The many Storyboards of Sleeping At Last
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of the official publicity biography
Very rarely does a band strike the ideal equilibrium between indie credibility and commercial viability, but it’s a sophisticated scale balance that Sleeping At Last has mastered across the entire decade thus far. With its third national release Storyboards right around the corner, the critical charmers from Chicago are just as comfortable calling upon legendary arranger Van Dyke Parks as they are appearing on “Grey’s Anatomy” with the goal of relating to its astute audience topping any accolade amassed on either side of dial.
“We’re attracted to melodies that are pretty relatable and listen to music that borderlines on obscure or under the radar, but find both sides coming together in an organic way,” observes front man Ryan O’Neal before bassist/keyboardist Dan Perdue interjects. “All of our favorite bands are always forward thinking and grounding breaking, but also accessible, which is the hardest balance to find. But being forward thinking doesn’t mean anything if no one wants to listen to you and it’s obviously not all that exciting to sound like everything else out there.”
As indicated by a recent trip to Chicago’s Electrical Audio Studio (owned by Nirvana/The Pixies mastermind Steve Albini), the sublime alternative rockers have once again upped the artistic ante in this ambitious, self-produced affair, while concurrently maintaining relatability on all planes. It’s an intricate web that builds off the surging soundscapes of 2003’s Ghosts and the lush atmospherics of 2006’s Keep No Score, coupled with previously uncharted instrumental expeditions and glorious orchestration.
“Every time we go into the studio, we want to stretch ourselves musically as much as possible and we’ve noticed that each record seems to have a couple tracks that hint at the direction we’ll explore on the next,” suggests O’Neal, citing the addition of varied guitar tunings, mood-enhancing keys, the folksy ukulele and a plethora of earthy but exotic adjunct instruments throughout Storyboards. “This time out, the results are really intimate where we’re utilizing a lot of really specific sounds and also working with people we’ve never had a chance to work with before who’ve inspired us to think outside the box as songwriters.”
And those visions have certainly caught the ear of several world class heavy-hitters, including the aforementioned arranger Parks (Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, U2, Tim Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Ringo Starr), alongside woodwinds master Paul Von Mertens (Wilson, Wilco, Paul McCartney), multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Ryan Francesconi (Joanna Newsom), plus longtime string collaborators Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering) and Jeremy Larson (also a lauded solo artist in his own right). Add in engineers Greg Norman (Pelican, Russian Circles, Guided By Voices) and Bjorn Thorsrud (Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan, Dandy Warhols), along with mixer John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater Kinney), and the group’s third venture is truly a charm.
Ample evidence comes in the form of “Clockwork,” the group’s most elaborate track to date under the arrangement direction of Parks. Though it possesses his brilliantly unconventional qualities, it’s also textbook Sleeping At Last thanks to a series of sweeping rhythms and ethereal explorations.
“At first we just gave him a really simple sample of just the vocals and pianos and he just went crazy from there,” Purdue muses in a highly complimentary regard for Parks’ wizard-like prominence. “There are three violins, two violas, cellos, flutes, bass clarinets and just this overall rush of sound that are really one of a kind.”
Fans of modern day indie icon Joanna Newsom will also notice Francesconi throughout several songs on Storyboards, including “Slow and Steady” and “Side By Side,” which benefit from the shimmering juxtaposition of banjos, mandolins and even the ultra-rare and exotic Bulgarian tambora. Longtime friend Larson adds stirring strings to supplement “Chandeliers,” which is just as pretty as it is punchy.
“We’re presenting this album as an entire piece and haven’t even chosen a specific single,” O’Neal affirms of the remarkably cohesive body. “A lot of people in this digital era go for more of a song by song approach, but we love albums and believe that one song can’t capture nearly as much as an entire album’s worth of material. When we write, it doesn’t come in scattered pieces, but rather in giant segments, which further lends itself to the full album feel.”
Throughout the eleven interwoven tracks on the aptly titled Storyboards, themes of reflection, introspection, renewal and optimism are prevalent, in addition to an underlying affinity for nature and earth preservation. O’Neal and Purdue are both animal appreciators, practicing vegetarians and frequently support the Humane Society both on and off stage.
“My approach to lyric writing is pretty much like an audio journal where I write about whatever’s happening in my world, but the themes are universal and subject to interpretation,” unveils O’Neal. “No matter where you’re coming from, I think everyone can find common ground of having experienced a really difficult period, but realizing there’s something better on the other side of that hurdle. Those are the type of emotions I hope these songs bring to people in hopes of realizing immediate struggles sometimes add up to more important parts of the larger picture.”
And as Sleeping At Last plots an extensive tour behind the album (following on the heels of road time with the diverse likes of Zwan, Yellowcard, Something Corporate and even Alanis Morissette), identifying with fans remains the band’s primary focus.
“We don’t even call our listeners ‘fans’ because we pretty much befriend anyone who’s kind enough to talk to us and truly consider them ‘friends,’” adds Purdue. “We want to keep building upon this foundation we’ve laid and growing to be better musicians. And we sincerely thank those who’ve follow what we do because they afford us the ability to keep doing what we love.”
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