Roots Moderne: Sleep Gunner

 I am not sure how I discovered these guys, but somehow I found You Tube videos of Jeroen Kimman and Mark Morse mangling Ira and Charlie Louvin songs in the most creative, anarchic, and yet respectful way. Performing as Sleep Gunner http://sleepgunner.blogspot.com/, this Amsterdam-based duo has finally officially released a recording: Plays The Louvin Brothers Songbook Vol. 1 on 300 vinyl copies or download . While touring in Italy, one of their shows happened to be in a professional recording studio. They liked the live recording of it so much they put it up as a downloadable album.

Sleep Gunner proves you can respect roots music without doing slavish retro versions of it, and have humor in your music without descending into protective irony.

Jeroen Kimman

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I started playing semi-seriously in the ’80’s as a teenager. Like many my age, I was an aspiring shredder: Eddie van Halen and Steve Vai had God-like status for me. After a few years, I was playing in a rap metal band, trying to come up with crazy virtuoso riffs, just tapping and dive-bombing away. Silly as it was—ah youth—the good thing was that we were quite successful for a few years, so we got to play a lot of gigs. With the money we made we could afford our own permanent rehearsal space. We used to practice three times a week in addition to  playing shows; that’s nicely intense at that age. The whole experience showed me that music was what I wanted to do. After a few years I was still playing with this band but I was mainly listening to jazz—well, jazz-rock mostly at first. Not having any formal training or music theory, I figured that music was out of reach. One of the first jazz concerts I saw was Bill Frisell in the early ’90’s. I was so blown away I quit the band and started taking lessons to try to get into conservatory. Miraculously, it worked, but it led to some very stressful years trying to keep up with fellow students who were much further advanced. Though I picked up some good things there, it took the fun out of music for years. I expected more like an art school: a creative situation, messing about like I always had; it was quite hardcore instead. I felt I had to start music from scratch again. In retrospect, I realize I should have studied the basics more before entering the school; it’s not good when you hardly know what a triad is, yet your fusion-loving guitar teacher is stalking you from day one with superimposing scales.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

It was there from the start. Even in the metal band, I was always trying to come up with weird stuff I hadn’t heard before. I went as far as throwing dice to decide which notes would go in a riff, to make sure it was an “original” sound. A bit contrived perhaps, but to this day I want to be surprised by what I’m listening to. I feel there’s no limit to how “out” music should be. I stopped listening to the radio when I was sixteen, though as I get older I’m finding more and more pleasure in straighter, more organic music. Specialness lies in the details these days, and I’m trying to fight my own tendency toward being too contrived. Trying to cover these three-chord country songs has been good for that.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

There’s so much different music out there. I go through periods of being into something, which I sometimes won’t come back to for years. Bill Frisell has been a major influence, though not so much anymore. If I limit it to the last ten years, I have listened to a lot of old country like the Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Roscoe Holcombe, and many more. For guitarists, I really like the guys from the past, often in between jazz, country, and blues: people like George Barnes, Bill Jennings, Jim Hall, Jimmy Bryant, Carl Kress, Charlie Christian. Right now I’m reacquainting myself with older jazz, especially the Tristano/Konitz bebop school, old New-Orleans music, Duke Ellington, and Sonny Rollins. I try to follow what’s happening in alternative pop, though lately less. A few names that pop up there: Micachu, older Animal Collective, MF Doom, Chavez, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Blake Mills, and hundreds more. There’s also lots of world-music (a terrible term), African music (Franco Luambo one of my favorites), crazy Mauritanian electric guitars, or music from Madagascar—Brazilian, Bulgarian, Bolivian, and that’s just the “Bs.”

There’s quite a taste-difference between Mark and myself. Mark is always looking for more broken, noisy, destructo things, while I am more into elegant family-oriented music. Thankfully there’s a good deal of overlap, like the aforementioned early Van Halen solos we can both mimic to perfection.

How did you get better at your current style?

I am not sure what my current style is, but if we are talking about Sleep Gunner, Mark and I started it years ago as something like an edifying hobby. We were trying to learn to play country and making up for our flaws by throwing in the noise-making weirdness we were doing anyway. It’s nice to learn new styles, but there are a million guys out there who can really play that style  properly, so I don’t really aspire to specialize in one thing, or to be too reverent about it. I like to dip my toe into many different things. I sometimes wish I had been more single-minded about certain music, but I get bored quickly.

