Raise Some Hell: Sleeper Agent returns with ‘About Last Night’

Alex Kandel of Sleeper Agent performs with her band at the Warehouse at Mt. Victor April 5, 2014. The hometown group returned to their roots in Bowling Green after a long hiatus away on tour. They performed with Buffalo Rodeo, another Bowling Green group, and Knox Hamilton. (shot through a glass prism) (Luke Franke/HERALD)

Sam Osborne

Tony Smith had dreams of Nashville. Growing up in the Bowling Green music scene, he cut his teeth playing rock ‘n’ roll in basements and small venues in his hometown. But he waited for the day when he could grace the stage of a venue in Music City. That’d be the day he knew he had arrived.

“As a teenager, I always wanted to play Nashville — it was everything to me,” Smith, a 2010 WKU graduate, said. “If you’re going to make it, you have to play Nashville. They wouldn’t book my band or anything.”

Despite the rejection, Smith trudged on wholeheartedly in his creative endeavors.

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Smith spent his formative years fronting bands like Such Tall Buildings, The Decade of Experts and Assassins and Downtown Handshake. He was immersed in a Bowling Green music scene that includes the likes of Cage the Elephant, Morning Teleportation and the emerging Buffalo Rodeo.

Long famous for its Corvette heritage, south-central Kentucky has made a more recent name for itself through it’s budding music. But why is the fast food hub home to a slew of talented alt rockers?

Smith said the Bowling Green music scene has been hungry for attention in regard to its musical talent for some time.

“Maybe Bowling Green feels a little shunned,” he said. “We’re important too, we’ve got music and ideas and we’re gonna do it, ‘so fuck you.’ That’s kind of the mentality.” 

The breakthrough for Smith came in fall 2011 as the frontman for Sleeper Agent. They burst onto the scene with their raucous debut “Celebrasion,” a collection of fuzzy, fast-paced teenage rock anthems. The buzz generated by the band’s first album led to tours with Weezer, Fun., Grouplove, Ben Kweller and other respected acts, as well as an appearance at the 2012 Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival.

 The band kicked off its first headlining tour on Saturday with a hometown show at the Warehouse at Mt. Victor, supporting its sophomore album “About Last Night,” which dropped March 25.

Smith was excited for the chance to play an all-ages hometown show but said playing to a Bowling Green crowd is often stress-inducing.

“It’s not my favorite thing to do,” Smith said. “Mainly because I look out, I see kids I grew up with and parents, lots of parents. Maybe there’s a girl I treated poorly on a date one time. It’s a little more of a stress run. The reward is bigger too. If we can do well in our hometown it will be talked about for months.”

The southern Kentucky six-piece returns with a more polished sound, a departure from the frenetic brand of garage pop that defined its first album, but they haven’t lost their penchant for sugary sweet melodies and infectious vocals or the desire to raise a little hell.

“You never saw me coming/Cause we never gonna die,” Smith mouths off on the opening track “Be Brave.”

“About Last Night” documents the ups and downs inherent to being a 20-something. Some of the songwriting focuses on Smith and vocalist Alex Kandel’s relationship. The pair are now engaged.

“I think what I was going for was my experience with not only Alex, but just the rest of the band and being in my late 20s,” Smith said. “Learning how to deal with life and love.”

The album recalls blurry nights with old friends, awkward mornings after and bouts with bad luck on tour.

“It’s funny because when you’re in it you have to make it fun,” Kandel said of tour life in an interview with Herald Underground.

Kandel’s sultry voice was brought to the forefront on Sleeper Agent’s latest effort. Quite literally. Kandel and her purple locks stand alone on the About Last Night cover.

Sleeper Agent embraces electronic dance vibes on their new record, highlighted on their summery sing-along single, “Waves.”

Smith said the experience of playing and experiencing Coachella was a major inspiration for “About Last Night.”

“The entire 2012 Coachella line-up was a huge influence on this album, because I think I came up with most of the ideas at the festival a couple years ago,” Smith said. “We saw kids responding to the weirdest things. I haven’t seen people dance harder to Gotye. Seeing that atmosphere, I was like ‘Oh, I’m gonna make some dance music on the next record.’”

Sleeper Agent celebrated its album release with an in-store acoustic set and meet and greet at Mellow Matt’s Records and More on March 25. Store manager Rachel Feldman said the store was packed for the intimate performance.

“We had 80 total records of About Last Night prior to the show and there were maybe five left after their performance,” she said.

Matt Pfefferkorn, owner of Mellow Matt’s Records and More, has followed the local music scene since the mid-1980s and said Bowling Green has always been a hub of talent.

“Every town across the U.S. has great bands, but for some reason Bowling Green has always been a mecca for local talent,” he said. “Maybe there’s something in the water. It’s really nice to see it at full throttle right now with Sleeper Agent, Cage the Elephant and Buffalo Rodeo.”

Pfefferkorn said Sleeper Agent has intrigued him since its inception.

“I’ve followed them since the beginning,” he said. “I really enjoy the music they are putting out, the quality of it and just the energy.”

Sleeper Agent begins a string of 16 dates over the course of April tonight at the Loft in Lansing, Mich.

“We start in Michigan, make our way across the top half of the Midwest and to the West Coast,” Kandel said.

Smith said he is nervous about his first tour as a headliner, but fans need not fear.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “We don’t know what the attendance is going to be like. We’re just gonna go in and play a killer show every night.”