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Band to Watch: Sleeper Agent Make Hook-Filled, Hormone-Fueled Garage-Rock

Cage the Elephant buddies are fronted by 18-year-old spitfire Alex Kandel

August 5, 2011 2:05 PM ET
 Sleeper Agent
Sleeper Agent
Carlos Nunez

Click to listen to Sleeper Agent's 'Get It Daddy'

Who: Shaggy Kentucky kids whose songs are sweet, fizzy and combustible as a can of shook soda. Most of the band’s six members are have barely entered their 20s, and vocalist Alex Kandel, at a mere 18, is only about half as old as the first Ramones record. But the Bowling Green band channels that restlessness into songs that dip and crest like rollercoasters, offsetting big, beefy hooks with schoolyard sing-along choruses. It's small wonder they've already netted touring slots with fellow Kentuckyians (and close friends) Cage the Elephant and played raucous, raved-about shows at South By Southwest. 

First Hit: Guitarist and vocalist Tony Smith and drummer Justin Wilson had been toiling thanklessly in the Bowling Green rock scene for years, until Wilson was, quite literally, struck by inspiration. "At this one Fourth of July party, someone sucker-punched Justin," Smith says. Wilson elaborates: "He was a drummer in a rival band and the guy who stole my ex-girlfriend. So he was kind of my rival already." With that one unexpected shot to the face, Wilson's attitude about making music changed. "It made him really angry," Smith laughs. "It made him want to start making more aggressive music. And I guess I had a reputation of being more of a punk, as opposed to the classic rock-type music he had been playing, so we started hanging out."

Duo Becomes Trio: The band started with Wilson on vocals, but after a few unremarkable gigs, they quickly felt the need for a change. They found Kandel working as a waitress and doing Adele covers at open mic nights. "One day, they picked me up from school and we all had lunch, and that was how it started," she says. Although Sleeper Agent's songs are unthinkable without Kandel's irresistible Joan-Jett-by-way-of-Karen-O sneer, sharing vocal duties with Smith wasn't the task for which she was initially recruited. "She was originally supposed to be the bass player," Smith explains. "But the instrument was too big, and her hands were too small. It was the most depressing moments, looking over at this teenager and thinking, 'I'm about to kick you out of this band you just joined.' And then I thought, 'Well, maybe you can sing.'" The group recruited Lee Williams to handle bass chores, and was rounded out by Scott Gardner on keyboards and lead guitarist Josh Martin.

House Party: Upon graduating college, the group jointly rented a house to bang out some songs in what Smith describes as, "one last drunk summer before we all had to grow up." At around the same time, producer Jay Joyce, who was mixing Cage the Elephant's second record, heard an early demo and decided to give the band a call. At first, his offer seemed too good to be true. "He called and asked for some demos, and we were like 'Yeah, okay, whatever," Smith recalls. "And then he called back the next day and was like, 'Where are those demos?' And I was like, 'Oh, you really wanted them?'" The group hastily assembled a batch of songs good enough to pique Joyce's interest, and they soon headed down to his Nashville studio to record the drag-racing garage-pop songs that would become Celabrasion.

Parents Do Just Understand: Kandel went on her first string of tour dates with the band when she was all of 17 years old – an age when most teenagers are having trouble convincing their parents to let them borrow the car.  Luckily, Kendel's mom and dad are cooler than most. "My parents are ridiculously supportive," she enthuses. "Any time we get a piece of good news, my dad usually knows about it before me because he’s constantly looking up stuff about us online. When the album was released on iTunes he called me and was like, 'I had to leave work because I had been sitting there for an hour not getting anything done.' He'd just been reading all the reviews of the record."

There's No Place Like Home: More than anything, though, Sleeper Agent is a product of a local scene that both challenges and encourages. They refer to the members of Cage the Elephant as "family," and ascribe most of their current know-how to taking their licks on the Bowling Green circuit with bands like Morning Teleportation, Schools and Canago. "There's a real sense of community," Kandel says. "Everyone's learning from each other and growing." Smith concurs, adding, "You hang out with local bands just trying to one up each others songs. You'd be like 'here's a song,' and someone would go, 'that's pretty good – but I've got this one.' And you'd go on like that until four in the morning." Wilson adds: "Or until someone punches you in the face."

LAST WEEK: Shabazz Palaces Make Heady, Atmospheric Hip-Hop

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