A Q&A with Sleepyhead’s Chris O’Rourke

The West Roxbury, MA-based trio Sleepyhead formed 25 years ago in a basement room at the Brittany Dorms on the NYU campus. Their original lineup, which was comprised of founding members, Rachael McNally (drums/vocals) and Chris O’Rourke (guitar, vocals), along with Mike Galinksy (bass) released their first 7” “Play” in 1991 and promptly followed that with the release of four full-lengths, Punk Rock City, USA (1993), Starduster (1994), Communist Love Songs (1996) and The Brighter Shore (1999) on three different indie labels, including Slumberland Records. And during that period they toured with the likes of Yo La TengoLunathe Magnetic Fields and others. 

Around the time the band was working on the material that would appear on their 1999 release, The Brighter Shore, the band’s founding members Rachael McNally and Chris O’Rourke got married, and Mike Galinsky left the band to pursue a career in filmmaking. McNally and O’Rourke had their first child and relocated to Boston and Dan Cuddy, of the Special Pillow and Hypnolovewheel was recruited to replace Galinksy. Naturally, with a new member, the band went through shift in their sound and songwriting process – a shift that continued after Cuddy left and was later replaced by bassist/vocalist and keyboardist Derek Van Beever, who has been with the band since 2004. 

Over the past decade or so, the members of Sleepyhead have managed the difficult tightrope of having families and careers with being musicians – in particular, Chris O’Rourke, the subject of this Q&A is a fourth grade teacher. And the material that appears on the band’s recently released full-length album, Wild Sometimes is particularly wistful as it largely focuses on very adult concerns – the difficult balance we all make between our passions, our responsibilities and our obligations; the fear of getting old before we’re ready to accept it; and in a hopeful sense, the material suggests that even as we get older, we can still be cool in our own way. 

The album’s first single “Liberation Theology” should bring you back to the early 90s and catching videos on MTV’120 Minutes as the song bears a resemblance to both the Breeders and the Pixies — think of “Here Comes Your Man,“ thanks to the jangling guitars, pretty harmonizing between O’Rourke and McNally and a breezy feel that belies some rather thoughtful lyrics. However, a great deal of the album sounds heavily inspired by 70s rock, thanks to the addition of the Wurlitzer organ and the thoughtfulness of the album’s lyrics. Honestly, I think it may be the band’s most adult and yet most accessible albums to date. 

I recently spoke with Sleepyhead’s Chris O’Rourke about the new album, how it is to write, record and tour with his spouse, how they’ve been able to maintain a more than 25 year music career, and much more. And O’Rourke offers some simple but very profound advice for artists trying to make a name for themselves. 

Check it out below. 

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

Chris O’Rourke: I got into the rock music in junior high and early high school (1983-84 or so). John MacLean (aka DFA artist The Juan MacLean) has been a friend of mine since forever, and he helped start me down the righteous path towards great music. His parents were friends of my parents on Cape Cod from the time I was pretty much a baby, and we have stayed close over all these years. He is a few years older than me, and he turned me on to a lot of great music at a young age. We saw X together in Boston when I was in 8th or 9th grade, and REM not too long after that. After those two amazing shows, I wanted to see and hear more and more live bands. I even jammed with an early version of Six Finger Satellite a bunch of times when I was still in high school on Cape Cod. That really really really got me excited about starting my own band. At first, I was into what seemed to me at the time to be "underground” music such as The ReplacementsfIREHOSE  Husker Du, REM, The ZulusNew Order, The CureEcho and The Bunnymen, The SmithsThe Psychedelic FursU2Joy DivisionDead KennedysSex PistolsThe Clash, etc. since those bands were not well known at all by many other kids in my school on Cape Cod. I felt like I had discovered something truly amazing, and I started to really deeply connect with music as a fan. I also really connected with the small group of kids in my school who were into that kind of music. I also started playing guitar (after learning piano and later saxophone as a younger kid.) Later on it was Sonic YouthDinosaur Jr.My Bloody Valentine. (I remember John giving me a cassette tape of Evol that absolutely BLEW MY MIND as I listened on my walkman in the back of my parents Datsun as we drove back to the Cape from his house. (By then he lived closer to Boston.) When I moved from Cape Cod to Manhattan to go to college at NYU in the fall of 1988, I got the chance to see more great bands than I ever could have dreamed of when I was living on the Cape.

WRH: Who are your influences?  

