We jumped on Zoom with math rock musician Xavier Hall, better known as Sleepy Dog, to talk about our favorite spots, intimate lyrics, and the creative process for his recent projects.
Do you have a dog, or any other pets?
I do, his name is Afro. He turned one yesterday, so he’s finally grown up.
The description for your album “Friends” suggests that the listener “Drive to their favorite spot.” What’s your favorite spot to drive to, and what makes it special?
My favorite spot at the time was this really beautiful spot about fifteen minutes from my house. There was this knob you could sit on on a cliffside, and you could go up there and sit. But now that I live in Shirley, I would just say driving around Uptown at night and just listening to your favorite music. It’s probably my favorite pastime.
Math rock is known for its complexity. How did you get your start with guitar, and eventually delve into this genre?
I got my start on guitar with my friend Grant, my high school best friend. Senior year he started going to more concerts and I kind of stopped doing all my sports and started going to record stores and listening to music, we were going to see Foxygen and stuff in like 2014, 2015, so it was a really good time for music, and I think for me personally it was the perfect time for me to go into music because I was so inspired by so many bands that are just doing it in their genre, and seeing them starting off and seeing the fans, it was so cool. When I picked up guitar, I was really inspired by those bands, and a lot of them were doing their studio work more at home, and that was really inspiring too, because I was like, “I could learn how to do that if I tried!”. So I started picking up guitar, and one I started doing that a month felt like a day and a year felt like a week, and time just kept passing.
A lot of your lyrics are very personal and bittersweet. When you’re writing songs, do these lyrics usually come to you first, or do you start with the music?
I feel like I’m a lyricist after I’m a guitarist, and I put the words in after I write the guitar pieces, in a sense. It might be harder for me sometimes to formulate music with lyrics, but I feel like when I do it’s very truthful and very genuine in how I’m feeling. If I don’t have that, I try not to force it. I feel like a lot of artists think lyrics are needed for every song, but I kind of feel like, “If it’s there, great, and if not, put those feelings somewhere else.”
I definitely feel like that’s something that’s captivated a lot more live, and you feel the music going through you and feel it in your head, and that’s kind of my vibration. I think that’s a really big part of how I write my music. I write everything to be listened to really loud, regardless of if it’s soft or not. That’s kind of my tonality.
Your song “Fallen Bees,” which recently hit one million streams, features what sounds like an emotional voicemail. If you’re comfortable sharing, was this an actual voicemail you received?
That was a real voicemail. She’s actually a distant friend now, she’s a really awesome person. I had worked through the song and written the song and once I had put everything together and was playing it back and forth in my head, I felt like it was perfect what I was feeling. It went with the song perfectly, it’s a really good part of the song that I like now too as well. I asked her before I released it, she was one of the first people that heard the song.
A few months ago, you released a collaborative project titled “Friends.” with Sleepdealer. How did this record come about and how did you adapt to a more lo-fi sound in comparison to your other music?
That kind of plays back to my roots. I started playing in 2015, and during and around that time I was more into the Boiler Room scene, like early Kaytranada, Dan Deacon, stuff like that. I originally wanted to get into like drum machine music, but when I picked up the guitar it felt so natural, like I could do it. It feels very distant, like drums to piano or whatever.
But that’s what happened, and once I started making my own music and started understanding things a little more, I got in touch with Sleepdealer in maybe 2017 or 2018. He was my first online friend, we exchanged thousands of emails. We talked every day. He’s a really good friend, he was living in Tokyo and that’s the place I want to live, and we were really hitting it off just talking each other. We finally decided to make music together, because why not?
Then it just happened naturally, we would make a song and then reconvene like three months later. That’s sometimes the realest relationship you have, like no matter how much time passes nothing changes. That’s how it is with him. It doesn’t matter, when we hit each other up we work really well together. That’s kind of what happened, we had so much music and just kind of picked through our stuff. We really fashioned out what we thought we would want to have last when we put something out. He’s awesome, we video chat all the time. He’s one of my best friends, it’s really awesome.
