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Sleeping at Last Interview @ Cornerstone 2004
I heard Sleeping at Last for the first time at Cornerstone 2002, shortly after their signing with Interscope records. That show and their Cornerstone show the next year built plenty of anticipation for the Ghosts album, their first release on Interscope and one of the most perfect albums I have ever heard. When it came time for Cornerstone 2004, I knew I wanted to interview this band and find out their journey so far and where they are headed. Upon meeting the guys in the band, I soon found that they are some of the nicest musicians I have ever met. In many ways the interview felt more like hanging out with some new friends than an actual interview. We made it to the artist hospitality tent before they closed, sat down, and I started the tape recorder. Here's what followed...
Trae: First of all, if you could please introduce yourselves... names, ages, what you do in the band.
Chad: Hi, this is Chad O'Neal, I'm 24, and in Sleeping at Last I play the drums.
Dan: My name's Dan, I play bass and keyboards, and I'm 22.
Ryan: My name's Ryan, I play guitar and I sing for Sleeping at Last, and I am 20.
Chad: Almost 21. 21 this month.
Ryan: Yeah, almost 21.
Trae: Wow. I figured for sure you'd be older than me.
Ryan: Oh really? How old are you?
Trae: I'm 21.
Ryan: Oh, okay. Well, you beat me.
Trae: How long has Sleeping at Last been around and how did it all start?
Ryan: I think we've been around for about... we always have a problem trying to figure out exactly... but I think it's been about five and a half years, I'd say.
Chad: A little more than five and a half years.
Ryan: We've been under the name Sleeping at Last for, I'd say, four years.
Chad: No, we've been under the name Sleeping at Last for five and a half years.
Ryan: I mean, because it was 2000 (he pauses)... Okay, see that's where the discrepancy arises. Basically I was in a couple of local bands and just nothing really worked out and my brother started playing drums in replacement of a drummer I had before and we met Dan a couple months later and he joined right after that. Dan had been in a couple other local bands too. It just started out as something we all wanted to do and... we've all really been serious about it, but you have to just start it with it being fun so... we're young.
Trae: So, you're all from Chicago?
Chad: Just outside of Chicago. In Wheaton, Illinois which is 45 minutes from Chicago.
Ryan: Yeah, Chad and I are brothers and then Dan lives like five minutes away from our house.
Trae: I know that you signed with a pretty big record label a couple of years ago. If you could just tell the story of how that came about...
Ryan: Yeah, we started out just playing in coffee houses and stuff like that for anyone that would listen to us and book us. We started playing at bars in the city in Chicago and a place called The Metro kind of took us under their wing and gave us a lot of shows, which was a goal of ours to play there. So basically by playing in the city quite a bit we got a couple labels interested in us a few years after we started. And then we were playing a show at The Metro and Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins was there hanging out because he got invited by the owner of the club. He didn't catch our set, but we just gave him a CD because we're fans and he called us the next day and told us that he liked it and wanted to know if we wanted to work with him. And since then he was just an encouragement to us. I think he knew that by encouraging us, in how much we respected him, that just pushed us to want to do more and work harder. So by having him involved that just created more of a buzz with the other labels and everyone took a little more notice. Interscope actually came about from... (Ryan looks over at Dan and Chad). What were you guys going to say?
Chad: What? Oh, nothing, I was just looking over there (He points at a truck passing by).
Ryan: Oh. Anyway, Interscope came around from the owner of The Metro calling the label and telling them, "You should check out this band." So they flew to our house and saw us on our basement.
Chad: Yeah, it's pretty interesting because we did a label showcase out in LA and got flown out there and stayed in a hotel and they paid for everything. And we did the scary thing that all the bands talk about which is playing in front of a record executive where they sit in the chair and just look at you and write down things, so that was a scary experience. But this was completely different when he came over to our house and just saw us in the basement. We weren't really sure what to think.
Ryan: We thought he didn't like us at all because of his responses. Because after every song he was just like, "Yeah, that was pretty good." Totally like, "Why am I here?"
Chad: And just I think like a week or so later they started to draw up the contract and we started negotiations with the record label. And... how long did it take after that?
Ryan: It took like six months.
Chad: Yeah, people don't realize that it takes a long time to negotiate.
Dan: If you want a good contract.
Dan: If you don't, then just sign right away.
Ryan: Otherwise it just takes about a week.
Dan: They'll be happy to send them overnight.
Chad: So yeah, now we've been on Interscope for two...
Dan: Two and a half years?
Chad: Well, we don't really know.
Ryan: We're not really good at keeping track of time if you haven't noticed.
Chad: We don't know what day of the week it is.
Dan: It just flies by.
Ryan: It really does.
Trae: Was there ever any question of which label you would sign to?