What are you trying to convey with your music?

I don’t think I am, or want to be, too conscious about that. I hope that in the context of Sleep Gunner we manage to get across our love for the Louvin Brothers songs, at the same time realizing we are utterly different people, from another age, so whatever we do with it is fine. I like the improbability of combining these two things. There’s the comedic aspect that just comes from having fun (and beers) whenever we rehearse. I don’t believe much in consciously emoting within music, whatever happens, happens.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

I tend to trade in my main guitar every few years. On the album I played mostly on a Gretsch 6120, but I have traded that for a Haar (Dutch builder) Telecaster I’m quite happy with. It’s much better than a Fender in the same price range. I play through a simple Fender Blues Junior amp, but right now I’m looking for an old suitcase amp like a Supro or Valco—hopefully all those good sounds from the ’40’s and ’50’s will rub off. I used to be a purist about not wanting to use many effects, but playing with Mark, who tends to get beautiful and crazy sounds out of the cheapest pedals (and in general), I put more and more pedals in my set-up to keep up. I prefer mostly subtle use of the more rootsy stuff, like mild overdrives (Fulltone Fulldrive 2 and Wampler ’65), reverb, and tremolo (Strymon Flint, probably my favorite pedal). I like to have some crazy things happening sometimes, for which I use a Boss digital delay with an expression pedal, and a Polyanna Octaver from MI audio, which is a great tweakable little pedal functioning more as an erratic fuzz than as an octaver—quite 8-bitty. Lately, inspired by Pete Drake’s talking pedal steel guitar, I throw in a voice box from Electro Harmonix, sometimes for laughs; it doesn’t really function very well, which is what I like about it.

Sometimes I use preparations or re-tunings on the guitar, just to get new ideas. The whole guitar duo format, always covering the same style/artist, is a great laboratory for finding new weird-ish sounds on the guitar; we’d get bored pretty soon if we didn’t look for a different way of covering these songs every time.

On the album I play a song on banjo going through that MI fuzzy pedal, one on pedal steel (I’m still just getting started—wonderful sounds, infuriatingly hard to master), and one track on vocoder synth, in harmony with Mark’s vocoder guitar, very much inspired by the Louvin Brothers’ singing, as is the whole album.

Recording the album was very lo-fi. The original plan was to record in a big wooden room where we could make some noise, and borrow good amps for it. A few days before starting, we learned the room wasn’t available and all the good amps were broken, so we spent a week in Mark’s living room playing quietly through shitty amps. The good thing was, we each played stereo: one amp was mostly dry guitar, and the other much wetter with effects. That gave us more options when mixing. It sounds remarkably good considering the circumstances.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I enjoy both really. Recording is good for being able to keep trying, and focus on details. Playing live though seems to be important for us; we need an audience to feel the tension in the moment when improvising, which is a crucial aspect of our music. It’s easier to keep concentrated when we are on the spot. When it goes well, there’s nothing like that high. We tried to respect that by not doing overdubs on the record—everything is played live, although sometimes we had to do a staggering amount of takes to get it right.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

I’m afraid not too much time went into that. Over the years it has become clear how nice it is to have a band that focuses mainly on the music and doing it mostly for fun. We tend to take long breaks when the energy is not totally there. Almost all the shows we play come from being called rather than hunting for them ourselves—it makes you feel more welcome. I’d like to do a bit more with Sleep Gunner, but it also feels refreshing to cultivate our caveman take on it; there are enough over-ambitious, ever-spamming bands out there. It’s nice though to play a good show and to feel you’ve won over a few new people. From the very start we’ve been making these home videos of the songs, I see them as messages-in-a-bottle we throw into the massive ocean that is YouTube, to see where it drifts.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

What Mark says…

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

Right now it’s mostly Sleep Gunner. There is not much other musical stuff happening apart from a lot of woodshedding—hopefully, I will come out a better man. I got a commission to compose 30 minutes of music for pedal steel and trombone (this great player called Koen Kaptijn).  I think both instruments have some nice rubbery similarities. It’s going to be interesting to stretch the pedal steel away from how it’s traditionally played. I once made a tiny sketch for that and it’s here:  https://soundcloud.com/megasubtiel/pedalbone

Before I start on that, I need to practice the damn thing more; it’s a real mind-fuck. I do occasional work as a guitar player with all sorts of contemporary ensembles. I am an okay reader and my former dice-rolling, shredding days prove useful when playing some of the impossible parts I’m presented with. I used to play in a Mariachi wedding band. People in the band were impressed with my chops on some of the harder guitar parts; I was amazed how close Mariachi guitar can be to metal.  Over the years I composed quite a few ditties in all sorts of situations, I collected most of them here (another bottle in the sea).

