Into The Night: An Interview with Sleep Thieves
Andrew Darley spoke with Sorcha and Wayne of Sleep Thieves about how far they’ve come since their beginning, how they feel like a “new band” and what it means to them to make music.
(Click images to enlarge)
Sleep Thieves have released one of the most enchanting albums of this year. Releasing their first EP back in 2009, the Irish synthpop outfit have had a personnel change, in which co-founders Sorcha Brennan and Wayne Fahy recruited Keith Bryne, and have taken their time to develop their sound and identity. You Want The Night pulses with a new energy that showcases their growth as a band, and on which they craft sensual and brooding electronic music. It’s an ambitious debut from a band who are just in the first lap of their career together. Andrew Darley met with Sorcha and Wayne to talk about how far they’ve come since 2009 and the confidence they have found within themselves to make a mark of their own.
I was eager to talk you about this record as I categorically remember the moment I heard ‘City Lights’ single and being floored at how gorgeous it was. How do you feel the band have come along since this time?
Sorcha: I think we’ve had a natural progression in that me and Wayne became more confident in what we were doing and our abilities. After meeting Keith we formed the band as it is now. The three of us came together and we figured out what we wanted for ourselves in terms of what we were interested in and wanted to make.
Wayne: The dynamics of the band changed greatly when Keith joined; we are a different band. We drew a line under what we had done before and decided to have a new vibe, a new beginning. We started again, essentially.
When Keith joined the band, did you have a very unified vision of what you wanted to make as a collective?
Sorcha: To be honest, once he came on board, me and Wayne stepped up our game. If you have a new person, they have no expectations of what you should sound like or what your voice should do. When it came to doing vocals, and even performance-wise, it made us really confident having him as it was almost as if you had an audience. We connected really quickly and started writing soon after with a shared vision.
Where did the name Sleep Thieves come from?
Sorcha: When we chose the name I was reading The Importance of Being Idle because I was finding it really difficult to relax. We were desperately trying to find name at the time and wanted a name that was not of an era since we did not plan on being a short-lived band. We were flicking through books trying to get ideas and I happened to have this in my bag. In the footnotes there was a reference to an essay ‘Sleep Thieves’ by Stanley Coren. It seems to have fit the different types of music we’ve made to date, whether it’s dark and nightmarish or bouncy and pop.
You made a decision to record on your own terms and in your own houses. How did recording in this way shape the record?
Sorcha: Originally, we were going to record with a producer in a studio but there was a clash in our schedules. We were writing all the time – writing three songs over one weekend. We were conscious that we were paying a lot of money for someone’s time so we decided to invest the money in buying our own equipment and figuring out how to record it ourselves. We spent a year developing the sound of the record, working on it and playing it live. Making the album this way gave us room to experiment. We had a lot of room for honesty, therefore, we had a lot of room to grow.
Wayne: Recording from home hugely shaped what the record became. We’ve done the whole fully concentrated recording sessions where it’s all about getting the take down and moving on, with no time to second guess it. In those sessions, an engineer could say “Why don’t you try that with my fancy pedal? It’ll make it sound better”. You’re kind of dazzled by the headlights and then a month later you think to yourself “Oh why did I do that! That’s not what I wanted it to be”. And then the moment is gone. It doesn’t give you room to breathe. Plus, we had a lot of fun making it. We recorded it during the summer so I would literally be recording a synth line with one hand and an ice-cream in the other.
The album opens with ‘City Of Hearts’ which has a contemplative energy and lyric “I want to be lonely and still alone”. When you recorded that song, did you know that was the one to open the record?
Sorcha: In a way it epitomizes the whole sound of what we wanted. It has the feeling of being in a city but also being aware of who you are in your humanity. The experience of both busyness and loneliness at the same time. It’s about relationships and personal space, which runs through all our music. We were really excited and proud of that song when we wrote it. The last line sums up a lot too, “You picked a lonely star” meaning one person is on their own as an individual and someone else chooses to be with them in life.
A standout song on the album is ‘Through A Sea’. It starts off very meditative and then halfway takes this sharp turn into a completely different direction. Over the years, have you learned more or become more confident in composing?