Ryan: Yeah, as we were growing up I think we all had little goals of different labels we thought were really cool, but the reason we chose Interscope was that they just seemed more about music and they got what we were doing and that's why we chose them. But I don't know if earlier there were any specific labels we wanted to sign to. Just generally... most labels. We just wanted a contract. But as we got older we realized that might not be the greatest idea until we found the right one.
Chad: Yeah, you learn things as you go and there were a lot of other record labels that we talked with and different bands and you learn how things are done and I think you grow with every little piece of knowledge that you get.
Trae: From listening to the
album it feels like they gave you a lot of artistic liberty. From a bigger
record label you don't necessarily expect to find something with this level
Ryan: Yeah, that's part of our deal and a big part of why we signed with them is because they really trust us and have nothing but encouragement to give us to do what we want to do. We had a pretty big vision of what we wanted to accomplish and it took awhile to do it, but they were really happy with what we wanted.
Chad: And we were very happy with how it turned out too.
Ryan: Yeah, because you hear all the horror stories of bands having to change their songs or even change their style because of their label, but they've really supported what we're doing.
Trae: What changes came about between Capture and Ghosts? Did you do anything differently in making the two albums?
Ryan: Yeah, I think there's
definitely a huge difference. With Capture, that was pretty much the ground
where we all learned what we wanted to do and what we wanted to accomplish
with our instruments and that's where I learned what my voice was supposed
to sound like and not just go in there be like, "Okay, that's what I've
got." We really worked hard on that one and we worked with some friends
who we grew up in Wheaton with us and they were just incredible songwriters.
They recorded us and were just really
Trae: (to Chad and Dan) Anything you want to add on that?
Chad: No, that's good.
Ryan: So that's my speech on recording our records.
Trae: It was a good speech.
Trae: Who are the bands that you would say have influenced you the most?
Dan: These are the questions where we're like, "Good, answers that we know."
Ryan: We could each probably say.
Chad: Definitely Radiohead.
Ryan: Yeah, definitely Radiohead and Sunny Day Real Estate, we all grew up with that.
Dan: The Beatles and U2 were
the two bands that made me want to play music. I discovered some old Beatles
records in my mom's old record collection and started listening to
Chad: And that was last week.
Dan: That was when I was like 12 or 13. That just got me into music in general so they were definitely a big inspirational influence.
Ryan: I think Bjork in the last three or four years for all of us has become a big inspiration too.
Trae: Were you into The Smashing Pumpkins before?
Ryan: Yeah, we grew up with them. I was definitely an on and off... well, first of all, my parents wouldn't let me buy their records so that definitely put a stop to supporting them. Which is funny because we all met them and it's just a weird coincidence. But I started playing music off of that whole alternative rock scene with The Smashing Pumpkins and all that kind of stuff, so I was really kind of on the latter end of that.
Trae: One of the really interesting things I see about the band is it seems kind of like a big family endeavor.
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely.
Chad: And Dan is definitely part of our family now.
Ryan: Yeah, we forced him.
Chad: He's in and he can't leave.
Ryan: Chad and my mom is our manager and she's been there from the beginning just supporting us in what we want to do. It's nice for us because a lot of bands when they tour they have to leave their homes back at home and that can be pretty tough, but we've been lucky enough to be able to bring pretty much everyone we're close to with us. So like our girlfriends and our mom because she's our manager slash tour manager. But yeah, that's been good and it's definitely in the family.
Trae: So you don't have to have jobs outside of Sleeping at Last.
Chad: Nope, this is it. Aside from our soon to be t-shirt company since we have so many t-shirts now.
Trae: Awesome t-shirts too, I might add.
Chad: Oh, thank you.
Ryan: Yeah, Chad and Dan both had jobs before Interscope asked us to quit and focus full time on music but we pretty much did that anyway when the times they weren't rehearsing they were working. I both gladly and sadly never had a job. I was happy, but it's sad when you kinda think about that I've never had a real job.
Trae: That's pretty awesome. It's every kid's dream.
Ryan: But yeah, this is my first job.
Trae: One of the interesting things about seeing you play live is that most bands with a sound as rich and full as you have like five band members and yet you pull it off with just three people.
Ryan: Thank you very much.
Trae: Did you ever think about adding more members to the band or how did you decide to become a three-piece?
Ryan: We had a fourth member a long time ago, like four years ago, and he left the band so then we just kind of had to adapt as a three-piece. We ended up really liking it and wanting to push ourselves further as we kept adding keyboards and different stuff that we switch on and off to. So yeah, it's been nice.
Trae: That's one thing, as you're watching you notice everyone always has something to do. No one is just sitting back and...
Chad: Yeah. I think that's what we all like about it. We definitely enjoy the challenge of it.
Dan: It's definitely a challenge.
Chad: It's easy to just play a couple chords on the guitar, you know.
Dan: Yeah, I think it's easy to hide behind other people and when you have five people it's a lot easier to... I don't know.