 

Mark Morse

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

There’s such an amazing amount of truly proficient people on YouTube these days that claiming to be good at any aspect of guitar makes me want to troll myself immediately. But if there was a moment where I realized I was making music that was coming from inside me, and wasn’t just stuff I’d heard other people do, I think it was probably in my bedroom around 1983, playing some sort of blues—at least the Southern, classic rock version of blues, meaning the Allman Brothers and (to a less-bluesy degree) Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was also really into Jeff Beck and Robin Trower, trying to get their string-bending things down.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

I was attracted to “making weird sounds” on the guitar from the very beginning. My dad presented me with my first guitar when I was maybe 11 years old and the record he played me for inspiration that made the greatest impression was Terry Kath’s “Free Form Guitar,” which I listened to a lot. I loved not being able to understand how it was happening (this was before I owned a fuzzbox).

Terry Kath eventually led me to Jeff Beck, Trower, Hendrix, Van Halen, and Adrian Belew. I then started reading Guitar Player magazine, where Van Halen led to Holdsworth, and Holdsworth thankfully somehow led to Metheny, which led to jazz and Berklee College of Music. After a while of hating Berklee, I discovered Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, John Zorn, and Japanese noise. That opened up everything for me; I found the whole sound world calming and tranquilizing. I set out on a quest to find the most extreme versions of noise, free jazz, and other “out” music because I thought that would be even more relaxing, and mostly it was. At that point I started having punkish, anti-conventional-technique leanings, which led to the first of many guitar identity crises.

Whose music inspires you?

I think this is a slightly different question than “what do you like to listen to.” Many of the guitarists I’ve admired in the past have made such tasteless music (see above list), just awesome guitar playing surrounded by horrible everything else.

These days I connect with inspiration via perfect line players like Sonny Rollins with Monk, Lee Konitz with Lennie Tristano, or purposely imperfect things like early Sonic Youth, The Stooges, Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, and Misha Mengelberg, as well as forces of nature like Howlin’ Wolf or early Buddy Guy. I almost always find something inspirational in Jim Hall or Marc Ribot’s playing. I still have a soft spot for the mid-90s arty post-grunge indie guitar bands Chavez, Brainiac, Polvo, and Archers of Loaf.

In terms of newer things, I find Mica (Micachu) Levi’s guitar playing and general approach really inspiring. I also love this ambient black metal band called Sutekh Hexen from San Francisco. I’ll always pay attention to any two-guitar operation that tries something unusual, so bands like Daughters, Women, and U.S. Maple (all now defunct) were consistently thought provoking.

Amsterdam has a historic and still-thriving free improvisation scene, so it’s possible to get inspired just seeing friends and others play around town. I’ve really learned a lot about guitar playing from Andy and Terrie from The Ex. In terms of 21st-century guitar players I really have a hard time finding someone to love unconditionally, I’m a really detail-oriented critic/enjoyer. I like playing with Jeroen because he can do almost everything better than I can, and it’s healthy to have someone constantly kicking your ass.

How did you get better at your current style?

It was years of lazy osmosis. If we’re talking about Sleep Gunner, in the beginning I just kind of made a big mental list of things in this idiom that I didn’t want to play. I tried to come up with things that satisfy the needs of the song but don’t violate the list. It’s really a definition of style through negation, not the most emotionally satisfying approach. Sometimes some bullshit slips through, but it’s supposed to come from a place of freshness and social playing, not falling back on clichés or well-rehearsed acrobatics.

What are you trying convey with your music?

