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May 15, 2008
A Light Sleeper is an experimental/indie rock trio from Chicago, and like many of the better bands in the city they are a somewhat hidden gem. They don't play tons of shows, there isn't an insane buzz about them on Pitchfork or whatever hip blog it is that everybody reads nowadays, and their recent self-released albums (2006's …And Your Eyes Before You and 2008's No Sudden Movements) aren't a serious threat to dethroning anyone from the Billboard Top 100. But this threesome of guitarist/singer/keyboardist Dheeru Pennepalli, drummer/keyboardist Matt Jung, and saxophonist Maria Elena Hernandez coalesce typical instruments in a not so typical way. They stretch ideas, layer organic sounds, and compose comprehensively intoxicating songs, somewhat akin to the way that an electronic DJ will draw in an audience with the ebb and flow of thumping rhythms and bouncing sampled melodies. But this ain't no techno, though.

Recently, LAS staffer Josh Zanger caught up with Dheeru Pennepalli to talk about songwriting, handmade album packaging, and nocturnal patterns.
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LAS: I became interested in A Light Sleeper when I heard "A Curious Preoccupation" [from their recent 3-song EP No Sudden Movements] on your Myspace site. How long has A Light Sleeper been around? And has it always been under the current roster and stylistic makeup?

Pennepalli: We started playing shows in the July of 2005. I'd been experimenting with a looping pedal in my apartment and developed some very loosely structured song ideas, basically with the intention of trying to do something as far away stylistically from stuff I'd done with the louder, more hard-rockish bands I'd previously played with. Admittedly, this was also due to the fact that it can be a major pain living in Chicago and playing in a loud band, where you have to go through the hassles of renting/sharing a practice space, lugging around huge amps, et cetera. I was asked to play at the opening reception for an art exhibit some friends of mine were organizing, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. But as it got closer and closer to the day of the show, I started to get cold feet about playing by myself - and also I was worried about potentially being perceived as one of those 'sensitive singer-songwriter' types - so I asked Matt [Jung] to join on drums. We played several shows as a guitar/drums duo, and gradually Jung began incorporating keyboards into my guitar/voice loops. Maria [Elena Hernandez] joined last October to complete the trio, and around the same time I bought another looping pedal to begin experimenting with looping her sax lines.

Prior to ALS, I know you and Jung were active with a band called Re:Rec. Were there any other creative outlets in between the two projects? When did you initially start playing music?

I pretty much went straight from Re:Rec to working on this band, and actually a few of A Light Sleeper's early songs are re-workings of later Re:Rec songs. But I did make a few attempts at assembling another loud band in between and before this band started becoming more active. All those projects were pretty short-lived and none ever actually played a show.

I cut my teeth with a band called Bargos Steeler back when I was living in Urbana (IL), and that band was active from about 1997 until 2000. I still miss that band, and maybe a lot of it is nostalgia, but I absolutely loved everything about being in that band.

In retrospect, I think the reason Re:Rec didn't work out is because we were basically four guys trying to re-create our old bands, or at least we subconsciously were trying to create a sound that was a combination of the bands we used to play in. We tended to over-think everything, it was all very meticulously mapped out and rigidly structured - nothing was left to chance, and I think we sort of ended up being less than the sum of or parts.

Pennepalli, Hernandez and Jung work out the jams. (photos by Lacy Weathersbee)

Is there any significance behind the name "A Light Sleeper"?

There's not really any big story behind the name, other than the fact that I, personally, actually am a light sleeper - which living right by the El [elevated train in Chicago] tracks means a lot of interrupted sleep and trouble getting back to sleep once woken. I just think it fits the general tone of our music.

Your guitar style is sorta hypnotic: extremely repetitive, theme oriented, clean, and hook abiding. How do you compose guitar parts when you write a song?

It has a lot to do with the fact that playing with looping pedals is entirely different from playing 'un-effected' guitar. I'm finding that with this band, the majority of my ideas spring directly from our improvisations at practices - whereas with previous bands, it was more of me bringing in parts I'd developed on my own, and songs would be structured around those parts. Despite the fact that it definitely does take a certain amount of mathematical thought to get multiple loops to sync up with each other, a lot of it is surprisingly instinctual. I'm getting better and better at being able to predict how a loop is going to come out and be ready to react to it. All three of us are getting better and better at that, actually, and really what helps more than anything in keeping my loops under control is the fact that Jung is a very versatile and incredibly adaptable drummer. If one of my loops is even the tiniest fraction of a second off, he's somehow able to adapt his drum pattern however is needed to keep it together. And of course Maria, being the only one of us who's actually classically trained, is always on her toes - and she definitely keeps Jung and I on ours, as well.

