TEXT BY MORGAN HILL ('15), STAFF WRITER
BAND PHOTO BY DAT VU ('15), CONTRIBUTOR
Before getting in the car with Sleep Kid frontman Nick Selden and bassist Rachel Fox, I sent a text to a friend, something like "what's better than covering a pointless punk rock show at a women's college? nothing." I'm in.
I'm "a journalist" going to "a rock show." My job, peeled from the immortal script of Almost Famous, is to make them look cool.
So, what's cool? It's a question like, "How are you?" One that I'd feel better about if everyone took it a little more seriously. "She's cool." "He's cool." "I'm good."
Talking to Nick about Sleep Kid's unutterable coolness, certain phrases from Authority-On-Boredom-And-Inanity David Foster Wallace come to mind, not just meditations on the poorly negotiated qualities of social capital, but the late author's insistence that irony is killing our culture. Selden's syntax erupts with sarcasm, but good jokes always have a foot jammed in the serious door. Wesleyan bands tend to wallow and wither in a sea of cool. But what the fuck is cool? And what the fuck is Sleep Kid?
Amy Winehouse blasts around the corner. Rachel Fox offers me Kentucky bourbon from the front seat. All the CDs are scratched, but still deafening from the rear stereo. The first few tracks of White Stripes' third album White Blood Cells play while we head out to route 9, the red brim of Selden's hat leaning to the right with the speedometer. Rachel claps along to Hotel Yoruba and Nick lights one in a stream of cigarettes.
"Sleep kid is two things," he says. "It's an homage to 90's indie rock" from a generation "coping with insomnia." "And it's hypnosis."
"You should stop talking," says Rachel.
They go on to facetiously insult their lead guitarist's lack of empathy, which, as a personal quality makes him a phenomenal guitarist and an incompetent lyricist. In reality, I'm fairly certain he's an incredibly nice guy. Their stratagems of sardonic offense continue to surface like the wreckage of an understated ocean liner. "A lot of our songs are needle songs." says Selden. "Usually about someone or some type of person, it gets them right where it hurts," "like a tattoo on the ribs," adds Fox. Of course, they both are and aren't kidding. This kind of lyrical exchange (which I phrase and emphasize as transactional, because, indeed, this talky pathos undergirds the entire point I see them make) is set to a three-chord chorus, with the terminal objective of an affective resolution. It's about the saying of something (lyrically), nearly subsumed by the speaking aloud (the musical song) of some desire to be heard (the precondition of forming a band). "Who are you needling towards?" I ask. "Fucking b*tches who don't love him back." preempts Fox.
Selden keeps driving, and Fox waxes salient: "One day I realized I wanted to be with someone meaningfully. The way I go about things has been very different since then. It's pretty hard to fixate on someone in a substantial, emotional way. I felt a lot less lonely once I realized it was what I wanted. It gave me agency. Instead of inauthentically wanting it, I'm calm. I'm active."
This comes out in conversation about human relationships, yet it can't help but mirror the treads of their music. Theirs is an epiphany of immersion, not in the desire for formal musicological perfection, but in a desire oriented toward the substantial, the emotional, the (pro)active. The desire and a desire figure differently: The desire is the mainstream: the desire held by kids who practice for the show, the kids whose shows market their EP, the kids whose EP bridges into a bandcamp site, and so on, emulating the telos of musical popularity – the studio album. This desire, ultimately, implicates dependence. It's not indie-rock. While it might arise out of something indie, it doesn't land there. A desire, on the other hand, seems to dissolve alongside Fox's digression into the sincerity of her new approach toward human intimacy. A desire, more like whimsy (or the creative intuition demanded by songwriting) is deprived of the organizing facets of instrumental musicianship, namely, pre-mediatated success. Sleep Kid doesn't give a damn about the dependencies bound up in acclaim for the sake of acclaim. They don't want a fucking label. They just want to be Sleep Kid, play a Sleep Kid show, hang out with Sleep Kid fans, and go to sleep.
But, even the kiddie pool has an indivisible depth. Bob Dylan's Sixty One Revisited plays, and Nick knows every word to the seminal album. "There's a thing about Rock and Roll" he begins. "The discographies of these artists – they're like books. Being a loser, getting laid, having feelings; Rock and Roll is a history of the losers. Chuck Berry and Elvis were just these nerdy fucking kids who wrote songs and became obsessed with music." Of course, Selden reads himself between these lines. "Nobody would ever listen to any of our songs for life advice. The coolest thing ever would be for some kid to listen to it and think this is about my life, this is how I feel. There's space underneath the song for them."
This "space underneath the song" is precisely the gap between the and a desire. It's what makes bands approachable. It's an intuitive generosity toward fandom. There is space for the kid with feelings in the audience to come up to the kid with feelings on stage and desire the music for its phrases, yes. But more than that, there's space for the audience kid to desire the moment of feeling interpreted, even interpolated, by the singer, not just the song alone. "The coolest thing that could happen is if someone came up to me after the show and said 'that song. Is how I feel.'"