In Sleep Gunner I don’t think I’m trying to convey anything except for the songs themselves. We’ve chosen them carefully and we play most of them out of an honest love and respect for the originals. If there’s ever a comedic or ironic element, it usually comes from not being able to take our own guitar playing seriously—the comedy’s not directed at the songs, the genre, or the Louvins. For the original music I make (https://soundcloud.com/markemorse), I’m definitely not trying to “convey” anything (unless it’s music made for dance or theater); I’m mostly trying to satisfy my idea of pleasing amounts of density, motion, logic, illogic, and surreality.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

I stop playing the guitar every several years; as part of my longest sabbatical (2004-2007), I stopped using pedals. Sleep Gunner was the reason I ended this particular break. At first there were no pedals, but playing ’50s and ’60s country, gradually you start thinking, “well a tremolo would be nice here,” or “a slapback echo sure would be nice there”—that was the beginning of the end. I’m up to five or six pedals now, but I think I’m finished adding things. The last thing I bought cured me: it was a Strymon Mobius, the most expensive pedal I’ve ever purchased. I’m disappointed in it, but it sounds great, if that makes any sense. Maybe it sounds too great. I was hoping for a little more programmability as I really have a fetish for making odd and useless broken-sounding patches.

I don’t use any overdrive in my signal chain, I like to use quite a bit of the amp’s gain and then try to regulate things with my guitar volume knob and left hand attack. I prefer not to bring an amp to gigs; I like to try and make whatever is at the venue sound good. I’m sure this will eventually backfire spectacularly but so far it’s been working out.

Last in the chain is my favorite pedal, an EHX Cathedral for pre-gain reverb, I like the lack of clarity when putting reverb before a dirty amp sound; before that is the Mobius for tremolo, Leslie, and some filters. Before that is a Fuzz Factory for extreme kinds of dirtiness. The wild card in the chain is an old Boss Bass Synthesizer SYB-3. I like it for its horrible tracking on guitar. I have a Tom Bugs Audio Weevil that I use for feedback experiments at home but can’t seem to work into Sleep Gunner yet. I also use a few little handheld amps as low-volume feedback generators. For guitar these days I mostly play either a mid-’90s USA Telecaster, or a mid-’90s double neck Epiphone SG, which that I love to play but hate carrying to gigs.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I’ve had real problems enjoying playing live, ever since I can remember. For many years I was just unable to turn off my censor/filter, consistently failing at disengaging my verbal/rehearsal mind. I just sucked at being/staying “in the moment” of playing. In 2013 I took another year off from guitar and decided if I didn’t figure it out this time I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Luckily my first gig back was one of the best guitar playing experiences of my life: Rhys Chatham’s piece for 100 electric guitars out in the Bay Area. It was a good perfect storm: reading someone else’s notes; great physical exertion (tons of sustained tremolo picking); limited but fun improvisation; and the fact that I was completely inaudible to everyone except the 2 guys next to me and the 2 guys in front of me. The overall sound was like a tidal wave. It wasn’t one gig that fixed things, but from then on something clicked into place. This year’s gigs have been mostly okay as long as the audience is interested. If they don’t care, I want to show them, “Hey, I can also not care—watch this.” It’s not a perfect science yet.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Really ineffectively—neither of us is very into self-promotion, and so we continue to play small gigs here and there, adding a fan or two per month. I’m never going to be the horn-tootin’ mover or shaker that “makes things happen,” so I kind of have to be okay with this non-approach.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

It’s a question we ask ourselves regularly and don’t come up with any sure-fire answers. We’re going to experiment with collaboration this year and the success or failure will depend on which collaborators remain the most “themselves” while sharing our respect for the music. We’re hopefully going to try something in a couple of weeks with a couple of absolutely top-shelf improvisers who can play freely, but also have an abiding love of American roots music. We’ll see what happens.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

I’m mostly only doing Sleep Gunner at the moment, trying to be cautious about returning to playing guitar again and not push myself into situations that will diminish my enthusiasm. The one other thing I’ve started working on is a project with my roommate, her name is Mara Tomanek and she should just really be on stage somewhere. We’ve been trying to play music together for about 20 years now without succeeding. To force ourselves, we signed up to make some music for a Tony Conrad opera based on Orfeo and Euridice that will be performed in Toronto next month. We’re going to somehow translate our contributions to this into a live set. Our name is Hidden Pincer (or hddnpncr) and it looks like the genre will be something like “no-wave cha-cha-cha,” like if 1980s Arto Lindsay was in Young Marble Giants.

 

 

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