- Press photo via Bandcamp
It seems hard to believe, but there was a time before Sleepy Kitty became ubiquitous in St. Louis' music scene. Years before Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult peppered concert halls with their fuzzy, nail-bomb pop songs or their Day-Glo poster art, and well before the pair took over publishing and editorial control of Eleven magazine, the pair was introducing itself with a modest five-song EP. That 2009 release, What I Learned This Summer, found the two at twin poles of their creative process, comprising two sharp, barbed tunes and three 30-second nuggets of sound collage and snippets of roughed-out jams.
It's instructive to revisit that first release in light of the brand-new Flux EP, released June 3 on Euclid Records. After two full-lengths, Flux operates principally in short bursts: Penultimate track "Right Words" fuses Sult's go-go beat with Brubeck's surf/punk chord progression, communicating all it needs to before 90 seconds have passed. The final cut, the instrumental waltz "Honore," mixes playground noise and what sounds like the wheezing of your grandma's old parlor organ. For a band whose last LP, 2014's Projection Room, was a more measured artistic statement, Flux is a transitional release, but one that doesn't shirk potency or politics.
"A lot of this stuff was written after Projection Room and a lot of it was written in the van," says lyricist and vocalist Brubeck. "We were recording when we could, and we weren't even thinking about a new album. All these songs were piling up, and I pitched it to Evan that we make our What I Learned This Summer of right now. I was realizing that we were going to outgrow this stuff unless we actually look at it and let ourselves play it."
As visual artists well-versed in collage, stitching together the fourteen-minute program came naturally. Brubeck assembled the snippets one evening and found that the EP tied together several strands of the band's 2016 identity. "We weren't intentionally thinking of it as a body of work, but on close listen I realized that it was, without us really trying," Brubeck continues. "So I made a sequence and did some transitions with some of the demos."
When Sleepy Kitty eases back into three- and four-minute pop songs, Brubeck is able to stretch out and make sly, trenchant social commentary. Opening song "Math Class Is Tough" manages to tackle gender, identity and P.C. over-correction through the lens of a childhood toy. In 1992, Mattel's Teen Talk Barbie was released, and the doll uttered a host of phrases including the then-controversial complaint that gives the song its title. A young Brubeck had that doll in second grade; she remembers relating to the sentiment and being baffled by the backlash.
"Combining science, technology, engineering and math — I get it and I get that they're all related, but I hated math and I loved science," says Brubeck. "To me, there's nothing wrong with hating math. I don't feel like Barbie is the reason I hate math, or that I'm stupid enough to be brainwashed by a doll.
"Really, what the song is about to me is that when a bunch of adults said, 'This doll can't say this,' they're telling me that it's wrong to think that math class is tough and that there's something wrong with me for having a hard time with math and relating to Barbie," she continues.
For Brubeck, the decades-old kerfuffle underlines what she sees as a still-constant belittling of women. "I don't understand why society feels the need to protect women so much; that's the biggest way to have dominance over someone is to be over-protective in a way," she says.
The EP's lead single, "Summer," is the set's most conventional pop song, though it too was born of Brubeck's self-described millennial angst. An NPR story about her generation's unwillingness or inability to amass the typical trappings of adulthood — steady job, home, car, retirement plan — brought to relief Brubeck's existence as a member of a touring band and the stress of trying to create and promote your art when racing against the ever-dwindling calendar.
"Booking a tour and deciding how to spend your time as a touring band, being like 'Where do we need to get?'" she says. "Sometimes I get so anxious just trying to figure out how to cram it all in. That anxiety and that relief — we're right at the front of it, we can figure this out. There's enough time to get everything done — I think!"
"The Flux EP came out as an exponent of that realization: we have all these things happening and how are we going to do it?" says Sult. "We're already thinking about what we're going to do for next March or April. Putting a release in the middle of 2016 helped us think about the year differently and be able to break it up into different units, and not just disappear in the rabbit hole of writing."
Stream "Mockingbird" from the new EP below: