By Juliana Russell
After a cross-country move, Joseph and Mike Pepe, and Meghan Tartamella of SLEEPLUST released their wonderfully majestic new song “My Place”. Joseph took the time to speak with Juliana Russell from Black on the Canvas, where we discussed the beauty of simplicity in music, letting go of the past, and the dangers (and remedies!) of getting too close to something.
What is your music about? How did your band get started?
Joseph: We’ve been an official band for probably about a year and a half now. Mike and I are twin brothers, and then Meghan we’ve known since high school. She was always a solo artist, and Mike is also a producer and engineer, and he would always record and produce all of her records, and I would do little final touches or whatever on the records. So we always kind of wrote together, especially Mike and Meghan. And then when Mike’s and my last band broke up, Mike and Meghan were in the midst of writing a solo record for her, and I was a lot more involved in that one, and so we started the band instead of doing a solo record for her.
Oh okay, cool! So what is each member’s role?
Joseph: It varies. Technically… In a live setting, I play bass and keyboards, Mike plays guitar, Meghan is our vocalist, and we have a drummer that’s not officially a writing member, but plays with us. But in the studio, everyone kind of does everything, which is kinda cool. A lot of times it’ll start with either me or Mike coming in with like chords, or a drum beat, some kind of percussion idea, then sending it to Meghan, or if we’re in the studio with Meghan, then she’ll hash out a melody on the chord, and then start fleshing out the song. But other times, it’s sometimes we’ll write something, just voice and piano, then we’ll do something around that. It’s very kind of random how things happen, but in a good way!
Yeah, I’ll skip ahead to a question that relates to that. What’s your compositional, creative process like? How do you go about writing a new song?
Joseph: Yeah, basically what I said there. We all live within like five minutes of each other, but we all have our own little production suites and our laptops. Mike has more of a fleshed out production suite, since he actually does it for the band. It’s nice to have it around all the time, whenever I get inspired, I just sit down at my keyboard, hash out some ideas, then throw an email for everybody, see if they like the chords, or where it’s going.
But yeah, it starts really randomly. We’re always writing. Like right now, we have maybe like seven or eight songs, but those won’t all make the next thing, you know what I mean? We’ll probably pick two or three, then keep writing after that. So it happens really randomly. It always kinda ends up starting on the keyboard, somehow. We kinda feel like a good song, if it’s a great song, it should be able to just be stripped down to just a voice and piano. And it should be played like that and still be great, and then you can do the production around it.
Yeah, that’s interesting. So what are some of your main influences and inspirations, musical or otherwise?
Joseph: Musical… We have a LOT. We all listen to a lot of different music. We love like Purity Ring, Broods… Mike loves The Cure, a lot of 80’s English music. I listen to a lot of hip-hop. That’s where a lot of the beats come from—I do a lot of the beat production. I really like Kendrick Lamar. Odessa, I love Odessa… Meghan does all of the poetry and lyrics, so I’m not gonna speak on behalf of her, but I know she’s inspired by traveling. She loves like vast open landscapes, deserts, camping, you know things out there, places that you go to find yourself. She used to be a yoga teacher, so she has that mentality—I think it shows through in her lyrics a lot. She’s very attuned to her emotions, and everything… The world around us. So she’s very inspired by that stuff.
Okay, nice. So talk about your new song “My Place”. I was gonna ask if there were any parts of the lyrics that you’d want to talk about… Are there any parts of that song that you’d like to talk about, that stuck out to you?
Joseph: Yeah, so Meghan is the main lyricist. Mike writes a lot too. She’ll always bring the main writing ideas, like the poetry. Sometimes she and Mike kinda go back and forth a bit. It’s not really my thing, to be honest with you. It’s never been my strong suit, so I kinda let them do it, but I know when I like it.
You can be the critic! (laughs)
Joseph: Yeah, exactly. (laughs) Sit back, be the producer, “Yeah, no do that! Do that!” So “My Place” was actually the first song that we finished when we were out here. We wrote a bunch of stuff when we first got out here. This is the first song that we actually finished finished, like did a full production of, when we came out here. I know that Meghan has talked about this in the past, I can kind of speak loosely about it. But it’s definitely about letting go, starting over. Obviously we’re in that position, starting a whole new life out on the West Coast, from the East Coast. Kinda letting things lie as they were… You know, when you’re moving away 2800 miles, you have the tendency to forgive and forget people that maybe did you wrong in the past, or that you didn’t have a great relationship with. So I know a lot of the lyrics stem from there, that kind of place.
Okay. So, anything about production, or the music part of it?
Joseph: I remember I was listening to Sylvan Esso a lot, they’re an electronic duo. They’re actually from Durham, North Carolina. They have this production, that’s always super bare bones. It’s like, what’s the most we can do with six instruments? So I was listening to that a lot, and I started those chords, those two chords, then it goes from there… I had mapped out one of their songs, I was like, this is so easy, but their production makes it sound so intricate, with all the other stuff they have going on. So I thought, let me have a shot at maybe just a two-chord progression in the verses, and see if I can make it sound like something, and it did.
