Building ‘New Alchemy’ – A Conversation With Sleepyhead’s Rachael McNally and Chris O’Rourke

Once New York-based, now Boston-based Indie Rock band Sleepyhead are back with new material released as the album New Alchemy, rewarding longstanding fans who held out hope that new music would start flowing again. The genesis of New Alchemy is interesting for many reasons, but for those who are big fans of Sleepyhead’s 2014 album, Wild Sometimes, there’s a songwriting continuum in place that builds directly into this new collection. Founding members Rachael McNally (drums, vocals) and Chris O’Rourke (guitars, vocals) have been working as a trio with Derek van Beever (bass) since 2014, and their songwriting together made it onto a few of the last album’s tracks and finds full flowering here, with New Alchemy.

The album represents thematic and sonic developments, some of which they credit to the atmosphere and resources at recording studio Q Division Studios and working with John Lupfer as Producer. While the intricacies of relationships still loom large in their songwriting, the title track “New Alchemy” also pays tribute to a real scientific conservation-driven endeavor that Chris O’Rourke encountered as a child and which now represents, more than ever, the need for environmental thinking.

Sleepyhead are also actively playing live shows, having released some singles in early 2022 ahead of some performances, then introducing new tunes in New York, followed by a record launch show in Boston. Coming up, they have a show this weekend on September 24th at Roslindale Porch Fest.

I spoke with Rachael McNally and Chris O’Rourke about the development of New Alchemy, the life journey that this has been for them, and the energizing experience they had perfecting these new tracks and looking towards the future for Sleephead.

Cover art by Rachael McNally. Graphic design by Jesse Blatz.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that you both have a lot of history with New York, and I noticed that you played in New York recently. Also, your video for “Pam and Eddie” was filmed in Brooklyn and it really felt like a world that I was familiar with. Did you intentionally write that song to be set in Brooklyn?

Chris O’Rourke: Yes, definitely. The apartment building that the video is shot in before the actress goes into Prospect Park is our brother-in-law’s apartment building. The graffiti is actually etched on the stair there, saying “Pam and Eddie”. Walking up and down those stairs a million times, I always looked at that and thought, “That’s the craziest thing! It’s so permanent!”

Rachael McNally: That took somebody a long time!

HMS: It looks like it’s etched in marble or something.

Chris: One day I walked down and really started thinking, “Who are those people? Were they teenagers when they wrote it? Are they together, not together? Are they even alive?” That’s really where the song came from, imagining Pam and Eddie, who are real people. I imagined the whole thing of the narrator going out to Prospect Park, which is only a block and a half away, and wondering, “Could some of these people here be Pam and Eddie?”

My cousin, Jeannie Donohoe, and her partner, Michael Fequiere, made the video, and they live in Brooklyn. We told the story of the song to her and she visualized the video. It really all came from her. Everyone except the main actor are just people who happened to be in Prospect Park and my cousin just approached them and asked if they’d mind being in a video. There’s one couple who are friends of friends. When my cousin sent us the edit, “That’s what New York City is. Everyone is a secret movie star! Even the regular people.”

HMS: They are so perfect for the camera. I actually find it so reassuring that there were that many long-term couples hanging out at the park. That’s a really sweet video, including couples of all different ages and kinds.

Chris: I love the super-positive vibe to it.

HMS: Also, I didn’t expect that the “Pam and Eddie” inscription to be a real thing. That blows my mind because it makes a perfect song. It’s also a perfect New York thing.

Chris: Sometimes a song really writes itself and that one came quickly.

HMS: I also love the fact that this was based on Chris’s inspiration, but Rachael performs the vocals on this song, which turns things around a little. That worked well with the female actor in the video, too.

Chris: We plan to make a couple more videos in the same partnership. We played that song at our New York show, and even though it was our first show, a lot of people there knew the song already.

HMS: That’s so great! One of the songs has had a longer lead time, I know, “Without U”. That was released over the winter.

Chris: We had booked a couple of shows in February in New York and Boston and we hadn’t played much during the pandemic. The record was done already, so we put out a couple of songs on Bandcamp so that people could listen to them before the shows. I’m so glad we did. When we played those songs, people started clapping. That was satisfying!

