Red and blue lights illuminate in purple a dark-haired girl in floor-length black lace on the alter of a church. Her voice pierces the vast space above her. She dances with her eyes to the rafters, inviting you to enjoy the moment with her, drawing you into the sound. She is Sorcha Brennan, and along with Keith Byrne and Wayne Fahy, who are playing synthesizers, drum pads, and guitar alongside her on stage, they are Sleep Thieves, a Dublin three-piece that bring a human touch to digital sound and who just released their self-recorded second album, You Want the Night.
Their music consists of multi-layered love songs to getting lost. A mixture of analogue and digital audio create a haunting sense of humanity through technology, taking the medium’s capabilities but leaving out its cold perfection, its freneticism and narrowness, and making it remarkably complex. Their recordings feel like a floating ball of sound that starts in front of you and then slowly expands to surround you, enveloping you from all sides. Here, during their Culture Collide set at a quiet church in Echo park, that sound spreads from the stage up to the highest points of the vaulted ceiling.
A few hours earlier, I had met with the trio in the church’s airy backstage to talk about the intriguing process the use to create this experience, revealing a lot about not only their technical, but also psychological approach.
MIP: How did you each start making music and how did you come to make music together as Sleep Thieves?
Wayne: Sleep Thieves actually began on a music message board in Ireland that I put up for an electronic project. I was getting more into electronic music myself. Sorcha: I had played piano myself and then got into singing and was doing backing vocals for different people and it was when I joined up with Wayne that it was like “Alright, okay, this kind of works.” I had played piano for years, and the synth is kind of like…
Wayne: …it’s the fun piano.
Sorcha: Exactly! It’s the fun piano, with many voices.
Keith: Me, I started listening to electronic music in the nineties and I started making electronic music as soon as I got a computer. I got all sorts of software. I got a piece of music software free with a box of Frosties I think it was a like DJ software – this was years ago – and put it in and started messing around with it and just got into it.
MIP: What is your creative process like between the three of you? How does it work? Wayne: It’s pretty open, our process. For example, we don’t have a live drummer, so we start off a song on a laptop, creating a beat and a bassline, get a small little verse or a chorus there and it will grow from that.
Sorcha: Generally, it’s a ring of keyboards and all of us playing and recording as we go. Then it’s combining everything and then taking parts away and listening to it and going, ‘alright, that doesn’t work, that’s buggy, let’s put that back.’ I suppose what it comes down to is we either know it’s a good song and it’s going somewhere or we know we can’t bring it any further.
Keith: There are the losers and the winners, and that gets rid of them pretty quickly, so instead of having ten weird half-songs, you finish those songs and you have only the ones you really wanted. Sorcha: When we’re writing, you come in with a set of your own personal emotions and as you’re playing it becomes this collaborative connection. We tend to be pretty synced. When it comes to lyrics, it’s very image-driven, and I supposed even the way we write musically would be quite cinematic. We all have an image in our heads of what the sound evokes for us. It has to feel genuine as well; I really can’t sing lyrics unless I really feel like I’m genuinely expressing something about myself. We tend to try and be as connected to what we’re actually feeling and doing as we can.
MIP: Speaking of images, where did the cover for You Want the Night come from?
Sorcha: I used to be in another band and the main singer in that band is an artist called Bennie Reilly, and she’s a really well respected young artist in Ireland right now. She had just done an exhibition and I had gone and seen her pictures and a lot of our songs have a lot of nature imagery, and we had this idea of nature and darkness, and we had all these video images like that and we saw that picture. It’s a lyre bird, a song bird, which works really well, but it also looks like a cage or those bold skirts that Victorian women used to wear.
So, it has all these connections between the songstress and there are a lot of feminine ideas in the songs as well. You have that kind of cage-like thing and then the weird eeriness of ‘what is it?’ We went to take the photo on the back in our botanic gardens in Ireland and it turns out the state bought that painting and it’s hanging in the botanic gardens. Totally crazy! So she had to ask permission from the Irish State to use it.
MIP: How does that come around at the end when you go and make a music video? How does that imagery play into it, like the City of Hearts music video? It’s a very specific aesthetic.
Keith: We actually had a completely different idea for the video.
Sorcha: I had this idea of young people going through the motions in a city where you’re not really connecting with anything, so either like a girl just spinning around the lamp or a girl or a guy driving in a car and everything is just passing by…
Keith: We had talked about it for so long that we finally said ‘let’s just get somebody who knows what they’re actually doing,’ so we went and talked to this duo of Dublin guys who make videos and they basically came up with the idea. All the way through that video we’re going like “I really hope this turns out.”
Sorcha: Because it was shot like a photograph, they had to stay still. I was just moving. I performed the song twice and then they used that. It was like a gif almost, and we loved it. They had another idea for one of our other songs that we really want to use; for “You Want the Night” it actually was almost exactly what we had in our heads. Sometimes you have to give it up a little bit and let other people add something creative, especially if they’re the ones with the skills.
Keith: Yeah, for us three it’s usually that we do everything.
Wayne: We can have an idea, but to make it work, in this song’s case, over five minutes, we just don’t have that eye. You just have to hand it over; ‘That’s our baby, bring it back in one piece,” you know? But we were delighted with the results.
