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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sleepy Sun's Bret Constantino dishes on the big bad breakup with ex-member Rachel Fannan

Bret Constantino (second from left) talks everything under the Sleepy Sun
  • Bret Constantino (second from left) talks everything under the Sleepy Sun

When San Francisco psych rockers Sleepy Sun debuted in 2009 with Embrace, the band earned bear hugs from other well-established and burgeoning acts, including Arctic Monkeys and Black Angels. One connection they lost in the process, however, was vocalist and sole female member Rachel Fannan, who up and quit in October 2010, right in the middle of the tour for Sun's sophomore release, Fever. According to Rachel, her bandmates were "a very difficult group" to work with, she wrote in a statement that detailed elements of her volatile romantic relationship with vocalist Bret Constantino. Hell hath no fury, right?

Apparently Constantino hasn't missed those boy/girl harmonies too much, because he handled the vocal duties on his own for the third album, Spine Hits, which dropped April 10 via The End. The result is one of focus: Jams have been slimmed down to a minute or so, and there's no trace of Rachel to be found. We did, however, find Constantino in the middle of Sleepy Sun's current tour, and for the first time he told his side of the story regarding the whole Rachel debacle: why he was intimidated by her talent, why it's been easier without her, and why it's still a difficult matter for him to articulate. Constantino also opened up about the emotionally-draining characters he created for Spine Hits, and the book he's gonna bury himself in the next time he's sitting on a porch in Atlanta with his beverage of choice.

Sleepy Sun. With White Hills, Sleepy Genes. $10. 9p.m. Fri., April 27. 529, 529 Flat Shoals. 404-228-6769. http://www.529atl.com/

So this is the first record since Rachel left. How has it been without her?

Bret Constantino: Oh it's been a little bit easier, to be frank. It's also a challenge. It's a challenge in the sense that we're - [sighs] - I don't know. There's a lot of people talk, you know? People liked Rachel a lot, and we liked Rachel in the band, too. It's been sort of skewed as far as what the band is about. It's always been this line-up, the creative process hasn't changed that much. Umm, it's good. It's forced me to step up my game a little bit. I've been a much better singer since she left. I was very intimidated by Rachel - and her talent. She'd always tell me, "You're not singing!" Always giving me shit, [saying] I'm not singing on key, and I'd say "I'm just tired."

You sing the same melodies for sixty days in a row and you sort of forget what you're actually doing. But then you also develop this psychology like, "What does this mean what we're singing?!" It's so weird to sing the same thing over and over again. But it got kind of exhausting for both of us. It was a strange relationship. But I ran into her- we didn't talk for almost like a year and a half. We were in L.A. staying with some friends and Rachel came up to the van [and said] "Hey!" [and] gave me a hug. It was the first time I'd seen her since she left the tour, you know? And that was almost two years ago. And so things are fine, you know. I think, I don't know, maybe I'm happy with the way things have gone because I've learned so much from her and the relationship that we had.

What did you learn from her?

Well I can't imagine any other woman being on tour with our band. Or well, maybe I can. It's just, it's very difficult. I can't imagine being the only girl in a band of dudes, you know? I just learned a whole lot of things from her romantically. She's a very passionate person, and I am as well. That was one reason why we kind of clashed. She's a really beautiful person in a lot of ways. I learned a lot about myself, maybe more so by having to deal with people that sort of have manic tendencies. Because you can't change people. For a while I thought, "This girl - kind of a firecracker - but I can shape it in a way that will be okay." And we did for a long time, you know, for two years or three years. Three years. It was people at their wits end. It's difficult for me to even articulate it or even reflect upon because it's been such a long time that I've put it out of my mind, you know? It was difficult to get over. By the end I was really, I was broken down in a lot of ways, questioning a lot. It's just like you break up with someone and you feel like you're a better person afterwards - eventually you do.

Because of that?

Yeah, and you're just a better person because you've gone through that experience, one which you'll never have again. I think it's a process thing.

How did the band feel after she left?

Well she left in the middle of a tour, so that was pretty wild. And we had a European tour booked that was going to happen a month later. So we had maybe a few weeks off before we had to go out again. It was scary. We didn't have much time to prepare or make anything new. It was hard to rearrange songs. There's songs we can't really do anymore. She kind of left us high and dry, literally, she left in the middle of the tour. And so of course there was backlash. We played in Paris and there was this guy, and I think we were playing "Golden Artifact," but I remember he had his arms spread wide, and he was looking up at the sky and rain was falling. It looked like a religious experience, which is so fucking wild to witness. But he came to the show in Paris and nobody really knew that Rachel was gone. We kind of downplayed her absence too with the advice of our publicist. They were like "Let's just not say anything." And she, she didn't like that at all of course. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Nope. She didn't!

