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written by Parker Harris

Kentucky six-piece Sleeper Agent have seemingly ascended the success ladder at a steady pace. Starting out small with lead singer Tony Smith writing a few lo-fi Pixies- and Be Your Own Pet-influenced garage rock songs for the then-16 Alex Kandel to sing. The band caught the attention of fellow Kentucky band Cage the Elephant and their genius producer Jay Joyce, which lead to a marathon seven-day recording session. The end result? ‘Celebrasion,’ a 35-minute joyride of musical pleasure. The debut album launched them on tours with bands like fun., just before they became huge pop stars. I saw them on that tour for the first time, and while I already had strong feelings for the band, my heart grew three sizes that day for them.

Fast forward to 2014, and you have the March release of the excellent, sophomore slump-dodging ‘About Last Night.’ The album kicks off with a punch with “Be Brave”, and it features a much more complex arrangement than the ones found on ‘Celebrasion.’ Following is AltNation #1 hit single “Waves”, which put Sleeper Agent on the map for newer fans.

Sleeper Agent bassist and overall cool guy LEE “GRIZZLEE” WILLIAMS answered some of our pressing questions about the ongoing journey behind ‘About Last Night.’

 

PARKER HARRIS FOR NOISE POLLUTER: Where are you writing/typing to me from?

LEE WILLIAMS: I’m typing from my bedroom, here at home in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

 

NP: How’s the touring circuit doing? You’re on a break right now correct?

LW: Touring has been great! We’ve definitely kept busy this year, doing something like 80 shows in the first 6 months of 2014, up and down both coasts and everything in between. Pretty much all of those shows have been great. We’ve been able to see a lot of old friends and make a ton of new ones, speaking both of audiences and other bands.

We are on a short break right now, which is much needed, but only for a few more days before we head out again to start our run on the Warped Tour, making a stop in NYC to play “Letterman” on the way.

 

NP: How does it feel (to be touring)? Have you exhausted playing “Get It Daddy” and “Waves” yet?

LW: It honestly feels great. Touring is kind of a rough lifestyle; always on the move, living in and out of a van, running on little to no sleep, living mostly on snacks and fast food, back to back to back nights of shows loading in and out on our own, missing friends and family, holidays and birthdays, etc… But it really is the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life. It’s the only answer I ever really gave as a kid when people asked what I wanted to do. And I personally enjoy the travel and the nomadic kind of life, for the most part. I miss home, but it makes coming back something special every time.

As far as “Get It Daddy” and “Waves” are concerned, I’m in no position to be exhausted, because it isn’t stopping any time soon. I suppose the repetition would get to anybody after a certain point, but each time we do those (or any) songs it is an opportunity to improve on them. Besides that, no matter how many times I’ve played or heard them, it’s going to be the first time hearing it for at least someone in every audience. And first impressions are important. So you try to give it your all every time, no matter what.

 

NP: Can you describe the writing of the album? A swift Google search will tell me that the entire band had a hand in writing the songs this time around, as opposed to TONY doing all the composing.

LW: It was definitely a different experience this time around. Tony still definitely led the process, but it really was a wholly collaborative effort. We kicked it off with a week of writing in this crazy old cabin up in Eastern Kentucky, right in the heart of the Red River Gorge. We spent 10+ hours each day just hashing it all out. A lot of them started with licks or melodies that Tony had been kicking around for a long time, but several songs were built up totally organically, with someone kind of playing around by themselves, finding something cool, and gradually attracting the rest of us into the room to jam on it, like flies to a lightbulb. “Take It Off” and “Bad News” both started that way, for sure. Then a few songs, like “Waves” and “Haunting Me,” were put together utilizing pieces of things that Tony had written and riffs or melodies that Scott has been holding onto for years. There’s never really a set formula or process, it just comes out how it comes out, which is something I really enjoy about being in this band.

 

NP: What song is your favorite off of ABOUT LAST NIGHT?

LW: It’s hard to really say. They’re all like my kids or something, you know? From just a songwriting perspective, I really love “Shut.” I think it’s one of my favorite melodies or lyrics from Tony yet, and I think he and Alex nailed the emotion on the vocal. “Haunting Me” is maybe my favorite performance out of myself and Justin as a rhythm section; I’m a sucker for that hint of Motown. “Good Job” always hit me hard. But I still think of all of them I had (and still have) the most fun with “Me On You.”

 

NP: Time to get into some deeper questions. Has it been hard to deal with “Waves” becoming a number one jam?

LW: No, not really. I mean, we’re still far from being celebrities or rockstars or anything like that, and nothing about the response has been all that invasive. Still, it was really exciting to be given that Alt. 18 #1 by all the people listening and voting, considering what bands and songs we were up against and what a broad listening base it is. I guess I’m a fairly introverted guy by nature, so having as many people as we have had coming out of the woodworks (family, friends, fans new and old) just to congratulate us keeps me talking more than I would otherwise, maybe. But it’s hard to be upset about it at all when all of that attention has been so positive. I’m honestly grateful for it.

 

NP: Have you noticed a change in the fanbase since the peak? Kurt Cobain once said that he hated how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought jocks and douchebags to his shows.

LW: Not really, except that I can say for sure that I don’t think we attract douchebags. It definitely feels like the fanbase is broadening, but I’ve always been kind of astounded at how varied our fanbase is. I don’t think I could really nail down our “type.” I’m sure someone out there with the numbers knows specifically our best demographic, or whatever, but from my experience meeting our fans at shows, and sometimes just out in the world, they are all over the place in the best way possible. I’ve been told that we’re people’s favorite band since Pearl Jam, Metallica, Blondie, The Strokes, Dropkick Murphey’s, The Deftones, David Bowie, Fiest, Animal Collective, Wavves. This huge span of music from the last five or six decades and all separate from the obvious connections people have been able to make to find us, through other bands we’ve toured and played with. I meet just as many people in their 30’s and 40’s as I do teenagers and 20-somethings coming out into the crowds at our shows. We’re used to having whole families come out to shows together with parents as or even more excited than the kids. It’s hard to make sense of, but it really does amaze me all the time.

 

NP: The AltNation and Satellite radio world work a little differently, it’s sort of hard for me to wrap my head around it.

LW: Yeah, Sirius and any other satellite radio providers (are there others?) work a bit differently than terrestrial radio. They count towards different charts, I believe, and specifically that Alt 18 one which we topped is for, obviously, just that station: Sirius AltNation. But, that’s not to play it down at all. Satellite radio is a big market, and we are definitely honored and grateful to have been awarded that. AltNation has been responsible for breaking a lot of our peers, and consistently has one of the best rotations of songs that you could hope for in an Alternative Station.

 

NP: You play bass. It seems like playing bass can be a weird spot; you’re either the butt of the joke or you are discredited due to your instrument being “easy.” I don’t imagine you get too much shit about it, because you’re an incredible bassist, but can I ask WHY you choose to play bass? Are you a multi-instrumentalist?

LW: Thanks for the kind words! I really do appreciate it.

I think I was kind of drawn to the instrument for that very reason, that it was a support role and that in the context of pop culture it was kinda discredited. I always loved music and knew I wanted to play from a young age, but didn’t start with my heart set on anything in particular. I just knew I didn’t want to play guitar. I guess it seemed like that’s what everybody did. I ended up starting with piano lessons, but that didn’t really stick. Then sometime around age 13 I had this epiphany where I really heard the bass in a song for the first time, actually honed in on it, and I flipped out. It was groovy and driving and powerful and I knew it was what I wanted to play. I knew my brother had one in his room, so I picked the lock on his door with a bobby pin and immediately started picking stuff out on it. I had just been introduced to Modest Mouse and from that point I started obsessing over Eric Judy’s basslines, which were melodic and interesting enough that I stayed hooked and ambitious in trying to learn them all by ear. I guess it was a natural branching out from there, backwards into the classic stuff I had always known, like The Beatles and Stones, and forward into a lot of punk and indie rock, but also pop.