Your discography offers a collection of both instrumentals and songs with added lyrics. How do you go about choosing if a certain track needs lyrics or if it can stand on its own sonically?
I always start with some alone time because I’m easily distracted. I feel like a lot of artists are great with distraction because then they can output excitement. But I feel like I’m weird and reserved, it almost holds me back in a sense. I need to make sure I have the time, but when I do, I just tend to create really quickly. When I have that alone time and it’s just me and my guitar and my amp and no one else is awake, I can just turn it up and open the window. I start with my guitar first and just feel it out, feel the strings, and then after that lyrics come second.
I usually work on that for maybe an hour, or days, or weeks, or months. That’s the core for me, and that’s where I get the inspiration for everything else. Then I kind of feel out drums, or bass, or whatever. I feel like I’m more of a songwriter and not a composer in the sense of trying to output something. I try not to take it too serious, like think I’m an artist or whatever. This is just what I do in the middle of the night.
You also released a 3-song EP last summer called “Sweet Candy”, can you tell us more about making these songs and what inspired them?
Last summer was really big for me because it was me really getting back into music after a few months of hiatus. For the first time in my life, I needed to slow down because things were going so quickly. I needed to graduate college, and all that. I really got back into music, and that entire EP was my first night. I had been listening to this band called Sweet Trip, and they have these songs called “Chocolate Matter” and “Sept.” If you guys ever want to listen to that, listen to those two songs. Listen to the entire album, but especially those. It really captured how I felt when I first started listening to music, and it just felt so exciting. There was something that inspired me so much that I could never attain, and it felt so good to me. I was writing all night, I had my guitar all night. I probably wrote for like twenty-four hours. There was so much that I just made the EP.
Watching and listening to you play guitar, there’s no question you’re incredibly skilled and talented at what you do. What would you tell someone who’s thinking about picking up a guitar for the first time but feels overwhelmed by the learning process?
Until you’ve let yourself play until your fingers are bleeding, you haven’t tried hard enough. My fingers were so hard that I could knock on brick and make a sound. It’s not even a good thing, but it was like, I made my anxiety into a strength in a sense. I was like, “If this is the only thing that makes me comfortable, I’m just gonna be comfortable all the time.” I spent a lot of time doing that. I would just be in my room and my friends were calling me like, “Where are you?”. Or it would be two o’clock in the morning and I thought it was six at night, but I had just been sitting in my room writing all night. You really have to get lost in it, and not even really think about your surroundings. And if you try that and think “This isn’t for me,” then try something else. There’s a million other instruments, and I guarantee you’ll find something.
Are there any guitarists out there that really paved the way for you?
I wouldn’t even say just guitar music, I just love any music. Like before anything else, I am a music guru. Everything about me encompasses music, and it annoys everyone around me. I love music. I feel like I’ve scoured the world of music. I don’t really know who inspires me, it’s like asking “Who’s your favorite artist of all time?” and you just can’t answer.
I think Japanese rock is really inspiring. It’s almost like Japanese rock in that it’s really Western inspired so it doesn’t sound Japanese influenced, but the way they play it, you can hear that it has a different tang to it. That’s where I get a lot of inspiration, that it’s more loosely played but it still interests your brain. Japanese rock is what really inspires me, there’s this band called Number Girl. They’re probably my favorite band of all time. They’re this nineties band, and I would watch their videos all the time. It would be up on my screen like a Harry Potter picture frame, just repeating over and over again. My friends would get so annoyed because I was watching it all of the time. That band probably, for me, has encompassed a lot of my play and my style.
You finished 2020 off with an incredible 2.4 million streams on Spotify, what do you hope all of your listeners and fans take away from your music?
I hope they just take away that there’s someone who’s a little similar to them, and is thinking the same thing they’re thinking on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s nice to just relax and you’re your headphones on and go to your favorite space and take a deep breath. Maybe you’ll fall asleep for a few hours or something. I’m pretty sleepy, so that would be me. I take all my problems and put it into music, and a lot of other people might be doing the same thing.