I’ll be the first to tell you that I have a tendency to be a bit jaded about modern music these days -- and saying “a bit” is being pretty generous, honestly. It isn’t that my love of the art of music itself has diminished any; indeed, it’s still a huge part of my life, and scarcely a day goes by where I’m not immersing myself in some random album. I am simply referring to the arduous process that can come along with seeking out new music: having dug and dug and dug into the world of music for many years, and having collected many albums in the process, the burning curiosity to keep going, to keep delving deeper, simply just isn’t there to the same degree that it once was for me.
The opportunity, then, for this lifelong insecure nerd to write on behalf of Smile Politely provides an interesting challenge, seeing as how it is quite necessary for me to keep my ear to the streets in order to meet the necessary job requirements. This has proved to be equal parts daunting (‘‘I don’t know anything! What am I going to talk about???’) and invigorating (‘Here's a chance for me to check out some new stuff!’). Fortunately, with the support of the good folks of SP and actively doing just that - pushing myself to get out there and seek out music that was unfamiliar to me - I’ve been able to find some quality music on the local scene that I almost certainly wouldn’t have bothered with before. Having said all of that: it is with great pleasure that I am able to introduce readers to a newer local outfit that not only am I very much a fan of, but also truly believe in their potential: Urbana’s very own Sleeping Okami.
I first saw Sleeping Okami live during one of their earliest gigs, a benefit for the Girls Rock! Champaign-Urbana organization, back in January. Though the five-piece outfit was down a couple of members for the show and suffered from a few false starts (which were graciously forgiven by the small, intimate crowd), I still found myself impressed with the group’s breezy, mellow, yet incredibly intricate sound. I’ve been able to keep up with the group’s exploits in the intervening months, including a recent excellent performance in May for WEFT 90.1 FM. Scheduling differences did not permit me to speak to the entire band, but I was able to have a very fruitful conversation with the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Eli Amariah, about its formation, the process of recording their upcoming album, and what lies ahead in the future, in advance of their upcoming show this Saturday, June 17th, at the Iron Post.
Smile Politely: For the uninitiated, what were you doing before Sleeping Okami, and how did the band form? How long have you been together now, and had anyone in the group worked together before the group’s formation?
Eli Amariah: Originally, I started living in a house with Dave, who was the leader of Duke of Uke, a local band around town. They’d stopped being active, and through him, I met Sarah, who was the band’s bassist. She, him, and I formed this band for a little while called Dolly Pop; it was very short-lived and didn’t quite gel, but I stayed close with Sarah, who was really encouraging to me, as I’d never really been in a band before. She suggested that I continue to write songs and try to play in a band, and she provided an environment for me to fully grow as a musician. When Dolly Pop dissolved, she and I continued to jam together, and eventually, we put together this band. We’ve been together since about October; we found the other members (Sam on keyboards, Lily on saxophone, and Tristen on drums) in about August, but it was around October/November when things were finalized and we started practicing and playing shows together.
SP: The band’s name is very interesting and memorable - for those who weren’t aware, “okami” roughly translates to “wolf” or “dog” in English. How did this name come about?
Amariah: At first, I had no idea what I wanted to name the band, and I was kinda putting that aspect off for a really long time. When I finally started searching... what can I say? I just really love my dogs! (laughs) I’ve had my dog Gracie for 13 years; I’ve had her since she was a small puppy, and she’s taught me so much about life and has always been there for me. Having such a deep connection with a non-human has really affected my life in very positive ways, and when I met the second dog, Evit, it really kinda gelled for me just how much I love dogs. So I was looking up words in different languages, and “okami” was one that came up eventually. I presented it to the band; Tristen is the one that suggested we add “sleeping,” and it stuck!
SP: About how many shows have you played now? What are some of your favorite places to play around town? Any standout gigs so far?
Amariah: I think we’ve played around ten shows? I counted recently; I think it’s around ten. We’ve played at Blips and Chitz three times now; each time we’ve played there has been a really great experience and it surprised me how much I love house shows, because I love being so close to the audience. The sound there is really good, too - for the first time in a long time at a show, I could actually hear myself singing, which was great! (laughs) I thought our most recent show there was among the best we’ve played so far.
SP: For listeners that might not be familiar with your sound, how would you describe it? Are there any bands or artists that you would compare yourselves to, or any influences that are especially big?
Amariah: I would describe our sound as jazz-influenced, electronic-influenced, and maybe a little bit of folk and soul influences, as well. Probably the biggest influence I’ve had on myself and my songwriting is the band Hiatus Kaiyote, which we’ve actually gotten a lot of comparisons to; I would say that they’ve probably been the number one influence on me and my songwriting. As my band was coming together, I’d just discovered Hiatus Kaiyote, and my writing has been pretty naturally influenced by them. Although to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to describe our sound yet because I’m not sure we have enough material to have a distinct sound! (laughs)
SP: I heard through the grapevine that there’s a Sleeping Okami album on the way - are there any details you can possibly reveal in regards to that?
Amariah: We’ve started recording mostly at home; we’ve been recording the drums separately in a professional studio and then recording the rest at home. It has been a really long and tedious process, and it’s the first time recording for everyone except our bassist - the rest of us are all new at this. So, it’s been a very steep learning curve, but I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed it so far. Ideally, we would like to release the album in late summer or early fall - we are fairly close to wrapping things up and we are very excited to release it!
SP: Lastly, what are some of your long term goals for the band? Everyone in the band is a local resident, correct? Do you plan to keep things going for a long time?
Amariah: Well, I’ve become super close with everyone in the band, and honestly, it’s the first time I’ve felt like I’ve had any kind of family, outside of my real family. I have to say that it’s been an amazing experience, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that we want to try to make it last for a while, a good long while. Our keyboardist just graduated from school here, and his original plan was to be moving away from the area, and I was also thinking about going elsewhere myself. But we all kinda decided for the band that we would stay at least another year, because we’re recording an album and it’s such a new experience for most of us. I just want to put it out into the world and see how far I can take it, and I think we all kind of feel that way; we’re all incredibly invested and we all feel really close to one another.