The presence of looping effects seems fairly central to what you do. However, the 'simplicity stigma' that looping intrinsically brings along with it is not what defines A Light Sleeper's music - for instance, track "Everything As You and I Know It" is heavily layered and composed. What are you, Maria and Matt stylistically going for when writing any given song?

Well, when we were writing as strictly a guitar/drums duo I think we ran into that problem quite a bit, constantly questioning and debating whether or not our songs were too repetitive; all the songs are basically just explorations/meanderings on a single idea or riff. It was hard not to fall into formulaic structures, e.g. set the loop, sing a little something over it, layer a secondary loop, sing another little something over it, then reintroduce the original riff for the end of the song. But the addition of that third element was what made the difference, what freed us up in terms of opening up a whole new set of options for how we could move a song along. But really I never wanted it to be overbearingly obvious that we're using loops - not that I think it would make any difference in how the listener perceives us, and I'm not by any means one of those stodgy analog purists - but I would hope that the electronic elements don't distract from the songs themselves. I mean, despite the fact that we do make use of modern technology and electronics, what we're actually going for is a sound that's more organic, more natural.

A Light Sleeper's hand-made, wax-sealed packaging.

Who or what are some influential forces to this band and yourself?

I tend to get attached to specific albums rather than bands, and I tend to be more of the curmudgeonly 'I like what I like and everything else is crap' types. Matt's kind of like that, too, maybe to a lesser extent. Maria's probably the most open-minded and varied in terms of the stuff she's into. Obviously she's very well-versed in traditional jazz - Johnny Hodges and Paul Desmond are two of her favorite players.

We've all got pretty eclectic tastes, but jazz is definitely our common ground, though I wouldn't necessarily call the music we make jazz any more than I would call it pop, rock, folk, et cetera. I especially like the more abstract stuff like Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, and of course Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Also I suppose, having grown up around it, classical Indian music has definitely had an effect on the way I approach melody, but my roots as a player are undeniably in rock music. My hands-down favorite album of all time, the one I keep coming back to every few months since I first heard it as a teenager, is Shudder to Think's Pony Express Record. That album had and continues to have a huge influence on the way I approach both guitar and vocals. I also love Smart Went Crazy's Con Art, which is just an absolute pop masterpiece… Nick Drake's Pink Moon is also a big record for me, the Sundays' Blind… Talk Talk's Laughing Stock… I could go on for days about the stuff I'm into, but Jung would kill me if I didn't mention his all-time favorite: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - though I personally never understood the fascination with Zappa, I always preferred John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Your albums - …And Your Eyes Before You and No Sudden Movements - are encased in some visually artistic packages, with detailed ink artwork on front and back sides, seemingly handmade foldovers with wax seals. Who is responsible for this side of production?

That's me, pretty much. I'm a graphic designer and illustrator. I've been making visual art, drawing mostly, ever since I can remember, much longer than I've been playing music, actually. I was probably drawing before I'd even learned to talk.

The packaging is always hand-made: we cut and fold the covers, and wax-seal them ourselves. It's unbelievably time-consuming, but I think it's worth it in that it adds a more personal, more intimate feeling to the actual physical product.

How can people hear your music? When do you guys play next?

We've got the Myspace page, and I just finally got around to putting up the very skeletal beginnings of alightsleeper.com. We're playing an all-ages show here in Chicago on May 24th, at this wonderful space called South Union Arts, on Union in the Pilsen neighborhood. It's one of our favorite places to play.

Some time in late June we'll be playing a huge party for the Infidel Group, a local arts collective we're involved with. We've done a bunch of their gallery receptions and group shows, and they're always amazingly fun parties - good art, good music, good people. They usually hold these events a couple times a year, and this one's gonna take the cake. Details on when and where exactly it's taking place are still firming up, so check the web for updates in the weeks to come.

MP3: "A Curious Preoccupation"

SEE ALSO: www.alightsleeper.com
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/infidelgroupchicago

--
Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other articles by Josh Zanger.

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