Imagine being just 16 years old, leaving school, and joining a band of 20-something year old guys to go on tour. That is exactly what Alex Kandel of Sleeper/Agent did. I couldn’t wait to sit down with her and see what life is like on the road. I caught up with her (yep, that’s me on the left in the cover photo with Alex Kandel in the shades) at Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, AL. after Sleeper Agent played their set. She invited us into the band’s trailer (which made me feel so super-cool) to talk about what it’s like to be a girl in a rock band. She’s the lead singer of Sleeper/Agent, which is THE alt-rock band you need to know. The band consists of Alex Kandel (vocals), Tony Smith (guitar/vocals), Lee Williams (bass), Josh Martin (guitar), Scott Martin (keyboard) and Justin Wilson (drummer). They are from Bowling Green Kentucky and will be playing at Forecastle Festival in Louisville July 13-15… and loads of places between now and then.
Popcosmo: So you were 16 when you started with Sleeper Agent?
Alex: Yeah…when I started meeting with them, writing, playing I was around 16 and then 17 when we started really taking it seriously…and 18 when the record deal happened. I signed immediately after I turned 18.
Popcosmo: And I understand there was a little convincing that had to go on with you joining the band?
Alex: Yes…just because it meant that I would have to leave school early and finish on my own accord. My Mom was understandably against it…because I was a really good student…that’s what I was going to do…I wanted to go to, like, this awesome college, I had it all lined up, I had college credits…had done the AP test, ACT and all that. In my Mom’s eyes, she was like ‘you can do music anytime you want’ but to me it was like ‘but not this opportunity’ and I was passionate about this opportunity and I wanted to see it through. And so my Mom told me if I wanted to do this it would have to be without her support and that I needed to understand that she was not agreeing with me. So it was my first adult decision as far as “Wow…my Mom doesn’t want me to do this but I can do it anyway.” But my Mom is my best friend so even though I did it, we worked on our relationship after the fact. And she was really proud of me because I did it, and I saw it through.
At this point Tony Smith walks in and plops down on the floor, looking ever-so-cool in his sunglasses. Like Alex, he is even more adorable in person. I find myself wanting to pick them up like a Barbie and Ken doll, squash their faces together and make them kiss. But it’s not like that…
Popcosmo: Was it an issue touring with guys…much less older guys?
Alex: Not really. That was never really the problem because my mom really trusts me to make smart decisions and she knows all the guys…they’re really good guys. They’re older brothers. I think she would feel worse if they were my age. They watch over me like hawks. They’re my older brothers.
Popcosmo: And there was some persuading on your part to get into the band as well?
Alex: Oh yeah. I weaseled my way into this band! There were like “Nah” and I had to really want it and really pester them a lot until they were finally like, “fine” thinking that I would…
Tony: Chicken out.
Alex: Yeah. But then I learned 4 songs in 3 days and we did the show at Mercy Lounge in Nashville which is a place that we still play a lot on tours and stuff so it was really cool that was my first show.
Popcosmo: And that was all it took?
Alex: Yeah after that show it was like “wow” and all our friends that were there were really excited about it. I think that was the first time we felt like a real band.
Popcosmo: And you skipped your senior year?
Alex: Well, half of it. I’m finishing up when we have time off…doing some work here and there. I only have 2 credits left. It sounds so bad (laughs)…but I’m in the real world now where I have this email to answer or these things to do and I’m doing this and writing an article for that and I have a job now and I’m going to do this but I have to crack the whip and do it myself now. There’s no one there waking me up and making me do it.
Popcosmo: What’s it like being on tour with all boys? Stinky?
Alex: If I could get rid of my nose, I would! Yeah…it doesn’t really smell pleasant ever. We all travel together in a van…we don’t have a big tour bus yet…so there’s a lot of sleeping in a van while someone else drives in shifts. But I’m very obsessed with my special expensive shower products that I keep with me at all times. And that’s, like, my one chance to be a girl when I’m in the shower…these fancy soaps and shampoos.
Popcosmo: Things are happening so fast…you’ve been Rolling Stone’s “Band to Watch” and you’re touring. When you go home to Kentucky do people treat you differently…especially boys?