Yeah! I caught onto that—that was good, I liked it!
Joseph: Yeah, and then from there, I had the bass… And then Mike came up with a little synth part. Kinda just snowballing… After we put that bass line in the chorus, we were off and running.
All right, awesome. So what kinds of programs and equipment do you guys use?
Joseph: We’re Pro Tools junkies. I use a lot of production packs, every one you can think of, on this laptop I’m using right now. But you know it’s funny, sometimes I’ll start a song with no idea, but then I listen to a sound. If I play like an E minor, but it sounds completely different with all these different patches. So then I’ll think, oh you know what would sound cool in there, like this hi-hat beat… So it’s funny that the same chord, but played with a different sound, makes my mind start wandering, or Mike’s… Or for that matter, Meghan will write differently if it’s just a basic piano sound, or if it’s a really ethereal synth, swirling around. The same chord, but the sound just brings out different things, you know?
Yeah, definitely. So did you face any technical or creative challenges while writing or producing this new song?
Joseph: I didn’t. You know, that’s why we kinda felt like it was a really good one, cause it didn’t take a lot. It was pretty easy. It was nice. Sometimes they’re hard, sometimes they’re easy. This one was kinda easy to get there. So there wasn’t really much difficulty. I think I had the basic sketch within about three hours, and I sent it over to Mike and Meghan. And then within… God, I think three or four days after that, Meghan had already written the melody and sent it back to us. And we got into the studio and recorded it. So within like a week, over two or three different sessions, it came together. So it was pretty easy, considering some of the songs on the EP took a couple weeks to come together.
Yeah, that was my next question. How do you generally deal with setbacks and challenges?
Joseph: So there’s this one song on the EP, called Moontide. That was one of the first songs we wrote together. And we just could not… There was something cool about it… We didn’t know what it was. So we just put it away, and I forgot we had it. And then one day Meghan was like, “There was this song [and it was called something else at the time], and I really liked that chorus melody a lot!” She was like “You guys should try to redo everything. Just keep the melody and rebuild it from there.” And I went back and thought, you know that IS a really cool melody, we should actually do something with that.
So I think it’s a classic example of when you get too close to something, and you just have to… Stop. And put it away. Move onto something new, kinda forget about it. And then come back with a fresh mind. That’s always my thing, I just have to refresh myself. And I know for a fact—he’s my twin brother—Mike is the same way. If something’s giving him a writer’s block or something, he just needs to go do something else for a little bit, and then come back.
Yeah, definitely. So what did you mean by “getting too close” to something?
Joseph: Like I’ll feel like there’s something there, so I’ll keep playing it, keep pounding away at it. Getting too close is a phrase I use. It’s just like, I can’t think outside the box anymore, cause I’m so stuck in that zone. So I just need to get away from it, and come back with a fresh perspective.
So do you all perform live very often? And what are some of your favorite and least favorite aspects about performing?
Joseph: Yeah, we love performing live. You know, my favorite thing is… I don’t know, people always ask me, do you like studio or live better? In my head, they’re completely different. But what I love about it is the instant connection you make with people that are there in the audience. There’s no faster way to get to know somebody, I think, than when they come to your shows, and you get to talk to them, and hang out. Playing live, there’s not really a moment that I’m not enjoying, per se. So I think we’d all agree that we love playing out, playing live. Like I said, that instant connection, I really get off on that. I’m a people-person, so whenever I can go out and meet new people, and connect with people over music… I’m stoked.
Yeah, awesome. So what are some of your future plans?
Joseph: So right now, we’re actually booking a bunch of shows in the spring time, in the L.A. area. Other than that, we just signed a few different licensing deals with MTV, VH1, E!… So that just got wrapped, so there will be a bunch of our stuff on TV shows. And then just writing a lot, we’ve been writing a lot, in between rehearsals for the shows and stuff. Like I said, we have probably about seven of eight songs written that we really like now. We’ve probably written about fifteen or sixteen already for the next thing. So, we keep busy! (laughs)
Awesome. Cool, and you said you were planning on touring—do you think you’ll ever come up to San Francisco?
Joseph: I would LOVE to. That’s Mike’s favorite city. He loves San Francisco. I’ve never been, and I have some friends up there, I would love to play up there. Right now we’re only doing So Cal stuff, but I mean it’s definitely first thing on our list when we get out of Southern California, to hit San Francisco. Surely because there’s such a good music scene up there, and Mike’s dying to go there again. So it’s a good excuse to get up there and hang out. He loves these things called Mission Burritos, from the Mission District… I don’t know, he’s all about them. (laughs)
All right, cool, thank you so much!
Joseph: Well, thank you! It was a pleasure talking to you.
Check out SLEEPLUST’s new single on Soundcloud: