San Francisco-based Sleepy Sun formed in Santa Cruz. They play the First City Festival this weekend.
Bret Constantino spent last weekend on the phone with journalists, packing and getting his affairs in order. The lead singer of San Francisco psych rock revivalists Sleepy Sun is gearing up for a month-long European tour in support of his band’s fourth full-length record, Maui Tears.
But before Constantino catches a flight to Portugal in early September, he has a few stops to make in California, including a trip back to where it all began for Sleepy Sun—the Monterey Bay Area—to perform at the First City Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. Spanning two days, the festival features 39 bands, including headliners Beck and The National, as well as Phantogram, The Naked and Famous, and many more. In addition to taking in music, festivalgoers will also have access to a full carnival, with free rides, food, a marketplace with original art and clothing, and a swap meet.
“It’s a bit dreamy,” Constantino says, looking back on the past decade. Back in 2005, he and the rest of Sleepy Sun were just students at UC Santa Cruz with an affinity for classic psychedelic, garage and proto-metal bands, such as Can, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. They didn’t even call themselves Sleepy Sun back then. They were called Mania, and none of them really thought their leisurely jamming would ever turn into much. “I don’t think any of us expected it to be as much of a success as it was.”
But by the time they had graduated, they’d made the shift to Sleepy Sun, had played a few big shows and were beginning to attract the attention of local and international record labels. In 2009, the group signed to the British independent label, ATP Recordings, which re-released their previously self-issued debut, Embrace. The band began touring heavily and writing new material. Over the next five years, they released three new LPs—Fever, Spine Hits, and Maui Tears, released in January. Despite all their hard work and the rigorous schedule they kept, Sleepy Sun has had trouble catching on in America, Constantino says, noting that the group has a bigger following in Europe.
That’s why, in some ways, he is more excited about playing the upcoming First City Festival, than he is about the upcoming dates overseas. “This festival is significant for us,” the singer says. “We haven’t been able to play too many festivals in America.”
Considering Sleepy Sun’s sound, which is heavily influenced by the psychedelic sounds of the late ’60s, the Monterey County Fairgrounds is a fitting venue for the group’s first major California festival appearance. The grounds were also the site of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—often cited as the start of the Summer of Love—and which featured psychedelic pioneers Jefferson Airplane and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as The Who, Janis Joplin and The Mamas & The Papas.
“I would say it is kind of coming full circle,” lead singer Bret Constantino says of performing at First City. On top of the geographical significance, Constantino also noted that Maui Tears is “a return to the formula that we had going for the first record”—namely a looser, freer flowing writing style.
Unlike on their previous album, Spine Hits, which was largely composed and arranged by piecing various recordings together in the studio, Maui Tears, was recorded live, and on tape to boot—a process that prohibited the band from engaging in studio tricks and ensured the emphasis was on all the members being in sync with one another, in the moment, rather than relying on a computer program to put the pieces together in post-production. “We kind of just allowed the songs to shape themselves organically,” Constantino says.
In addition to Sleepy Sun and the main-stage bands, there are plenty of smaller, up-and-coming acts that are worth catching. Here are five groups, Metro recommends checking out at First City:
Tokyo Police Club: Tokyo Police Club’s is reminiscent of the hook-heavy, introspective pop of Weezer and the upbeat lo-fi howl of the Strokes. But unlike those two bands, TPC were never about carving a new genre for everyone to blog about. Tokyo Police Club’s songwriter, David Monks, has often spoken about avoiding trendiness and instead opting for timelessness. On their most recent record Forcefields, Monks has turned to big guitar sounds and bubblegum sensibilities to release their best-produced records so far, filled with tightly constructed pop songs that separate themselves from their indie rock contemporaries like Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire.
Unkown Mortal Orchestra: New Zealand band Unknown Mortal Orchestra feel psychedelic chase scene from Austin Powers. UMO blends lo-fi garage fuzz with fast-paced, neo-soul beats—freely mixing analog and digital sounds together. The resulting aesthetic feels vintage yet strangely modern and fresh. Their entire discography sounds like a happy accident, a crate-digging record nerd’s dream come true. UMO has certainly earned the acclaim from that demographic. The notoriously selective Pitchfork gave their debut album and sophomore effort an 8.1 and 7.3 respectively.
How to Dress Well: In his alt-R&B project, How to Dress Well, Chicago denizen Tom Krell fuses silky smooth vocals with ethereal, downtempo beats. Think Frank Ocean, but weirder. Krell’s self-effacing lyrics create an introspective mood that pairs well with the gloomy, atmospheric music.
Future Islands: Gerrit Welmers, front man for the Baltimore synth-pop group Future Islands, dresses (and dances) like your dad. And it’s awesome. His normcore outfits, Elaine Benes moves and melodramatic singing style may seem like affectations at first, but all signs point to him just being unapologetically dorky. And that’s what makes Future Islands so unique. Future Islands are just being themselves, and it’s working just fine.
Liars: This New York City trio puts the punk into dance-punk with breathless songs that are as defiant and boundary-pushing as they are catchy. The group began incorporating synthesizers into their sound at a time when Americans weren’t accustomed to the idea of mixing electronics and guitars. Their best moments are when they hover somewhere between guitar driven punk and synth-driven dance.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: The Detroit indie-pop duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. combine smiling harmonies with blippy 8-bit melodies. This duo specialize in churning out one quirky, peppy anthem after another. Shuffling rhythms accompany umbrella-twirling melodies, and the keyboards trickle like the best kind of rain. Think Passion Pit with an even stronger Beach Boys vibe, and you’re close to living in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s world.
The First City Festival will be held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, Aug. 23-24. Tickets are $79-$289. More info.