Wayne: With ‘Through A Sea’ there’s no drums until three minutes in. We were conscious about playing it live and what an audience would think of two guys and a singer just swelling some synths around the room. But then we just thought “Let’s do it!”. We’re much more confident now, compared to five years ago, in letting a song be what it’s meant to be.
Sorcha: When we play it, it feels amazing. I feel almost dead when I sing that first part because it’s like a weird, empty nightmare. Its theme is about taking the leap of faith and not knowing if you’re going to make it. When we played it in London, people pushed to get to the front and we were so excited. We used to think that we had to have people dancing and be really fun all the time but we’ve realized if you make good music, people will come for that alone. For me, if I hear how a song is composed, I’ll think it’s shit. The magic in music is when you can’t pin down in a song where an idea started or how the parts come together. We now see that dance music doesn’t have to be about an audience going four to the floor but that we can bewitch them with it. On this album, we thought seriously about the mood and the lyrics we wrote. When people listen to it, we want them to feel as if they have walked into a different space.
The nature of electronic music and synthesizers leaves a musician open to endless possibilities. The slightest tweak of a knob could change the texture and mood of the synth. Did you find yourselves lost in its process at any stage?
Sorcha: You can totally, and it can be really frustrating. We’ve recorded things on our phone before and when we went into the studio to record it properly it’s impossible to recreate unless you’ve written the sequence down. A tiny millimeter out and the synth will sound completely different! But that can be exciting as well because I think a lot of people believe that electronic music is this measured and metered thing. We approach it the way a piano tuner or a shoegaze guitarist would engage with their instrument. It’s about the textures, the layers and the atmosphere so that a millimeter can make a big difference. There’s is a vocal part on the song ‘Tusk’ that is a strange, metallic echo that got caught in something which we could not recreate. Every time we played that song, it had to be there or it didn’t work otherwise. We cut it out of the very rough demo we had at the time and put it in. It’s the magic in the mistake that adds to what you’re creating.
Are there any electronic artists or bands that have either inspired you or impacted how you see music?
Wayne: The great thing is that when myself and Sorcha started out, we were into lots of different bands; The Postal Service, The Knife, Ladytron, Santogold. We went on tour with this great band from Portland called Lovers, which was a huge learning and honing experience. They were just three women on stage, they pulled up to the shows with no frills but yet the power and honesty they delivered on stage was incredible. They weren’t supported by a big promoter, it was 100% off their own bat. They were playing these tiny venue, but they could have been headlining a massive stage in what they gave the performance.
Sorcha: And that in itself was really inspiring. I remember just watching them with my mouth open being drawn in. Not underestimating ourselves and not being overly humble about our performance; it’s about standing there and giving it. They taught us that whether you’re playing to 10 or 3,000 people, you should be singing as if you’re in front of the one most important person in your life. We hope that when we play a gig the audience and ourselves get wrapped up in that one moment.
Given that electronic music has taken off in the last five or so years, do you feel people are more receptive in Ireland to electronic music now than when you first started?
Wayne: In the electronic sphere in Ireland at the moment, there are so many great bands: I Am The Cosmos, Ships, Le Galaxie, Forests, Jape, Solar Bears. I don’t mean that they’re good for an Irish band; they’re great overall across the board.
Sorcha: We’re all doing something very different which is the most interesting thing. I don’t mean this in any negative way but in the past when an indie band came out with guitars, bass player and drums, a lot of them would sound similar. You could see very clearly that these bands were connected by sounding alike in their approach. Same goes for some singer-songwriters. The funny thing about electronic music is that you get that less, even though it is much easier to replicate. All of the electronic bands coming out of Ireland all sound completely different and have their own identity. The music scene in Ireland is so supportive because bands or artists don’t feel threatened by each other since we’re all doing our own thing.
Following on from that, reading reviews of your music, you often get likened to Beach House, Chromatics, Phantogram. Is this a compliment to you or do you think its somewhat lazily being sweeped together on the basis that you play synthesizers and the band is fronted by a female?
Sorcha: I think it’s a nice thing to be compared to bands that are great. For fans as well, it’s good to have a reference point. We are our own band but people need a way into you and if that’s through the music of others, I have no problem being compared to amazing artists. People will go and listen and make their own mind up anyways, but at least they go and listen. That’s the whole point: we get our music to reach people.