The value placed on this momentous connective act of interpretation and association is why Sleep Kid is fucking cool. "Nobody has the capacity to be lonely anymore,” says Selden. As much as his ethos is saturated with classic and indie rock allusions to the lame and insecure, I don't get the sense that Selden seeks to totally realienate his listeners. His is a call not for the reclamation of old rock loneliness, that's gone from our era, but a call for a reinterpretation of what hollering out at the loneliness actually does. "You've just got to see the intimate sides of people," Selden says. Sleep Kid isn't about being a fun band, although it's fun. It's not about practicing, although they sometimes practice. It's about being vulnerable, and being vulnerable about being vulnerable. Indie-vulnerable. Not independent from vulnerability, but independent from the desire to be cool without it.
We get to the show.
Sleep Kid's remaining members, Leo Grossman and Justin Friedman, appear sometime during our second cigarette. Setting up, Leo grins and tightens the tom heads, his sticks worn ragged from what I presume will be rim hits, or whatever a drummer calls the intentional miss. Selden's hat is green on the underside. A guy in Dahmer glasses and a beanie taps the side of the soundboard. His shirt says "bleed the pigs." I don't know. A pillow printed to look like a Rice Krispies box and an actual/regular pillow dampens the bass drum. Rachel's shirt from the back is Waldoesque, then she turns, and it's Americana. Distortion dominates while Justin tunes up. He's the real guitarist, popping riffs down the neck of a blue body with a silver sharpie insignia that says "to Rachel." I don't know. The band has enormous cans of beer printed with cow pattern on the aluminum, because Molly Zuckerman brought a twenty-four pack and she is the self-proclaimed "only groupie of Sleep Kid."
They play a minute just to test. I deduce hefty folk rhythm from the chugging of Leo's feet. He uses brushes for light diddles. "You know Bo Diddley?" "I--- want can-dy." I don't know. He plays some chords. Justin breaks into a tonky progression, back and forth. They're warming up, communicating in some language of rapid-fire minutae that escapes me. "Was I too loud?" "Was I too loud??" "It sounds very thin and titty" "Where's the tuner?" "I threw it over there. I literally threw it." Selden hands me a crowbar early on in all of this, so that during the show I can smash a polygraph machine he found in an undisclosed location – some kind of statement about the artifice of journalism. It's a wrench, and definitely not a real polygraph machine, but now I'm part of the act. See? Immersion.
Smith girls live in the co-op where the show is and talk to us about their dietary restrictions. Molly and I excuse ourselves to escape the gluten-free tirade for a cigarette we don't need, and cold air. I'm going to start this sentence with "As a queer woman" and end it with "I really did think the gayness of Smith College was hyperbolic." It's not. The co-op has spare walls, some abstract art, and a few Sapphic poems without identifiable authors. A girl on the porch is a studio art major "with a minor in landscapes" and talks only about Icelandic drug dealers. We're going to a party after this to recklessly spend the social capital accrued by the possession of males. A prime reversal. I anticipate a thin sea of short hair and Ray-Ban'd astigmatisms. They arrive, and the show starts.
"This show is dedicated to Mary Daly," quips Selden. He and Fox kick off, Here comes the right time maybe. Justin's jaw wavers gently through a riff. Here comes the right time maybe. Here comes the nighttime baby. Selden's mouth snaps open with syllables. Justin and Rachel are wearing sunglasses. "Where the fuck is my raincoat?" preambles another song. Noah Gup, having arrived with the latter band mates, looks characteristically pleased and seems to know some words. I have a cow beer now. It's called Crazy Stallion and it's 99 cents. The swinging entry of music breaks way to the train tracks of rock. There's still a fluorescent light on, which feels like it's on me, the journalist in face paint. It's my mode of radical resistance to boredom. Girls swing their arms and jive to and fro, mostly still grinning and talking to each other. Leo rips a riff on the kit. He's singing! This has always boggled me, how to keep foundational rhythm and sing. Maybe it's song specific. I don't know. Fa-fa-fa-fa-oh. Nick's guitar strap is Americana too. The song breaks but the sound sustains. I scoot along the wall as more feet close in. I love the predatory lesbian atmosphere, not because it's real, but because I imagine it to be. A fetish, I guess. I don't know. The studio art major is near me. People are holding hard cider. Rachel has a perfectly intense bass face, chewing her bottom lip. The Rice Krispies fall out of the drum. The studio art major offers to turn the lights off.
