Monday, 13 July 2009



Oakland-based avant-whatever collective SGM’s second album out-bombasted their remarkable debut to the exact same degree that their debut out-bombasted everyone else. Album number three, therefore, comes burdened by the unreasonable expectations of their discerningly rabid followers.

They needn’t be concerned. Ten-minute lead track ‘The Companions’ is a bold opening gambit, expressing mortal terror through stark, overtly theatrical means. Nils Frykdahl’s normally domineering voice grows ever more pathetic in desperation as the music swells to a lurching throb. It’s as ominously subtle as ‘Helpless Corpses Enactment’ is excessively metallic, a brutal piece of pure mathematic evil, more rabid goat than song. ‘Puppet Show’ is similarly dramatic, its tinkling music box and thundering celestial choirs a perfect soundtrack for skewering Patrick Troughton with a cast-iron weather vane. Carla Kihlstedt’s beguiling voice shimmers and simmers on ‘Formicary and ‘Angle of Repose’, the latter’s paroxysmal climax her most powerful vocal to date. Best of all is the twisty-turny brutality of ‘The Widening Eye’, whose impossible cerebral heaviness will make Robert Fripp cry tears of proggy blood.

This is a beautiful-sounding, luscious and spacious record. And the combination of a massively heavy backline with violins, glockenspiels and Sleepytime’s arsenal of Heath Robinson-esque homemade instruments gives their super-intense arrangements a unique texture. It’s easily the band’s strongest, furthest reaching, most focused effort yet. But if there’s a drawback, it’s that there’s so much going on – a vast array of styles and sounds, an overload of rhythmic convulsions and melodic ingenuity – that it will keep you from listening to anything else for six months while you obsess over its abundant detail.



There really aren’t many bands like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. There’s the name for a start. There’s the fact that they chiefly draw inspiration from arcane literature, the Futurists and the proto-Surrealist Dada movement. Their records are packaged in warm, welcoming sepia, strewn with oblique 19th-century imagery and endless reams of possibly forged historical text. They hit the stage in facepaint and robes, wielding bizarre homemade instruments. Their stage shows have been known to incorporate pseudo-academic lectures and Japanese butoh dancers. In truth, if you didn’t know better you’d think they were a sinister atavistic cult or a performance-art collective, rather than a rock band. But that’s before you hear the music – and if the ephemera that surrounds the band appears to be wilfully obfuscatory, then the task of encapsulating their sound is just impossible. 

Suffice to say that if you’re at all intrigued by the idea of a backwoods Meshuggah jamming with a deeply paranoid King Crimson; or a junk-shop Mr Bungle performing monstrously twisted versions of Kurt Weill tunes; or Hair as mangled by a Magma/Voivod supergroup, then Sleepytime are for you. The music is insanely over-complicated, but it’s not exactly prog. It can be crushingly heavy, but it’s not really metal. It’s dramatic, excessive and technical, but simultaneously intimate, engaging and charming. It’s as dark, jagged and discomfiting as it is beautiful, funny and absurd. Lyrically, we’re talking the Unabomber, demonic donkeys, anti-technology tirades, heresy, fear and redemption through ordeal, all filtered through an expansive vocabulary and a highly literary imagination. 

And yet this most idiosyncratic, distinctive and inventive of bands has thus far had a relatively low profile in the UK – for one thing, they’ve never played over here. But all that may be set to change. Newly signed to The End records following a two-album stint on Web of Mimicry (the label run by Trey Spruance of Mr Bungle/Secret Chiefs 3), the band have just released In Glorious Times – their most ambitious and darkly rewarding collection yet. When Rock-a-Rolla catch up with Sleepytime, they’re mid-tour in the States, revitalised by simple pastoral pleasures following a gig with thundering stoner-doom trio Stinking Lizaveta. 

“We’ve got the day off,” explains a clearly contented and excitable Matthias Bossi, drummer. “We’ve showered for the first time in many weeks and we’re staying at my sister’s place, with her menagerie of dogs and cats and rabbits and kittens and ponies and things. Generally in great spirits. We’re just hanging out for the day and then we’ll probably take off into the woods to go camping or something.” 

Camping? Ponies and bunny rabbits? Not exactly what you expect from a touring band. Whatever happened to traditional on-the-road activities like snorting rat poison out of an unconscious groupie…? Mind you, all that stuff can become tiresome very quickly, and Sleepytime have been at this for a good many years. Bassist Dan Rathbun and guitarist/vocalist Nils Frykdahl formed their first band, Acid Rain (later Idiot Flesh), in the mid-1980s in Oakland, California. Nils, a laid-back, affable and thoughtful chap, offers some insights into their dim, distant past: 

“It started as a high-school band and transformed into the band that eventually transformed into Sleepytime. It was kind of a long, gradual process. We lived in an anarchist co-op together and we played there. There were huge parties…better than most clubs.” 

