On the evening of November 4, 2008, the world's eyes were on Chicago. The city's political star, Barack Obama, had just been elected president of the United States, and tens of thousands of supporters had gathered in the city's Grant Park to celebrate the historic occasion. Anyone with a Democratic voting record or a sense of history had a twinge of regret for not being among the throng. At that same moment, however, musicians Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult were on their way out of the Windy City and headed for a cavernous loft on Cherokee Street.
Since arriving in south St. Louis, the pair has left a brightly colored mark on the city's art and music communities. Under the banner Sleepy Kitty, Brubeck and Sult operate a screen-printing business, creating eye-catching posters for bands and venues around town. They also use Sleepy Kitty as a band name, and together Brubeck (lead vocals, piano, guitar) and Sult (drums, vocals) write effervescent rock songs that touch on layered girl-group harmonies, sound collages, noir country and power pop.
Sleepy Kitty recently released its debut EP, What I Learned This Summer, which features two songs and three snippets, sketches and roots of other tunes. The disc is less than nine minutes long, but it offers a tantalizing, varied view of the band's abilities. Brubeck refers to Sleepy Kitty's music as "choir nerd discovers Sonic Youth," an apt description given the attention paid to classical harmony as well as dizzying, experimental noise-rock.
For Brubeck, the move to St. Louis was a sort of homecoming. She grew up in Millstadt, Illinois (population 2,794), and attended Belleville West High School. She also has roots in the city's music scene from her younger days and played all-ages shows at the usual haunts. "I was in ska bands in my junior high days — one was the Radioactive Bananas," she says with a laugh and only a slight touch of embarrassment. "I was in this punk band called the Have Nots that played at the old Creepy Crawl." While in Chicago to attend art school, she played guitar and sang in both Stiletto Attack and sang in a '60s girl-group cover band called the Deccas.
Sult's pedigree is a little more high profile. The Bellingham, Washington, native found national acclaim when his very first band, Harvey Danger, caught fire on the strength of the 1998 single "Flagpole Sitta." Saddled with a one-hit wonder tag (and burned by a ham-fisted major label), Harvey Danger went on hiatus, and Sult departed Seattle in 2001. (Harvey Danger later toured and recorded sporadically in the last decade but split for good last year. Sleepy Kitty opened its final shows in Chicago and Seattle last year, although Sult did not perform with his old band.) After moving to Chicago, Sult was a founding member of the acclaimed quintet Bound Stems, a group that married math rock's shifting tempos with a fuzzy, harmony-laden sense of pop. That band called it quits in 2008 after releasing four EPs and two full-lengths.
But the pair's musical background is only part of Sleepy Kitty's brand. Sult and Brubeck had been dating when Brubeck began conceptualizing her final project in pursuit of her BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. The project, titled "Chicaghosts," married audio interviews and original compositions with photography and animation.
"It really works well that the first Sleepy Kitty stuff was graphic and audio," Sult says. "As we started thinking about it as a musical project, we also started screen-printing and stamping [the projects] Sleepy Kitty for fun. We just started working together. It became a fact that any work one of us did, the other one helped complete."
This type of "you wash/I'll dry" mentality shoots through nearly every facet of their professional and private lives. Forgoing a traditional marriage because of certain ideological concerns, the duo wrote their own contract and, instead of a wedding, held a "welding" at the City Museum. Sult says that their status is more in line with the domestic partnerships held by many gay couples and that despite that lack of tax breaks, the arrangement is perfectly suited for a lifestyle where artistic, musical and personal concerns constantly overlap.
Visiting the Sleepy Kitty loft on Cherokee Street illustrates this point. Aside from a few makeshift walls and barriers, the open space is a self-contained testament to the creative process. In the center, wire racks and broad tables hold still-drying concert posters; recent designs seems to favor bright pinks, blues and greens, a palette both psychedelic and playful. An alcove houses Sult's drums, Brubeck's guitar and enough keyboards to make Rick Wakeman proud. The space itself brought Sleepy Kitty to St. Louis; the possibility of working in a New York-style loft at St. Louis prices was too good to pass up. But according to Sult, the blank canvas of the loft required the couple to commit to the Sleepy Kitty enterprise full-time.
"We got to St. Louis, and we entered this big, huge room full of potential but filled with nothing, so we had to create the tools that we would use to create stuff with, which took, like, a year," recalls Sult. "The level of invention we had to apply to get to a spot where we could be writing songs and screen printing was high. It took a while. But the time to us seems to have passed quickly."
Along with making their new space work, Brubeck and Sult had to navigate a city and the attendant codes and unwritten rules that normally accompany art and music scenes. As musicians who have worked and found success in bigger, more competitive musical markets than St. Louis, they have a unique view on the workings of the various musical communities.
"St. Louis seems like it has tons of musicians with tons of skills, and my impression is that it's a really undisciplined scene," explains Sult. "The rules that help bands and clubs and poster makers and producers and studios and publications — the rules that have helped those things make sense and build on each other have broken down in St. Louis."
For Brubeck and Sult, it's not an issue of talent or even local support. (Sult calls community radio station KDHX (88.1 FM) "a holistically good force.") "In Chicago, you cannot play more than once a month or a booker will call you, get pissed off and tell you to cancel one show or the other," Sult says. "And if you even list future shows in town before your show has run, they will call you and tell you to take it down. At the time I didn't understand why that was so rigorous in Chicago, and now I do. A band can't draw three times a month indefinitely in the same city. A club can't draw to the same band indefinitely. The rules I didn't even know to question or trust, they are starting to make sense."
While Sult and Brubeck don't pretend to have a solution to an oft-cited problem — namely, why so many good local bands never make waves outside of St. Louis — they feel lucky to be part of a city and a community more concerned with substance over style. "St. Louis is like an art and music dorm, where you can instigate conversations, and bands can talk to each other, and artists can talk to each other, and bands can talk to artists and vice versa."
"Not everybody understands that this city, whether it realizes it or not, is in the coolest phase of being a city," Sult theorizes. "Musicians are working together like crazy, and there's not a lot of outside eyeballs on the space. We can talk to any venue in this town, and it wouldn't be ridiculous, and we can talk to any band in this town, and it wouldn't be out of hand for us to do it. In Chicago that's not true — and in Seattle that's not true.
"Right now the hierarchies are really mixed up and kind of absent. I believe in hierarchies — I believe in reaching up the ladder towards better and better things — but we're in a weird golden zone where the city has been passed over by the blight of the forward edge of modern culture," he continues. "But what we have instead is people who still relate to each other as people — KDHX being a prime example, and Cherokee Street being a prime example of human beings talking to human beings and broadcasting to one another."
For Sleepy Kitty, there is more joy in being part of a developing community than trying to shoehorn into an existing one. And it's that joy the spins out in the couple's infectious pop songs and candy-colored show posters.
"When I lived Seattle in the '90s, everybody said, 'You should have seen it in the '80s,'" Sult says. "When I moved to Chicago in the aughties, everybody said, 'You should have seen it in the '80s and '90s.' We got here, and no one was saying, 'Man, you really should have seen Cherokee Street in 2000.'" He laughs. "It's coming along."