Rachael: They were probably thinking, “Finally, Sleepyhead! Some new songs!” [Laughter]

Chris: It was probably driving people crazy. But we played almost all new songs in New York.

HMS: Songwriting on this group of songs comes from 2014 onwards, right? Are any of the songs that go back further?

Chris: The songs are from after 2014. What happened was that the band in the 90s toured all the time in the US and in Europe. We put out four records from 1992 to 1999. Then, we had kids, we moved to Boston, our first bass player quit, then we played bass with another person for a while to keep the band together. The album that came out in 2014, Wild Sometimes, was one that we started recording in Hartford, Connecticut, before we moved from New York.

Then we kept recording there sometimes, but we moved, then the studio closed for a couple years, and that record, our fifth record, took 15 years to make. Around 2014, we met Derek van Beever and started playing with him. He teaches at the same school that Rachael teaches at, which is how we met him. Then we did some songwriting, and we went into the studio and recorded a few songs with Derek that ended up on Wild Sometimes. The rest of those songs were recorded much earlier.

Rachael: I was actually pregnant when I was in there laying down tracks!

Chris: We pretty much started writing more songs with Derek right away after that, then we worked on songs in batches. We went into record in groups of four songs, and mixed them even. Then we’d write four more songs, and go in and record them. By the time that the pandemic rolled around, we were down to the last little batch of songs. When the studio started letting people back in, we were actually a pretty good band to pick because we were only a three piece, and a little older, so probably more careful. We actually got a lot done during the pandemic even though we couldn’t play shows.

Rachael: Between album five to six, we cut our time down! We were committed to reducing our time on this one.

Chris: Rachael and I have two kids, and one of them is in college, and the other is a senior in high school this year. It’s now become easy again. In fact, our son Finn plays guitar on the recorded version of “Pam and Eddie”, and our daughter Niamh, is a bass-player and has actually played with us live.

HMS: That’s so cool. You found a new studio for this one, didn’t you, Q Division?

Chris: Yes, and that’s just an amazing studio. I think a huge part of why the record came out so good was due to working there. John Lupfer was our Producer and he’s one of the founders of Q Division. He’s a really good match for us and we really enjoy working with him. He wants us to sound the best we can and we trust him. We’re pretty thick skinned, and he’ll tell us if something isn’t working.

Rachael: At this point in life, we are thick-skinned, and it’s really true. It is a good thing to get to the point in your life when you’re grateful for constructive criticism rather than rejecting it. We really do trust him, and that is such a luxury, honestly.

Chris: The engineers there are great, too.

Rachael: And they are very creative there. To give a very concrete example, on the song “Broke Down”, we were at the overdub stage, and I had these notes in my mind for back-up vocals. They were not words, just sounds. I knew the notes were good but it was sounding terrible. I wondered what was wrong with it. John was the one who said, “Maybe the notes are good, but it’s not meant to be a vocal tone.” One of the engineers said, “Let’s get the bells!”

Chris: These are like [hand] bells that people play in a church.

Rachael: We got the right bells, we found the notes. I think someone else even played the bells. [Laughs] But it worked much better! They are very willing to take any little hint of an idea and bring it to fruition. Sometimes we’ll waste two hours on something, but sometimes it turns out great.

HMS: That is a really creative approach, looking for a resolution rather than just cutting things.

Chris: It’s so important. There was another song, “Can You Leave The Light On”, which was one of the first songs that we recorded, but also one of the more important songs on the record. It’s big and heavy conceptually, but it wasn’t sounding right. So we honed in on the fact that it probably needed some acoustic guitar. I had the idea that it needed an open-G tuning, and I went in there to do it. It just wasn’t sounding right. I felt like we had to scrap it, but I tried a simple thing. I just put it back to the original tuning and put a capo on the electric part, and then that was it. That’s what it needed. I made something way more complicated than it needed to be, but it didn’t work, so I took it out!

