Story: Jennifer Rolf
Photos: Sean Rider
Behind the Sonic Dreams of
Story: Melanie Broussalian Photos: Jen Meller
Think back to 2016 and what was going on in your life seven years ago. Now fast-forward to 2023 and think about the road to get here—it’s hard to even wrap your brain around all the changes we’ve collectively undergone since then. For two-piece Sleepy Kitty, helmed by Paige Brubeck on vocals/guitar and Evan Sult on drums/tapes, this period marked major personal changes, as well. The duo moved to Brooklyn after a decade in St. Louis, plus Paige underwent vocal surgery (and subsequent vocal rest) in 2018.
It’s easy to imagine that an album written and recorded over the course of seven years could be a long, meandering, maybe even unfocused collection of songs. Their record, Blessing/Curse, couldn’t be a more sonically and thematically cohesive compilation of the band at their best. With influences from ’60s French music to Cate LeBon to tried-and-true garage favorites like Guided by Voices, Blessing/Curse has an undeniable fire that’s reflective of Sleepy Kitty’s eagerness to hit the road and share everything they’ve been working toward. Songs like “Bigger Picture” and “New Job Debbie” soar with unrelenting drumbeats and showcase Paige’s unique ability to use her voice as an instrument in its own regard. Meanwhile, songs like “Poor Gilles” explore the band’s softer side, though all equally earnest and passionate in their delivery.
Before they headed out to Paris in October, Bands Through Town got to chat with Paige and Evan about recording Blessing/Curse, the impact both the pandemic and Paige’s surgery had on their creative process, the album’s biggest influences, and how this body of work became a real love letter to St. Louis.
BTT: So just to start, can you talk about the genesis of Sleepy Kitty for any readers who might not be super familiar with your music?
Paige: So, Sleepy Kitty began out of one day in Chicago, just working on an experimental sound collage with our friends.
Just kind of stuff that we didn’t know where to put it next to our other bands and we just kept calling it “Sleepy Kitty,” which was just kind of the name that we had all decided on kind of just at an impromptu moment because we needed to export the file and call it something.
Evan: It’s pretty much the word that has meant just the collaborations of Paige and me across whatever medium we got into. Once we moved to St. Louis, we were screen printing posters for rock shows and plays and stuff like that—that was our full-time gig for a long time and we just called that “Sleepy Kitty” as well. So now Sleepy Kitty has just been this kind of multi-headed beast that really boils down to me and Paige for an awfully long time now.
BTT: And I’d love to talk about St. Louis since Bands Through Town is tied to St. Louis. I would love to know your history with the city, especially in the context of this album. And, if there’s a certain magic in terms of recording, especially Blessing/Curse, that you felt that was captured in St. Louis rather than in Brooklyn.
Paige: So, we moved to St. Louis because it was 2008. I had just graduated from art school, and it was the economic crash. And it was a strange time to be trying to do anything that cost any money. At that moment, we decided to move to St. Louis because it’s a very affordable city. And as artists, we were able to find the space that we could turn into our practice space, our live-work-art space, and it was very affordable and very possible, therefore, to just make art and music our full-time life.
Evan: And a very artistically romantic space, too.
Paige: Yeah, it was a 3,000-square foot loft or—not even a loft. It was a dirty warehouse that we turned into a loft. (*laughs*) So we moved there for that space, and we spent 10 years in that space, and at the 10-year mark, that’s when we decided to move to Brooklyn. But Blessing/Curse is the third album we’ve made. And really, we’ve always bounced around between studios when we do a full-length record, but this one we did some home recordings. Two of the recordings were ones that I made in our space, what we called the “Art Castle.” And for a moment we had practice space on Cherokee Street, as well, just down the street from where we were living, that we called the “Hot Pocket.”
Most of the record was recorded at Suburban Pro, which is a South City recording studio, with Carter McKee, who is a musician that I went to high school with, actually, and played in bands with when we were teenagers. And one of our collaborators who is all over this record is Benjamin Schurr, who was living in D.C. at the time. And he came out to St. Louis to record with us at Carter’s space and also, we recorded with him in D.C. too.
Evan: I feel like Blessing/Curse is an album that was very St. Louis in its conception, and then also in its execution. It turns out that we tend to want to have a fancy studio for recording fancy, complex sounds and then a crazy, lo-fi place for recording crazy lo-fi sounds because you don’t want to spend your time at a high-end studio recording lo-fi sounds. But we do love low-fi sounds. That’s part of our DNA. So, with Carter, we really found in Suburban Pro, we really found a place where we could—Paige had the connection with him from a prior music life together that they were able to fire up and Carter is completely familiar with the punk scene that they came from. And then also completely capable of whatever reaches we were going for with gear and with composition and things like that.
So, I think of Blessing/Curse as really kind of culminating our experience, including the fact this is very Sleepy Kitty of making sure to bring in someone from outside to kind of help the churn and enrich the whole process. But it was to me, the culmination of our experiences in St. Louis, our connections in St. Louis, and what we’ve been learning from it. It expresses a whole period of time in a single album that is, to me, extremely St. Louis-specific.
BTT: Within, Paige, your vocal recovery and the pandemic, had you been recording the whole time or was there a moment where you were sitting down and you thought, “I think we’re ready to get back into writing and recording?”
Paige: This album, Blessing/Curse, ends up being a really appropriate title for it because it covers a lot of challenges and surprise good things. I think most notably is the vocal surgery and kind of leading up to that, realizing that I had a problem that wasn’t going to go away on its own and that I needed help making it go away.
Which would turn out to be a surgery. We were recording the whole time, we were on tour a lot, and we were constantly writing and constantly kind of demoing for ourselves when we were home. And sometimes even in the car on tour, I would just sing little voice memos to myself. But we started recording in, I would say 2016, was the very first stuff that we recorded. And then by the end of 2016, that’s when I feel like I really started noticing that I was taking longer to recover if I had a sore throat. And it felt like every little thing was giving me a sore throat. And I just started noticing my range going away and just having problems and not feeling like the musician I am.
So, my surgery happened in, I believe it was, January 2018. That was a real challenge, but in some ways, it was what needed to happen because it was an answer to this thing that had been kind of harassing us for the last year. And so even though it kind of brought us to a complete stop, it was the only way that things were going to get better and that I was going to be able to get my voice back and we were going to be able to keep doing things the way we like to do things.
Paige: Basically, as soon as I could start singing again, we got back into the studio and started writing again. It was a long process of getting my voice limber again and working it up to kind of the stamina I had before; because part of it was recovering from the surgery, but a lot of it was recovering from not singing for so long and not being as active as a vocalist for a long time. My inner songwriting voice feels very connected to my physical singing voice, and I kind of had a writer’s block that I associate with knowing that my voice wasn’t where I wanted it.
When I started getting limber enough and just physically comfortable enough and kind of psychologically comfortable enough to being kind of full-strength again and singing with abandon again, the songs started coming back a lot easier. Most notably I would say, for me, I really remember “Poor Gilles” when we did that one. We had seen a movie at the French Film Festival in St. Louis, which was a great film festival. Highly recommend it. And the next day, I just went into the practice space and wrote a song about a character in that film. There was a moment that it felt like I was on the other side of the hardest part. Maybe that was it, it was just sitting down and working on that song again. And that was one of the first ones we recorded post-surgery.
Evan: I’ll say one of the tricks of the album for us was that it didn’t have an end for a long time. We were just kind of going and going, and it wasn’t until the searching for the perfect set of songs from within the songs we were working on. We were still in the middle of writing a bunch of songs, but once the pandemic hit, we realized that was the end of that chapter. Like whatever we did prior to the pandemic is a body of work. And anything after that is going to be coming from a different place and probably literally being made somewhere else some other way. The world kind of forced us to see that as a body of work. And then once we did, we realized—though we had been kind of in motion the whole time, that was, in fact, a pretty coherent set of thoughts and arguments. Or, you know, melodies and things like that.
So once the external circumstances made us pause and turn around and look at what we’d done, we realized we did have an album there. And I will say I was particularly guilty of wanting to keep us moving forward because I just felt like we were in pursuit of a bunch of really exciting music. Which we are now, once again, in pursuit of because we were able to stop and finish Blessing/Curse. So in our case, the outside world kind of helped us stop what we were doing and finish a body of work. And then that subsequently has helped open us up again to the next stuff that’s coming down the line.
BTT: And I’d love to talk sonically about the album. I think in Blessing/Curse there are moments that are really referential to ‘60s garage rock, maybe more so than your past work. I would love to know, were you inspired specifically by any artists or eras that you wanted to emulate on the record?
Paige: I can say that Blessing/Curse is definitely in the middle of a huge Cate LeBon phase for Sleeping Kitty. And we really got into her record—was it called Crab Day? And then a lot of the people that we were touring with at that time when we were writing these songs, and Benjamin—who plays bass on most of the record and the other sounds—he was in a band that we toured with a bunch. And they were all listening to Cate LeBon. And we were all listening to Cate LeBon, like everybody was listening to Cate LeBon at that moment. And we still really like her music a lot. Cate LeBon personally for me, and just her guitar work I think is really cool. And the way her melodies work with the guitar at the same time. And they think once people know that they will hear that influence. And also, I would say I started listening to more contemporary French pop.
We’d always listen to a lot of ’60s French music, like Francoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc. But this one, I was listening to Clara Luciani, who’s very pop. But I really like her song structures. I feel like the stage one of the recording, there was a lot of Cate LeBon going on in my head. And then stage two of the record was more like I was thinking of her melodies, Claire Luciani. But through it all, there’s been The Fall, there’s been Guided by Voices, there’s been The Velvet Underground, Pavement...
