By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
On Friday, August 23, Sleepy Kitty will play perhaps its biggest local concert in the nearly five years the band has resided in St. Louis. The duo — drummer Evan Sult and singer, guitarist and pianist Paige Brubeck — will share the Pageant stage with the Blind Eyes, Shooting With Annie and the Incurables. Special guests have been booked; an all-cast sing-along has been hinted at for the encore. It has the makings of a memorable evening, a true celebration of local talent and musical osmosis.
But there's one small hiccup: The date was planned as a release show for Projection Room, Sleepy Kitty's sophomore LP. In the eleventh hour, the band and its label, local imprint Euclid Records, decided to push the release until January 14, citing concerns about frontloading promotion, insuring the arrival of vinyl pressings and a few other public-relations minutiae. (For a more thorough story on the delay, head to RFTMusic.com.)
To its credit, the band is not bailing on the "release" angle of this once-called "release show." Instead of the full-length, fans can purchase the "Hold Yr Ground" single, which teases the album and will contain a B-side and a cover of the Beatles' "I Wanna Be Your Man."
A few weeks before the decision was made to delay the release, RFT Music talked with Brubeck and Sult in their Cherokee Street loft space where the couple lives, screen-prints posters and rehearses. The discussion ranged from the evolution of the band's songwriting process to the changing face of their neighborhood, for which they serve as unofficial cheerleaders.
Christian Schaeffer: What do you think has changed from Infinity City to Projection Room, in the fundamentals of how you write a song?
Evan Sult: To me, Infinity City ended up being a document of our move from Chicago to St. Louis. We didn't realize it at the time, but we really ended up memorializing Chicago with the songs written about Chicago and introducing ourselves to the city, both in the sense of "Hello, we're Sleepy Kitty," but also finding out what was so exciting about it. You can tell — we have St. Louis all over the artwork and Chicago all over the artwork. It was a real city-based thing.
Paige Brubeck: From my perspective, a lot of the songs that were recorded and released for Infinity City were written before Sleepy Kitty was official. A lot of those songs, I had versions I could play all the way through acoustically. Projection Room was way less of that — it feels more like compositions for Sleepy Kitty, versus songs that Sleepy Kitty does.
Sult: I think Infinity City is sort of a document of us learning how to work together, and then Projection Room is more, like, working together. We both bring in different things, but we're using each other to complete our ideas. Projection Room is more a record of our shared experiences — the stuff we have looked at together or read at the same time, or movies we've seen.
You're still committed to the two-person lineup in concert, with the occasional guest joining you onstage. Are you seeing a limit to what looping can do, or is it that you can write a more orchestrated song and find a way out of the studio to make it work?
Brubeck: I feel the limitations of loops all the time. I think that's one of the more interesting things onstage — I always like seeing how other two-person bands do it. So I like doing it onstage because the limitations help show everything that's going on, but in the studio I hate trying to keep true to a loop-based thing. Because in the studio you can do whatever you want.
Sult: I feel like we are a six-piece with four arms, four legs and two heads. Like, Paige has guitar parts in her heads, keys in her heads, harmonies, second harmonies, third harmonies, bass, and it's all there. It all seems like it shows up simultaneously. She has kind of a crowded brain. And then I sometimes have harmonies and am helping out with those things. But the tension of the band, and the thing I think is exciting about the band live, is that there are more ideas than limbs. So how do we create a thing that comes across with power — that feels like there are more people onstage than there are?
"Hold Yr Ground," to me, is the one of the songs that will get the most attention from the record. It takes a pretty clear-eyed look at urban St. Louis' issues while still serving as something of an anthem.
Brubeck: "To whoever stole the Dodge Caravan" — this is a true song, all of it is true. We use our neighborhood as an inspiration. Our van got stolen, and I was really pissed and got really bummed out. It was kind of like talking out loud about that. The police officer that filled out the report with us said that a lot of kids steal these cars, and it's apparently a very common thing. I just think that some of these kids are getting off to a bad start.
It's a really complex feeling. You hear about stuff going on, and I feel among the stuff and not among it at the same time. That song ended up reflecting that complex feeling. It was also about figuring out how to live in a city. Dealing with the pressures of gentrification but realizing that you're a part of it. We're still freelance printmakers who have to figure out how to make a way in the city. This is a good city to be an artist in, but you have to keep making up your life.
Sult: I think also a big difference in the album is, when Paige says, "What do you do when you're born in 63118?" It's her act of imagining that. One thing about us is, we were not born in 63118. We occupy it, and we're proud of it, but there's a big difference between being born here and going to the middle schools and high schools here, and deciding what you're gonna do about gangs here. There are so many things that we see around us. To me, what's interesting about the song is that it starts out with something being stolen from us, but it moves through a sense of hope that something good comes of that, that ultimately helps something happen in the neighborhood. Which is a pretty bizarre response to having your van stolen. But at the same time I would say — and I didn't write the songs — but the song is an act of integration.
It gets to another question, too: In the song, you basically say, if we were going to move, we would have left already. Has it been a question for Sleepy Kitty to move out of the area? Has that been something you've encountered or discussed as you think of your five- or ten-year plan?
Sult: I will say that this is the longest that either of us has lived at one place, at one address. And that's big. Ever since college, I've moved every year or two. So being here and watching what has happened just by not moving away from this address or this neighborhood or this city or whatever has been a big learning process unto itself.
Brubeck: It's interesting, being here a while and developing a relationship to the neighborhood and the city and the region — as a band, when we go on tour we're coming as a St. Louis band. For right now and for the present, it has made sense for us to be in St. Louis, and it has made sense for us to be making our work here. We wouldn't have become the band we have become, or have the subject matter or style we have, had we not moved here. We would have been a different band if we stayed in Chicago. Wherever we go — or when whatever happens next in the future — I will always say that we'll have a part of us that relates to St. Louis. The things I've learned from St. Louis are things that I cannot forget.
Sult: It's kind of a question for us as we go. One of the things that we have found is that we really like being from St. Louis, and we really like touring out of St. Louis — we really like representing St. Louis. We bring out the Tower Groove Records sampler; we're constantly telling people about Cherokee Street and Off Broadway and the City Museum. I still think of Cherokee Street as this just barely believable story, and if you're around here, it's not really believable: It's better than real life most of the time. You walk down the street and you literally know everybody on the street, and their projects — they're all doing stuff. That's really cool to us.
We're at a moment in our band and in our professional lives that we've built a lot here. But if you're gonna live in Europe or New York, you've gotta pick a time to do it. It can't always be in the future if that's what you're gonna do. In a way, there's this other side of being in a band in St. Louis, which is the more you do here and the more you experience here, the more there is to tell people about here. I think, to a certain extent, there has to be those people. Pokey LaFarge — you couldn't ask for a better ambassador for St. Louis than him, and it's gonna take more than just Pokey getting the word out. That does feel like the responsibility of a band that is getting out of St. Louis to complete the short-story collection that is this city, right now.