CO: This changes from time to time, but the bands that really inspired me to start Sleepyhead were The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, fIREHOSE (I love the Minutemen, too, but I was a little young and d. boon was already gone when I first heard them), Husker Du, The Meat PuppetsThe NeighborhoodsBeat HappeningFugazi, and the list goes on. Sleepyhead was especially inspired by Antietam and Yo La Tengo, whom we met and became friends with very early in Sleepyhead history. They both made us feel like we could do it, too. Yo La Tengo is quite possibly my favorite band ever. We were also inspired by bands we became friendly with once we actually started playing shows like Kicking GiantVersus, Flying Saucer, Love Child, Pony, Fire in the Kitchen, and more that I’m sure will pop into my head as soon as I submit this! I also love love love Neil Young, The Flying Burrito BrothersThe StonesFleetwood Mac, and Big Star as far as the classic rock goes. We cover songs by all five of those artists quite frequently in our live sets.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

CO: I bought tickets for Rachael, myself and our 12 year old son Finn to see the Replacements on Labor Day weekend in Boston, so I’ve been listening to them a bunch lately, for the first time in a while. I was 17 when I first saw the Replacements (how did I get into that club?) and I’m so excited to see them with Finn at age 12! I also just bought tickets for Rachael and myself to see Tom Petty at Fenway Park in August, so I’ve been listening to him a bunch. As far as new stuff (as in 2014), I like the new Cloud Nothings [Here and Nowhere Else] and the Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks record [Enter the Slasher House] (especially “Little Fang,” which is such a fantastic single), and the new Wussy record is really great. Not totally new, but I really love the 2013 albums from Jason Isbell, Deerhunter, and Bill Callahan. Both of the last two Bevis Frond records are great. (We cover an older Bevis Frond song on Wild Sometimes, “That’s Why You Need Us.”) I like the new Drive-By-Truckers record [English Oceans] a lot, too, and saw them recently and they were super excellent. Also, Finn has been playing the guitar over the last year or two and he really got into the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, so I have really been loving listening to those two bands lately. It is remarkably fun to listen to great music with your kids! (He and our nine year old daughter Niamh, as well as one of Derek’s sons, Kai, are the stars of a soon to be released Sleepyhead video for “Life is Hard.”

WRH: How would you describe the band’s sound?

CO: This is one I usually would rather leave up to other people. I think we sound less “indie rock” and maybe just more classic rock/pop than we used to, but that might just be in my mind. I think the first two songs on Wild Sometimes are closer to the direction we’re moving in than the others because they are new songs, and the rest have been kicking around for a long time. We have been focusing on making the singing better since our previous record came out in 1999, so there are a lot more 3 part harmony vocals all over the new record. 

WRH: Over the years, the band has gone through a few lineup changes. Does that impact the overall sound and songwriting between a particular group of albums? 

CO: The biggest change due to a lineup change has been over the last ten years, when we started playing with Derek. He is the first bass player we’ve have who sings backup vocals, and that has really added to the sound. Also, he bought a Wurlitzer about a year ago, and has been starting to play that on a lot of songs. I think he will probably start playing some guitar live, too, so we might need to add a fourth member on bass for our live shows, at least.

WRH: How does this album differ from your previous efforts?

CO: For one, we really took our time making it. (Understatement of the year.) Mike Deming played a huge role in the production, helping us with vocal arrangements, and also pushing me to come up with better guitar arrangements. He is a really great musician as well as being a fantastic engineer. We also have a great relationship with him, and he knew he could push us hard to get the best out of us. Our feelings weren’t hurt when he said something wasn’t good enough; we just got back in there and tried again. He also played some killer Hammond Organ on a bunch of tracks. So everything is just so much more musically pleasing to me than any of our other records. Up until now, Communist Love Songs has been my favorite Sleepyhead record, with our debut being my second favorite (for different reasons), but I think this new one is by far our best. I’ve always worked hard on writing  lyrics, but I think I keep getting better at that part of it. We’ve actually been writing a bunch of new songs lately, and it is even more exciting than it’s ever been. With Derek able to add really great piano playing, and the singing being such an important part of the sound, I think we’re opening up our sound. I think we’re really playing better than we ever have before. It’s a really loose vibe, but we’re finally good enough musicians to make that sound good instead of just kinda sloppy.  One of the new ones has made it into the live set, and I think our next record is going to be very special. On the next record, Rachael will sing half the songs instead of just a few.

