The Sun Also Rises
As much as talent, drive and determination factor into a band's chances for wide recognition, there's no discounting the power of fate. An alignment of forces has lifted psych outfit Sleepy Sun from a local favorite in its hometown of Santa Cruz, California, to a rising star on the San Francisco scene and national touring act in little more than 18 months.
Besides bringing a key ingredient into the group's audio alchemy, destiny also delivered its hypnotic debut, Embrace, to well-placed individuals in the music industry, who in turn have given the band the exposure it richly deserves.
Sleepy Sun's original lineup — singer Bret Constantino, guitarists Matt Holliman and Evan Reiss, bassist Hubert Guy, and drummer Brian Tice — first came together in 2005, when the shaggy crew of UC-Santa Cruz students formed the blues-tinged garage-rock band Mania. Over time, the musicians gradually shifted toward the hazy, riff-focused psychedelia that characterizes Sleepy Sun.
It wasn't until the band's first show under the name Sleepy Sun that the final piece of the sonic puzzle fell into place. Rachel Williams of Santa Cruz indietronic act Birds Fled from Me saw Sleepy Sun's December 2007 performance at a local festival.
"It was the best thing of the night," she enthuses at Sleepy Sun's shared home in San Francisco's Sunset District. "And I remember secretly thinking, 'I hope I somehow get drawn into this band!'"
Williams soon got her wish. After being invited to sit in with Sleepy Sun at a Brookdale Lodge show, the members asked her to join them in Canada, where they were tracking Embrace with noted Vancouver-based producer Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Destroyer).
"We didn't even know Rachel at all," Constantino remembers. "We're like, 'This woman has a dark Bulgarian chant voice. We need her on the record.'"
Though Williams sings on only half of the album's eight tunes, her powerful voice makes an indelible impression. Her gorgeous harmonies entwine with Constantino's vocals, offering counterpoint to the savage dueling guitars of Holliman and Reiss on the epic opener "New Age." Williams delivers the keening cry that punctuates the dramatic shift in "Sleepy Son" from shimmering atmospherics to Sabbathesque, fuzzed-out brutality.
Her voice adds depth to a band already blessed with stunning range. Over the course of the album, Sleepy Sun moves gracefully from the sweet, Gram Parsons-flavored ballad "Duet for the Northern Sky" through the melancholy psych-gospel of "Lord" to the epic tribal freakout of "White Dove."
Despite the departure of bassist Guy — longtime friend Jack Allen took over a year ago — Sleepy Sun's momentum has built to locomotive force since the band self-released Embrace last August. The potent recording served as the group's calling card, garnering numerous festival invitations (Noise Pop, Barcelona's Primavera Festival and All Tomorrow's Parties in the UK and New York) and laying the groundwork for full-blown U.S. and European tours. More importantly, Sleepy Sun licensed Embrace to ATP's imprint, giving the synapse-frying album the global push it richly deserved.
When Sleepy Sun returned to San Francisco in June for its first homecoming gig since the album's wide release, the venue vibrated with palpable excitement as the band took the stage. Before a packed house of family, friends and a growing legion of enthusiastic fans, Sleepy Sun showed off road-hewn musical muscle and dazzling vocal dynamics on fresh arrangements of older songs and new material.
A stomping, Zeppelinesque coda added to opener "Sleepy Son" brought the crowd to a howling climax that shook the floorboards of the hall, while the lush atmospherics of the newly unveiled "Mating Season" proved the band still has some tricks up its sleeve.
"It's weird," Constantino muses. "Everything that's happened since we left Santa Cruz has been because we wanted it. Because we dreamt it, almost."
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