Rock and roll has always been a bit of a boy’s club, but don’t tell that to Alex Kandel, frontwoman of Kentucky’s Sleeper Agent.
The rooftop lounge of Hollywood’s Bardot is packed with bodies and the stage seems impossibly small for the six-piece Bowling Green outfit, yet Alex still commands the room, bounding through the band’s energetic twist of alt-rock like a young, fiery Joan Jett. Backed by real-life fiancé Tony Smith on guitar and vocals, she and her scrappy band of misfits turn it way past eleven after opener Broods took a more *ahem* brooding approach. It’s a set that whips the Monday night crowd into a frenzy worthy of the weekend. It’s almost impossible to believe that the instigator is only 21-years-old.
“I got into this really early,” she says. Back when Sleeper Agent was down one kick-ass female singer and still gigging around Bowling Green, Alex opened for them one night. “I was maybe fifteen,” she says. “I know I was still in high school.”
Two years later, Tony offered to embark on an acoustic project with her after hearing one of her songs online, but that’s not what Alex was all about. “I told him, no – that I wanted to be in a band.” And once she sets her mind to something she’s not one to back down easily.
“I like to get what I want,” she laughs. “I decided I was going to be in Sleeper Agent and I just kept pressing until they agreed – or until they gave up, I’m not sure which.” She played a solo set for the band during her shift at a place she used to work (using the PA system set aside for open mic night no less) and would send email after email hoping for a response. “They kept me at arm’s length for a long time,” she admits. “But then one day I just went for it. I came to Tony and said ‘Hey, I heard we have a show!’ I learned all the songs in four days and just went on stage with them. I’m not sure they knew I was in the band until I was already up there playing with them.”
And all that persistence has paid off in a big way. With the release of their sophomore album About Last Night March 25th and the start of their first headlining tour this April, Sleeper Agent is on track to make some serious “Waves” this year. This is thanks in no small part to Alex’s emphatic attitude and killer performances, which bring the aggressive backwoods punk of Tony and the gang to vivid life.
I caught up with Alex sometime after their Hollywood show to talk more about Sleeper Agent, rock and roll, and tropical paradises. As I expected, she’s a rock star through and through.
Anthony: When did you first decide that you wanted to be a singer?
Alex: I don’t really know. It was weird. I used to sing in the shower or with my mom in the car, but never in choir or anything like that. I picked up the guitar when I was about ten and for some reason it was the most unnatural thing in the world to me. Before that I played a little bit of piano and I played the flute like nobody’s business, so I thought that it wasn’t going to be too hard. But for whatever reason it just didn’t make sense. I’ve gotten better at it since, but I always used it just to accompany my voice. The next big step was singing in front of people when I was about thirteen and then I joined my first band at fifteen. So really, I think it was a sort of gradual realization that this is what I kicked ass at.
Anthony: Is there anyone who inspires you as a singer?
Alex: Ronnie Spector from the Ronettes. Her whole story is really heartbreaking and crazy. Everything she dealt with from her childhood through her experience in the music business is pretty out there and yet she’s still able to carry herself so well and be a fuckin’ rock star even today. I adore her.
Anthony: What do you usually think about before a show?
Alex: Most of the time there’s this battle in my head to just shut out all the negativity. There’s always those little criticizing voices saying “Watch that note that you’re always flat on” and the other little bullshit things that no one will ever notice. So it’s just a matter of clearing my head and getting into that space where I can just rock out and enjoy myself. That’s something I always go through, but once I’m out there and performing, it all just goes away. It’s so hard to describe because it’s not really a tangible thing, but there’s a mental point that I hit where I’m not really thinking anymore. I’m just experiencing it.
Anthony: I get that. You let go and nothing really matters.
Alex: Exactly. I’m lucky enough to be in rock music where it doesn’t matter if you don’t hit every note perfectly as long as you’re having a fuckin’ great time. Everyone’s there to just go nuts and let go, so they respond more to emotion and sincerity over technical perfection. That’s why it’s called a show.
Anthony: What’s your favorite song to perform live?
Alex: Right now, it’s “Haunting Me” from the new record. It was a real challenge to record and I think that really carries over when we perform it live. It’s one of those songs that’s really subtle and moody in parts and also has this soulful Motown vibe that really doesn’t compare to most of the stuff we do. It hits a really personal note with me and allows me to get right into that mental space we talked about where nothing matters.
Anthony: What do you think has been the most surreal moment for you since you all started playing together?
Alex: Our whole experience as a band seems surreal if you take a step back, but more specifically every time I step off stage after a great show. You know the crowd was giving you everything you were giving them and that is going to always be consistently overwhelming every time it happens. You go through so much just to have another moment like that.
Anthony: What about the lowest point?
Alex: We were driving from Louisville to Baltimore really late at night when we started to see sparks coming off the trailer. We pulled over and saw that the entire axel was messed up and the wheel bearing was spewing oil and could have caught fire. So now we’re stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere West Virgina – oh, and it was my 19th birthday. My parents and grandparents had come to see us perform in Louisville the night before and had given me some birthday cash to make tour life a little easier on me. Well, we called a guy to come fix the trailer and when he gets out there at 2 in the morning, he tells us there’s nothing he can do, but we’ve still got to pay him $200 for coming out there to take a look at it. He yelled at us and threatened us, so eventually I just gave him all my birthday money. So there we are, spending my birthday on the side of the road and now I’m penniless. It was awful.
She laughs it off.
Just kind of puts everything else in perspective, you know.
Anthony: What can you tell us about playing SXSW this year?
Alex: Well, when we played there three years ago, we had just gotten signed, so it’s interesting just to see how far we’ve come since then as a band and as people. We’re definitely not the new kids on the block anymore. Back in 2011, I was still fresh-faced and everything seemed so new and amazing. Everything is still amazing, but now this is our way of life and it’s interesting to see yourself getting used to a routine. We’re tour junkies for sure.
Anthony: Writtalin named Sleeper Agent one of ten artists to watch in 2014. What can we expect from you guys this year?
Alex: Well, our sophomore album About Last Night drops March 25th, but we’re also extremely excited about our first headlining tour starting this April. We’re going to be travelling all across the country supported by the very awesome Holychild and Pagiins (check out their stuff if you can). And after that we plan on touring always forever, hopefully overseas.
Anthony: What can you tell us about the upcoming album About Last Night?
Alex: We kept the same upbeat energy and punk attitude of Celebrasion, but we took a more adult approach this time. I like to think we’ve grown as a band and as songwriters a little bit and it really comes through on the record. It’s really where Tony and I saw us going sonically and I think we’ve really accomplished what we’ve set out to do. Most of the songs took years to write, whereas a lot of Celebrasion was written on the fly right before we went into the studio. So, About Last Night is about creating something more than what just comes naturally.
Anthony: If Sleeper Agent was a cocktail, what would it be?
Alex: Rum, pineapple juice, and grenadine.
Anthony: Sounds like a tropical paradise.
Alex: Yeah, but with a kick in the mouth.
Don’t forget to download Sleeper Agent’s About Last Night available on iTunes on March 25th. And if you want to hear more of Alex’s random thoughts, be sure to check out her blog.
Tags : About Last Night, Alex, Alex Kandel, alternative, Artist Insider, band, Bowling Green, Celebrasion, Exclusive, Get It Daddy, Hollywood, Holychild, Interview, Joan Jett, Kentucky, Mom + Pop, music, Pagiins, RCA Records, Ronettes, Ronnie Spector, Sleeper Agent, SXSW, Tony Smith, waves, writtalin artist insider