Hometown: Bowling Green, Kent.
Members: Alex Kandel (vocals), Tony Smith (guitars/vocals), Justin Wilson (drums), Lee Williams (bass), Scott Gardner (keyboards), Josh Martin (guitars)
For Fans Of: The xx, Cage the Elephant, The White Stripes
It’s New Year’s Eve, and Tony Smith doesn’t know what to make of 2011. He sits pensively sipping an energy drink in a Chicago hotel after his band Sleeper Agent made the seven-hour drive from their hometown of Bowling Green the night before they’re due to play a big bash at the Aragon Ballroom to welcome in 2012. That night Smith claims “2011 was everything for us,” referring to the sextet’s album release and their opening for hometown friends Cage the Elephant on a U.S. tour. He seemed pretty set with his answer until the next night where he amended his statement.
“If our story was ever written out, 2011 would just be the prologue.”
Originally founded as a duo between Smith and drummer Justin Wilson, Sleeper Agent expanded after finding a lead vocalist in Alex Kandel. The trio was later joined by bassist Lee Williams, keyboardist Scott Gardner and guitarist Josh Martin. Though their album Celabrasion was released in August, demos for the album first surfaced in 2010, when producer Jay Joyce caught wind of the band. That’s when Sleeper Agent’s story really takes off.
Smith and Kandel represented the band during what they call the “courting process” before signing the smallest deal possible so that if it all failed, they could still play gigs and have fun. That choice to take a homegrown, grassroots approach may have led to the biggest misconception about the band, says Smith. “A lot of people think Cage discovered us and put us on the fast track, but this wasn’t a Fall Out Boy/Panic! At The Disco relationship.”
The other misconception is about the band’s age. Kandel may have just turned 19, but the rest of the band spans an entire decade on a perfect bell curve. Instead of focusing on the fact that there is a young woman fronting the band, Sleeper Agent would rather you notice it’s bursting garage-pop band with a killer live show.
Celabrasion was mostly written by Smith when the band was still coming together, but he prefers the focus not be on him. In fact, he only sang on the album out of necessity since Kandel hadn’t learned the words in time for their first show together. “To be fair,” says Kandel, “I had four days to learn everything for our show in Nashville.”
So they each sang half the songs and their combination singing stuck. Their dynamic is part of the reason their garage-pop songs have gained attention. It’s a complex relationship which, over the course of two days in Chicago, ranges from a mentoring one to equal footing as writing partners to best friends goofing around backstage. “Having Alex around has been so easy to just be like, ‘I’m thinking about this line,’” says Smith, “and either she says, ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ or ‘Fuck no.’”
“Or I’ll ask, ‘What about this?’ and we’ll modify this,” Kandel adds.
While musical influences include the Ravonettes and The xx, Smith says his greatest influence is a little more esoteric. “There’s a quote I read on a really nerdy, pop-culture movie blog,” he says. “It’s ‘Brevity is the soul of wit, so don’t waste my fucking time.’ And that’s really my biggest influence. [We wanted to figure out] how we could get out every single emotion that we have in under three minutes.”
It all boils down to the six friends playing music for fun in front of their friends—even if the crowds now number in the thousands. Some even fly across the country to see them live and show up to their hotel room with pizza, like a few devotees from Portland, Ore.
Mere minutes before going on stage one last time in 2011, Kandel reminds me, “We just want to make really condensed pop songs.”
The energetic set is the perfect ending to their story’s prologue. So far in 2012 they’ve released “Get Burned” as single, played on a cruise ship with Weezer and gotten nominated for an mtvU Woodie Award. With plans to tour Europe in the spring or summer, the rest of 2012 is shaping up to be a thrilling first chapter.