The duo Sleeping Lion came about in a very roundabout way.
The duo’s first year at Berklee, they dormed in 270 Commonwealth. Nate Flaks, vocalist, keyboardist, and percussionist, had roommates who went to bed very early, and he did not. Luckily, Noah Longworth McGuire a vocalist, keyboardist, and guitarist, would leave the door to his room open at all hours of the night. The two bonded very quickly, but the band did not really begin to come together until second semester.
“First semester, I was in a folk band called The First Law,” Nate said. “I was focused on doing this tour through Colorado, and I’d released an album for the tour. I was happy and proud of it, but I was getting frustrated. The band that was on the tour was not the same band after the tour. They had left and so I was looking for new members. So I decided that this kid who lived down the hall, Noah, would be a great person to have.”
The two began working together in The First Law; but they began feeling discouraged. The album had sounded huge, but Nate wasn’t looking to have a big band. Unfortunately, it sounded boring with only Noah and Nate. Luckily, Nate was about to receive some inspiration.
“I was going out with somebody at the time who was a Halsey fan, you know, before Halsey was Halsey,” said Nate. “She was playing at the Middleast downstairs for like 300 people. So I had gone to meet my girlfriend, and there’s this girl with blue hair hanging outside of the Middleast, so we just start talking. About 15 minutes into the conversation , my girlfriend comes back and goes, ‘Oh my god, you’re Halsey.'”
That conversation gave Nate a lot to think about. He wanted to apply what Halsey was doing to his folk music.
“I get back (to the dorm) and my mind is racing,” Nate said. “Because I love this, I love this idea that you can proactively chase commercial success, and organically but strategically raise a following. So I get back to the dorms and I’m thinking about ‘Okay how can I apply this to The First Law,’ and I hear Noah making sort of a groove in his dorm.”
“And it all clicks and I run into his room and I say, ‘Noah, we’re in the wrong band!’ And he looks at me and he’s like ‘It’s your band.’ That for us was the kind of the ‘mythic moment’; the realization that my band was the wrong band.”
From there, Noah and Nate set out to find a new sound.
“We went into it thinking, how do we get the loudest sound, the biggest sound, the most exciting sound, from two people? And we couldn’t do that acoustically. We got into electronic music as a sort of, ‘I’m angry that I can’t make folk music loud without having a lot of people, so how do we do that with two?’ Electronic music just made sense.”
Nate met Halsey around April. He and Noah did their first co-writing session in late April – early May, and they both soon realized why they should never do a co-writing session again. They both left when the semester ended, for New York and Rome respectively.
The division of labor is clear: Nate writes the lyrics and Noah writes the grooves. Over the summer, over Skype and Google, that is exactly what they did.
“It was like a bad Google commercial,” laughed Nate. “I would send lyrics over through Google Docs, he would send me mock-ups of grooves, applying my lyrics. Then we would Skype every week, just sort of talking about our strategy and our plan. And we never told anybody what we were doing. Sleeping Lion was like our secret.”
And the two managed to keep it a secret, until finally, on September 17th, they released “You Made Me,” which is the first song that they wrote.
In November, they released “Rug”, which premiered on Indie Shuffle. The song was written about by different blogs, and quickly spread online. Then it began to spread around Berklee, and Sleeping Lion started getting the attention of people both in and out of Berklee.
“I love thinking about the whole thing like it’s a math problem,” Nat said. “I’m a math kinda guy, and so the fact that an algorithm picked ‘Generous’ for this up-and-coming discovery program, for Fresh Finds, for me is a kind of nice validation that we’re doing the math right.”
And these three singles are just the beginning. An EP is scheduled to be released in just a few weeks, another one may possibly grace the internet over the summer, and a full album will premiere in September.
“The recording session for our EP was really fun,” Nate said. “We only had 6 or 7 hours to do the whole thing and it was like this well-oiled machine. We recorded at Keep the Edge in Quincy, which is an awesome, awesome studio, and we knocked out the vocals first. It’s great because we actually have video, so you can actually see everything.”
