Sleeper Agent will be playing The Waiting Room April 14 on their first headlining tour. You may remember the garage pop band from their 2011 debut album Celebrasion, which got a lot of attention from the blogosphere straight to the top of national music media. Since then the sextet from Bowling Green, KY, has been touring nonstop with Weezer, Fun., Grouplove, etc., and they are on the verge of making a real name for themselves. Their sophomore album, About Last Night dropped March 25 on RCA Records / Mom + Pop. RollingStone.com premiered “Waves” from the album and NPR picked it for their SXSW mix this year, so they’re in good company. The band is made up of drummer Justin Wilson, female singer Alex Kandel, singer-guitarist Tony Smith, bassist Lee Williams, guitarist Josh Martin and keyboardist Scott Gardner. 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.
Smith, 24, who pens all the music and lyrics, says he’s 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. Smith and Kandel are romantically invovled and that connections is reflected in the band’s music. “I write from Alex’s perspective, how I think she’s feeling,” Smith say. 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.
We caught up with Tony Smith before the band’s Waiting Room show for some more insight into this up-and-coming band.
The Reader: About Last Night features a more polished Sleeper Agent while maintaining a trademark edge. How did you manage that balance?
We had this “let’s really go for it” attitude while writing the new album. We knew it’d be easy to write another batch of scruffy punk pop songs, but that wasn’t very appealing. We all pushed each other really hard
and nothing was approached flippantly; no idea was left behind. The idea was to become heavier while clearing a little of the haze we hid behind on the first record.
How do you craft the inventive musical settings for the songs on this new album?
Luckily, all of the guys are incredibly creative, weird and talented. When I write a song, it’s merely a blueprint for everyone to pad out and expand upon. The melody usually comes first and then I try to create
instrumentation that’s complimentary or elevatory to that. As a writer, I don’t like to hang around in one genre for too long.
The band is known for its “feverish energy.” Where does it spawn from?
Most of us have punk and hardcore backgrounds, which probably contributes to the energy. Plus, it’s fun.
In 2012, Rolling Stone readers ranked you one of the best new bands in the country. How has such attention changed the band?
An estranged ex called and congratulated me. We hadn’t spoken in years. That blew my mind. But, yeah, we were very pleased.
What was it like touring with Weezer?
It was fun. They’re on such a different level than we are though. It felt almost alien being in that environment. Huge arenas, catering and nurseries. The Weezer guys were super nice. It was very surreal; I’ve been
a fan since I was 10.
You explore some complex emotions on the new record. What fueled such passion?
Well, a lot happened during our time off. I got engaged and moved in with Alex. We started building a life together. Sometimes things are tough. Sometimes we were broke, or went without food or heat to pay other bills.
Tension builds very quickly when you’re in that together. Other songs came from deep observations of myself or conversations with friends. Growing up’s tricky.
Your song “Impressed” was inspired by transgender avant-garde pop hero Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. What was the history behind it?
I’ve been a huge fan since their first album. Songs like “Cripple and the Starfish,” “Divine,” “Fistful of Love.” and “Another World” move me more than any others in the world. That voice, those cadences, the arrangements are
all so incredibly moving and haunting. I wanted to put a rock spin on that chamber style. It’s an homage to one of the greats.
What will y’all be looking forward to on the Warped Tour this summer?
Camaraderie, experience, cook outs and making/meeting a slew of new fans. And, watching a thousand shows.
Being from Kentucky, were y’all excited for the Wildcats in the Final Four?
Our drummer is the only basketball fan. Unfortunately, he was rooting for the Louisville Cardinals. But, hell yeah, more power to them.