So we didn't say anything at all so people were very surprised and kept saying "Wow, where's the girl? Where's the girl?" We'd hear that every fucking show. But this guy, in front of everybody, in between songs he kept yelling, "Where is the princess?! Where is the princess?!" It was just, oh man, it was upsetting to me because - god, that is not what the band's about. She was a part of the band. She was a big part of the band, but I kind of got the impression that people were misunderstanding our band and the amount of sacrifice that everybody else was making. It was really difficult, you know, and we persevered through it. It took us a little while longer to make this new record. I think there's really songs on this record, as opposed to jams.

Absolutely. It kind of sounds a little bit more pre-meditated than usual.

Exactly. I tried to convey a little bit more of a message or really stories and experiences. I tried to derive a message out of experiences. I paid more attention to structure on this record. We tried to present something right off the bat in the prelude or in the first verse and then resolve it by the end of the song. It was a conscious effort. It was hard to do! It's definitely our third record. It makes me want to write another one.

What was the message for this record for you?

A couple of the songs I really tried to put myself in a character's shoes, which was kind of emotionally draining in some instances. Like that song "Martyr's Mantra", I really tried to go into the self-deprecating, self-ridicule type of [lyrical process], purposefully. I'm not that kind of person. But I do think that everyone has the capability to be that kind of person. I really tried to put myself there and just kind of accept that for what it is. He's [the character] kind of giving into that dark side in a way, but then also kind of finding complacency with those sorts of feelings. Or that song "Creature", I sort of imagined myself as someone, like the first line [where I sing] "Who says I'm a creature swallowing my tongue?" - just kind of embracing that person in is just hard. But then to me also, these are issues that I deal with, that everyone deals with but just kind of trying to embrace them in a way, and become friends with them. Sometimes I would imagine a visual scene or something. I wanted it to be the cover of the album but it didn't work out because the band didn't like it. But I imagined this character dressed in a gimp suit on a beach like sipping piña coladas. And like just showing how beautifully out of place that would be. [Laughs] I dressed up as this character and went out on a beach in San Francisco and posed on this chaise lounge in front of this beautiful ocean. But it's like the darkest kind of character you can imagine - or I can at least - just because it's so ominous, with what's behind the patent leather. When I hear that song, I see that image.

Was there really a jukebox inside the swimming pool at the place you recorded this album, Trailer Park Palace?

Yeah and with underwater speakers! We talked about the possibility of sticking a microphone - the way you do it is stick the microphone in a condom and seal it off and you would have your mic. But how cool would it be to play something back and record it underwater? A lot of people use that term: "It's like 70's Bob Dylan only underwater" [in cliché stoner/surfer voice]. But if we could actually record underwater? Next time.

I read that you guys fan off boredom in the van by doing a lot of different activities.

[Laughs] Yeah. There's a lot. We'll read a lot. People have been playing Super Nintendo on their computers. We're really nerds at heart. I kind of want to make an ambient record that's geared to hypnotize the listener. But it's nice to look out the window too. There's a lot of boredom but it's actually kind of fun to deal with, you know?

Well sure. That's a great way to look at it. What kinds of books do you guys read?

All kinds of books. Like right now I'm reading Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller. I like Henry Miller a lot. He talks a lot about everything from erotica to philosophy to just being an artist, a starving beatnik. I feel like I can relate to a lot of those things and it kind of encompasses a lot of what goes on in my brain as well. Reading makes me want to write. We're still learning to write so it's nice to read things that you can reflect upon. We also read crime novels and The Black Dahlia.

You guys should form a book club because you know who else formed a book club?

Who?

My Morning Jacket!

Oh yeah?

I remember reading a profile years ago that said they had one. They'd get in their bus after the show and like put on their separate headphones and start reading and then they'd switch books. It was so endearing. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Well then we kind of have that! We like movies too!

What kind of movies do you guys like?

I just watched that Magic Trip movie. It's based on all that footage that Ken Kesey [who wrote "One Flew Over the Kukoos Nest"] shot in 1964 when they toured across the country. It's got an edgier perspective on things. Kesey is a great author, too. That book "Sometimes a Great Notion" was about this family logging company who goes on strike in Oregon. It's this really amazing book. But the narrators take different forms throughout the book. It's not very clear who's speaking because it's all these different voices. You kind of get to know the characters from their own internal dialogues which was really cool.

You should definitely read As I Lay Dying if you like different character perspectives.

Is it Hardy or Faulkner?

Faulkner. Yeah, one of the few books that I love.

That's on the list for sure. But I feel like I gotta really - it might be nice to have a porch to sit on, like in Atlanta, if you read a book like that.

Along with some bourbon, too?

[Laughs]

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