by Cortney Harding & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & few months ago, a friend of mine shoved a review of his band's latest CD in front of me and said, "You speak rock critic. Decode this." As anyone who regularly reads Pitchfork or any indie rock zines knows by now, music writers have developed their own bizarre language. A few pointers: lots of name-dropping means: "This band sounds like Pavement, and I know a lot about music." References to postmodern philosophers means: "I paid too much money for my college degree and now work at a record store." And waxing rhapsodic about "swirling psychedelic noise and beeping synthesizers" translates to: "this is a really, really good record to get stoned to."
Umber Sleeping's new self-titled album is awash in swirling psychedelic noise and many beeping synthesizers.
In all seriousness, though, the band piles on the prog and rocks the moog and the mellotron. "We're really in to mixing the old '70s psych stuff with the sounds of the early '80s and jazz," says vocalist and drummer Peter Tietjen. "The moog actually started as a jazz instrument before rock bands picked it up." Tietjen's interest in all things vintage extends to the other instruments the band employs: "We go for the old stuff because it feels more authentic. We still have five old-school keyboards. I have no interest in those huge new keyboards where you just program everything."
Umber Sleeping was originally conceived as a studio project when Tietjen started playing music with fellow prog-fan Chris Jones in 2000. They went by the name Orange Balloon for a few years, then switched over to the moniker Umber Sleeping and began playing live around their hometown of Tacoma in 2002. They played as a two-piece for a while and have recently expanded to a three-piece with the addition of Ames Jenkins, who plays the Wurlitzer electric piano. "Our live show is really energetic, but it does catch a lot of people off guard," says Tietjen. "A lot of people just scratch their heads and ask where the guitars are. We're definitely different than most bands people see, especially in the Northwest."
Like their live show, Umber Sleeping's records are upbeat and quirky. They released Psychedelic Sci-Fi New Wave Fusion Band Vol. 1 in 2005, and the title pretty much sums up everything you need to know about their sound. Earlier this year they followed up with a self-titled album on Space Rocker records that made no bones about the band's pop culture influences. Their Web site states that three of the songs were inspired by Three's Company episodes: "Double Trouble" (season 5), "The Bake-Off" (season 3), and "Downhill Chaser" (season 5). In an age when most bands tend to inflate the content of their lyrics ("This song might sound like it's about a girl who broke up with me, but it's really about world peace"), it's refreshing to see musicians own up to their Nick at Nite influences. On other tracks, the glitches and beeps belie the band's love of early arcade games. "We once played an arcade in Portland and it was the perfect place for our act," says Tietjen.
"I'm pretty proud of the new CD," he continues, "but I'm already thinking of new ideas and trying to set up some new collaborations." His next project is less about his own band and more about promoting his hometown scene. "I'm working on a comp of Tacoma bands that should be out in late September. There are a lot of interesting things happening here and they're not on people's radar." This comment might very well be a direct response to my confession at the start of our conversation that the last Tacoma band I remembered were the grunge one-hit wonders Seaweed.
Even with as much hometown pride as he has, Tietjen is excited to take Umber Sleeping on the road. "We'd love to do a big tour next summer, and we're definitely doing something on the West Coast in January or February," he says. "My band mate Chris is an English teacher, so we can only really tour when school isn't in session." As for Tietjen, he's managed to make one of his dreams come true and work full time as a musician, acting as a session drummer in Tacoma studios. "If I could just tour all the time, I would," he says.
Umber Sleeping might not be able to make a new home on the road quite yet, but they definitely have the potential to break out. In a musical environment that seems increasingly stale, trippy odes to sitcom stars might be just what listeners need. And even if Umber Sleeping never makes it to the top of the charts or catches the ears of the blogerati, they've created records that are the perfect soundtrack for a late-summer mental trip.
Umber Sleeping with Seaweed Jack and Paper Genius at Brooklyn Nights on Friday, Aug. 18, at 8 pm. Tickets TBA. Call 835-4177.
Umber Sleeping with Seaweed Jack, Vax Lavala, and Cyrus Fell Down at Empyrean Coffee on Saturday, Aug. 19, at 7 pm. Tickets TBA. Call 456-3676.