There is one song on the EP with a fairly developed horn arrangement – a last-minute addition that resulted in some interesting video footage.
“Essentially, I decided a week before the recording session that I wanted horns. So in that week, we got the players and friend of ours arranged the horns. We were making our edits in the studio, which, when you’re paying by the hour, is not the best idea,” laughed Nate. “You had the guy who was arranging horns and Noah in one room talking about the horn arrangement, the actual horn players in another room sort of mulling over these changes that are happening as they’re happening, and someone else recording a solo line that was already finished.”
It wasn’t just the horns that made an incredible late addition to the track.
“Then the camera moves and pans and you see me with Megan McGarry talking about, ‘What if “Rug” had a fiddle line? What if we were to harmonize that fiddle line?’ And so we were essentially verbally writing the fiddle line that ends up being at the end of “Rug”. It’s all happening. And for me, that was so exciting because that could have been a train wreck. We worked really hard to ensure that it was a smooth process.”
With the core of Sleeping Lion being a duo, it may seem odd that they’ve brought in so many other musicians to record. But the reason, Nate says, is simple.
“I have this really strong belief, and a lot of the times when things get rough for Sleeping Lion, when it’s a late night or whatever, where my head and heart go is this expression: ‘If I got a job, you got a job or you know, this one sounds more like a mafia thing but: ‘If I eat, the family eats.’ I just love getting friends involved in things because then we get to share this,” Nate said. “Then it’s not just Noah and I in the room, it’s all of us. What’s lucky is that you can’t make a bad decision at this school. Everybody’s really, really great. I love The Walk Off, I listen to them all the time and the guys in The Walk Off are so awesome, so we were like okay let’s get Eddy Allen to scream some vocals on the gang vocals. I love BEARD, let’s get Isaiah Beard to do the gang vocals. Jake Courlang plays bass for The Walk Off, let’s get him to play bass on “Rug” and this track called “Morning Coffee”. Alan Hsiao is one of my best friends at Berklee and also happens to be an insane trombone player, so we had him come in as well.”
And many others helped make the track possible. Jesse Hartov helped arrange the horn section. Wes Schrimsher came in on saxophone, Nicholas Alleyne played trumpet, and Alex Agresti played drums.
“It’s just about how do we get as many people as we want involved on this track? I don’t want us to be celebrating in our dorm,” Nate said. “If we hit the road, I don’t want it to be an empty bus of just Noah and I. We see enough of each other. Love him to death, and we’re super, super close, but I want to share this with people. So if we get to have those moments it’s really fun. It makes it worth it.”
Everything seems to be running smoothly for the duo, who had their first live show this past Saturday.
“Just the fact that there were 20 different things that could have gone wrong and none of them did is amazing,” Nate said. “Our live setup was adapted from Jack Garratt. I have a 25-key keyboard, so I have the SPD next to me, and then the one-octave keyboard set to a sub-bass, and that’s my set up. Noah has a keyboard that has all of our synthesizer patches that Noah built and that he can switch through depending on the song. Noah plays keyboard and he plays guitar for certain things. We split it up. Mostly because, for certain songs, we don’t loop anything so we can’t necessarily have one thing going on, and then another at the same time.”
The duo also had a special guest onstage with them: their computer, HAL, named after the evil AI from “Space Odyssey.”
“When we’re trying to figure out what’s in the backing track versus what can we physically play ourselves, we always call it a battle with HAL or say ‘we’re fighting with HAL,'” Nate laughed. “And HAL’s symbol, what HAL looks like in the movie is just this circle with a red light, and our MIDI reader is actually that red light. So its such a nerdy thing.”
Sleeping Lion even included a clip from “Space Odyssey in their live show of HAL singing the song, called “Daisy,” which then went into another song.
