Having formed from the remnants of a number of defunct local bands, Sleep Thieves first caught State’s attention supporting Midori Hirano in early 2009, a gig the band had the initiative to set up themselves by reaching out to Hirano’s management. It was a move typical of the Dubliners, who have been working their way up through the ranks ever since, promoting their subtle brand of electro through a combination of hard graft and well-earned local knowledge.
The ‘Thieves have been working so hard, in fact, that when State took the chance to catch up with them, we found the three-piece glued to their instruments in their Temple Bar practice room on St Patrick’s day, ignoring the mayhem unfolding all around them and preparing for their biggest date so far. Sleep Thieves headline slot at Whelan’s this coming Wednesday will be something of a breakthrough for the band, marking their arrival amongst the upper echelon of local acts. Singer Sorcha jokes ‘we might play to an empty room’, a concern that seems only half tongue-in-cheek. Given the series of stunning performance the trio have reeled out upstairs in the same venue, though, there’s little doubt they’ll perform. Much as they did in interview, taking each question and running with it until we had an entire lengthy story on the band themselves, the Dublin music scene and making it on your own to recount to you. Here are the (heavily edited) highlights:
According to your MySpace page, you all met through a newspaper ad. Did you not know each other at all before that?
No, we didn’t. Obviously we romanticized that, at least the bit about the tea. It was an ad on the Thumped music message board, when Butterfly Explosion had just broken up. They’ll be copies of the original ads on the bootleg series (laughs). It just worked, we had lots of songs straight away. Things had never worked like that before, where a full song just clicked straight away and we thought it could be something. The first songs that we wrote are the ones that we put on the EP. There was no pain or blood in it. We didn’t have rehearsal rooms so we just took turns going to each other’s houses. It was weird, because we didn’t know each other, yet that helped. Lyrically, it made us comfortable that we didn’t have any judgment, we didn’t know anything about each other’s lives. We could just try anything and see what happened. We were able to be both supportive and honest. We became friends really quickly and we actually had a lot of fun. We had this mad set up with keyboards just on the couch and stuff. That’s where a lot of the swapping instruments came from.
Was being in your old bands and important part of your progress?
In terms of contacts and knowhow, definitely. It’s a lot about knowing how to conduct yourself, and what needs to be done when. Contacting people, booking gigs, knowing how to put out an EP or a single… it’s almost easier when you first form a band, as you can say ‘this is my new band’ and people check you out, and know who you are from before. But we’re finding it harder now to do the press stuff. You don’t want to have to spend hours on the Internet every night emailing people, you just want them to hear your music. We really believe in this band, and we really want people to hear it, but actually getting out there is really hard. We don’t like approaching our friends and saying ‘can you do this for us’, either. When it was just a contact name on the end of an email it was a lot easier, but it has to be done. You have to be a musician and a businessman. The days of playing gig after gig and hoping Mr. big from Sony’s in the crowd and will come by afterwards and offer you a contract are gone. There are a million roads, and fitting it all in to actually being creative is difficult, making things like the video, and a regular stream of new tracks…
Was that video shot at two in the morning or something? There are amazingly few people in it…
Actually that’s about one o’ clock on a Saturday night. Derek couldn’t make it to the second shoot, as he got stuck working at the rugby, and there were supposed to be all these people helping out, but they didn’t turn up either. So it ended up being Wayne’s girlfriend doing the makeup, and Killian the director. But we didn’t want one of those story-based videos, as after you’ve seen them once you know what happens, and you just don’t go back to them. As a first video, it’s a good introduction to what we are. There are a lot of outtakes that are quite funny.
It’s been quite a while since the EP ‘It Was Only A Satellite’ was released. What’s changed since then?
The EP was quite lo-fi. We didn’t think it was at the time, but if we were making an album it would be much more in your face. We’ve got louder and a little bit dancier. We don’t really allow ourselves to stop writing in a certain vein, so if it’s going to be rocky or going to be dancey, we just go along with that. But maybe we’ve got a little bit more confident in our vocals. A lot of the time people will write a whole new song of music and the vocals will just be sat on top of it. We’re trying to get the vocals a bit more intricate. We did that more at the beginning. With songs like ‘Exit’, we messed around with a lot of vocoder, that’s something we’re trying to get back into. Another thing with the new stuff is it’s a little bit barer, there aren’t so many different layers, it’s just the instruments you see on stage. If anything it’s a little more energetic for that.
Is it easier to play live?
It is easier to play live. But the thing with a young band is if someone sees you today and sees you again in a month’s time and you play all the same songs… you can get away with that if you’re a big band playing the hits, but as a new band you have to keep adding to the set. We’re trying to think more about the live show. Having keyboards is like a barrier. We’re not one of those bands that can move freely, and to make it feel live and exciting we have to think about improving the lighting and visuals. It doesn’t work for Whelan’s, but we’re trying to be a bit more focused on how it will feel live. We might have a bit more of a party vibe to the lighting. We want to be a pop band, in the sense that the music’s upbeat and dancey. It’s not going to be throwaway, but enjoyable. There are a lot of bands that are all about creating one big atmosphere. We’re more about having songs that you can go away and listen to separately and still enjoy.
What do you think of the Dublin music scene right now?
Well obviously we don’t want to criticize anyone because they’re our contemporaries, but we genuinely think it’s great. There’s so much choice. Ten years ago you were a singer songwriter or you were nothing. That was it. Now we have all these young promoters – club AC30, Clockwork Apple, Yours Truly, Hefty Horse – there’s a lot of space for different types of bands. Even five or six years ago it was really hard to get a gig. It’s really positive. Take Cast Of Cheers. They just came out of nowhere. They’re a great example of what the Richter Collective do for Irish music. We’d love to be working with other Irish bands. We have loads of connections in a way, but we’d love to do something experimental and electronic. We’re at a small loss as to how that actually works. But people are so supportive of each other these days, we had so much help from total strangers when we launched the EP.
What does the future hold for you guys, in terms of albums etc?
Well, you have to constantly put new things out to keep people interested. It’s a scary thing when you’re looking to make an album, to have the confidence to go away and know that when people come back they’ll want to hear it. You have to get the balance between writing an album that people want to hear and keeping people’s attention in the meantime. It’s a weird time for electronic bands, too. We started in 2008 and in about January last year all these electronic bands turned up with women fronting them. It’s great, but especially the English press is already getting sick of them. If you’re good enough, though, it doesn’t matter. Like Cast Of Cheers. This interview might turn into the Cast Of Cheers fanpage…
Are you tempted to follow their ‘free download’ model?
There are a lot of advantages. Our first EP wasn’t free, but within two weeks it was on every file-sharing site. For Cast Of Cheers, people went to see them play live and then came back and typed them into Google and found they could download an entire album for free. Downloading is stealing, but it’s also promotional, and you have to look at it that way. The MySpace thing is a bit false, though. If you have an office job, you can just let your songs play all day every day, keep refreshing, and you can have 100,000 plays in a year, and you create an illusion that you’re massive. Last.fm’s good as a barometer. It shows particular people listening to the tracks, and we have no idea where they hear of us from. We really would consider putting the album up for free, but maybe sell it too, with amazing artwork or some extras or something, to persuade people to still buy it. It seems a shame to focus too much on digital. My dad gave me his record collection, I don’t want to be handing down my external hard drive!
Were you tempted to go to SXSW?
Our drummer was invited at the last minute, and Sorcha went with Butterfly Explosion a few years ago. If we had an album to promote, we’d love to go. Our drummer didn’t get to either; remember to renew your passport if you might get to play a gig in Texas!
Is the Whelan’s gig something of a landmark for Sleep Thieves?
Yeah it kind of is. We originally booked upstairs, but we decided to step it up. There’s a sense of security upstairs, we’ve done loads of gigs up there and it’s great. If you have thirty people up there dancing, that’s a great gig. But stepping onto Whelan’s stage to headline, if you look down and there’s tumbleweed blowing across, that is horrible. We’re hoping that people will turn up, every so often even great bands play to very few people in there. We’re just hoping it’s not one of those nights. Even if it is like that, the people who come deserve a good show. We’ll be going for it regardless.
Sleep Thieves play their first ever Whelan’s main room headline show on the 24th of March 2010.
As published in State Magazine, March 2010. Click here to view original.