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13 December 2010

Interview: Ming Vauze of Sleepmask.

Sleepmask is Ming Vauze, Andru Aesthetik and Garey Spider, and they are based in Los Angeles, CA. Their sound is in the overlapping realms of jagged post-punk, ethereal textures and romantic sensibilities; a dark, dreamy sound that I adore. I actually met Ming several years ago, when I was scouring the internet for new bands in the shoegaze/dream pop/post punk realm...I was immediately taken with Sleepmask and proceeded to play their tracks (especially the track "Slumber Party Massacre") on my radio show. I lost touch with Ming for several years, and have always wondered about Sleepmask in the interim. Recently, and by complete chance, I was able to get back in touch with Ming. As you read the interview below, you'll learn about the reason why Sleepmask dropped off the radar for a while, among other choice information from the amiable and charming Sleepmask frontman Ming Vauze; but most importantly of all, you will learn that Sleepmask is back, and ready to take over the world. Sleepmask is a band to keep your eye on. They have big things on the horizon, and deservedly so.

1. How was Sleepmask formed?

Sleepmask was conceived as far back as 2003 while I was playing guitars in a band in Nashville. At the time dreamy music was virtually unheard of in that region. I was frustrated with playing conventional rock music and dreamed of one day launching my own project, but didn't have the courage to step out on my own yet.

After moving back to Los Angeles in 2004, an old friend/drummer Bobby Alt and I started a band called Faculty X, which was my first foray into death rock/post punk sound. Up until that point I'd been content to play guitars for anyone who had support of some kind with an established label, a 'gun for hire' scenario. It was my way of pursuing my dreams but, also toeing the line of 'respectability' in order to please family concerned with my life choices. But of course that proved disastrous, pleasing neither them nor myself. One must leap entirely into the darkness without fear. Compromise is not an option, but at the time I was unable to muster the inner strength.

At any rate, Faculty X was an exciting band for me. It felt great to be writing most of the music rather than just trying to marry my style to existing music that was really incompatible. But over time I still found myself frustrated by melodies and textures that were absent from Faculty X's songs. So in 2005 Faculty X was disbanded and I began writing Sleepmask music in earnest. I didn't know if I had the ability to lead an ensemble myself, but knew I had to see and hear my entire vision for music without dilution. Philosophically I believe in collaboration, but 10 years of frustration forced me to realize I needed total control of every sound, down to the littlest percussion part.

2. Where does the name "Sleepmask" come from?

I was sitting in a studio late at night, playing with imagery during a session in Nashville, sometime back in 2002 or 2003. Someone else was tracking and I was left to my own devices to entertain myself as I waited. I'd been reading a lot of H. P. Lovecraft, his dream cycle series. I've struggled with depression, having been diagnosed with bipolar/borderline personality disorder at a young age. Sleep has always been a refuge for me. I feel often, that the world can be an abrasive and overwhelming place for overly sensitive people. A sleep mask is used to shut off one's senses to the outer world, and allows one to focus inward. An internal world begins to open it's gates once we turn away from the 5 senses we use to perceive the outer universe. I feel that the imagination, the internal universe, is so often far more beautiful and magical than the immediate world around us. Somehow I thought the concept had an elegance and mystery that appealed to me and, I wrote down 'Sleepmask' as a key accoutrement to a realm we all hold inside, that awaits us when we close our eyes.

3. Can you tell us what you've been working on and what you've got forthcoming in the near future (new releases, tour, etc)?

I disbanded Sleepmask in 2009 due to exhaustion and internal band friction. I've had most of 2010 off and have concentrated on just writing new material. But the last month I've spent rebuilding the performing arm of Sleepmask. So I'm excited to say that we will be performing again finally in 2011! However, this project remains strictly DIY. We are unsigned and without support of any kind. Until a patron of the arts or a suitable label steps in to support us, a tour outside of the west coast is unattainable. To date, no producers aware of my songs feel a full length recording done on speculation is worth the risk. The state of the industry is dismal, as we are all aware, so making proper recordings remains impossible for me at the present time. I simply haven't the means to pay for proper studio time. I'm fortunate that my demos are well received by a handful of wonderful dj's in NYC, Berlin, Portland, and Chicago, but releasing a debut full length recording eludes me for now.

I do have one EP that is available on Itunes with 3 different producers, all friends of mine, who contributed their time and skill gratis. Which explains the disparity in the sonic quality of the 6 songs represented there. It can be found HERE:

I've also recently begun a new project with singer Dylan Dray we are calling Red Sun Black Moon. It's more of a psych/garage, trip-hop, and spaghetti western amalgam. We hope to begin a proper batch of recordings in January of 2011...

Sleepmask. Live footage at Release the Bats.

4. Do you consider Sleepmask's music to be part of the current shoegaze/dream scene, or any scene?

It's a tough question actually. My music has been labeled as death rock, post-punk, gothic, and shoegaze. While I'm a proponent of all these genres, genrefication itself is troublesome and limiting in scope. If anything, I hope Sleepmask music is a part of a catalogue of music that adheres to a strict concentration on integrity of content and form. I want to be a part of a dialogue, a conversation held by artists of all genres. Or, better still, all kinds of mediums used to express a belief that making beautiful works is the sole and highest aim that any human can pursue in our short tenure in life.