Ryan: I think eventually when we tour more and things become more established, we'd like to add a couple of paid musicians to do things like... we've had a string quartet before come and play in Chicago and that was amazing. So I think if we ever could afford and have the option to do that, we would definitely take that opportunity.
Trae: It's cool seeing a bass player play keyboards also.
Dan: Thank you.
Trae: What process do you go through in creating the songs?
Ryan: Basically, I write the songs on an acoustic guitar and it's always different. Sometimes I have an exact idea of where I want the song to go and I bring it to the band and we work on it really hard to make it a song. Other times I have like three parts that we arrange together or a bunch of parts that we arrange together. So that's kind of how the process starts. On an acoustic guitar and then we just figure out where we want to go with it.
Chad: And all your lyrics start on a typewriter.
Ryan: Yeah. The lyrics I develop separately from the music. Sometimes it comes together, but that's a rare package. I wish it came often...
Trae: Which comes first?
Ryan: You know, it's always different. Basically what I do with lyrics is just sit down at a typewriter and write something that I like whether it's just one word or something like that and I'll write different lines, blah, blah, blah. And sometimes I'll write the entire song based off that and I'll write the music after it. Or other times I'll take different lyrics from different spots and kind of fuse them together to say what I'm trying to say. And sometimes I'll write the music first and I'll just have lyrics that match it. It's always different. I wish there was just one way to do it, but...
Trae: Well, if it works, it works.
Ryan: Yeah, exactly. It takes a long time, but it's fun. It's the challenge of it too.
Trae: What is it in songwriting that influences or inspires you to write the way that you do?
Ryan: You know, lots of things... I think a lot of movies. I always get excited when I watch a really good movie. And it's usually just thinking a lot, being on the road in the van and sitting in car rides for that long definitely helps you to think about other things you wouldn't normally. So it all kind of comes from everything. It's my life perspective, I guess. Obviously faith and love and that stuff, it goes without saying.
Trae: One of the really special things about the album is that the songs are very visual.
Ryan: Thank you.
Trae: When I listen to "Trees" it's like there's this mental picture that I get in my head. And that's one of the things that I was going to ask you about, if that was shaped by film, but you've kind of already answered that.
Ryan: Yeah, it is. I love
movies and I think my love for movies has become a lot stronger probably
since the band started. You know, I always liked movies, who doesn't? But
yeah, the lyrics are always really visual to me but I never know how they're
going to translate to other people. And that's what I like about songwriting.
You can write something that's really specific in what it means to you
and you can completely nail it on the head with the things you're trying
to say and then someone else can hear it and it's totally
Trae: It's really interesting because filmmaking is what I'm really interested in and in screenwriting before I even begin to write I'll find a bunch of songs that fit the mood of what I want to write. So it's like music is what inspires me in film and the opposite for you.
Ryan: That's cool.
Trae: You talked earlier about how faith and love are important themes in your music. Can you explain how you see the relationship between your faith and your artistry?
Ryan: It's all really natural. I never sit down and say, "I need a really powerful Christian song." It's always been my perspective and it's just kind of natural. I never really set out to write a certain way or whatever.
Dan: I think it was here at Cornerstone a couple of years ago I heard David from Pedro the Lion talking about some of his songwriting and he said that you can't force yourself to write about something. Like you can't say, "I'm gonna write a song about a fish" and then write a song about a fish. You have to just let whatever comes out come out and I think that's what Ryan does and that's what works best. Because then what's coming out is sincere, truthful, and honest. And I think people connect to his honesty and sincerity.
Ryan: Right. Yeah, definitely when I was younger and writing the Capture lyrics, well actually before Capture lyrics, it was that kind of way. It was like, "It would be cool if I wrote a song about this" and then I'd try to write it and force it and like he was saying, you can't just say you want to write a song like that. Now what I do is just sitting at a typewriter and seeing it, having mental pictures in my head, just describing that is where it comes from. I have no idea what it's going to be when I sit down and write. I know that there's stuff I like and I know that there's stuff I don't like.
Trae: What challenges have you faced as a band and how have you overcome those challenges?
Ryan: We've definitely had a roller coaster since we've been together.
Chad: Which I think has brought us closer together as a band too. You always go through ups and downs and I think we've learned through talking with other bands and from our own experiences that these are normal in every band. The fear of people not enjoying your music or just little things like people not showing up or things like that. There's all kinds of things that go up and down with a band.
Ryan: Yeah, that's the one thing about anything artistic. It's the easiest thing in the entire planet to get distracted on what doesn't matter. All that stuff is gonna make you stressed out and disintegrate everything that made you creative in the first place, which is creating something you love and doing it just because it's fun. So all of that stuff is hard to maintain when you're recording or you've been in the band for awhile because there are all these things that you shouldn't be focusing on that are just begging for your attention. So it's really hard. It's definitely a natural thing that lots of bands go through. But that's the big thing we have to think about: what's really important and what's not important. So what he was saying like worrying about how many people are gonna come to a show or worrying about how much the record is selling...