“But that show was insane, and we had no idea who was going to come out, we didn’t know what that whole thing would be like, if anything would work,” Nate said. “Our first song was a rocky start, but afterwards people were singing along. I remember, I was setting up the wires and in my head I was thinking about what to say. Everybody had been sitting for all the opening acts, and I remember sort of mirror talking, if you will, like ‘For this to work, we need everybody standing up close to the stage,’ and I finished patching up my station, and I stand up, and everybody is standing up close to the stage. “
“And I was just like ‘Alright’,” he laughed. “I didn’t even have to do anything. And then I thought, ‘Alright, let’s do this.’ It was the first time I ever sang with a mic. First time I ever sang – there’s one song called ‘Happy For’ where I move from my station, and I’m just standing on the stage. It’s terrifying… but I think I’ve seen enough bands do it to channel my inner Mattie Healy and try to make the most of it.”
With the knowledge and comfort of a gig well played, Nate feels confident that Sleeping Lion is heading in the right direction.
“We’re moving at a pretty rapid pace right now, which I’m really happy about and I really want it to keep moving in the way that it is. I don’t want it to slow down,” he said. “In the future, maybe we open on a tour, or we do our own tour, or we play festivals. I really want to do festivals. Electric Forest would be so cool, or something like Firefly. Our goal is just to grow. If deals come our way, if other opportunities come our way, we’ll consider them, and we’ll take the necessary steps to figure out what would be best for the group. I think we just want to see that nothing is stopping, that we’re still moving every day.“
Despite their recent success, there are always moments of doubt.
“Our biggest difficulties come from our wondering, can we really do this? We’re sort of new to electronic music, like who are we to actually be making it in the first place? What gives us the audacity to be a part of it? But with that said, we don’t really have that many difficulties with each other, unless we’re really sleep deprived,” he laughed.
“I feel like I Forrest Gumped electronic music, to a certain degree.”
“I grew up listening to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Yes, which use a lot of Moog Synthesizers. When I reach an appropriate age to watch it, I was a big Kubrick fan, which had Wendy Carlos, who’s one of the people who brought synthesizing music into a popular domain. It was just always in the background.”
Nate also loved Imogen Heap growing up, and listened to a lot of Björk as a kid.
“Then my best friends got into dubstep about a year before it hit, listening to UKF, and it was playing in the car,” he said. “I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what they saw in it, but then I heard Deadmau5, and some of the more progressive house ideas, but all of it was happening in the background. I went out with somebody who’s a big fan of The 1975. I also become a big Bon Iver fan and he’s doing some interesting synthesizer, electronic stuff but it’s not electronic music. I’m going to raves with my friends because they love going and I love going with them.”
Electronic music just hadn’t been Nate’s scene.
“And I’m doing my folk music, which they can’t stand by the way. They can’t stand listening to it,” he laughed. “And then we’re in the tour van, touring through Colorado, blasting Jack Garratt and James Blake and Robert Glasper and still it’s all in the background. And I’m just not paying attention. And then I meet Halsey, and everything that was in the background shifts.”
“I’m pretty sure an epiphany is just everything in your periphery just coming into focus.“
Finally, it all made sense. Noah has a quote he likes to say a lot: “All music is the history of music.”
“And so, we have our imposter syndrome every once in a while, but we grew up with this transformation happening around us,” Nate said. “We felt, ‘Hide and Seek’ when it first came out, and that whole album blew my mind. Going back farther, all of this is the history of electronic music that we were witnessing passively, and now we’re trying to actively make a mark in it.”
More than anything else, Nate says, Sleeping Lion is an opportunity.
“Electronic music can be made now by these DIY artists with immense amounts of talent who are able to do these things from their tour bus with their headphones. Artists are able to do it on the fly, wherever,” he said. “Jack Garratt, Lido, Halsey… they’re these bedroom successes that are happening more frequently now and what’s really cool is that you start seeing it bleed into pop music. You see Justin Bieber taking cues from it, you see Uptown Funk. What I love is that there are amazing opportunities for people to really be expressive about what they’re doing.”