A Q&A with Sleepers Work a.k.a. William Flynn

Back in October, I was in Frankfurt am Main, Germany for the Frankfurt Book Fair. And practically as soon as i got of the plane at JFK, I was covering several showcases at CMJ and meeting PR folks I’ve worked with through email for quite some time in person. Unfortunately for me, I was sick the entire time i had come back and by that Saturday afternoon I started to sound a bit like Harvey Fierstein. But with an extremely hoarse voice, i went to a party that the folks at Team Clermont PR were hosting at Barcade off Union Avenue in Williamsburg. And while there, drinking several craft beers, i was introduced to William Flynn, who writes, performs and records under the moniker of Sleepers Work

Although Flynn has been a professional musician for quite some time, working with the likes of St. Vincent, Acrylics, Aufgang and the PrigsNo Turn Before the Shoreline is Flynn’s debut solo effort. Originally started back in 2002, the material on the album is the product of over a decade’s worth of listening, collection, splicing, combing in and synthesizing sounds  from a variety of sources including his sister Catherine’s songs, bass lines from another artist’s song he had worked on, bits of saxophone from his dear friend Matt Silberman improvising and other ephemera. Sonically, the evokes the sensation of a somnambulant dream logic – a sort of hazy, fever dream in which things seem to come out of the shadows to haunt and torment or to whisper sweet nothings in your ears. The songs are moody, of course but they also have the sort of beauty that comes from late night, lonely wanderings. And that thoughtful romanticism is felt throughout all of the tracks. Or in the case of Flynn, late night bike rides in Venice, CA and walks through NYC with headphones on.

Speaking of headphones, you should listen to No Turn Before the Shoreline through a good pair of headphones or through a good stereo system. The material is dense but incredibly nuanced with samples seeming to come out of weird angles from the ether, and repeated listens reveal greater levels of nuance and depth. 

I recently spoke to the extremely thoughtful Flynn via email in this edition of the Q&A about his creative process, his influences, his time with St. Vincent and other projects and his thoughts on the music industry. I have a sense that if he were to write a book about his experience as a professional recording artist, i’d love to read it. 

Check it out below …

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Photo Credit: William Flynn

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know it was your calling?

William Flynn: Music is something that has just always been there in my life. There is a long tradition of music and gathering in my family – my great-grandfathers became friends over music and would host parties every Sunday at one of their homes in Yonkers where family and friends would get together and eat, drink, sing vaudeville era songs from the 20s. My grandparents met because of that and the music was passed on. 

My father plays guitar and has an amazing record collection that as a child I would just sift through, being around him opened my ears to so many different songs and eras of music before I could even comprehend what it all was. I’m not sure if there was a specific moment where I knew it was my calling, but I knew from early on that I enjoyed music on a very deep level. It gave me enjoyment and daydreams like nothing else. Also the sense of learning and accomplishing new things was something inspiring to me. 

WRH: Who are you listening to now? 

WF: Right now, I have been listening to Jessy Lanza, John Wizards, Big Audio Dynamite, Steely Dan, Crass, some random house mixes now and then. But I am totally in a loop of just wanting to listen to those first artists I mentioned.  

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

WF: I think it’s mellow, sort of minimal, but with a groove. A few times I tried to really push certain directions when writing the album, but it would always veer back to that sort of quiet, subtle back beat place. I just hope it can help people relax, or help them embellish the moments or tasks they are a part of while listening. 

WRH: The material on the album manages to evoke the sensation of a sort of somnambulant, dream logic. It’s quite fitting for the project’s name. What inspired it?  

WF: Those are truly nice words and descriptions, thanks for that. The project’s name is one of many names I have had in my head for years. I couldn’t say exactly the moment I thought of it, but simply I thought the combination of those words is elegant and reflect my relationship with not sleeping much at night. 

Musically, I think tracks like Tortoise’s “Night Air”, Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”, a lot of Sade stuff, some of the more ambient Aphex Twin and Squarepusher tracks, “Sean Flynn” by the Clash, etc. Those I would cite as direct influences to a “sound” that I am drawn towards. I do love most types of music at all speeds and depths, but a lot of those tracks I just mentioned have just hit something in my brain and in my soul that says “this music is from another place, a deep and thoughtful place, and I want to see more of it." 

Beyond music, I get inspiration from so many other sources. Strangers, loved ones, places I have traveled or would like to, they all play a part. I was living in Venice CA when I did the majority of the mixing for this. I rode my bike allot at night by the water, thinking about life back in NY, but also embracing the insane views of the Pacific I was looking at every day and especially at night. It’s tough to define all the inspiration, but it’s from many places. 

