There are many markers of success in the first-year career of Sleeper Agent, the overachieving Little Garage-Pop Act That Could from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Drummer Justin Wilson, however, prefers to recall the one that best captures the goofy joie de vivre of his group.
The date was March 2, 2011, the final day of the first leg of their grueling tour with local buddies Cage the Elephant. This was their first real tour, so Wilson and his bandmates—female singer Alex Kandel, singer-guitarist Tony Smith, bassist Lee Williams, guitarist Josh Martin, and keyboardist Scott Gardner—wanted to commemorate the occasion. They dispatched Gardener, dolled him up in a cheerleader’s outfit—doughy gut and all! —and unleashed him onto the stage to crash their giggling friends’ set. “He’s already got this huge mane of curly hair,” Wilson, 24, enthuses. “He looked like a pom-pom already!” This tour, in all its agony and ecstasy, embodied Sleeper Agents’ rock & roll dream—and that night, they realized they were living it.
The key to Sleeper Agent’s steady ascent, recently punctuated by their rollicking shows at SXSW, is disarmingly simple: the band members know how to laugh at themselves, and their songs are joyously melodic. (Possible motto, according to Smith: “Live faster, don’t die” —admittedly a work in progress.) You can hear this in particular on tracks such as the blogger-touted “Get It Daddy,” a dizzying school’s-out anthem about growing up, “Love Blood,” a jerky WTF about commitment, and “Get Burned,” the giddiest love-sucks tale you’ve ever heard that sounds like the Strokes doing the nasty with the Arcade Fire.
“My previous band was very introspective and complicated,” explains Smith, 24, who pens all the music and lyrics. (A sucker for tight rock-pop hooks, he cites T. Rex, the Beatles, and Jay Reatard as influences—though to his bewilderment, his voice has earned countless rhapsodic comparisons to Jack White’s.) “So we under-thought everything, and just went for it.” Their compositions back in the day were pretty straightforward, oscillating between the subjects of booze and chicks. But Smith is proud to report that his talking points have since evolved. Most of the tracks on their self-titled album—out August on Mom + Pop Records (Sleigh Bells, Metric)—are studies in relationships, both familial and romantic. And many of them, he adds, “I write from Alex’s perspective, how I think she’s feeling.” This shift in perspective is key to Sleeper Agent’s appeal: While the playful tug of war between the male and female vocals coolly recalls everyone from X to The XX, the immediate warmth they emit is entirely their own.
The group—its name a Battlestar Galactica reference, courtesy of sci-fi geek Smith—first formed in 2008, as the drums-and-guitar duo of Wilson and Smith. Vets of hardcore and rock bands, the two hit it off while working together in a movie theater. “We were both fans of Rush,” Smith explains. The pair stood out by being the only act in town with songs that boasted dueling vocals. No one seemed to mind that Wilson couldn’t really sing, especially not the duo who were pocketing $500 a show at the local college hangout.
The rest of Sleeper Agent assembled serendipitously. “Lee was a fanboy of ours. He’d come to all our shows,” Wilson says, giggling. “And he was friends with Scott.” Kandel, meanwhile, had opened for Sleeper Agent as part of a rock group she formed with a local buddy. “Tony swears he can’t remember what I sounded like,” she notes. Oh, but he certainly does remember that day in 2009 he, then 22, met up with the 16 year old over lunch about possibly joining the band. “I picked her up from high school,” he says. Long pause. “That was weird.”
Deciding she was too young, he blew her off thereafter. “But I was pretty persistent,” says Kandel. “I would message Tony on Facebook saying, ‘Hey, don’t forget about me. You still have to make me famous.’” Three months later, she finally broke him down. Smith attempted to teach her bass, but when she proved to have butter fingers, he switched her over to vocals. Today, “it’s definitely a brother-sister kind of thing,” says the 18-year old Kandel. (You can hear their declaration of siblinghood on the ballady “That’s My Baby.”) “I feel like an equal, but they’re really protective.” Scoundrels, you’ve been warned!
The rest of Sleeper Agent’s story has transpired at a feverish pace. After the six piece played their first show together in 2010, they decided to put together an eight-song demo. That recording caught the attention of friends Matt & Brad Shultz of Cage the Elephant, and their producer Jay Joyce (Emmylou Harris, The Whigs), who’d go on to produce Sleeper Agent in July 2010 in his Nashville studio. While laying down the tracks for Celabrasion the group teamed up with the Shultz’s and Ryan Zumwalt’s Death Panda imprint leading to a deal with Mom + Pop. All of the above happened in just NINE months.
Since then, Sleeper Agent has been opening for with Cage across America, building a swelling fanbase. “We’ve been giving autographs and pictures every night after we play,” marvels Justin. He’s sincerely flattered by this, but it’s also freaking him out. “Once 400 people came into this tiny room! I couldn’t breathe! I couldn’t see a way to get out.” One day, he jokes, the band will “hire somebody who can, like, push through and clear a path for me,” hip-hop style. But for now, the members of Sleeper Agent have been expertly plowing their way through the masses the only way they know how: one town at a time.