Sleepyhead Explore a New Kind of Alchemy 

The indie rock lifers pile on noise-free hooks on their sixth album

Sleepyhead (Image: Sleepyhead)

Right on par with their peers and pals in Yo La Tengo, legendary indie rock lifers Sleepyhead have endured having made their indelible mark while staying true to their DIY punk ethos in the face of underground fads and tends. 

Together since the 1990’s indie heyday, Sleepyhead’s core duo, the husband/wife team of guitarist and vocalist Chris O’Rourke and drummer/singer Rachael McNally, have trudged on—albeit sometimes at a snail’s pace but certainly a rewarding one—as day jobs and family life have taken hold. Band members have come and gone as well, most notably original bassist-turned-filmmaker and photographer Michael Galinsky and his replacement Dan Cuddy, formerly of Hypnolovewheel and currently of The Special Pillow. 

Since Sleepyhead’s beginnings at NYU in the late eighties before becoming get-in-the-van tour workhorses and staples at downtown clubs like CBGB’s, Brownies, The Spiral and The Pyramid Club, the long-running trio—rounded out by bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Derek van Beever since 2004—have solidified their rightful place in the indie rock annals as one of the old school OGs. After all, Sleepyhead helped put Homestead Records on the map and contributed a track to the soundtrack of low-budget cult fave flick Half-Cocked, directed by Suki Hawley and co-written with Galinsky, her husband. 

Sleepyhead just don’t rest on their cred alone, although there’s shit-tons of it to lean on. Earlier this year, the Boston-based O’Rourke, McNally and van Beever dropped, arguably, the best record of their long and winding career arc and one of this writer’s favorites of the year. New Alchemy, Sleepyhead’s first new album since 2014’s Wild Sometimes, was indeed worth the long eight-year wait. And like Yo La Tengo’s three-aces songwriter dynamic, each member kicks in and sings their own tunes. The effect is seamless through and through. 

Sleepyhead New Alchemy, self-released 2022

On previous efforts, Sleepyhead caked their catchy pop goodness in wads of fuzz, which they became synonymous with. Not the case on New Alchemy. Their sixth album sheds their trademark candied noise rumble for a pronounced and bright sound that signals a reinvention of sorts, a more “adult” brand of indie rock if you will. That distortion-free approach is glaring from the first sun-kissed guitar riffs of the epically hooky “Molly-Joe” and the infectious melodies don’t let up from there. “Pam and Eddie,” the Wilco-esque country-twang of “Good Goodbye” and the title track are all should-be hits ostensibly blasting out of the windows from your car radio on a glorious spring day. 

The Globe caught up with all three members of Sleepyhead for a fun chat about the new record, their work/band balance, the 90’s glory years and more.   

Sleepyhead plays The Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts on December 17th with Elk City, The Tear Downs and Hilken Mancini & Chris Colbourn.

 

Sleepyhead has been known in indie circles since you emerged in the 90’s as bathing your pop tunes in fuzz and distortion. On your latest record, New Alchemy, you don’t have that trademark fuzz featured prominently in the mix…

Chris O’Rourke: No… (laughing)

 

What made you “clean up” the sound?

O’Rourke: I think it’s just a natural thing and like what else can we do in that vein that would be interesting and better than what we did then? I think it’s just listening to all different kinds of music is probably a big part of it. Back then we had somewhat limited taste in what I listen to or maybe even availability; you’d have to actually buy records and stuff back then. I think it just naturally listening to different kinds of music and just wanting to try different things—it just happened. It wasn’t totally conscious. 

Rachael McNally: I agree with that and I also think if anyone lined up all our records or listened to them in in a row, I think it seems like a dramatic change but really for us it was a very smooth transition. We just didn’t put records out as frequently over the past twenty years as we did as the first nine years. So, we had a loooong time in this new vein ((laughing). 

 

Yes, New Alchemy is your first record of new material since 2014’s Wild Sometimes besides the stellar Future Exhibit Goes Here that collected the first two Sleepyhead albums, Starduster (1994) and Communist Love Songs (1996).

O’Rourke: Yeah, that was a reissue of our two Homestead records. 

McNally: And even the record Wild Sometimes, that came out in 2014, only three of those songs were recorded right near when it came out and everything else was recorded back in the early 2000’s. Even that one, which seems like this middle, was really mostly old. But the songs “Wild Sometimes” and “Life Is Hard,” those were the first songs to be recorded with Derek and we really wanted to get at least a couple songs with him on that album, probably because we were thinking, “Well, jeez, this has taken fifteen years so we better get a few on and chop-chop on the next record!” Except it wasn’t so chop-chop! (Laughing)

 

 

Derek, how was it for you to step into the Sleepyhead fold? Were you an indie rock guy and already familiar with the band?

Derek van Beever: That indie sort of rock, I don’t have that at all. I don’t know their music. I didn’t really get into it back in the day. So, when we play their old stuff, I don’t really know how to play this style or what’s appropriate or because it doesn’t come too naturally. But then when I listen to their old stuff, I’m like, “Oh, this is cool. We should do this. We could re-imagine it.” 

 

So you didn’t know anything about Sleepyhead’s history?

van Beever: No, not at all. I still really don’t.

 

(Laughing)

O’Rourke: We met Derek because he and Rachael teach at the same high school. We got asked to do a show and the only reason I can even remember the year is because it was a benefit for John Kerry’s presidential campaign so that dates it. 

McNally: We had met because we were in a band for the faculty variety show at our school…(laughs).

 

That’s pretty cool. 

McNally: …when we needed a bass player. We had met, we had hung out and we knew Derek was fun. 

 

Do your students know their teachers play in a band?

O’Rourke: I teach fourth graders. I keep that separate from them a little bit. But, when we play in New York, these people come to see us who were in Rachael’s first class when she taught high school in New York. They come to see us so there probably will be more. Now that we’re playing a lot more again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them. 

 

How do the three of you balance the teaching job by day and band thing by night thing? Is that a reason why there was eight years between records? 

McNally: It does slows things down (laughing)!

O’Rourke: I think the bigger thing, though, than the job slowing us down is having kids. Rachael and I have two kids but one of them is in college and the other one’s going to be a senior and Derek’s kids are a little bit younger but he has a kid in college. 

McNally: We’re getting to the point where it’s going to be easier. 

O’Rourke: Our son actually plays on the first two songs on the record and our daughter played bass with us at a live show in February, so. We have a great setup. We live really close to Derek and we have band rehearsal rooms in both houses so all our stuff’s in the basement. When we want to rehearse, we eat dinner and we just go downstairs and rehearse. We don’t have to drive to a rehearsal space. Putting this record out has been very satisfying and I’m ready to keep going. We’ve got a couple of new songs we’re working on and, I’ve said this before, but we really hope the next record is going to be a lot sooner than eight years. We went from fifteen years to eight years…

McNally: …let’s go for two!

O’Rourke: I think three is probably reasonable.

McNally: Oh, come on!

O’Rourke: We have a new song and that’s a start. As teachers, we spent a lot of last summer prepping the record to come out but next summer we might be able to instead spend it trying to play some shows. It’s just finding a way to make it fit. I think being a teacher makes it a little easier maybe than some other jobs because we all have the same exact vacation. I think in our spring break, I’m going to try to see if we can maybe play like five shows, like out to Pittsburgh and wherever we can get and get back home and then maybe a little bit more in the summer. We got to make it work somehow. 

 

Getting back to New Alchemy, lyrically the songs sound autobiographical like “Pam and Eddie.” Were some of the songs from real life experiences? It seems like it. 

O’Rourke: It’s a good question. So Derek wrote two of the songs and I wrote almost all the others. There’s one cover on there, which is a Sandy Denny song. I think my songs tend…even when they sound autobiographical, they are often somewhat fictional. In fact, there’s a couple of songs, like “Tony the Drunk Is A Thief” for instance, we saw that written on the side of a building and we were like, “That is going to be a song if no one else hasn’t already written it.” There’s some story behind it, some small-town vicious story, I’m sure. But we just made a completely fictional song out of it and try to imagine what that came from. Then “Pam and Eddie” also was a piece of graffiti that’s etched into our brother-in-law’s building in Brooklyn and someone wrote “Pam and Eddie” and dated it 10/12/90.

McNally: But carved, not wrote!

O’Rourke: It’s like carved in the stone stairs building in Brooklyn and I was like, “Well, there’s a song right there, too.” Then some of the other ones, it’s just like trying to think about just…

McNally: …moments…

O’Rourke: …trying to look for more universal things. Derek can speak for himself. But his songs might be a little bit more…

van Beever: I’m a relatively new songwriter so I don’t quite know how to hide myself as well so what comes out is pretty much…I love that. I actually feel like I should go back to trying out that a little bit more. There’s just so many things you can do with songs.  

 

The video for “Pam & Eddie” really plays into the autobiographical theme and begs the question did you live in that apartment building in the 90’s then wrote a song about it. 