Alex: Um…well, I would just say they’re a lot nicer. More friendly and more likely to approach me. There have been a few times when we are home when people have asked for pictures and that’s really weird.
Popcosmo: Most embarrassing moment onstage?
Alex: OK…I have a really …I wouldn’t say ‘weak’ stomach…but I get really weighted down by food easily. So I can’t really eat before we play because I move around a lot. And I will start to feel nauseous. So my most embarrassing moment is the time I ate way too much before we played one day and retched into the microphone. I didn’t throw up! But instead of singing…just, “BLEHHH”…that noise came out into the microphone. It was awful.
Tony: And there was that one show where you couldn’t move at all…you just swayed back and forth. What was that…Ichiban?
Tony: And she was so sick…
Alex: It was food poisoning. So it wasn’t just that I ate too much! I was literally sick.
At this point, Alex said she wanted to share some advice for girls who may want to go into the business…
Alex: A lot of times when we play onstage and stuff… just because I’m a girl and in music… for some reason… since I’m in a rock band… that’s not OK for some reason. I mean, you’d think we would be beyond that at this point. I’ve never been like, “Oh…I’m a feminist” and I don’t like that word but I’ve learned a lot from doing this. I had never felt as strongly about it until now, but if I want to wear a t-shirt and jeans, I will. But a lot of people, even women, have made a big deal out of the fact that I’m not attractive or sexy because I don’t wear tight dresses. I mean, they will openly say that about me and say that’s why they don’t like the band. And that’s always something I like to be for younger girls. I remember when I was younger, the girl musicians I liked were the ones who were just really honest and not all dressed up. You know, I loved Gwen Stefani in the No Doubt days at the beginning when she would wear a sports bra.
Tony: I remember you talking about her doing push-ups on the stage.
Alex: I remember thinking it was the coolest stuff in the world. And I remember watching Janis Joplin on some thing on TV and my mom being like, “See…that’s why she’s great because you can tell she means it.” So I think I’ve learned a lot. And when younger girls talk to me, that’s one thing I like to get across is that YOU define how you feel about your appearance. And if I want to dress up I do, when I feel like it. But I live in a van (laughs). So the way I act and the way I dress is going to affect that. But I still have the ability to feel pretty.
Tony: Are you talking about your Lush? That’s your escape…
Alex: Yeah. I told her about my expensive stuff.
Popcosmo: Lush? I LOVE Lush!
Tony: When Alex joined the band, we made sure to…we said, “Listen to The Breeders, listen to The Stellars…just like, front women who weren’t, like, front women. Women who were just part of the band and didn’t take sh*t from nobody. Alex is a sweet girl so she can’t be like that all the time. But she has her moments. Like in Seattle, you get the “show us your (boobs)” thing a lot as a girl in a band.
Alex: And that’s what I am saying. That there’s still this sexist thing…
Tony: We’ve even heard, “Show us your (lady parts).” And that’s not even, like… I mean…how would one present that.
Alex: And this was after we had been playing a while and you would think that it would… But I’m trying to turn it into a positive thing. I have a blog and I blog a lot about just being on the road and things that come up like that. And even some of our fans have been…well, they don’t know that I read everything and even though I know they love our music, sometimes they will be like, “I don’t like what Alex is wearing” and it’s so bizarre to be commented on like that. So the blog is my way to be like, “Hey…this is how I feel about that.”
Popcosmo: What is your blog website?
As we are chatting, Alex starts rifling through her bag and pulls out her Lush Shampoo for me to smell…
Alex: This is my go-to shampoo. It’s all coconut and conditioning and so nice. These are my essentials. I have about 5 Lush things with me right now but I have a whole box that I take with me if we’re on tour for a long time.
There is much discussion about Lush bubble bars and using 3-4 at a time when she is home. Then there is more smelling of the products and gushing and discussing of the favorites. When it’s time to go, Alex throws on her sunglasses and poses for a picture. Then she offers some gum that they got as part of their tour swag. She digs through the big box gum and hands me one. I look down in my hand and the packet of gum that stares back at me reads, “I Love You.” We love you too, Alex Kandel and Sleeper/Agent!