[Cover photo credit to Parisa Farbakhsh]
Florida-based Indie Rock band Sandman Sleeps very recently released their debut album, Crisis Actor, a collection which aimed to capture their live sound as closely as possible. Original band members and sisters Cristina Peck (vocalist/guitarist) and Alex Peck (bassist) started the outfit in high school followed by a ten year hiatus. Reconvening in 2019 and expanding to include Karsten Andersen (drummer) and Zack Jones (guitarist), a sonic world developed that was just getting ready to become more public when Covid halted live play. With more than a decade of songwriting to work with, Sandman Sleeps focused on laying down tracks in the studio for their debut album.
The band’s sound currently evolves from the various musical inclinations of each member, with each part contributing to a diverse whole, and while some of the songs have overt concepts like “Fellini”, conjuring the famous director’s La Volce Vita, and “Portrait of Jenny”, reflecting on a Covid experience, many of the songs start with personal elements but through the multi-layered sound create a dream-like inclusive atmosphere. I spoke with all four band members shortly before their album release about their studio experience, songwriting, and the importance of individual expression when creating their sound.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Everyone who is managing to release music right now deserves some applause, but you all have an even longer, and particularly interesting, story behind this release, so congratulations. I know the pandemic hit just as you were trying to get things going. Was there a moment when you were tempted to set the music aside until an easier time?
Zack: No, I don’t think we ever had that moment. Sure, we all had our low moments, but we brought each other through it.
Cristina: Right before the pandemic, in 2019, Alex and I started playing together again and taking it seriously. Once we got on that train, and met Zack and Karsten, we said, “Let’s find a way to make this work somehow.” Maybe we would have approached things differently had there not been a pandemic, like playing out more, but we tried to make everything work to our advantage.
HMS: Was the recording of these songs already underway when the pandemic hit, or does that span this time? I know that one song connects to the pandemic experience.
Zack: We originally just went into the studio to record “Opaque” and then that turned into doing the whole album. We weren’t going anywhere else, so it kept going.
Karsten: It was really nice to have something to do during the pandemic, to have a goal. We practiced a bunch and were able to work on music. I think we did well with our time.
HMS: Do you think that you had longer to work on songs or recording them because of that extra time?
Cristina: That’s what was great about it, I guess. We had time to really tweak the songs. They are always going to keep evolving into something different. We now think, “I wish we had this part on the record.” But you have to realize when something is done and cut it off. It’s a great documentation of us at this point in time, since we’re always going to come up with stuff we like better. But it kept us going.
HMS: How did you record the album?
Cristina: We recorded our drums at The Hit Box Studio in Port St. Lucie, and then we recorded the rest of our album with Nick Diiorio at Thunder House Studio, which is in Fort Pierce. We decided sound-wise to spend time at both studios, with Thunder House delivering a little more of an organic sound.
Karsten: Nick has a great bedside banner, I guess you could say. I’ve known him for a couple of years, but I think that everyone had a really good time.
Zack: It’s really cozy in there, too. You can spend hours in there without realizing it. It’s so comfortable. [Laughs]
Cristina: [Laughs] You can tell we like comfort. But it was really like that for us, and spending a lot of time there was great. That made us very comfortable talking with Nick about what we wanted. Nick likes a lot of different genres, but also does old school Skate Punk, which is very different than what we play. However, he’s very versatile and a great musician. He really did give us a lot of input and cared about the album. He’s a great vocalist and helped me with switching up some things. I’ve been singing some of these songs for ten years but he came up with some new ideas.
Zack: He brought in some great guitar options that we never would have thought about, either. He has a good guitar selection. We used the Telecaster and Gibson for most of our guitar parts, but he pulled in the hollow-body for “Fellini”. We also both played on the metal guitar.
Cristina: We spent a whole lot of time really working on tone.
Alex: I think we recorded all the songs at least two times. I didn’t always like the tone that we were getting so Nick really worked with me and was patient trying to get exactly what I was wanting. I was pretty picky.
HMS: In a way, you were pinning down your sound while making this album, figuring out where you are right now. As you mentioned, some of these songs are older, and presumably your musical ideas and feelings have shifted over that time. Do you have a sense for what your sound was in the past versus what it is now?
Cristina: Yes, for sure things change. As naïve as this sounds, I don’t think we knew what were going for before, but we might know now, after making these recordings. I think we might know what we are going to do next, a little bit. But when we were recording the album, it was just, “Let’s get the best documentation of the band as we can.” That was more important than, “Let’s go for this sound.” We could have added more and done different things that might have changed the whole vibe of the album, but this was more about documenting us and the songs. For me, that’s kind of what it was.
Zack: We all come from different musical backgrounds, so right off the bat, it was going to be hard to label our music with a specific genre. Somehow, this music has made sense to us. We were more focused on certain parts sounding a certain way. I drew inspiration, just for guitars alone, from so many bands and genres. We did the same thing with vocals, bass, and drums. It was all over the place and somehow fits together.
Cristina: We’re okay with saying, “Alternate Rock” or “Indie Rock”.
