Sleeping At Last
That big sound of Sleeping At Last, unleashed by three young musicians with souls on fire, whose intensity will stand comparison with Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, R.E.M. and U2 …
… started in a basement somewhere near Chicago. In fact, you can still hear it there, building strength beneath the suburban home where the brothers Ryan and Chad O'Neal were raised and where they continue to live.
With Ryan on guitar, Chad on drums, and friend Dan Perdue on bass, this sound rose from its unlikely nest, escaping first on a self-released EP back in '99, evolving on a follow-up CD a few years later, and now in flight on Ghosts, their Interscope Records debut. Pulsing bass, insistent rhythm, guitars that chime like carillons and roar like surf in a storm, all of it surging beneath Ryan's soaring vocals: This is the music of Sleeping At Last.
Within that music, visions unfold, of inspiration and hope, of surviving daily strife to "find your soul" and "say all the things you really want to say" in the anthem "Say," and drawing close to "the city of lights … a little place to close our eyes, to end this chase" on "A Skeleton of Something More," and promising in "Hurry" that "the world is ours, if we could only let it be."
These dreams, of hope and better days, trace back to when a young songwriter first set his poetry to music and realized that he had something to say … something that had to be heard.
Sleeping At Last come from Wheaton, Illinois, where life is comfortable but maybe less than thrilling; in circumstances like these, the artist-to-be looks inward for insight. Finding nothing, he looks a little harder. And he listens to what's in the air for guidance.
The O'Neal brothers and Perdue were all into Radiohead as kids. Later they got enthusiastic about Sunny Day Real Estate; to different degrees they found something in U2, the Beatles, and other sources. They took these influences with them as they started playing around town, in bands that seemed to look no further than the next gig.
Ryan was the first to perform. Just six months after Chad took up drums, they started playing together. Soon they met Dan through his sister, who was friendly with the O'Neals. With a couple of years of performing already under his belt, Dan complemented both the musical discipline and youthful energy that Ryan and Chad maintained.
With that, about five years ago, Sleeping At Last came to life.
Three weeks after its first rehearsal, the trio made its bow at the Fishbowl Café, a neighborhood coffeehouse. Without any publicity machine grinding away on their behalf, without even so much as a demo to shop, they started getting booked at local clubs. Armed with funky equipment and just enough material to play a 30-minute set, they made waves among listeners who could sense something special taking shape.
In 1999 they recorded an EP, There's a quiet understanding …, at a studio in Wheaton College; selling it at shows, they spread their reputation throughout and beyond Chicago. Radio stations from Texas to Paris, France, began playing it, and sales of more than two thousand copies paid for their first full-length album, Capture, described at ChicagoRedStreak.com as "a mesh of careful rhythms and cherubic vocals that seems equal parts dark rock, emo, and the gritty balladry that made the Pumpkins famous."
The Pumpkins reference is prescient, for in March 2001, just a couple of months after Capture was finished, the band was hanging around backstage at the Metro, one of the city's most celebrated venues. They'd finished their opening set and were mulling over what to do with the rest of the night when …
"… Dan came up to me and said, 'You'll never guess who's here,'" remembers Ryan. "'Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins' So we started talking about whether we should give him our CD. We didn't want to bother him. But then he walked right by us, I just stuck out my hand and gave him a copy of Capture. We had no idea whether anything would come out of it. In fact, we were all pretty positive he would throw it out."
No such luck. The following day, Corgan called the O'Neals, expressed his enthusiasm for the band, and offered the beginning of what has turned into early support for Sleeping At Last. "We've had so many conversations with him," Ryan says. "He never interfered with what we wanted to do, but he'd tell us what he thought was really strong. He'd say, 'That's a great direction. You can tap into more of that, if you want.' He taught us a lot about song arrangement. And he always said he really believes in what we're doing."
Inspired, Ryan dedicated himself over the next couple of years to tightening his writing. The more he focused, the more the music began to advance beyond what they had achieved on Capture. "I wrote everything that you hear on Ghosts during that time, on a typewriter, without music in mind," he explains, "just to get to what I was feeling and thinking. When it came time to add the music, I began to put the songs together. Each one was different: Some started with a distinct direction, and others took form on their own and ended up saying exactly what I wanted and hoped they would say even though I couldn't quite figure out how to do it."
These songs are a big step forward for Sleeping At Last. "Since then I've learned a lot about what I want to say and how to say it without being affected by anything else," Ryan explains. "Before, I was trying to figure out whether I actually had anything to say at all. With Ghosts, I've been able to write lyrics that are true to myself, more so than anything I've ever done. And musically, we all put our hearts and souls into every aspect of Ghosts. This isn't an album by a band that's just started to find itself. It's an album where we've found what we're looking for. There's not a single word on Ghosts that doesn't come from what I was feeling."
This conviction was apparent to Interscope A&R representative Mark Williams, who followed a tip from a friend at the Metro to the O'Neal house in Wheaton. There, in that same basement where the trio had first played, the process began that led several weeks later to their signing with the label. For six months, in early-2003, they disappeared into Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio in nearby Lakeview and, with co-producer Bjorn Thorsrud (Dandy Warhols, Zwan, Smashing Pumpkins) on sliders and knobs and mixer Alan Moulder (U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails), recorded one amazing record.
"Everything came out sounding exactly as we wanted it to," Ryan says. "It was especially fun to hear the strings being recorded and to watch as the vision we had for the album got pieced together into physical form."
As Ghosts stood poised for release, the world seemed to swirl more quickly around Sleeping At Last. On September 26, 2003 they began their first national tour, with Switchfoot and Bleu. Later in Spring 2004, they completed a tour with Yellowcard, Something Corporate and the Format, and has been touring consistently ever since. In early 2004, the band found time to film their debut video for their first single from Ghosts, “Say”. The video went on to win first place on Fuse TV’s show, Oven Fresh and the band was later invited to appear on IMX, Fuse’s most popular show. The video has since been played on many TV shows across the US.
With uncertainty a fact of life, and with pop music stuck in a cycle of cynicism, the resonant sound and upbeat passions of this band are ready to fall like rain across a desert of the spirit.
"Every musician wants to create something that's special," Ryan muses. "I think we are singing about something that’s different. We're all hoping that as many people as possible will take something from our music and have it mean something special. Really, that's our main goal."
Ghosts stands with its head in the clouds and its roots firm in that Wheaton basement. Even now, with the future opening wide before Sleeping At Last, Ryan, Chad, and Dan are probably down there again, in the glow of the Christmas lights they strung up around their practice area, getting ready to deliver these songs onstage, to excite new fans far from home.