Sleeping at Last

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Sleeping at Last

It’s hard to believe, but the trio that is Sleeping at Last are coming up on 10 years of music together. Hailing from the Chicago area, the trio shot out of high school and straight into the music industry. As it should, their sound has grown with them. Plaintive atmospheric pop has lent itself to their latest, the thematic, string-soaked Keep No Score. On this outing, the band put in studio time with John Goodmanson, engineer of earlier stuff from Sleater-Kinney and Death Cab for Cutie. And that’s all you need to know about that.

Billy Corgan played a well-documented big brother in getting the band signed to Interscope for 2003’s major release, Ghosts, but it’s the Brothers O’Neal, Ryan and Chad, and friend Dan Perdue who comprise the band. Ryan takes to the mic, piano, and guitar; Chad mans the drums; and Dan plays bass and keys. They released Keep No Score independently to boot. The guys ganged up on the phone recently for a chat about songwriting, cinematic leanings, the fear of death, and their song that received prominent placement in TV’s top rated estrogen drama.

SSv: Ryan, your songwriting really seems to be coming into its own with this record. What pains or steps do you take to hone your craft? Does it take a good while?

Ryan O’Neal: Thanks very much first of all. Songwriting sort of comes and goes in a different way every time. Some songs are definitely more of a struggle to figure out exactly what you want to do with them, and other songs just sort of pop into place. But over the last couple years, the main difference is that I’ve just been more confident in that knowledge that it will either be or it won’t sometimes. Just patience, I guess. I realize that this song will happen when it’s supposed to and it won’t if it’s not supposed to.

SSv: How many songs do you have to dispense of or file away?

Ryan O’Neal: Usually you can tell pretty early on if it’s not something that we’re all excited about. It doesn’t take too much effort to figure out that it’s not going to work. Usually not a process where you spend months on it and then it doesn’t happen. An initial reaction can tell you whether it’ll work.

SSv: Well, that’s good for productivity.

Ryan O’Neal: Exactly. It feels a lot better that way, to not invest too much in something that’s not going to work.

The biggest thing we've seen is the bands that seem like they're really having fun are the ones who seem like they're the closest friends. So we just try to remember that our friendship's a big part of it and is going to keep us healthy when we're out away from the rest of our families and friends.

The biggest thing we've seen is the bands that seem like they're really having fun are the ones who seem like they're the closest friends. So we just try to remember that our friendship's a big part of it and is going to keep us healthy when we're out away from the rest of our families and friends.

SSv: There’s a lot of aching on Keep No Score. And yet there’s much confidence in things being made right somehow, a special hope. How do you steer clear in writing of platitudes and throwaway lines to express something your audience can absorb, something that says redemption is possible or is coming?

Ryan O’Neal: Well, thank you. I think that just generally stems from what we believe in the first place. When I set out to write a song, sometimes I have a general idea of a theme for the song, but somehow hope kind of finds its way in. It’s not accidental, but the message is definitely there because it’s just how we feel.

As far as the words that I choose, over the last ten years of writing, I’ve just been appreciating more and more the fact of how much you can say in a small amount of space. There’s only so much space there as opposed to a novel or something like that. I really appreciate how much you can fit into different lines. That’s probably where a lot of the hard work goes in, trying to figure out the most efficient way to say something.

SSv: Right, just what’s worth saying in three to five minutes.

Ryan O’Neal: Exactly. It’s a fun challenge for sure.

SSv: You’ve toured in recent times with Billy Corgan’s former outfit, Zwan, and then Switchfoot, some others. What did you pick up on the road with the vets, guys who’ve been at it for a decade or more? Did they influence how you think about doing live shows or writing songs or both?

Dan Perdue: On every tour it’s been a different experience. On some of the tours, we’ve spent a lot of time with the other bands, and on other tours, we’ve rarely seen a band but on stage. Some of the things we’ve learned are that you’ve got to do things the way you want to do them, not let other people tell you how you should do things. Only do what you’re comfortable with.

You can really get run down if you let people tell you how to do things. The biggest thing we’ve seen is the bands that seem like they’re really having fun are the ones who seem like they’re the closest friends. So we just try to remember that our friendship’s a big part of it and is going to keep us healthy when we’re out away from the rest of our families and friends.

SSv: You’ve been able to play some shows live with a string quartet there to represent, too, and that has to be gratifying. Do you feel stripped down, your songs more naked to all the comers, when you play shows without that?

Ryan O’Neal: Yeah, the shows without strings, we look at that as kind of a fun challenge as well. When we rehearse – we’re a three piece – so we try to get the necessary melodies and important aspects of the songs to be up front and noticeable. Between Dan and me, we also have these loop stations that we control manually, and so that’s fun to splice in some of the strings and things like that. Hopefully it doesn’t take away too much at all just playing as the three of us, but when we play with the strings, we kind of get to watch a show for ourselves, too.

SSv: Definitely. That’s some epic stuff.

Ryan O’Neal: Funny that you mention that. We’re actually sending out an e-mail today that we’re finally bringing our string show to other states. So we’re really looking forward to that. We’re also looking for guest string performer to work with at different select shows. So yes, really excited about that.

SSv: It’s cinematic. So do you have a hankering to maybe score a film? It’d seem up your alley.

Ryan O’Neal: Yeah, that is definitely something – the three of us, completely separate from music, are in love with movies. Since we started, we’ve gravitated toward more cinematic-sounding strings and those elements in music anyway. Eventually we would love to approach doing soundtracks and things like that. Definitely something we’re looking forward to.

SSv: How did you meet Susan Voelz, who coordinated the strings with you guys for the record?

Ryan O’Neal: We actually met her through a suggestion from the studio we recorded at back when we recorded our Ghosts album. Just somebody from the studio gave us her name and contact, and we just called her up. She’s definitely one of our favorite people to work with, really talented. She takes a lot of our arrangements, since Dan and I don’t know how to necessarily write the notes out on paper, and Susan takes that and makes it work between the quartet and fills in all the gaps. She’s amazing.

SSv: I read where you guys said “Needle & Thread” and “Tension & Thrill” are your favorites off the record, maybe all three of your favorites. Why is that?

Ryan O’Neal: I think that’s probably changed a little bit in the last year or two. I’d say my favorites to play live, since we don’t really listen to the record, are probably “Dreamlife” and … yeah, “Dreamlife.” That’s my number one right now.

Chad O’Neal: I’d say my favorites to play live right now are “Hold Still” and “Umbrellas.”

Dan Perdue: I agree with “Dreamlife” also, and “Careful Hands.”

SSv: Two of you said “Dreamlife” – why’s that?

Ryan O’Neal: Well, for me, I switch from playing piano to guitar within the song, so it’s more activity going on for me. And just the mood of the song, it feels good to play live.

SSv: Some stuff on Keep No Score speaks in poetic ways to death and recovery. Repair. There’s talk of “laying alone in hospital beds” (“Needle and Thread”). Then it’s “In between medicine and the sick, there is a kiss” (“Quicksand”). Was someone close to the band or to you quite ill or terminal as you were writing for this album?

Ryan O’Neal: Thankfully there isn’t anybody close to us recently going through things like that. There are a couple reasons why I started writing with some of those themes. First of all, I have sort of a phobia of the hospital and those kinds of things. Writing about my fears helps to relieve some of that. Also, the meaning of life or giving birth, and the meaning of death, what you’ve done in between, has been the giant theme for me for some reason in the past couple years, and especially in the writing of that. So it just sort of came up.

SSv: On your previous disc, Ghosts, you sang on the title track that you “can’t decide if I’m living or I’m dying.” Here on “Levels of Light” you come around and say, “Death is the only thing that makes us alive.” That could be interpreted as a bit fatalistic or pessimistic, but I doubt you meant it as such. What gives?