"Alright, this is a new one we've been working on." Molly Zuckerman holds her iPhone flashlight for the band to see in the otherwise dark. A jiggly girl hugs the wall near me. I'm still on the ground, looking up, happily awed. I would probably listen to these guys. They just want to be cool and have feelings at the same time. Me, too. Justin and Rachel lean down in graceful tandem to reacquaint themselves with their respective beers. A photo of Rachel's shadow is gorgeous, whether or not she's singing. Good posture. Justin groans into a solo, ending high. He's clearly beyond it all, which I find completely apropos of the whole idea. Everyone just wants a good night of feeling cool, no matter how cool anyone actually is. Leo switches Nick for the guitar, and Noah Gup's enthusiasm is sublime in the dim green light.
I'm not gonna fall in love with you for the third time.
Long dark hair cross-legged in your chair in hi-fi
Do I prepare to speak freely
I catch only every few phrases, but the song has a lifting charm.
So tight, so tight.
Rachel backs him up.
It's alright, it's alright.
I saw you at a restaurant in LA driving home with my wife
you looked pretty good from the parkway
Are we gonna have a show down
Leo's grin is contagious. The bass filters through my jeans. It's sexy.
"We're Sleep Kid, this song's called Sleep Kid, our next album's called Sleep Kid," says Leo, back at the kit.
The lights change again. Molly, reacting generously, still holds the flashlight. The snare is arresting. Like a period. I read today about the evolution of punctuation. The monastics used to think that the word of god needed to be contained without spaces, because spaces were a devil's thing. I think fissures, slippage, repetition with a difference. The time between songs. The three-chord choruses. The recurrent raincoat lyric. Parentheses were invented for the Monk to insert a human thought into the text. Commas were a radical act. Justin speaks in sound. Oh when the saints come marching in slips onto the fret board, parenthetically. Girls are dancing with each other, creeping forward. It's all yin. Noah, Molly and Heather are making shadow puppets between songs. Justin scratches out subtle alterations of reverb. I wonder how many feminist meetings have been in this room. Selden tosses his capo. It lands like an exclamation point.
"Hey Rachel! Where's my raincoat!"
"Where the fuck is my raincoat!"
I don't know if they need a wild frontman, but I've been thinking about unfettered honesty and Kathleen Hanna all night. The crowd is down to seventeen. Noah still knows the words. Justin cruises another solo, then thumbs back down. The show's over, and Selden comes over to me. "By the way, we've never played Rehab before. We just started singing the lyrics to Rehab." I slap him on the leg. Watching them so hard, I hadn't noticed.
The next morning we eat egg sandwiches downtown and Selden buys a fresh pack of cigarettes. We argue the differences between poets and lyricists. I think all squares are rectangles, but he says lyricists don't make good poets. I think rap is a pure poetic form, and Bob Dylan's folk empire too, and we listen to "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" and ogle. The car fills with beatnik smoke. I think the whole thing is about agreement. If Billy Collins were to publish a diner menu as a poem, I'd have to disagree with the authority of a laureate so as not to capitulate to the panacean "anything is poetry" interpretive trap. Wouldn't that be too ironic? Why would I just give in? Sleep Kid has the same kind of disagreement: a formally good poet doesn't make a great lyricist. A formally good musician doesn't make a great songwriter. Sometimes, those two come together and the result is transcendent. Most times, bands are vying for some combination of good and great on the track to perfection, musical cleanliness and clarity. So what is Sleep Kid besides a tipsy sub-angelic rock configuration?
There are tight, tight, tight Wesleyan bands who, with all power to them, are invulnerable because of it. They don't put themselves on the line like Sleep Kid does, because they have a goal that rides on a few loose ends as possible. Rather than a goal, Sleep Kid proposes an attempt to communicate something about their own lives, an essence, a self, a feeling. That's the project. Heading back down I-91, Selden says, "It's not about succeeding. There is no 'successful' communication, because you can never verify it. You can never know that you're understood, you can never communicate what's going on inside you for sure. You can only get a model of it, an approximation." Sleep Kid sees something different. "The bottom line," he adds, "is, don't be afraid. Everybody at this school is so fucking afraid." Selden's efforts are not in the evasion of "failure" writ large, so much as the simple commitment to trying rather than succeeding. It's not actually ironic, or at least, it's much more than that. To try endlessly is, in a sense, sweeter. It's water. It's cool.
Check out Sleep Kid TONIGHT (11/14) @ Psi U (with Slim Charles and Schwab). They're like The Pixies meets Pavement meets the new-wave White Stripes. That's pretty much all your favorite bands.
P.S. Unrelated quotes that are best served without context:
"I used to think that gold building (in Hartford) was Disney land. My mom would tell me when we drove by and I believed her. I still believe her." - Rachel Fox
"If you give a butterfly heroin it becomes a dragonfly." - Nick Selden
"Those last two are mystery chords." - Nick Selden
"YOUR MOUTH IS HUGE" - Noah Gup, about Leo Grossman
"Justin is a fucking d-bag." Nick Selden, about Justin Friedman