O’Rourke: Well, we’ve been visiting that apartment for a long time and I think finally I was like, “There’s a great story in there.”

 

VIDEO: Sleepyhead “Pam and Eddie”

Then the title track was something that came from your childhood? 

O’Rourke: Yeah, and we are actually going to film the video for that song at the place that inspired it, which is for me, is one of the most exciting things that I…

(McNally laughing)

O’Rourke: Rachel and I both went to NYU but I grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I went straight from Cape Cod to Manhattan. But in the town I grew up in Falmouth, Woods Hole is part of Falmouth and there’s a scientific institute there called the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. There’s another one called the MBL, Marine Biological Laboratory, so there are a lot of scientists in the town. I suspect that’s part of why this place took off there. 

 

That was where New Alchemy, the album title and the song has it roots in?

O’Rourke: There was a place called the New Alchemy Institute in the 70’s and 80’s in this rural area of the town and it was really an experiment in sustainability. They had a tilapia fish farm and they tracked recycling human waste and wind energy on a small scale. I would just go there with my school, like on a field trip. They’d get us on a school bus and we’d go over there and then the people there would kind of show us around. I just have this somewhat hazy, in the best way, memory of this magical place. It was the 70’s so I think people thought it had a hippie vibe but it was actually really serious what they were trying to do. So, one day I was like, “What a cool name—“New Alchemy.” Then I was like, “That could be a really good song.” I always wanted to write a song about it but I wanted to really do it justice and at some point it started to come together. Then I realized that online, a lot of their old archives are there. They had put up these journals, like 60-page journals that I was finding online. I’d look on page twenty and a friend of mine from third grade mom’s poems would be in there and really cool art and drawings and photos. So, we finally wrote the song and then just thought it would be a good album title. 

 

What about the video for “New Alchemy?”

O’Rourke: Over the summer, Rachael and I were in town and we were driving around looking for places to shoot the video and I was like, ‘Let’s just go by there.” I don’t know really what’s there anymore, but as it turns out, there are these people there who are trying to keep it going. It’s now called the Green Center of Cape Cod and it’s people who were there from the beginning. It was really funny because we’re taking some pictures and were parked on the side of the road. There’s a really big garden and there’s a woman gardening and she was looking at us funny and I said, “Rachael, do you think I should go talk to her?” and she’s like, “Yeah, I think you probably should.” I went over and introduced myself, I said my name and explained the whole thing that this is my hometown, I wrote this song and they had heard of us already. 

 

(Laughing)

Wow!

O’Rourke: Oh, yeah. An older couple who’s carrying on the work said she’s like, “Oh, Earl’s going to want to talk to you. He heard about your record.” This was before the record came out so he took us on a tour of the place, a lot of the stuff is still there and he’s going to let us shoot the video there. 

 

Did they have any clue about the band?

O’Rourke: No, nothing. I think he was really excited that there was some new attention for his work, too. If there was a zombie apocalypse, they would be the people who survived.

 

(Laughing)

O’Rourke: They were like growing rye to make bread, they have fish in these tanks. It’s really great.  

 

When you left New York City way back was there always an intention to keep Sleepyhead going?

McNally: Oh, yeah. By the time we left, Mike (Galinsky) had already shifted into filmmaking and we had our friend Dan Cuddy, who was in Hypnolovewheel and who’s in The Special Pillow now, he said he would play shows. He knew we were leaving and wasn’t going to come to Massachusetts but he was very happy to help us out to transition…until the stars aligned and we found Derek (laughing)

 

O’Rourke: We did write songs with Dan that we recorded on Wild Sometimes. Dan plays on that. 

 

I follow Michael Galinsky on Instagram and he’s posted so many great pictures from those Sleepyhead downtown NYC years. Were those taken at your old apartment?

O’Rourke: There’s definitely pictures of our apartment. He puts so many pictures up. 

 

That must be a trip to go down memory lane like that. Those shots are amazing.

McNally: He was always doing it… 

O’Rourke: …always with the camera. 

 

Are there shows from that era that stand out in your mind? 

O’Rourke: We really were so lucky with the bands that we played with. We did a west coast tour with Codeine once. We did a full U.S. tour with Polvo, we did a week or so of shows with Yo La Tengo. They are friends of ours so we’ve played with them a million times… 

McNally: …Half Japanese. That was like a little mini-tour. 

O’Rourke: I feel like we’ve just been so lucky to have played with lots of really great bands over the years. 

 

 

 You May Also Like

Brad Cohan

Brad Cohan is a music journalist in Brooklyn, NY.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *