The accelerated evolution of Sleeper Agent is not unlike the metamorphosis of the quiet, dorky kid in high school who turned into a teenage heartthrob over summer break. The band’s dueling male/female vocals assert a scintillating dynamic that has drawn comparisons to A-list indie and alternative acts like The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Yet the band is just emerging from its formative years. Well, it’s emerging from its formative year, which included recording its debut LP Celabrasion (in stores Sept. 27) and touring with the likes of Cage The Elephant and Manchester Orchestra to promote the already digitally released album. Still, the band takes a modest stance in light of its newly acquired buzz. Vocalist-guitarist Tony Smith cites the band’s initial formation as a way for a few self-proclaimed nerds to “blow off steam.” The 18-year-old vocalist Alex Kandel brushes off the odd-girl-out spotlight and decidedly claims her role as “one of the guys” in the male-dominated sextet. The band takes a secure, tongue-in-cheek approach to trendy indie elements of the music market, selling T-shirts that read: “Hey, we’re the band Sleeper Agent and if you dig us now, you can tell everyone how you liked us before that one song was in that car commercial.”
Presently, Sleeper Agent is joining the other just-blossoming bands that crawl like sea turtle hatchlings to an overcrowded ocean of automated naysayers and countless overwhelming music outlets. Sleeper Agent intends to not only survive, but also to thrive in the waters by winning over audiences with what the band promises to be one animated, infectious live set at a time. Before Sleeper Agent’s show at the Electric Factory this Wednesday, The A.V. Club caught up with Smith and Kandel to discuss the elements of a newly acquired fan base, critical reception of Celabrasion, and an upcoming dream-come-true gig known as The Weezer Cruise.
The A.V. Club: Sleeper Agent’s fan base has recently grown. How is the band adjusting to the change?
Tony Smith: You see bits of progress as you go along but, for the most part, it’s very hard to see it.
Alex Kandel: We’re focused on two elements of life: touring and working every night, and being home, which is pure boredom just answering e-mails and killing time with video games and movies, basically. When we’re home, we feel really detached from the growth. I think we’re more connected to it on tour, when we’re playing shows and more people show up, and they’re singing along to our set. It’s definitely easier to watch the growth when we’re on the road.
AVC: Has the band made any significant adjustments in light of the Celabrasion debut?
TS: My parents play it all the time ... I kind of have to tune that out. But everybody at home still treats us like the nerds we are.
AK: Before we had too much publicity, I would eat up any press we got and loved looking it up and now, I don’t do that as much ...
TS: You find some comments ...
AK: [Laughs.] You find some pretty offensive things, so now I wont search for press as extensively as before. But it’s not really a negative thing; it’s been overwhelmingly positive. But, you know, there’s some stuff. I just try to keep my head in the game.
TS: Sometimes, if I see a negative comment, I say, “Man, we are getting popular.”
AVC: Why was Celabrasion recorded in just a week?
TS: It was like, “You have one shot kid; try your best.” We only had a little bit of money to record it.
AK: We recorded it before we had any label interest at all. It was before we had anything. All we had was this great producer named Jay Joyce who wanted to give us a shot. I’m glad we were able to get those seven days, and it kind of works for us. We like to work fast and off the cuff. Later on, we might take a little bit more time to record an album.
AVC: How did Jay Joyce hear about your band?
TS: We had recorded an independent record called InterroBANG in February, 2010. Brad Shultz from Cage The Elephant heard it, and he really liked it and played it for Jay, who in turn wanted to make a record with us. It was one of those lucky, random things.
AVC: Prior to the digital release of Celabrasion, what expectations did the band have regarding critical reception?
TS: I’ve been really surprised with how well our record has been received. I didn’t think it was going to get torn apart, but still.
AK: We tried not to have any expectations. That way we wouldn’t be disappointed, and it’s better to be surprised.
TS: We just wanted the album come out for so long. We recorded it back in July of 2010. It was like, if we could just get over that hump, we could go on to the next thing.
AVC: Why did the band digitally release Celabrasion just a month before it is to be released in physical stores?
AK: iTunes was willing to do an exclusive release, so we jumped on the opportunity. They helped us out so much. The single of the week that we had on iTunes was an amazing push for the band.
TS: It helps generate interest too, for the physical release of the record.
AK: It gives us more momentum. If we had put the record out three months ago, half of the people who are waiting for it now might have lost the anticipation. The digital release was not anything we planned; it’s just how things worked out, and in a positive way.
AVC: How do you think digital sales will compare to physical album sales?
TS: These days, you have No. 1 albums that are only selling 42,000 copies, but then you go on iTunes and the album will sell 2 million digital singles. Things are just so different now.
AK: It also depends on what kind of audience you have. Some fans will buy a lot of vinyl off of their favorite indie bands, for example. It depends on the audience and the outlet that you give them to purchase the music. It’s still a whole new world, the way the music industry has changed.
AVC: Does Sleeper Agent write songs with a specific audience in mind?
TS: Definitely not. It started with me and the drummer, Justin [Wilson]. Life had become stagnant, and we liked writing, so we wanted to make something that would uplift us—something we could have a lot of fun with, this robust, manic music. It kind of took on a life of its own, once we added Alex and the other band members.
AVC: Will the pressures of a larger fan base affect the songwriting process for future Sleeper Agent albums?
TS: It might. But when it comes to writing songs, my philosophy is this: We all work for the song, and if it’s good song ...
AK: We write with the song in mind, not the audience, so I don’t know how much the fan base will affect our writing. We might feel a little bit of pressure, but we’ll be able to tune that out and do something great.
TS: Over the years, once an album becomes popular, you look back and ask, “Why was that good? Why was that popular?” I think that those encounters can often skew your perspective. I hope musicians and songwriters can keep the original mentality of going in and just doing it for themselves.
AK: Yeah, it’s more about working from our gut and not overthinking it.
AVC: How does Celabrasion compare to a live Sleeper Agent show?
TS: I think they’re very similar.
AK: Yeah, the album was made to reflect how we sound live.
TS: There are some vocal harmonies on the record that we can’t reproduce live, but for the most part it’s all there. At some points, the energy is higher. You can see all six of us doing whatever crazy, random shit we do, and that can be more exciting live.
AVC: When did the band realize it was pulling in its own fans at shows?
TS: We went to St. Louis with Company Of Thieves, and the majority of the kids were there for us. That was probably the first time we brought in our own audience. It makes you go, “Holy shit, these kids know our names!”
AK: At a recent show in Vegas, there were people up front singing along and yelling out our names in between songs. It was a free show being promoted by a radio station that, at the time, didn’t even have us in their regular rotation. To see those kids come out, it makes you feel like you’re doing something right.
TS: It makes you want to exceed their expectations.
AK: It pushes you to sing harder, play harder. To be more entertaining.
AVC: What do you guys expect out of the upcoming Weezer Cruise?
TS: I’m still in a dream state. I’ve been listening to Weezer since I was 10 years old, and I’m almost 25 now, so it still hasn’t really hit me that we’re going to do this. I’ve never been on a cruise liner before, so it’s going to be interesting because all of the people are going to be there for one specific reason: to be in a constant state of live music.
AK: There will be shows every day, but also other events, like a movie night that we’re going to host. It’s going to be a lot of fun; I’m not sure what to expect, because it’s such a unique situation.
TS: We’re also going to be surrounded by bands that we listen to.
AK: Up until we had the cruise booked, people would ask us who we wanted to tour with, and we’d say “Wavves! Yuck!” We’ve also mentioned Weezer a few times. Then we get an e-mail one day that says, “Oh, all these bands you want to play with—it’s gonna happen all at once.”
AVC: So, what’s going to draw the crowd to see your band specifically?
TS: When I was growing up, I’d go to a lot of punk clubs. Those places are always so exciting, because the singer will jump down the aisle, or the guitarist will flail around. There’s a dangerous element to it; it’s what’s exciting and interesting about rock ’n’ roll. We try to live up to that standard, be a little more aggressive, but fun and dangerous.
AK: We’re also really sincere. We make really lame jokes ... we don’t have the best comedic timing. We have an odd sense of humor, but there’s no sense of, “I’m a rock star, watch me.”
TS: I hope that never happens to us. We saw Puddle Of Mudd one time, and one of the dudes went apeshit. He broke all the amps, cussed out the crowd. But we are the people doing this for the excitement and the thrill, and not posturing ourselves to be demigods.