Sleeper Agent at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 15… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
A week ago Saturday, at a house party near Indio, a photographer nabbed Alex Kandel for a shoot. The 19-year-old singer for the Kentucky rock band Sleeper Agent slunk across the concrete pool deck just outside the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival grounds, surrounded by party girls, a bathrobe-clad designer Jeremy Scott eating barbecue, and chiseled-jaw dudes at an open vodka bar.
Kandel and her band were slated to play both Sundays on the second-biggest stage at the festival, which this year expanded to two weekends. But first, the photographer from the alt-fashion magazine Nylon (which hosted the party) wanted to snap a few frames. Huge white sunglasses — comped from an earlier radio session — hid Kandel's pale face as she leaned, a bit weary, against a stucco wall.
"Can you look a little less like you hate life?" the photographer asked. Kandel grinned, and the photographer clicked away.
Sleeper Agent has little to hate about life right now. The band, six late-teen-to-early-20s kids from Bowling Green, Ky., is one of the lowest billed acts at Coachella (the festival ends Sunday). Still, its set is validation that the band is on the way, especially when it's sold only around 10,000 records so far. Coachella is a glimpse of the good life that might be awaiting Kandel and her bandmates. If they make it.
The group plays the opening slot of the Outdoor stage at noon Sunday, when few concertgoers are awake — let alone past their hangovers and ready to hear new music. Sleeper Agent has played for big crowds (the act recently finished a tour with the top-selling rock band fun.), but still endures the small indignities of being a young band, such as clubs that make Kandel wait outside until set time because she's under drinking age.
For Sleeper Agent, Coachella is a break from the road— the 12-hour van hauls, fast food and touring's weird combination of loneliness and cabin fever. Even the bottom rung feels like a step up.
Sleeper Agent is the opposite of a typical Coachella buzz band. On the group's 2011 commercial debut album, "Celabrasion," members play a raucous, poppy take on the Pixies' early '90s brand of guitar scuzz, tempered with gentle synthesizers and meticulous drumming. It's not stylish at a festival where the Weeknd's narcotic R&B, Azealia Banks' spitfire electro-rap and high-octane dance acts such as Avicii have had the hype.
But the band has caught powerful ears — its members are old friends with fellow Bowling Green success story Cage the Elephant; the influential indie label Mom & Pop released "Celabrasion"; and they're managed by Jeffrey Azoff, son of Live Nation's chairman, Irving Azoff.
Around 10 a.m. a week ago Saturday, at a home borrowed from a distant friend-of-someone's-family (which was sleeping upstairs), Sleeper Agent's members sunned themselves by the pool like festival pros. Air mattresses sprawled across the hardwood living room floor; a Boston terrier bopped around looking for spilled breakfast bits.
They had been out late — a boozy jaunt saved by a sympathetic festival worker who gave them a ride home in a golf cart. Guitarist Josh Martin, a lanky Joey Ramone dead ringer, reverently remembered the Black Keys' set, which he caught by their house pool.
"You could hear it perfectly from back here," he said. "I can't wait until the day my guitar is that loud."
To get to that day, a radio hit is essential. Kandel and the band's guitarist and co-founder, Tony Smith, climbed into a black convertible driven by their promotions director, Michelle Munz of Q Prime (Martin followed in their publicist's car), and they breezed through Indio to a house commandeered by the San Diego rock station 91X.
The trio played demure acoustic versions of two singles, "Love Blood" and "That's My Baby," in a living room with floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls. They fielded the typical generic questions from the host — "What are your influences?" "Where'd you get the band name?" — that they'd clearly answered countless times before. Martin threw the host for a loop when he deadpanned that his dream collaboration would be with Joe Cocker singing and Sting on bass. They finished their beers and Munz scuttled them out to their next destination.
In the car, Smith and Kandel dished about some of their best early tour stories. "Once we spent a whole tour convincing Biffy Clyro to go out drinking with us," Smith said, referring to the acclaimed Scottish rock band. "We finally did at the end, and we ended up wrestling so hard we threw up."
The cars pulled off onto the dusty shoulder of a side street littered with rotting lemons from an adjacent grove. After checking in with some other music-biz allies — Warren Christensen of Q Prime and Michael Goldstone, the A&R vet and top brass at Mom & Pop — they trudged up to another commandeered mansion.