Sleep is a record of the night, when eyes are closed and breathing is slow. It’s a record of the wee small hours of the morning, when the sky turns from black to blue. And it’s also a record of those shimmering hours when, in the flickering light of street lamps, people roam the streets in search for a hotel bar still open. It’s the piano tinkles of whispered thoughts and strangers’ voices, with basses and interference noise throbbing like repressed desire at the back of your mind, and horn section stabs coming in like headlights of passing cars, lighting up the darkened room. It’s a record of the in-between, when your mind is too tired to not be receptive for the unexpected. When place and time seem to stretch and contract, following the strange logic of dreams.
Andreas Spechtl recorded Sleep over the course of two years. Spechtl, Austrian-born and based in Berlin, is the writer and singer of rock band Ja, Panik. In 2014 they released their much-acclaimed fifth album Libertatia (it was number one record of the year in the readers’ poll of Spex magazine).
Any comparison of that kind is inevitably flawed: but imagine The Clash’s Sandinista! transposed to the present, translated into German with poly-lingual references thrown in, listened to by a post-optimistic generation of urbanites tired of the phony imperatives of neo-liberalism and the ‘Creative Class’, ready to ruffle feathers, ready to change something because you know something is going to happen but you don’t know what it is, yet. Also imagine that Sandinista! hadn’t been a double album, but two separate ones. One being a collection of all the sharp-edged, stirring tunes; and the other one of all the fuzzy-edged, dubby tunes. In a way, this is how Sleep relates to Libertatia: it’s that other side of the rule of reason, when sexy slogans and catchy hooks have faded away and intoxicated tiredness turns into another state of perception.
But as said, the comparison is flawed. For one, Spechtl recorded Sleep largely on his own. Also, rather than dabbling in genre like The Clash did with Reggae or Rockabilly, Spechtl elegantly bypasses genre. In Duérmete Ninõ, for example, it’s like Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamato had telepathically agreed to send each other slow, searching piano and synth motifs over short wave radio, across the globe – and then suddenly a Spanish post-war mother’s lullaby interferes, before Dub-like warping echo sounds enter as well, and a saxophone eulogy. But this is neither Ambient, nor Dub, nor Folklore. It’s not Trip-Hop either. Sometimes you start to think: this could turn into Bhangra, but then it doesn’t. Or into film music, but then it doesn’t. These are fundamentally hybrid non-genre tunes following, as said, the logic of strange dreams and ghost-like appearances – not the logic of tradition and its appropriation.
Spechtl recorded not only over the course of two years, but also in two layers. The first layer, and starting point, where field recordings Spechtl habitually does when on the road with the band or traveling on his own. Anywhere from Saarbrücken on the German-French border, to Cadiz in Spain, to Accra in Ghana, and back to Dresden or Munich. The main reason he keeps carrying around the small recording device with him at all times is to be able to make audio sketches of ideas for songs and lyrics. But doing so he keeps recording background noises, the humming of taxi motors or the summery nighttime chatter in front of a bar. Commented on with simple lines like “No one lives in these cities, no one but Sleep” (Sister Sleep), or: “Germans, they get dangerous after dark, so watch out in Dresden, München, Berlin” (After Dark), encapsulating the ambivalence – and contiguity – between post-reunification xenophobia with ugly phenomena such as the Dresden-based Pegida movement, and the “dangerousness” of Berghain hipsters looking for intoxicating kicks and thrills. But then again: “Sleep came here to stay, sheep came her to lay you down” (Duérmete Ninõ).
These background noises of politics, machineries and everyday chatter were the actual starting point – the ambience which Spechtl recorded, and gradually turned into tracks. Interrupted by the recording sessions and touring for the Ja, Panik album, Spechtl returned to these tracks in early 2015, recording the second layer consisting of sparse dabs of vocals, drums, bass, guitar, piano, and occasional brass (Spechtl has played everything himself except the latter, contributed by guest musicians). Nothing is programmed here, but either played live or collaged from field recordings. Following the strange logic of dreams.
Dreaming, strictly speaking, is an in-between state: we’re not awake, but not in deep sleep either. Our eyes are moving back and forth. It’s what we share, across all antagonisms. The sleep of reason produces monsters, as Goya depicted and put it in 1799, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. But the sleep of reason also may produce strange, beautiful creatures – the antidote to the false certainties of reason. You’re headlessly in your head. Welcome to Sleep.
Jörg Heiser, July 2015