WRH: How is it like to write, record and tour with your spouse? Have any of your conversations or arguments or some other personal moment inspired your work? Or conversations you may have had with your kids?

Working with Rachael is great. It has always been fun to play with her. It is really fun to write lyrics for her to sing, and she has been really helpful working on the new songs, which we can do in our living room when the kids have gone to bed. She is a very good listener and can be critical without being negative, which helps me a great deal when I am working on writing new songs. Also, now that she is singing more lead vocals, she is much more interested in the lyrics being right. It sounds a little boring, but we really don’t argue much at all, so there is no inspiration there. Having a family certainly inspired this record, though. I think that’s pretty obvious in some of the lyrics such as “The Family Tree” and “Liberation Theology,” but it’s also there throughout all the tunes.)

WRH: “The Rail” is one of my favorite songs on the album and at parts it sounds like the sort of serious relationship conversation that most of us have had at some point. What was the inspiration behind the song?

CO: That is one of my favorites, too. The inspiration for this song came from an image (or maybe a dream though I can’t remember) I had of a house in a beautiful green valley, where a family lived. (That image ended up in the lyric, “I’ve got one foot out the door / the other door leads to a green and peaceful valley.”) So it’s a lovely setting but inside the house things are not great, but the kind of “not great” that too many people settle for. A husband maybe has not lived up to the promises he made when he married his wife, and she is just realizing it’s not too late to get out. That’s where it came from, and it sort of got a little more poetic and less specific from there. So it’s not from a real life experience, but it sure does sound like something a lot of people have gone through.

WRH: Some of the songs have a wistful tone and express a natural concern about getting older – and perhaps in the worse way: becoming an old fuddy-duddy. I’m close to getting to that point myself, which is probably why I recognized it. In any case, was that intentional? 

CO: I would say yes, quite intentional! It made a great deal of sense to me to write for people who are going through the same things as me. Of course I want to make music that appeals to listeners of all ages, but for this record, I really wanted to write about what I had been dealing with for the past 10-15 years, which was starting a career not just a “day job” (teaching fourth grade), raising two children, and having a marriage. I can’t pretend that our marriage has been “work.” We are very lucky and our relationship has been easy in the best possible way for a very long time (though it was on and off for the early years of the band), but it still is very intense to share your life with another human being, and that certainly makes its way into the music. Of course we are getting older, but we don’t really feel that way, at least most of the time. We want to encourage other 30, 40, 50, 60 somethings to keep on rocking!! My dad, who is in his late 60’s, loves our record! I saw My Bloody Valentine last year for the first time since 1988, and they did not sound old. We see Yo La Tengo every chance we get and they do not sound old. We played with Antietam last month and they do not sound old. I have heard a lot of younger bands who do sound old. 43 is the new 31, after all. Having said that, it was so nice to stay in hotels when we did our first touring since 1999 this April and not on people’s floors. 

WRH: How do you know when you have a finished song?

CO: We worked on this record for so long that we had a lot of time to evaluate things like this. We would do a session or two and not go to the studio for months sometimes. (Actually years when Mike Deming built his new studio.) So we could listen to rough mixes and think about what was good and what the song still needed. I’m sure our next recording will not be so drawn out, so we will have to learn to do this more efficiently! Actually, I think we will need to build in a little time before mixing to make sure the songs are at their best. (That is a very good question, by the way – are you a musician yourself?) 

WRH: You’ve been in the music industry for 20 years and have seen the industry radically change, especially in the last 5 or 10 years. How do you explain your longevity in such a fickle musical landscape? What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? Is there anything you wish you’d do over?

CO: Well, our longevity really comes from the fact that we really love making music, and it’s actually quite easy now. We practice in Derek’s attic while our kids all play together. He lives about a mile away from us. While we would LOVE more people to know about our new record, it has been very satisfying that the response we have been getting from the people who hear it or come to our shows has been so positive and often quite deeply felt. It has been so incredibly satisfying (a relief, actually) to get this record out into the world, finally. It has really energized us, and we are having such a great time playing shows and writing songs. I can’t really imagine stopping.  

As much as I love lots of different music by lots of different bands, I think I make music because I never quite hear exactly what I want to hear in my head. So my advice to artists trying to make a name for themselves is do your own thing. Don’t try to sound like someone else. I do wish it hadn’t been so long between record #4 and #5, but I don’t really wish for a do over. Now that it’s out, it feels really good to try to start building things up again.