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DJ Mick writesThe CHIRP Radio Interview: a Light Sleeper

by CHIRP Radio DJ and Features Co-Director Mick R (Listen to his most recent shows / Read his blog)

Aight Bet

a Light Sleeper is an orchestral rock band from right here in Chicago. They’re an expressionist collective founded by friends Dheeru Pennepalli and Matthew Jung back in 2005.

The group has weathered many a shifting tread in DIY music but has remained dedicated to an investigation of the ghostly ambient potential of chamber music through a blurring of the line between rock band and orchestra.

Their latest album Distinction (a Ballet in Six Parts) dropped back in 2019 and was the first recording they produced with the current lineup. The album is an interrogation of the creative process, its challenges, the anxieties it allows to manifest, and the intoxicating by ultimately fleeting victories it offers.

Notable highlights like the pensive “Ends and Means” and the title track presently a swarthy swooning croonerism that resembles a demonic twist on a Norah Jones set, while numbers like “Invisible Measures” and “Blankly Stated Spaces” manage to muster an exhilarating tension and momentum through the interplay of jazz-like theses and curving post-rock ramparts.

a Light Sleeper will be playing at the Hideout on May 3, 2022 with Maurice and Graphics. Doors open at 9:30pm, and entrance is $12. You can get tickets here. Remember to bring a mask and proof of vaccination.

Because we’re excited about their upcoming show and a Light Sleeper in general, we had a quick, but highly informative (if we do say so ourselves) chat with the band via email and you can now check out the full interview below.

[The following interview was conducted via email on April 11, 2022. It has only been edited to meet formatting requirements.]

Tell our listeners and readers who a Light Sleeper is, and how you came to be in band together. 

Matthew: a Light Sleeper has had a few different lineups through our 17 years together, but it originally started as just a two-piece: Dheeru and me.

Back in the '90s in high school, I had my first band, Creign. The guitarist from that band actually went on to play drums in a band in college with Dheeru called Bargos Steeler.

In 2000, when Dheeru was looking to start a new band after that, knowing that I played drums, reached out to me to see if i would join him. That ensemble became Re:Rec, which lasted until 2003.  And it was that time together that, when Dheeru was exploring some solo material in 2005, that he reached out to me again. That was the beginning of a Light Sleeper.

Dheeru: The current formation is Maria Hernandez (saxophone), Matthew Jung (drums), Traci Newhouse (viola) and Dheeru Pennepalli (guitar). We actually started as a duo of myself and Matt back in 2005, with Maria joining in 2007 and Traci in 2011.

David Keller played cello with us for a few years, and Chandler Evans was briefly with us on bass. Over the years our sound has evolved from these atmospheric, loop-based minimalist improvisations and dreamy, layered soundscapes to more tightly constructed and sharply focused compositions. And now back again, to a certain extent, as we’re trying to find a balance between the two approaches. Right now, we’re playing a new instrumental set that we wrote as a quartet.

Maria:  I grew up in Goshen, Indiana and played alto sax in high school/college and sang in choir when my class schedule allowed. I moved to Chicago in 2006 and met Dheeru at a local bar. He was passing out CD's of "Life Like Love" an early recording of the band with just him and Jung.

I was so intrigued by the intimacy and "weirdness" of the sound. I had not played my horn in a while and Dheeru kept encouraging me to come and just jam with them. I finally built up the courage and felt at home right away during the first rehearsal and just kept coming back. a Light Sleeper became a safe place for me to grow and experiment as a musician. 

Matthew: Our sound was born from Dheeru's melodic ideas, looping and atypical tuning. When I joined it was my goal, and it is still my goal, to lay down a complimentary beat that is sympathetic to the music.

Personally, my musical background began through playing euphonium throughout school in concert bands. During high school I taught myself how to play drums and because my musical playing/creation began with Euphonium, I believe that enabled me to apply more of that symphonic/compositional approach to how I play drums.

How did you settle on the name a Light Sleeper for the band? 

Dheeru: That was my idea, and I was drawn to the phrase for a couple of reasons. For one, at the time I lived in an apartment on Milwaukee Ave right by the Western Blue Line tracks. I eventually got used to it but I was for a time a very light sleeper.

I also felt the phrase was just evoked a distinct character, a sort of anxiety-ridden, dazed and detached type of persona, not quite sure what to make of the world around them. Sort of mysterious, noir-ish.

There was a Willem Dafoe movie called Light Sleeper…not a particularly memorable film as I recall, despite the intriguing title. Regardless, I clearly wasn’t the only one drawn to that phrase as a band name — a Google search will return various bands named The Light Sleepers, Light Sleeper, lightsleeper, etc. So we’re just ‘a’ light sleeper. Oh well.

Your last album was Distinction (a Ballet in Six Parts) which dropped in 2019. It's an abstract album in many ways, but I suspect it is deeply personal to you as well. What are some of the thoughts and feelings you put into this album and how did you hope to convey them to the listener? 

Maria: The band had several iterations before the 5-piece settled into a groove. "Distinction" (the last song on the album) was our first song fully written collaboratively by all 5 of us together. We thought it would be cool to create a concept album by interweaving musical elements in different iterations throughout the album.