Chad: Yeah, it shouldn't be about that.
Ryan: Or are we going to be able to write the next record. Are we going to be able to come up with...
Chad: There's like a giant spider on the table.
Our attention is diverted to a spider crawling on the table only inches away from us.
Dan: Whoa. That is awesome and it looks like it's going to kill.
Chad tries to brush it away with a bottle that was on the table, but the spider climbs onto the bottle. Instead, Chad throws the bottle on the ground. Everyone laughs.
Chad: Okay, for the folks at home, that spider was huge. Now it's in the grass.
Dan: We'll be walking along and it will jump on our feet.
Ryan: Or our ankles.
Chad: I think you can get very distracted...
Ryan: By spiders. You can get very distracted because there's lots of spiders out there begging for your attention. I mean here we are doing an interview when there's a big spider coming to eat us. But that's not what we should focus on.
Chad: You just gotta get rid of the spider and keep going.
Ryan: Like we're doing now.
Trae: There's definitely a lesson in that. What future plans do you have for albums and tours?
Ryan: I think we have two tours that are being figured out right now that are in confirming stages. So we're definitely going to be touring as much as possible from now until we go into the studio again which is we hope next year.
Chad: We're thinking.
Ryan: But we don't even want to say that because if you put a date on anything or make a time period, it doesn't happen. I know our goal as a band is just to keep making the music that we love and do it as long as we can and just keep growing with each record. And most importantly to make music that means something to other people as well as to ourselves. And to stay away from the spiders.
Trae: In your live show, it's easy to tell that this is music that means a whole lot to you just from watching you play. What kind of thoughts go through your head as you're playing?
Ryan: Well, it depends...
Chad: "Do I look like an idiot?"
Ryan: That's definitely a priority. Or, "Oh man, I'm sweating a lot. I hope I'm not blinding anyone in the front row." Or, "I think I just spit on that girl's face." Stuff like that is always floating around. But like you said, the songs do really mean a lot to us and I think we play a lot off of whether people are enjoying it or not.
Chad: Yeah, definitely.
Ryan: Because if no one else is enjoying it, it's a struggle to enjoy yourself. It's like "Oh, we do stink? Oh man, we stink." But it's weird, the thought process while we're playing because if we think about playing our parts and stuff, then we screw up.
Chad: We try to just think about everything else.
Dan: We think about, "What am I going to ask for for Christmas?"
Chad: Or, "What am I going to eat tonight?"
Ryan: "I'm real hungry." Stuff like that.
We all laugh.
Ryan: Inside the minds of a rock band.
Chad: But yeah, I think a lot of it is feeding off of the crowd. Hopefully they get into it from seeing us play and it's great. I love playing in front of people and just having fun and just enjoying every show.
Ryan: Yeah, I think Dan's always said, which is true, that recording is one thing and then when we play the shows that's like the reward for the recording because then we get people's responses to all of the songs.
Chad: And that's right in front of you.
Dan: Instant gratification.
Trae: I really, really enjoyed the show last night.
Ryan: Thank you so much. And thank you for doing this interview.
Trae: How did you feel about audience response last night?
Ryan: Oh, we were so, so excited. Blindside was playing at the exact same time so we were like, "Oh, no one's gonna be there." But this has definitely been our biggest turn out at Cornerstone which has been a huge difference. We were excited this year because it is the first time we've had Ghosts the record to sell. Last year we played and it came out like two months after. We definitely felt very blessed to have people show up and a lot of people knew the lyrics which always means a lot to us. It's usually surprising because we don't always get that.
Dan: Really over the past year we've been doing a lot of opening slots on different tours and stuff and you're playing for a new audience every time. It's like you're fighting to win them over every time. And then last night, or anytime we play for people who have just come to see us, it's a lot more fun. It's a lot more relaxing and you don't have to worry about it because you know that they came to support you and hear the songs.
Chad: It definitely means a lot to us.
Trae: Okay, well I think that's everything I have.
Ryan: Okay, great. Thank you so much for doing this interview.
Trae: Thank you guys, I really enjoyed it.
We sat around and talked
for a little longer about movies and music before getting kicked out of
the artist hospitality tent. We joked that maybe it was supposed to be
called the "anti-hospitality" tent and they got the name mixed up. I said
goodbye to the guys and took off for the next event in my busy Cornerstone
schedule. After listening to a brilliant record, there's always a little
fear in getting to know the people who made it that maybe getting to know
them will in some way taint your opinion of the music they make. That certainly
was not the case with Sleeping at Last. They are all incredibly kind, down
to earth guys and it was a pleasure getting to know them. I can't wait
to see what the future holds for them.