Now that you’ve worked together for a number of years, is there an open dialogue between you? Do you ever have moments about being reluctant or embarrassed to share a lyric or song idea?
Sorcha: I think we’re really good at saying it to each other when we don’t like something. When someone else writes something or proposes an idea, we never shoot it down straight away. I’ve never seen myself as being a singer but Keith and Wayne have given me so much and supported me in so many ways. I used to be in choirs when I was in school and I always believed “that’s not how you sing if you’re in a band”. All through my life I was a backing singer and never sang choiry or high. I had this notion that a voice in a band should not sound feminine.
Making this album, I realized that it was all wrong and began singing really high. I came from being a backing vocalist who was afraid of having a voice to fronting these songs experimenting with my voice. Growing up, no-one ever said to me “you’ve got a great voice”. Then when I get a text in the night from these guys saying they couldn’t stop thinking about a melody I sang, it’s really reassuring – I felt apart of something. Even if nothing happens with the band, I’ve taken so much from this experience on a personal level.
The album artwork is a piece by Bennie Reilly. Can you tell me how that came to be the cover?
Sorcha: Bennie Reilly is an amazing artist and I was in a band with her previously. A lot of her art is related to nature, which ties in with the themes in a lot of our songs. When we talked about the artwork, we wanted to have something that looked like a piece of art that you would want to hang on your wall in your home. We approached her because she had these collection of gorgeous paintings. We went through them all and that was the one that stood out. It kind of looks like a cage, a forest and a woman’s skirt – all these different things. It’s difficult to decipher what it actually is. When she told us that it’s an image of a lyrebird, which is a singing bird, it just felt like the perfect fit for the record. It’s a mysterious cover but there’s an element of luminosity to it too.
For Record Store Day this year, you recorded a cover of Eurythmics’ ‘Love Is A Stranger’. What is your connection to that song? Was this an important event for you?
Wayne: I suggested it mainly because I am a big fan of Eurythmics, given that they are leaders of modern electronic pop. They always had a lot more meat in their bones than a lot of electronic ‘80s bands. I fell in love with that song after watching the BBC Four documentary Synth Britannia. They showed a performance of them doing this song. It was quite unusual for her because she wasn’t in her iconic suit or shaved red hair. It was earlier than that, she had this ‘80s-looking evening gown on and elbow gloves. It was such an arresting performance that when it came to doing a cover, it felt right.
Sorcha: As a band, we strongly believe in equality in terms of gender, sexuality and all across the board. A lot of our friends are gay so it meant a lot to us to celebrate it and get behind something we feel is important. We are very much about being yourself and having the right to be accepted. It makes me so sad and angry that there were people in my class in school that couldn’t actually say that they were gay. Nobody should be grow up today feeling the weight of prejudice of just being yourself.
One thing that I really liked about the album, which might spoil the surprise for those who haven’t bought it, is that there is a hidden song at the end. It reminded me of the treat you’d get when you bought a CD and song that’s not listed just starts playing after the record is done. Do you feel that today ‘the album’ as entity is a lost or still very much present?
Wayne: We had to call it ‘Casiotune Lover (Hidden Track)’ for iTunes but we’re really chuffed to have that on the vinyl version. When the last song ends there’s a bit of a hiss and then this one kicks in about after a minute. It’s unfortunate that we had to name it on the digital version. It’s really lo-fi and we played it through a vintage analogue tape machine to get that really lovely texture.
What does You Want The Night mean to you?
Sorcha: The title from the song on the album, which has this magical quality and I take on a different character. Something took over me when we wrote that song and it’s a little bit angry. I read this book years ago about this famous actress back in 1800’s in Ireland, she had been brought up the Hellfire Club and naughty things happened there and I don’t she had a good end. The persona in the song is genderless but it has a power which is bewitching whilst singing about this very sordid love triangle. As the album’s title, it’s about wanting it all and celebrating the vibrant and dark sides that are in us all. It’s about wanting everything for yourself and not being afraid of that.
You Want The Night is out now through Minty Fresh. To buy the album or for more information about Sleep Thieves, visit their official website here.