HMS: Even those words are constantly changing. I think the past few years have totally changed the musical landscape. With music being so accessible now, it’s possible to gain influences from so many sources.
Cristina: That’s the thing, because you have the songs, but the big question is: How do you play them? You could turn the songs from one thing to another. A Pop song could become a Country song. For me, writing music and playing songs, that has always been the biggest question. I think filtered through everybody in the band doing what they want to do, that’s what this sounds like. It’s not exactly planned, but that’s okay.
HMS: Based on the idea of capturing the sound of these songs right now, do you feel that Crisis Actor reflects pretty well what your live-performance sound is?
Alex: I’d say so.
Zack: Then again, we’ve transformed some of those songs since the record was made. So it’s a little bit like then. It captures what our live show is, but I think our live show has gotten even better, and the record isn’t even out yet. We’ve tightened things up and added some fun sounds.
HMS: That’s impressive, trying to add even more live, because this album already has a lot of layers. You’re not a stripped-down band by any means.
Zack: With the live performances, we haven’t had a lot of chances to get out and play yet due to Covid, so that’s been a learning curve, getting to know the venues. There was one venue where we just played stripped down out of one little speaker. Then we’ve also played with full sound systems. We’ve had to tighten things up. Shows are weird right now!
HMS: Were there other songs to choose from when you recorded the album?
Zack: There are two songs up on Spotify that we didn’t put on the album. Cristina and Alex have a whole vault of songs. When working on this album, they brought 20 to 25 song ideas.
Cristina: Alex and I wrote some things together, like “Fellini”, but I’ll show her songs, and she’ll jam on it, and if she likes it, then we’ll show it to the band. That’s kind of how it goes and how our album came about. We just saw what worked for all of us. Zack has written a lot of songs as well, so I’m very excited about the next album.
HMS: I’ve noticed that you don’t necessarily have older, more traditional song structures on these songs. In Pop and Rock there have been a fair number of people who also didn’t do that, but has that been a conscious thing for you, or something that’s more organic?
Cristina: I’ve always kind of written that way, though it depends. I think it happens naturally. I’ve gotten criticism for that before, though not in a bad way. Years ago, I think some of the stuff I came up with was kind of hard to follow. But I’ve always been attracted to songs that do that, so I’ve always wanted to try to do it myself. We do also like simple songs, too. I’m glad that the band enjoys songs that have a lot of movement because I feel like working with them completes the song and makes it whole. For me, it can be an experiment that I’m not sure works, but they add things.
Karsten: I like Prog Rock and Cristina lets me add elements.
HMS: When I look at the melody of these songs, I see that the vocal line doesn’t necessarily follow that, but is more independent and interacts with the melody. Is that something you are more inclined to do?
Cristina: That’s so cool. To me, it’s kind of like it doesn’t sound like a band backing up the vocals, and that is the absolute goal. We want the freedom of everyone being able to be themselves. I feel like everyone is very expressive and deliberate in this band in terms of what they play. Maybe that’s how it becomes more of a dance.
HMS: At what point do the lyrics take shape?
Cristina: It’s usually when the songs are being written, whether it’s in a jam with the band, or I’m working with Alex. Some of the lyrics are written in the studio! I’ve procrastinated. [Laughs]
HMS: This is known as The Rolling Stones approach to songwriting.
Zack: I’m pretty sure Kurt Cobain did that, too. That’s always been my approach with the songs that I’ve written, “I’ll figure out what this song is going to be later on. I just need it to sound good.”
Cristina: I want a certain sound to things, and then I’ll find words to match the feeling and the sound.
HMS: Some of the songs have a concept linked to them, like “Fellini” or “Portrait of Jenny”. Then some of the songs are more open and are more about a mood or feeling. Do you need a concept when writing songs, or is it more about where the song wants to go?
Cristina: I feel like the concept happens afterward more often and it has more to do with the overall feeling. The overall feeling inspires me and then it’s completed and accentuated with the band. The concepts for “Fellini” and “Portrait of Jenny” came afterwards, drawn from personal experience. I like using different stories or movies. I admire people who can be outside the story, and I have a hard time writing fiction. Things are usually personal.
HMS: Is there a personal element in all of the songs here, then, like “Rare Cloud”, or “Summer Rain”, drawing on memories?
Cristina: The songs were written over the course of 12 years, but definitely feelings of disassociation or complicated situations are usually what I find interesting, like love relationships. That’s what “Summer Rain” is, and that’s actually a song that I wanted to sound more traditional. That’s a breakup song and is pretty straightforward. “Rare Cloud” is more about not knowing what you’re doing with your life, more of a malaise state. They are always pretty personal, but they may not come off as personal.
HMS: It may be that the music allows all that to feel more open and approachable.
Zack: I feel like that’s the biggest thing on the album: The way the music is written and the way that the album is written, one song can mean ten different things to ten different people. It’s easy for people to take the music from the record and apply it to whatever they are going through. I’m sure that with some of the sadder songs, some people may say, “I love that song, it makes me so happy!”