HMS: I’m sure it’s helpful that you all have already so many albums, because as much as you can prepare before going into a studio, once your there, suddenly things change. Rather than panicking or postponing, you all were able to keep moving.

Chris: Totally. It’s a really fun part of it for me, and I think we’ve made it more fun by being prepared, but also leaving room to see what works. The vibe of Q Division is a very creative place, and that means that we’re comfortable, but also challenged.

HMS: I think the title of the album, New Alchemy, is also a perfect album title and idea.  

Chris: There’s a place in my hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts, that was there when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, called The New Alchemy Institute. It was this big piece of land where a bunch of scientists had gotten together to do experiments in sustainable living. They had this giant greenhouse called The Ark. They even recycled human waste. As a kid, some of my friends’ parents were involved in this, and teachers would take us there on field trips. Scientists would show us around. I always had this hazy memory of this super-cool place.

Sometime a few years back, I thought, “I’ve got to write a song about that place.” One day when we were sitting around, Rachael and Derek said, “Wow, that would be a good album title, too!” In 1990, they kind of closed up shop, but now Rachael and I know that two people who were there in the beginning have kind of kept it going.

We actually went over there a couple of weeks ago when we were scoping out some spots for a video. We drove by where it used to be to take a look at it. Everything was still there pretty much! Rachael took some pictures, and we parked on the side of this dirt road. Then I noticed this woman working in this big vegetable garden and I introduced myself to her. I told her that I had used to visit when I was a kid. She said, “Oh, Earl is going to want to talk to you. He heard about your record.”

HMS: Whoah! That is wild.

Chris: She and her partner took us around and it was awesome. They are going to let us shoot a video there. I was walking on air after this. He’s continuing the work.

Rachael: It’s on a smaller scale. He said, “We’re trying to do this on a home scale.” Then I looked at the vegetable garden and it was well beyond my little seven foot by seven foot garden.

Chris: They were harvesting rye for bread, they had Tilapia. Obviously, we need this kind of thing now more than ever.

Single artwork by Rachael McNally

HMS: That’s what jumped out to me, and I think the song “New Alchemy” touches on this, is that what seemed kind of kooky back then is now almost mainstream thinking.

Chris: It’s also no joke! In the 70s, people just thought they were a bunch of hippies, and maybe they were hippies, but they were also serious-minded scientists. It seemed idealistic back then, but it’s not idealistic now. We are destroying this planet and we have to figure this stuff out now.

Rachael: It’s a different level of urgency now.

Chris: The song is an homage to the place.

Rachael: And the ethic.

HMS: I love that you wrote this song before you even knew that there were still people carrying this on. It’s great that they never lost faith, which is what you would hope. That makes an impression on me.

Chris: They also put out these journals, which are archived on the website for The Green Center. These fifty-page journals are full of articles, poems, art, and super-awesome stuff.

Photo of the original artwork for New Alchemy by Rachael McNally

HMS: As a sidenote, since you mention artwork, I think that Rachael did the artwork for this album.

Rachael: I did! It’s my first album cover.

HMS: It’s surprising that you hadn’t done that in the past.

Rachael: It was fun. Time became of the essence, so one night, I just sat down with a glass of wine, got my watercolors out, and various craft supplies. I had an idea in my head, so I started painting, then I started gluing the string to make the little geodesic dome. Here’s the funny thing, when you look at the artwork, what do you imagine the original artwork size is?

HMS: It seems like using the multi-media means that it would have to be pretty big, or that would be painful. So, maybe a couple of feet wide?

Rachael: [Laughs] The actual item is about three inches by three inches. And the cover is only one tiny piece of a seven inch by seven inch canvas. I was just thinking of it as a rough draft when I made it. I made a little frame and was looking at just that part of the image. I showed it to Chris as what I was thinking of, and he said, “That’s it! That’s it!” Then it was done after our friend did the lettering.

HMS: I think you must be like those people who build ships in bottles with toothpicks! I don’t know how you did that.

Chris: Rachael does all kinds of great, crazy things. She embroiders things, she bakes crazy cakes.

HMS: I saw that video of the Stranger Things Vecna cake! Both are so intricate.

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