Ryan O’Neal: All of those references mean that in your life you have to decide what it’s worth, what’s so incredible about it. The lyric from “Levels of Light” – “Death is the only thing that makes us alive” – means that it’s what you make of it. Not pessimistic, but I guess it has a darker tone to it.

SSv: So many artists and songs talk about it. What does it mean to you, all of you guys, to be alive or really living?

Ryan O’Neal: That’s a good question. For me, somebody who just feels a fullness of loving other people and being loved as well, as generic as that sounds. To love what you’re doing with your life and always striving to be your absolute best, whether or not that has you in a lot of great circumstances.

Dan Perdue: I’d agree with what Ryan said. Loving what you do, living in the moment. Not worrying about the future or the past too much. Somebody who’s optimistic and hopeful.

Chad O’Neal: Exactly.

SSv: Was that you, Chad?

Chad O’Neal: Yeah, I don’t think I have it. They’ve pretty much taken up all the answers there.

SSv: Forget sloppy seconds – you got thirds there. Well, you guys spoke about love some there. In the song “Quicksand,” there’s this line that strikes me – “Slow down, you’re all words/ And love is made of yarn.” I just want to know what that means.

Ryan O’Neal: That song specifically, I really took advantage of putting as many images and feelings to words as possible. That song is really about trust. It’s saying kind of what I was just saying, that you may not always find yourself in the best possible life position by doing the right thing or being loving or making it an important part of your life, but I still believe that it’s the right thing to do. That theme of thread is really all around the record, that you’re creating this line of your history. So this “love is made of yarn” part is referencing that, that it’s what you make of it.

SSv: About that song on the whole, “Quicksand.” It got picked up for primetime season-premiere treatment awhile back. You know, “must-see.” So are you sick of the words “Grey’s Anatomy,” or is all publicity good publicity?

Ryan O’Neal: [Laughs] Definitely. All publicity is good publicity, for sure. We’re not sick of it at all. We’re super-honored to have a song on there and excited to have that opportunity.

SSv: It’s true that they don’t pick bad songs for that show. I’ll say that much.

Ryan O’Neal: Yeah, it was definitely an honor to be among the other music that they choose.

SSv: Turning to another song, “Umbrellas.” It speaks to commitment, marital commitment even. It talks about a ring, and about reproducing no less. “We’ll bring a child into this world/ And we’ll say the one thing everyone should hear: You were meant for amazing things.” Are you guys in the band married, any or all of you? Anybody in the band have children yet or working on it?

Chad O’Neal: I am. I’m the only one married.

SSv: So do you have children, or working on it, or how did this come about?

Chad O’Neal: Oh, we’re waiting a little while ’til things are more stable. We’re working on getting our own place now. We’ve been married for a little over two years now.

SSv: Great. You anticipate my questions. So what does it mean for you to bring new life into this world, a child, when your songs talk so much about how this world and humans in it are really in need of a heart surgeon?

Chad O’Neal: Yeah, it’s going to be an amazing gift. Once we decide to have children, it’ll be amazing. Hopefully it won’t be too long, but at the same time, it’s nice to learn about marriage and learn about being together, so it’s been great.

SSv: Word is you guys are heading into the studio or at least writing for your next record. What’s baking?

Ryan O’Neal: Yeah, in the last couple months, we’ve gotten back into the writing process again. That’s been fun, and it feels really great to be in it again. Over the last year I’ve not really taken time away from writing but haven’t quite made it the focus of my day, so it’s nice to be getting back into it. So yeah, we’re shaping up the next one.

SSv: What’s baking exactly, stuff that sounds like Keep No Score?

Ryan O’Neal: I’m not really sure yet. The process that I usually have is that I’m always writing lyrics. Over the past year, I haven’t been writing much music. I’ve been jotting down notes and themes and ideas. So right now it’s kind of getting back to the music and putting that together. There are a few songs that we’re starting to put into shows.

Dan Perdue: Some demos. Hopefully it’s just the next progression of it.

SSv: Sounds good. We’re not getting any younger.

All: [laughter]

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