MIP: You guys must have a very intimate relationship with the album, you made the whole thing in a home recording studio? How did that come about?
Sorcha: With City of Hearts, we had this idea that it’s a really good song, we love this song, we want it to sound great, and when we got the mixes back it just felt dead. It was just a bit rushed, and we don’t want to be fitting something into somebody’s weekend or have specific dates when it had to be done. So then we just invested any money we had into buying equipment and setting up the studio. That meant we spend the whole summer, and the autumn really, in the studio, just hanging out, making cups of tea, listening and having time to play around with it. It felt much more natural.
MIP: It seems like such a rare opportunity to get that time with your material as artists while you’re recording it. How does that change the creative process behind it?
Keith: It makes it way more creative. It’s not just going in, saying we have to get this done today and that done today. What if we try to just mess around with this for a while and see what comes out of it? We tried stuff we never did before.
Sorcha: Even little things like when we’ve been writing the songs I was holding the mic, and it was a little bit different; it felt more urgent or something. We even tried stuff like recoding one version with the really good studio mic and recording another take with the regular SM58 and mashing the two of them together so that we get this kind of urgency, this emotive kind of feeling.
Wayne: We were down by the sea for the weekend and we were recording around one in the morning, empty beers around us, very informal, ‘let’s try this,’ ‘this,’ ‘this,’ to see if it works, without looking at the clock thinking ‘how much did that last two hours cost us?’ like you would in a studio. It was very invigorating.
Sorcha: There were parts that were almost mistakes, like a weird feedback thing happened where my vocal came through again but it caused this really eerie effect. If we’d done that in studio, the engineer would have just gotten rid of it. But we heard it and thought that’s amazing. We caught it and kept it in the song [“Tusk,” the last song on the album] because it added so much and fitted the eerie kind of style.
MIP: There are so many layers to the sound that you guys make, layers of instruments, layers of vocals that really come through and make this haunting kind of sound – how does all of that come together? How many different pieces are layered to make something like that?
Keith: Loads. Vocally, as she said, its different mics, different rooms.
Sorcha: I’ll be hearing ten melodies in my head all the time. When we write the songs, I’ll write a melody and record it straight away and then another melody and record straight away while we’re actually writing, and the same with a lot of the synths as well.
Wayne: It works in your own head. And maybe as the creator of the music you shouldn’t have to explain to someone why it works, because then they’ll be like ‘the frequencies don’t fit this drumbeat,’ or whatever. But this is the story I want to tell today. When we keep control of the recording, that’s where the buck stops and it’s just nice.
Keith: As far as the multi-layered things go, we do a lot of things. We run a lot of the synths over the same line a couple of times on different synths to layer. The general idea is to layer and layer and layer. I think there’s one track that has about fifteen guitars on it.
Sorcha: I don’t think it ever sounds crowded.
Keith: you get the mood of the song and you expend that until it’s big and roomy, instead of trying to fit seven different pieces all vying for your attention. There’s a lot of room on the songs, there’s a lot of room the breathe in the music as well.
MIP: How do you perform your music live, then? How does that work?
Sorcha: I supposed live sometime I don’t play my synths at all, either the guys play them or we put them on the laptop just to be a bit more free. It was something that we did after we recorded the album, it just felt right to dance.
Keith: That’s the problem when you have all those layers, you have ten keyboards and you’re like, ‘I can’t play ten keyboards live! How am I supposed to do this?’ Some keyboard parts might be translated to guitar, so when you hear on the album it’s keyboard but we play it on the guitar live. Sorcha: To create an atmosphere live and an experience for everybody and draw them in we want to all be playing live as much as possible, but to be able to be move and perform as well. Wayne: It has to be a show. We want to add that dynamic.
MIP: What kind of an experience do you hope to create for the audience? What are you thinking while you’re up there?
Sorcha: It’s about transporting people out of the room. So that it doesn’t matter whether they’re standing or sitting or dancing, that they feel drawn in and caught up in what they’re hearing. And the thing is, once you sing for other people, when they hear it, they’re thinking about something completely different than what you wrote. But that’s perfect. It’s not your song anymore. They’re going to create, it’s going to remind them of something or somebody or a piece of music they heard, a novel they read or a film they saw. And that’s cool, it’s making that connection with people. You’re not really thinking, “Oh, there’s people over there watching me,” you’re thinking, “I’m connecting with these people with this song.”
And here, among the lofty white walls of a Methodist church, Sorcha is perhaps thinking just that as her voice rings out like a hymn. She is transfixed, reaching upwards as if trying to remember something that recently escaped her. “I felt that I was half alive/ I counted twenty-four, twenty- five/I wanted/ I wanted not to be lonely but still alone… Walking slowly but nearing home…” Keith is now playing an electric bass as Wayne stands behind a synthesizer, mixing board and drum pad and Sorcha dances on languidly, entranced, herself lost in the moment. There is a reassuring comfort in this slow pace, in knowing that there is all the time in the world to breathe in this sound.
Interview by Bojana Sandic
Concert photography by David Reeve