Sleeper Agent: TAS In Session

The kinetic, rambunctious sound of Kentucky's Sleeper Agent is cleverly tucked into the title of their debut album, Celebrasion; it's an abrasive, celebratory and smart fusion of 60s-era, girl-group insouciance laced with Southern-slanted, punk-fanged garage rock.

The sextet — vocalist Alex Kandel, guitarist/vocalist Tony Smith, drummer Justin Wilson, bassist Lee Williams, keyboardist Scott Gardner and guitarist Josh Martin —  is in the midst of a North American tour, supporting Celebrasion, which was physically released last month on Mom + Pop Records.  They've been championed by Cage the Elephant, whose producer, Jay Joyce, decided to produce the young band's first record. 

Not long ago Sleeper Agent visited The Alternate Side's Studio A to chat with Russ Borris and not only discussed their almost-accidental formation —  Kandel, just 18, "pestered" Smith to let her join the band when she was still in high school — but played several songs off of their rousing debut, including their single, "Get It Daddy."

You can hear the session on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, October 21, at 11 a.m. EDT and streaming on The Alternate Side:

Russ Borris: You guys are from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Is there much of a scene in Bowling Green?

Tony Smith: There’s a decent scene, but it’s hidden.

Alex Kandel: Mostly house shows and this one bar that has decent shows. Tony: Several bars have shows, but most of it is DJs, cover bands, rockabilly and stuff like that.

Russ: So how did you guys come together?

Tony: Well, me and Justin have been playing under the Sleeper Agent moniker since 2008 and it’s gone through several lineup changes. Over the years we recruited our friends. I was playing with Scott in different bands over the years and then Lee and I were in a different band last year. We found Josh in Nashville, a recommendation from a friend, and then picked up Alex from high school one day (Alex laughs).

Russ: Picked you up from high school? Like picking you up for a ride home from school?

Alex: Yeah. The whole point of him picking me up was to talk to me about music and until then I just pestered him until he let me in the band.

Tony: We were going to do a separate project. I wanted to do folk tunes and she didn’t want to.

Alex: I was doing the acoustic kind of stuff in coffee shops with one of my friends back home and I wanted to be in a rock band so I turned him down for the folk music idea.

Tony: Then we decided to do a three-piece rock band and that kind of expanded into this.


Russ: When you decide to do these songs, are they already written or do you figure it out as you go?

Tony: They’re 95 percent done I would say. We have everything but lyrics and I take a moment while they’re setting up equipment, go outside and think of some lyrics real quick. Show them to everybody and get them approved.

Russ: Melodies come first.

Alex: Definitely.

Tony: Shape the words around them, the sound.

Alex: Tony typically just records gibberish over demos. So the melody is there, but not real English and then we’ll see what those kind of sound like and make lyrics around that.

Russ: So does this come from any particular place influence-wise? Stuff that you listened to?

Tony: I think early on we were really into Jay Reatard. He really inspired the fast-paced, aggressive sound. We were also really into a band called Girls at the time.

Alex: Then there’s a million other influences we could say, but I’d say as far as time period, those are the two main ones.

Russ: I saw something that said Motown meets garage rock.

Tony: My parents were really into Motown music and I kind of grew up with the Jackson 5, The Supremes and all that.

Alex: I’m a huge Ronettes fan.

Russ: There’s a melody to these songs. It’s not that they’re frenetic. The first listen I had to the record, it’s as though I knew every song already, having only heard it once. These songs go by quickly because they’re short, but they stick which is pretty impressive.

Tony: I think melody was the most important thing for me going into writing that batch of songs. We wanted every song to have its own universe and be instantly recognizable, apart from the other ones.

Russ: Is that something that’s hard to achieve? You get through the song and realize that it’s not really going where you need it to go.

Alex: There’s a few songs that are still in their own world, but they didn’t represent what we wanted. But for the most part, everything is pretty spontaneous and off the cuff. Tony: If you get stumped for too long, you just abandon it and move on.

Russ: Lots of cutting room floor stuff?

Tony: Yeah, whenever we got to that point, we did a demo, listened to it …

Alex: Or you’d play me a song in your room and we’d be like, “It’s not working.”

Tony: We just go in and kill them all I guess.

Russ: The record does go by pretty quickly. A dozen songs in 35 minutes.

Tony: The original record was 27 minutes. So we had to go back.

Russ: As long as you eclipse a half hour, you’re fine?

Tony: EP length is 30 minutes? So I wanted to make sure we were doing a LP.


Russ: The record has been done for about a year?

Alex: We started on July 5th of last year and ended up going back into the studio after.

Tony: Six months later we got a little extra cash and did more songs.

Russ: It seems like you’ve got them down.

Alex: Well, we got thrown into the ringer when we toured with [Cage The Elephant] and Manchester Orchestra and Biffy Clyro. Bands that have been doing this for years. In sports, you always try to play with people better than you to improve. It was that thing: sink or swim.

Tony: Biffy Clyro shook everyone up every night. There’s three of them and they sound like 12 guys.

Russ: How did you work together figuring out the vocals? Did you guys always intend to sing together?

Tony: It was a happy accident. We brought [Alex] in three days before our first show and she was having trouble remembering all the lyrics, so I was like, I’ll take half, you take the other half, and we’ll figure it out later. We started writing like that.

Russ: You have a show that you’re going to do and you decide to bring in a new singer three days before?

Tony: She wouldn’t quit bugging me!

Alex: I don’t think he really planned on bringing me in. I saw online that they were playing. He was kind of stringing me along.

Tony: I was. We’d been practicing without her and then three days before I felt kind of bad about doing that. And she’d heard about the show. You [asked about it].

Alex: Yeah. It was really mean.

Russ: You were sort of worn down but kind of interested at the same time.

Alex: I think they were still like, “She’s 17. That’s a bad idea.”

Russ: It didn’t turn out to be a bad idea.

Alex: Not for me (laughs).

Josh Martin: Not for us either


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