The late and indubitably great Kurt Vonnegut once summed up the directing force behind our lives thus: “I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” The same is true of the circumstances behind the meeting of Nils and Dan. 

“It was a happy accident. Our bass player called to say he couldn’t make the gig. We saw Dan walking around and thought ‘That guy can play the bass’. He learned everything we had in the time it took to play the songs. He’s really sharp. At that point, I was coming more out of a metal background and Dan was coming from progressive rock.” 

Not only did the fusion of these two lead to some spectacular achievements on a musical level, but Rathbun’s wide-ranging technical proficiencies have proved to be vital in other ways during their 20-year partnership. 

“Dan is able to hold down the material aspects of a rock band,” explains Nils. “He builds instruments, records the albums, fixes the bus – we’d never have left Oakland if it wasn’t for him. And our relationship’s been pretty stable. We established our respective roles pretty early on and we cover really different ground while working together, which enables us to have pretty long-term projects in bands that are somewhat experimental and don’t have big record label interest. It’s not like we stay together for the big money that we’re pulling in.” 

Idiot Flesh became something of a cult, renowned for their bizarre heaviosity and extravagant, theatrical performances. Although the band ceased to be in 1998, Dan and Nils’ partnership had barely begun. It was through their work with Jewlia Eisenberg’s gender- and ethnicity-bending experimental troupe Charming Hostess that the two Idiot Fleshers met Carla Kihlstedt, and the singular chemistry for Sleepytime began to come together. 

“As Idiot Flesh was starting to unravel, we had in mind continuing to work with Carla as a singer. And then she started also playing violin and we knew we had some shared interests. When we first met Carla she was playing Bartok while warming up, so we knew we had in common an interest in incorporating new classical music into a rock context. David Shamrock (Idiot Flesh drummer) was also interested in classical and rock. But we didn’t know that it would turn into a band.” 

“The only wild card at that point was (original percussionist) Moe! Staiano. He was definitely very deliberately that – a physical player, very visceral, very chaotic, very destructive, who played with metal sticks on metal drums. We saw him playing around town and thought he’d be a great foil for David, who could play his ass off, but was the most controlled drummer I’ve ever played with.” 

It’s exactly this fortuitous convergence of styles and personalities that allows the Sleepytime sound to exist. Vocal responsibilities are shared between Nils and Carla, his full-bore death-metal roar and vast crevasse of a baritone a perfect counterpoint to her impure, strong and sensuous lullabies. Alongside traditional rock instrumentation, violins, organs, glockenspiels, autoharps, lutes and trombones are drafted into service, as are an array of exceptionally tantalising noise-making devices built by power-bassist Dan – the ‘sledgehammer dulcimer’, the ‘percussion guitar’, the ‘Viking rowboat’, the ‘popping turtle’. New drummer Matthias keeps this potentially sprawling cacophony grounded with precise, powerful polyrhythms, while percussionist Michael Mellender more than fills the now-departed Moe!’s seat as he beats the living cobblers out of a battalion of chains and metal objects. In keeping with the band’s roots on an anarchist co-op, it’s very much a collective effort, every individual playing their part in producing this remarkably complex and densely layered music.  

“All five people write,” says Nils. “In Glorious Times represents the widest variety of writing of all our records, with the addition of Michael, who is also a multi-instrumentalist, and Matthias, our new kick drummer. The compositional process really varies – Dan tends to bring in through-composed scores with everybody’s parts pretty fleshed out on paper, aside from Matthias’s drum parts. We then infuse it with our stylistic leanings and tones. And arrangement choices are always open to the whole group as an ongoing process. We kind of work on the material for a while, refine it and then record it and then play it live.” 

“I tend to bring in fairly skeletal song ideas, based on ideas that don’t necessarily fly from beginning to end, and we will embellish them and all jam on that. The composing happens through improvisation. By the time we’re playing it live it tends to be very wide open. Part of the benefit for me of that is that everyone’s playing is representative of their emotions and humanity, they’re playing the way they like to rather than the way it’s supposed to be instrumented. It’s very different from they way it would be if wrote everything down as a score, which I used to do more of. I was trained in that.” 

“Part of the inspiration for getting this band together was to have a group that could compose from a texture-based start on sonics, and work up melodically from there, rather than the other way around. And with the home-made instruments, if you don’t have your hands on them then it’s hard to imagine what the part would be for them. Like, say, the sledgehammer dulcimer or Carla’s percussion guitar, which is on at least half of the material on the new album, or all Michael’s metal and chains…it’s pretty hard to sit around under a tree somewhere with a guitar and imagine what the percussion guitar part might be.” 

So it’s left to the operator? 

“Yeah. That way you get something back out of their playing.” 

