Stone Age, Earthlings?) and Ethan Allen, Spine Hits varies from the rustic echoes of Jane's Addiction on "Siouxsie Blaqq" to punchy rockers like "Stivey Pond" and "Creature." Constantino recently spoke with All Shook Down about the band's recent tour with fellow psych travelers White Hills and how the new album came together. Sleepy Sun will hold its record release party with Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, Some Ember, and DJ Britt Govea at the Independent this Friday, May 18.
I was hoping your tour with White Hills would make it back to S.F., since you're two of my favorite modern psych bands. How was the trip with them and how did it come together?
It was a great run with them. They're one of the heaviest bands I've ever seen. Their show is an assault to the senses in the best way possible. They've got a very good visual aspect to their show. And it's just louder than anything, and everybody plays super hard.
Especially with this record, the songs we're playing on the tour are a little less psych if you will, according to what most people would consider to be heavy psych. The songs are a little bit lighter and easier to digest. So we were a little bit worried: Is the audience going to be into hearing more music after a band like White Hills? I know when I listen to them, I almost feel like I need to take a nap or go meditate in the van or something [laughs], because it's such an assault. But it ended up being really cool and an interesting vibe. They kind of primed the audience in a way, like, we were the come down.
The sounds of the two bands are pretty distinct, with White Hills' post-apocalyptic, Hawkwind-style space rock versus Sleepy Sun's more pastoral fuzz. Did you feel you were bringing two camps together as far as your fans or was there a common appeal?
Yeah, I think more of the former. Especially with these new tunes we have, there were people that would come to see our show but wouldn't otherwise come to see White Hills and vice versa. So I think it was a good package and drew a diverse crowd. Then in some cases there were also the metal heads who would come to see both bands, and they would be disappointed in our show [laughs]. But it was good. It was an interesting vibe. I was a little concerned to be honest, at the beginning, but it was really good. And we got to know them, of course. They're great people. We had a really good time. I also wish they were coming back with us.
Spine Hits has that distinctive Sleepy Sun sound, but you have broadened the band's palette a lot. It seems one of the bigger changes was a move towards a shorter, more concise style of songwriting. Was there a conscious change to the group's approach for this album?
In a lot of ways it was very deliberate as we continue to learn to write songs together. But it wasn't like we all sat around and said "Okay, we're going to write a pop record." Or "We're going to write a record with cohesive, more concise song structures." We just went from song to song and did whatever the songs demanded. Lyrically, especially, I think we really tried to convey more succinct story lines and character studies while still preserving the ambiguity in the words and the message. We labored over the structure of this record and the songs that are on it.
This being your first album with Rachel Fannan, there are a couple of songs that I thought I noticed you using multiple vocal tracks. Did not having another singer to play off of push you to get your voice into different places?
Yeah, absolutely. But Evan sings a lot on the record too, so it's not like I was the only vocalist. But not having Rachel there forced me into the position of being the main voice, so it did kind of push me to develop my voice as more of a front-and-center instrument. That's not to say we didn't work on vocal harmonies. Maybe a lot of the vocals that you hear as being multitracked -- I mean, yeah, there are some instances where there was a double or I sang my own harmony -- but Evan sang a lot on the record as well.
There are points where there are two voices with really distinct character and even production to them. I was glad that the multi-voice element was still an important part of the band's sound. Was that something you worked to preserve to some extent?
Oh yeah, for sure. We'll always be a band that writes songs with harmonies, especially with the vocals. We entertained the idea of having female guest vocalists on the record, but ultimately decided that this was going to be a record without that. Because no one can replace Rachel, and we wanted to make a record that was different and that acknowledged and came to terms with the fact that we're a five-piece band of dudes.
What was the most difficult thing to deal with in the wake of her departure?
The most difficult thing was that we had all these tours booked with no time off in between. She left in the middle of the tour, so we didn't really have much time to rearrange the songs with the new line-up, so we had to be very spontaneous. But there was only so much we could do.
I was pretty broken up by the whole thing, emotionally. My confidence was pretty low at that point. So that was the most difficult part with it. We didn't have any time to really rest and step away from it and digest everything that happened. So I was forced to deal with not only the emotional recovery, as well as the rearrangement of the material.
So we finished off the tour, and then we went to Europe again for a month in the darkness of the winter equinox up in Norway where it's very cold and dark. It just felt like something was missing and we weren't really acknowledging it. It was a very hard time. But just as soon as we had time off at home and could step away from the project for a little bit, that was what began the new chapter. We started writing again.