San Francisco’s Sleepy Sun Rises
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
In the summer of 2006, I was drumming in a fledgling San Francisco psychedelic indie-rock band called The Love X Nowhere when we played to a sparse West L.A. crowd along with a bluesy young opening act called Mania, which was made up of scruffy UC Santa Cruz kids. “Mania Slays Souls,” the act’s hilarious promotional buttons exclaimed; I wore one on my jacket the rest of my time in San Francisco, but never bothered to check up on the youngsters again.
Amazingly, I found out last week that the quickly rising San Francisco psych-rock band Sleepy Sun—whose incredible 2009 debut Embrace helped make the sextet a touring sensation in America and Europe—features essentially the same lineup as Mania, with the addition of sleek-voiced singer Rachel Williams.
Since relocating to San Francisco from Santa Cruz, Sleepy Sun has earned the praise of big-time music-media outlets like Pitchfork, played prominent festivals such as Noise Pop and the UK’s All Tomorrow’s Parties and toured with Arctic Monkeys. The much-deserved buzz surrounding the young group’s swirling, reverb and harmony-filled psychedelic explosions—as evidenced on its just-released sophomore LP Fever—doesn’t merely represent the natural evolution of Jefferson Airplane-style co-ed San Francisco rock. It also further squashes the widely held notion that San Francisco music equals joyful jambands and shallow indie-pop.
Though Williams and fellow singer Bret Constantino regularly manifest a kind of mellow ecstasy with their desperate vocals, the soundtrack to the vocal duo’s poetic drama is decidedly dark shit. Like a West Coast version of the Black Angels, Sleepy Sun builds tracks like “Wild Machines” from subtle elegance to Black Sabbath-esque, well, mania in no time. And San Francisco’s deceptively negative energy helped pull such heaviness out of Sleepy Sun, according to Williams.
“The dark stuff—its out there alright,” she says. “I’m inclined to think it’s in everything, but there’s more of it in the big cities for sure…especially coming from a very relaxed small town like Santa Cruz, where the trees outnumber the people. You feel the impatience; you feel the ambition, too. It was a new thing but it needed to be followed.”
[photo of Rachel Williams by Alex Crick]
Still, a young woman who introduces herself by saying, “Hey, I’m Rachel; I sing and dance and represent the ladies in the band Sleepy Sun” doesn’t exactly come off as a Wendy O. Williams for the 2000’s. No, the kinder, gentler Williams won’t be chainsawing any guitars soon but, speaking of heavy music, I just had to ask Williams about Sleepy Sun’s recent blog post about opening for heavy-metal big-shots Slipknot in France.
“OK, so we didn’t exactly open for Slipknot,” she explains. “We did, however, play right before them during a festival in France on a separate stage. I was mainly captivated by the masks, big drums and the lead singer yelling in between songs, ‘Je t’aime, muthafuckas! Je t’aime!’ You don’t need to be French to find that hilarious and surreal as fuck.”
Though it’d be a stretch to include the word “metal” in any description of Sleepy Sun’s by turns distorted and jangly music, much of the band’s tangible intensity lies in a prog-rock-worthy penchant for sweetly singing about sinister spirituality over a thick sludge of heavy guitar and drums.
“So Bret, who does most of the lyrical writing, likes to mix it up,” Williams says. “He uses specific words like goddess and lord to express what I hope is his search for spiritual understanding. Instead of staying away from descriptive religious imagery, which can sometimes spell it out, he uses it to make you think—hopefully.”
With titles that include “Acid Love,” “Desert God,” “Snow Goddess” and “Sandstorm Woman,” Sleepy Sun doesn’t exactly caress the intellect so much as it calls listeners to lose themselves in a Axis: Bold As Love-style psychedelic-rock haze before being pummeled with trauma-inducing garage-rock detonations. Essentially, the band’s meteoric rise continues because they do, indeed, slay souls. And, according to Williams, Sleepy Sun’s constant touring has yet to cause the band’s members to slay each other.
“Oh, there’ve been fights but, you know, being a touring band is a lot like being pirates,” she jokes. “A few flying words below deck comes with the territory.”
Very rarely does the kind of success Sleepy Sun is enjoying come with the territory it inhabits as one of the innumerable indie bands from San Francisco but, as the Hi-Dive audience will learn Sunday night, Sleepy Sun isn’t just another band from San Francisco.