Although all five members of the band participate, In Glorious Times is perhaps the band’s most focused album thus far. In fact, in keeping with Nils’ interest in progressive rock, it feels almost like a (whisper it) concept album. Listening to 2001’s Grand Opening and Closing, the astonishing first record, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sleepytime were several different bands. It’s difficult to reconcile, for example, the explosive trailer-park metal of ‘1997’ with the Victorian Gothic unease of ‘Ablutions’ or the agrarian mosaic-prog of ‘The Stain’. The follow-up, Of Natural History, felt like a band finding their niche, being more confident in their vision, whether they were engaged in visceral avant-metal (‘The Donkey-headed Adversary…’), demonic show tunes (‘A Hymn to the Morningstar’) or Baroque revulsion (‘Cockroach’). Though the bewilderingly wide range of styles is still in evidence on the new record, the overall tone is more cohesive throughout, almost as if the album is one long piece. 

“Oh really? Well that’s great!” says Nils. “It was definitely a concern that the diversity, which has always been there, was starting to feel like just that. Not that it’s a derogatory term, but it’s not the overall intent. When somebody brings something in, we want to make sure that it makes sense within our trajectory, within absolutely non-dogmatic and non-defined parameters. We don’t want to cut ourselves off from anything. We enjoy a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of which sounds nothing like what we do…” 

Nils is keen to stress that the band’s personal lives have no bearing on their music, but it’s undeniable that there is a deeply personal aspect to the new record. 

“The lyrical, thematic concept of the album as a whole was based primarily on the fact of the death of my brother and band artist since Idiot Flesh days, Per Frykdahl. His influence is pretty immeasurable on me and on the whole emotional tone – the humour, the blend of black comedy and warmth – and the album as a whole, the title, many of the lyrical themes of death and rebirth or the recycling of matter or the persistence of form… Interestingly enough, a lot of these themes were already in place as a central theme in our work from the beginning anyway, but they took on a certain clarified form.” 

Though a background presence in the music, Per’s presence can be felt most strongly in the album’s packaging, a three-way gatefold adorned with pages and writing from his notebooks. Sleepytime have always had a particular eye for mysterious, elaborate presentation. Exploring the text and imagery of the first two albums is like being given the key to a musty library of occult tomes and anthropological curios. 

“We like to steer things in various directions with the album packaging, the liner notes…we want people to delve into another layer. Then people can make it their own, which is what it’s for, after all. We’re not putting it out there to write our biographies. The packaging is very important. The music comes first, but the art is a very big part of the whole. Most of us love books more than just about anything else, so the chance to assemble little books is a real thrill. None of us are writers per se, we’re grubby touring musicians, but we like to make little artefacts that somewhat resemble those that we so readily overload our bus with.” 

As well as the heavy, labyrinthine music and intriguing packaging, the band’s theatrical stage presence, the make-up and the robes all contribute to their esoteric air. 

 “There’s no heavy cult of personality,” offers Nils. “We’re keen to avoid that. I really haven’t had to deal with band fandom. People are hesitant to talk to us while we’re in ‘the mode’, with the costumes. But to counteract that, when I can I like to come out and sell the merchandise and talk to people. Although we don’t present ourselves as the real people that we are, we ARE real people. We’re regular folks.” 

Well, that’s debatable…but are the people who come to Sleepytime shows regular folks? Given the many levels on which the band operates, you might expect them to attract as many devotees of Thomas Pynchon or avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch as they do rivetheads in search of brutally heavy thrills. 

“Our audience is fantastically varied. There’s definitely an element of rock and metal fans, but also older progressive rock fans, or people who are there partly for the pageantry, the spectacle – there are people who come for various aspects of it. And the fact is that we are all of those people… I was and still am a metalhead at heart. I still get really excited about some nutcase from Norway burning my ears with the most brutal metal I’ve ever heard. But we’re also total nerds.” 

If all this talk of theatre and dance and literature has placed anyone in any doubt as to the intensity of the Sleepytime experience, it’s worth noting that a mere mention of things metal sends Nils into an enthusiastic reverie… 

“I saw Enslaved recently. They’ve been around for a while but I just saw them live. They were pretty fantastic. They’re getting more into ’70s progressive now. Also Leviathan, out of San Francisco, kind of a Burzum-like, textured black metal… And out of the Ukraine, a band called Hate Forest. Oh my god, they’re really, really intense! Utterly precise and super monotonous, completely fast, unwavering, no fills…” 

On the basis of their recent tours of the US and Continental Europe, the cult of Sleepytime seems to be growing, largely due to the rabid evangelising of their followers. 

“It’s pretty much word of mouth. Although I think the Internet helps. When we toured Europe last month, nobody had the album, but there were lots of people singing along in Poland, even though they don’t speak a lick of English. Really amazing.”

So does this mean a UK tour might finally be on the cards? 

“We certainly hope so. We’re very aware of a potential audience there. The whole front row of our show in Amsterdam had flown over from England, and were the most vocal and wildly enthusiastic people in the room. They were great! We know we have lots of friends over there so we’ll definitely try to make that happen.”


(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

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