During this same time, Dheeru and I had become obsessed with this Pina Bausch documentary, which inspired a lot of discussion between us about the creative process and how a person is faced with themselves again and again. So, the lyrics and music were written to convey cyclical and interweaving emotions that come up during a creative process. For example: feeling excited about it, feeling self-doubt, feeling pressure, finding self-acceptance, loving it, sometimes hating it, then feeling excited about it again, and so on. For me it ended up being pretty personal as I was digging into my own experiences to write lyrics.

Matthew: From my perspective, creating music in general is a very personal experience. Being creative and expressing yourself through music is one of most enjoyable ways to connect with others. As a band we are continually growing and adapting while staying true to original roots and it was no different with this album.

It was our first album with Dave Keller and Traci Newhouse on cello and viola respectively. The expansion of the group with the new instruments, voices (literally and musically) and timbres enabled us to expand our sound. Each of us contributed to pushing our sound and progressing forward in composing each of the pieces on Distinction.

I hardly ever hear orchestral indie bands anymore. It seems more like a '90s thing. What is it like keeping this style alive well into the 21st century? 

Dheeru: Yeah, maybe…Björk and Fiona Apple were pretty orchestral at times, Belle and Sebastian comes to mind. But I’d argue it was a bigger thing in the early 2000’s, with bands like Decemberists and Arcade Fire bringing orchestral pop more mainstream. Also Andrew Bird and early St. Vincent albums.

But yeah, late '90s / early 2000’s were definitely the heyday for that type of sound. But I think we have more in common with the orchestral progressive rock of the '70s — bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Yes, Gentle Giant, and Henry Cow.

And as far as keeping this style of music alive, I actually find that there’s a healthy audience for this type of music here in Chicago — this city has always had a vibrant experimental and creative music scene. And that has a lot to do with the fact that there are a lot of top-notch music schools here, so there’s obviously going to be a lot of creative people looking to push the envelope.

Matthew: I have never really considered the fact that we may be keeping a style alive. I think that we just continue to be honest in how we approach music, and we enjoy doing something that is atypical.

Why do you think this trend (orchestral post-rock/indie) faded out?

Dheeru: I don’t know that it has faded out really — there have always been bands incorporating strings and woodwinds while still maintaining accessible elements of “pop” music. In fact, it’s never really been all that popular and more of a niche thing — save for some of those artists I mentioned above, who are outliers that somehow caught mainstream attention.

I think that’s maybe due to the preconception a lot of people have that classical music is dull and stuffy. So they see those instruments in a rock band and come to the conclusion that this band is going to be dull and stuffy as well.

Matthew: It had its prominence, if you can call it that, and then eventually faded to a new style or approach. That’s just the natural ebb and flow of music creation and consumption. We just focus on enjoying what we do and create.

Another question about '90s bands. Your music really reminds me of some of the more experimental alternative and punk bands of that era. Who are some of the bands from that era that specifically influence or inspire you? 

Matthew: One of the first bands that i heard that showed me that i could push the boundaries of 'rock' music with tonalities, rhythm and expression was Polvo. The exploration that they implemented with the use of different chords and dissonance in the guitars combined with the exploration of your non-standard 4/4 drumming was stimulating. And when you are part of a scene, it's hard to not appreciate and be inspired by those that you play with and/or support. Bands such as Tetsuo, Trenchmouth, The Blue Meanies, Stinking Lizaveta, Braid, C-Clamp...the list could go on.

Dheeru: I was in high school and college in the mid- and late- '90s, and playing in my first bands. So those were formative years for me, musically. Punk had a big impact on me, specifically the more challenging and adventurous bands experimenting with elements of jazz — bands like Fugazi and June of ’44. “Math Rock” was a term people were starting to throw around (somewhat pejoratively, I might add) for these bands that played with novel time signatures and unusual rhythms — bands like Don Caballero, Tortoise, and Faraquet.

Related to the last two questions, how important is Shudder to Think to your current band, and why? 

Maria: Wow. Nailed it.

Dheeru: That band is huge for me, specifically their album Pony Express Record. It’s one of those albums that builds a strange new world around you every time you listen to it. I know Matt is a big fan as well, they’re one of the many bands we have in common. But I know Maria, Dave and Traci were not familiar with Shudder to Think before I played that album for them. I don’t think it was their cup of tea, actually.

Matthew: This question caught me off guard in 2 respects: First you are spot on that Shudder to Think was inspirational to me and I believe to Dheeru as well, but also, that i never thought the music that was created for Distinction was able to be traced back to or showed influences thereof.

As far as to Shudder to Think's importance with the current band, I would say that it is not something that has active importance, as I don’t believe everyone in the band was influenced by Shudder to Think. To your point however, it may have its importance in that it was influential in developing part of our musical roots.

When can we expect a new album from a Light Sleeper?

Dheeru: We’re aiming to record the new album this fall, and probably releasing it ourselves on our Bandcamp page shortly thereafter. We’re planning on recording this one live, again with Caleb Willitz at his studio in the Fine Arts Building downtown. I’m very excited about this new batch of songs, and you can definitely expect something quite a bit different from our last album.

What are you looking forward to next in 2022? 

Matthew: It will be nice to be out there performing again, being out in public and playing live shows again.

Dheeru: More than anything it’s playing out again. Our first show since 2019 is at the Hideout on May 3rd, and then we’ll be at Cafe Mustache on June 22nd. It feels so good to finally be getting back on our feet, rehearsing and tightening up for the shows and recording.

[Photo courtesy of the artist.]

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Categorized: Interviews

Topics: a light sleeper

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