I went through a phase of trying to overcompensate for bass being the downtrodden instrument that it is by being overly flashy, a response phase of actively attempting to be a support-only kind of player, and definitely through a phase of being purely obsessed with bass’s potential for foundation-rattling power, but now I guess I’m trying to ride the line of best fit between all of those things. Trying to always support the song, and to never overreach my boundaries within it, but still trying to take full advantage of any opportunities to write an interesting and essential part presented by the intricacies of each song. Supporting by just hitting the root on the one or as straight-ahead quarter notes is fine enough, and may sometimes prove to be the best option for the song, but I usually see that as a missed chance to enhance or recall the theme and the melody, and really gluing that idea to the foundation of the whole song.

I suppose I am a multi-instrumentalist, but I’m definitely a bass player at heart. I play guitar, a bit of keys, sing, but I don’t work on those the way I work at bass. Maybe one day. But for now I still feel really compelled to push forward on this instrument. To be the best at it that I can.

 

NP: Who’s your favorite bass player?

LW: Another one that’s hard to pin down. I’m a kid in a candy shop there. The two biggest and most obvious at this point are Paul McCartney and James Jamerson. The Beatles speak for themselves, but overstated as it might already be I can’t ever seem to stress enough how brilliant most of McCartney’s basslines are. James Jamerson is a “duh” among bass players, but his name isn’t nearly as well known as it should be overall. He was one of the Funk Brothers, the rotating cast of guys forming the bands for the vast majority of the big Motown/Tamla artists, and himself has more #1 pop songs than any other bass player in history, which include some of the greatest basslines ever: “My Girl,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight versions), “For Once In My Life,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “What’s Going On,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,”, etc.

 

NP: Do you get tired of not getting girls because you play bass?

LW: I’m pretty whatever about it, myself, but I can think of one girl, at least, who’s pretty relieved by it. Her best kept secret and all that.

 

NP: I remember recently you mentioned you were doing some hunting for original vinyl pressings of albums you love. What music are you listening to now, current or old as hell?

LW: All of it! I consume an ungodly amount of music in the pursuit of being up to date on what’s new and relevant and popular in both pop and underground spheres while also being well rounded in regards to music history and the path our pop culture has taken through the years to get where we are. There’s just so much to dig through, and I want to hit all that I can.

But in regards to records specifically I’ve actually been kind of purging the new for the old lately. I eventually hit a point of having enough of them that if I was going to keep up the hobby I had to scale back and stick just to the really important stuff. Records are heavy, man! So it just works out that time has really told for all these classic albums from the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and onward. It isn’t a question of whether or not I’m always going to want a copy of Exile on Main Street or Pet Sounds or Green Onions around to show my kids, or whatever. But it kind of is questionable for a lot of newer records, which is mostly what I bought early on in collecting. Records that I obviously liked (I bought them, after all), but that aren’t exactly critical to me personally, or to rock history or anything like that. So I’ve been selling off and trading a lot of those records, ones from the last five years, mostly, in favor of more classic stuff. I love hunting first issues, rainbow label Beatles records or old Atlantic soul records. Actually gives some thrill to the hunt, as opposed to just ordering modern reissues. Still, my collection is still 60% or more stuff that was released after 2000. That’s the era I grew up in, after all. And those records that are left at this point are all really important to me.

 

NP: To wrap up, what shows do you have coming up?

LW: The Warped Tour definitely makes up the biggest chunk of what’s on our calendar right now, and that’s going to be a crazy time. We’re stoked to play, but we’re trying to get ourselves ready for it, since all the veterans we’ve talked to about it say it’s bootcamp for touring bands. I think we’re up to the challenge, though. Beyond that we’ve got a handful of festivals and radio fests through the last few weeks of summer (Summerfest in Columbus, OH, Silopanna Fest in Annapolis, MD, X-Fest and Sonic Boom Fest up in Canada, a few others, I think) and several more through Autumn, though I think Music Midtown in Atlanta and Life Is Beautiful Fest in Las Vegas are all I can say, for now. Be on the lookout for those, and more straight-ahead touring out of us. More is always coming.

 

NP: Any you’re particularly pumped to play?

LW: All of them, really, but I suppose I’m particular for the festivals. They can be kind of hectic, but they’re great opportunities to catch up with friends in other bands on the bill, as well as to meet a few more and to network and hang. And crowds are always great; super excited and responsive. It’s always a great time.

 

GTG: Thanks for your time Lee.

LW: Any time, dude. It was fun responding. Hopefully I’m not way too wordy for ya.

 

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