Evan: Those are kind of the core units. And then I think “New Job Debbie” and “Bigger Picture” are definitely rockers that have ties to garage rock that we’ve had from songs from our EP, like “Mockingbird” or “Summer.” Those are the songs where we specifically look for a lo-fi environment to create these lo-fi nuggets. And we’re trying to sometimes literally find the sound of the garage and really make the most of that because there’s tons of music that we love that carries that sound. But we’re also not feeling attached to any genre or through-line of a genre. We certainly will reference and play garage music, but I don’t think we feel like we are trying to home in on that scene’s stuff. It’s just one of the things that we’re drawing on while we’re chasing our own weird versions of what a perfect noisy, poppy, fragmented-but-coherent gem would sound like.
Paige: Yeah, I agree with all that. And I will also add, I think one of the biggest influences isn’t necessarily a band on this record but was the gear we were using itself. We worked with this guy, Colin Croy, who has an amazing cool pedal company, called Croy Tone Audio. And he made a custom pedal for me called the “Siren Song” that’s a distorted vocal pedal that had come from him seeing our band and seeing how I had things rigged and being like, “You know, I could probably put all of those adapters in one box, and it would probably work better too.” And that really changed the game for us because a lot of the sounds that I was using in the recording studio for the distorted vocal and using my voice as a guitar lead, like that you hear on Infinity City and “Give Me a Chantz!,” there’s a lot of that.
But it was the first time I was able to kind of write live with that sound. And you really hear it on “Bigger Picture,” you hear it on “New Job Debbie.” And it almost sounds like guitar leads that are just like kind of extra wacky or distorted keys. I think being able to have that sound with us the whole time really changed some of the things we did and were able to do. And the more you’re able to do, the more you do those things. And so, I would say Croy Tone Audio gear is a huge influence.
Evan: And he was based in St. Louis until just this year; he moved to Japan, but he was a student of Brad Sarno’s. Brad Sarno is a legendary pedal guy. We have a Brad Sarno pedal in our gear, which really influenced our sound as well. I agree with Paige. The gear is almost like a genre of its own. The way that we were using it, and our most key pieces came from pedal makers in St. Louis.
BTT: So what’s next for Sleepy Kitty?
Paige: What is next for Sleepy Kitty? Well, we are about to go to Paris and play a show there. And we are trying to play out more while this album is fresh to people still. And we are starting to write new music, as well, and seeing where that leads. Trying to not overthink where that leads right now, but just trying to write songs and see what that turns into. But definitely new music is something we’re thinking about a lot, which is funny since this album just came out. But I would say we’re trying to play more of the Blessing/Curse body of work while it’s fresh. And we have a video that is finished that we will be releasing very soon. And I wish I could say a date already—and I’m not being secretive about it, I just don’t actually have a date for it yet (*laughs*).
Evan: But it’s cool, and it was made in St. Louis.
Paige: Yeah, and it was made with a bunch of theater actors from the ERA Theater, who we really love their work, and we’re excited to share this thing because it’s pretty ornate. After years of touring the contiguous, mostly Midwest and East Coast-U.S. for many years, it’s been really exciting to get to Europe and play in Paris and play in London. And now we’ve played a few shows in Paris and we’re going back, I would say that’s something that we’re looking to do more. But also getting to home cities to play this album soon.
Evan: I would say that, and we’re digging deeper into the playing in New York. Like everybody, we had to stop playing for a long time, but that was kind of right as we moved to New York. So, we’re playing shows with bands that we’re getting to know better in the city. Of course, no surprise, there’s a whole bunch of fantastic bands here and a whole bunch of fantastic scenes. And great venues and the energy of New York is pretty much as advertised. It’s full of people who are ambitious and making cool stuff and we really like being in that energy.
So being able to shift between New York and Paris and use them each as bases of operation to find people there to play with, find people there to work with, that’s a whole lot of new information for us to be diving into. I mean, I’ve been touring for a couple of decades; to have a burgeoning territory for us to have in front of us to explore in Paris and London, but also in Belgium and Berlin and Liverpool. There’s just no end of places that we’re looking to play and kind of expand our horizons. It’s cool to be post-freshly off the release of our third record, and in the middle of our second decade together, and just see a ton of new places to go and things to do and people to meet. It’s easy to feel your world getting smaller the further you go, and instead it really feels to us like our world is getting bigger, which is really exciting.
BTT: Awesome. And I selfishly hope that Silverlake, California, is on that list of places to visit soon.
Paige: Oh my gosh, definitely! Love Silverlake and we love L.A., and we’d like to come back.
Evan: We tease one particular denizen of Silverlake [a reference to the track “Alceste in Silverlake” from Blessing/Curse], but we are appreciators of that place.
BTT: Well, thank you guys so much, and I wish you all the best in Paris! Good luck!
Note: This interview has been edited for length.