5. What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop artists, any favorites?

I've remained blissfully unaware of most of the work made by my contemporaries. I'm afraid I'm a bit too wrapped up in my own visions to look up long enough to hear anything else. And I don't really want to be distracted. But the wonders of the modern age of communication have brought some pleasant surprises to my ears! I recently encountered a band called Love Culture out of Ohio, that astonished and delighted me with their work. Some other bands that interest me are Veil Veil Vanish out of San Francisco and O Children. Though I don't know whether or not these bands fall under that category. I know there are others I'm neglecting to mention and I hope they can forgive my oversight!

Sleepmask. Voudou.

6. What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? Any particular guitars/pedals/amps that you prefer?

Truth be told, I'm not much of a gear head. I feel good music can be made with a broken ukulele, an empty bottle, and a wooden spoon. However, I'm partial to Fender Jags and Jazzmasters, tube amps, etal. I love my James
Trussart Les Paul guitar. It's made of metal, and is hollow, giving the tones a unique bell-like quality.

My secret weapon is a Digitech XP-330 Space Station, which are expensive and discontinued. So, rather hard to find. Also any Electro-Harmonix pedal always excites me.

7. What artists (shoegaze/dream pop or otherwise) have most influenced your work?

I do wear my influences on my sleeve. It's not hard to hear in my songs. But I hope that I manage to infuse some unique quality to my work as well. I love the Sisters of Mercy, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Japan, Slowdive, Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But I also draw a lot of inspiration listening to electronic music like Meat Beat Manifesto and Casino vs. Japan.

8. Can you tell us a little about what you are currently into (books, films, art, bands, etc)?

I love good works of fantasy and sci-fi. It helps to put me in a mood or state of mind. H.P. Lovecraft is a top influence. All the obvious works from Tolkien to William Gibson and Frank Herbert. But I enjoy poetry as well to inspire lyrics. Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Coleridege and Blake. I also love subversives like Kafka and Dostoevsky.

I also studied philosophy and earned a BA. I was very interested in the critical theorists and the Frankfurt School of Thought, Marcuse, Habermas etal. I love Antonin Artaud's madness. Chomsky. Barthes. Neitzsche's perspectivism also looms large in my thought process.

Films and visuals are also crucial to inspire mood. I adore Mario Bava and Dario Argento, the look and feel of Giallo. Ridley and Tony Scott have made beautiful films, German Expressionism. It's just too much to go into all of this. I could go on forever! But I can't forget to mention Art-Nouveau, Art Deco, Bauhaus. Anything that inspires etherial beauty and otherworldliness turns me on.

9. If you had to choose one Sleepmask track that was the ultimate definition of your sound, which would it be and why?

"Slumber Party Massacre" really is my theme. It demands patience, it develops dynamic slowly and subtly, and it is virtually wordless, almost an instrumental. Anything worth saying or expressing is most likely unspeakable using vocabulary. Language is for me a necessary evil. Pure sound is the language of angels.

Sleepmask. Slave (live).

10. What is the writing and recording process for your songs/records?

I write and record everything alone in my bedroom using Protools. I start with a simple drum loop to establish tempo. Then I usually write a bass melody first. This way I avoid conventional guitar chord structures, which i abhor as completely and totally passé for the most part. On a good bass line I can then construct sound sculptures with guitars, some synths, and piano. Then go back and add percussive accents like crashes, hats, etc. It's only when the music is completely finished that I'll even begin thinking about vocals. Melodies and cadence first, then finally, and least importantly, actual words and narrative.

11. What is the most exciting thing that happened for Sleepmask in 2010?

I spent the first half of 2010 in total seclusion and isolation. No band, no writing. Nothing. In June, I finally got out of bed and finished my first official 6 song EP with the help of producer Matt Hyde, who helped me get a limited distribution deal in the UK. Without his help Itunes would never have released anything by me. I had tried to register songs with them years ago and even sent them their registration fee which they promptly took and then ignored me. It's very difficult to be heard without some official and 'legitimate' form of representation. So i suppose that's definitely a milestone for me!

But best of all, the last 2 months have been spent rebuilding a performing ensemble. I've reunited with my original fellow guitarist Andru Aesthetik, who has spent his last year touring with the great Mark Burgess and The Chameleons since parting ways with me in 2007. I am very glad to be playing with him again. He's the only other guitarist I know who can replicate the tones and textures I use myself, and he's a wonderful asset. My gloomer twin. I also love my new found drummer, Garey Spider, who has played with everyone from Scarling to the Donnas. He's extremely versatile and talented. And he's also become an instant close personal friend. In fact, the synergy between the three of us is startling, and i can claim, with ease, that this particular lineup is the best Sleepmask has ever sounded, hands down. We are still seeking the perfect bassist to compliment our balance, but we have a couple candidates we're working with as we speak that are very promising. 2011 is really going to be so exciting!

12. What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?

This question is a tough one. I feel I could go on and on without ever really expressing how I feel. So I won't. Suffice it to say, the answers to that one can be heard when you close your eyes. Listen.