by Ashley Naftule
Shoegaze isn’t a genre where singers go to show off their chops. Voices don’t soar so much as submerge and swim through layers of noise, tremolo’d guitars, and reverb. While some vocalists like Elizabeth Fraser are able to project themselves up and over the hypnagogic soundscapes that back them up, most shoegaze singers contend themselves with serenading their effect pedals.
That’s not the case with Sleepspent’s Austin North.
Frontman and principal songwriter for the El Paso trio (with Cecilio Otera and Josh Mendoza on bass and drums, respectively), North’s voice rises above the dreamy din. Sleepspent recently released their debut EP, It’s Better If You Don’t Speak or Think. Produced by Le Butcherettes’ Chris Common, the five songs on It’s Better are an intriguing hint of things to come. Crooning “When the world falls asleep it may as well be decimated” on EP highlight “Come Smile With Me,” North’s voice is a soothing, inviting balm — a worthy dance partner to the driving rhythms and lush guitars that course through the song.
On tour now, Sleepspent will be passing through The Lunchbox on Friday, June 22. I had the chance to talk with North about the El Paso music scene, his musical background, and what the deal is with his impressionistic lyrics.
Ashley Naftule: One thing that really stuck out to me while listening to your EP was how much your voice stands out in the mix. So many dreampop groups end up using their singers as a textural element, just another bit of pretty noise in the guitar swirl, but your voice really sticks out on every song.
Austin North: Yeah, so that was definitely the intention from the start. I mean, we definitely do have an interest in shoegaze and dreampop, but I grew up listening to a lot of strong vocalists like Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke. So I definitely wanted to incorporate more prominent vocals within the band from the start even if that’s something that’s definitely not attributed to the shoegaze and dreampop genres.
The lyrics in your songs strike me as being very ambiguous, almost impressionistic at times. Is that a deliberate strategy on your part when you’re composing songs — to leave enough room for people to interpret your words in their own way?
The ambiguity is definitely intentional… Although I will say that the lyrics mean a lot to me personally. I won’t go too deep into specifics, but the lyrics do touch on mental illness and emotional issues. Just trying to figure out things within your own head. A lot of the themes center around confusion and miscommunication, and I think the ambiguity of the lyrics fits well with that.
Were the songs on It’s Better If You Don’t Speak or Think material y’all have been playing out for awhile, or did you write them while you were working in the studio?
A lot of the songs I had started writing on my own… I had started writing back when I lived in San Diego for a couple years before moving back home to Texas and I got the band together. Once we were all together, we fleshed them out. So these are songs we’ve been working on for a long time. I’m really happy to finally have them out there.
How does Sleepspent fit into the El Paso music scene? Are there a lot of other groups there exploring the kind of dreamy sounds y’all are experimenting with, or are you kind of outliers in that respect?
I feel like we’re definitely driving in our own lane. El Paso has a really strong music scene and it’s very diverse. There are a lot of genres that are active there but I feel like a unique presence in that scene. We’re familiar with a lot of the bands in El Paso and not many can say that they’re very shoegaze inspired.
You come from a jazz guitar background. I was wondering how you made the transition from that approach to being a self-identified effects pedal junkie. How did you bridge those two worlds?
I grew up studying classical guitar before I swapped over to jazz. Around the same time I was studying jazz guitar I got interested in gear and effect pedals and all of that. It kind of all grouped together into one thing and I grew up with them both. I wouldn’t say I necessarily consciously combined the two since, you know, since our music isn’t very jazzy…
I really love the cover art to your EP. How did that come about?
It was a mutual friend of mine who goes to school at UT Austin — her name is Annie Xue — she’s got a website and all that. She’s super talented and we were really impressed by her artwork.