WRH: I’ve listened to the album a number of times and every time I catch an additional layer of nuance such as a vocal sample seeming to float in and quickly out of the ether; a melody or a theme i hadn’t noticed earlier. It left me wondering a couple of things – first how does the songwriting process work for you? Did you have fully-fleshed out material as you were hitting the studio or did you have a loose idea and expanded upon it? When did you know that you had a finished song – or not?

WF: The process was very loose. I hear ideas in my head all the time, but typically that is not where I start. The way I have found works the best for me (where I get my best ideas, have the most fun, am most efficient) is to treat writing like making a puzzle or making a collage from magazine cutouts. I had a ton of recordings that ranged from demos I recorded of my sister Catherine’s original songs; sessions where I had just recorded a bass track for someone else’s song. I had asked my friend Matt Silberman who is a saxophonist to just send me a few minutes of him just improvising, and a number of other sources within this same context. So then I just have this scrapbook of sound set up, I randomly pick a sample or recording, and start messing with the pitch, the timing, add some FX, etc. Then I just repeat, layer after layer, finding themes, harmonies etc. Usually I end up with something pretty busy. So from there I start taking pieces away, or having things happen less frequently, Sometimes then I hear an element, or sound I want to add so I work to create that, other times I just keep adding and experimenting until something sticks. Some tracks I know right away when I’m done, others I listen to over and over again, especially in headphones while walking. It’s a big challenge for musicians, writers, and I feel all artists to know when they are done, I think it’s something we all have to develop and work on more than the art itself at times.

WRH: You’ve been around for a while – you’ve worked with St. Vincent and others, and have worked on the Sleepers Work project for some time. So you’ve probably seen the industry from a variety of roles. What advice would you give for artists trying to make a name for themselves? Is there anything that you’d do over?

WF: Yeah, I’d say I have been working on this project since 2002. I was in music school at the time, studying bass and music therapy and I started getting into working with different software. I would sit at the work stations and just make noise or whatever trying to learn how it all worked and would record down the sounds or tracks to tape then use these tapes as my soundtrack for getting around the city. I continued to experiment and make tracks for years but never really finishing anything. I toured a lot and focused my attention on other bands but I was always plugging away. It took a long time for me to just sit down and go "ok need to make and finish an album now” and I have to thank Anthony LaMarca and Oren Kessler at Primary Records big time for helping me focus on making the album. They approached me to create some tracks based only on weird mix tapes I made that Anthony had heard. It helped me create a goal and finally finish a bunch of the material. Now that it’s done I want to remix people more. I would love to make the next album just remixes of other peoples songs. But we will see.  

Yeah, I have seen music from a bunch of different roles and I am so grateful for that. I feel at this point I could write a book. It would be harsh and critical at times but also extremely hopeful and positive for all that music can bring. 

Advice… that’s tough… There are so many roads you can go down when trying to establish or simply continue your career in music. What has personally helped me is to be diverse with the ways that I can work with music. Playing in different groups of various styles, using music along with other mediums such as film or dance, not being afraid to find ways your talent can support you, even if that is playing in a seafood restaurant or on the streets or trying to write a jingle … Having that openness keeps me inspired and perhaps less frustrated than if I put 100% into just one thing. I’d say try your best to put close to 100% into a lot of things, be careful with your expectations, and appreciate all that you have already accomplished to help push you forward.  I wish I could say, “you don’t need money to be successful” and sometimes people are lucky and don’t, but typically, you need some funding to print your albums, use studios, pay musicians working for you, travel expenses, gear, publicity, etc. etc. Playing shows, side-man gigs, and album sales don’t unfortunately cover a lot of that if any on top of rent and food, so you need to be creative in funding yourself and using said funding wisely. I’m still figuring it all out though too, I think everyone is. It’s an extremely malleable business with a lot of people on many different sides, creatives, critics, managers, booking agents, promoters, [and] venue owners. Some are great people and want the community to flourish and great artists to be heard, others can be very selfish and act solely on leverage for themselves and their personal wealth or reputation. It’s so deep, and even though I feel I have a decent grasp on the various ways it can all work and go down, it just has so many layers and so many players involved. Overall I’m going to just have to quote my man Bill S. Preston, Esquire and say “Be Excellent To Each Other." 

Music is awesome, art is awesome, movies, books, food, beer– all awesome… The fact we are alive is awesome.

We should all just appreciate what good we can create and witness in whatever medium.

I don’t like how music can become such a product or a competition while losing the main points such as expression and enjoyment, healing, and relating. 

Anything I would do over, I wish I had access or known how to access certain resources earlier on. I think all of us in life have moments we would have like to have changed, but instead of looking back, I try my best to change those moments now when they are happening. 

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