Junior high and high school was a pivotal time in my life, encapsulated by the music I gravitated to, back when there was such a thing as “alternative.” The foundation of U2 and The Police, established by my two older sisters, and ever-present in our home in the early 80s, expanded to include other bands and artists.
Music provided more than entertainment, it offered a means of self-identification in regard to personal style, which lunch table you sat at, and what you chose for a yearbook quote. Friends were more than that - they were kindred spirits.
I still think of Chris O’Rourke every time I hear Mission of Burma, a band he introduced me to with a mixed tape, and I will never forget my devastation when he offered me a ticket to R.E.M. and my father uncharacteristically said no. (“It’s a school night and you’ve been seeing far too many concerts lately!”) I think my poor mom was tired of being the bad guy and delegated the unpleasant task to him. The next day, all my friends were buzzing about the show and opening act, a band new to us called 10,000 Maniacs. My dad and I laugh about this now, although he has no recollection of delivering that life-altering news, and all these years later, I somehow never made it to an R.E.M. show.
Chris, a guitarist and vocalist, formed his own band, Sleepyhead, while an undergrad at NYU, with his now wife, drummer Rachael McNally and bassist Michael Galinsky. The band produced four full-length albums on various independent labels such as Slumberland and Homestead, and toured the U.S. and Europe, sharing the stage with Yo La Tengo, The Magnetic Fields, and Luna, to name a few.
The current lineup, featuring Derek Van Beever (bass, keyboard, vocals), who joined the band in 2004, recently released Wild Sometimes, Sleepyhead’s first album in 15 years, on renowned Chicago indie Carrot Top Records. A few weeks ago, their new video for “Life is Hard,” directed by Kelly Davidson and shot by Dave Green, was debuted by the entertainment website, The A.V. Club, published by The Onion. In it, they take a backseat to their children, Finn and Niamh O’Rourke and Kai Van Beever, three apples who have fallen dangerously close to the tree.
I’m hoping to see Chris play in Cambridge next month, especially since it’s not a school night.
Five Questions with Chris O’Rourke
1. Growing up in Falmouth, did you have any mentors – family, friends, or teachers – who inspired you to pursue a future in music?
Even though my parents aren't musicians, they encouraged music a great deal in our house. They signed my sister and me up for piano lessons when I was in kindergarten. We took them with Mrs. Ewing at her house in Hatchville. She was kind and patient, and that was a great first experience with playing music. I then switched to saxophone in 5th grade at Morse Pond School and continued through my freshman year at Falmouth High School. Mr. Studley was the fantastic band teacher in those days at both Lawrence School and FHS. That's where I first got a taste of how fun it can be to play with other people, and that there is a social aspect to making music.
After 9th grade I sold my saxophone (to Seton Murphy!) so I could buy a guitar. I took some lessons at All Star Music in Falmouth. I think my teacher's name there was Mark. He was great and basically taught me how to play songs by bands I loved like The Clash, as well as teaching me some music theory.
I am very, very grateful to my parents for supporting me every step of the way. During the mid-90s, when Sleepyhead toured a great deal in both the US and Europe, they continued to be encouraging, even though we were pretty darn broke! My dad even named one of his boat dinghies The Sleepyhead! I think they knew that you have to seize these kinds of opportunities when you can, and that I'd eventually get a better paying job! (Which I have - I followed in their footsteps and have been teaching 4th grade for the past 10 years.) They continue to be huge supporters of the band today, watching our kids when we went on a short Midwest tour during our April school break.
Sleepyhead’s next Boston area show will be at Atwood’s Tavern, 877 Cambridge St., Cambridge, on Friday, October 24 at 10 p.m. $7 cover charge. For more information, become a fan on Facebook .
2. Who have been the most influential bands and/or artists in both your personal life and your career, and have those feelings sustained over time?
When I was in 7th and 8th grade, I started to realize there were loads of bands out there besides the ones you would always hear on commercial radio stations. While I know that The Clash, New Order, REM, The Smiths, Joy Division, XTC, The Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen are quite well-known, at that time in the mid-80s, I felt like I was in on a secret other world of music, and it was very exciting and inspiring. At some point, I started listening to WUSM (now WUMD), the college radio station out of Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth). They played bands like The Replacements, fIREHOSE, The Neighborhoods, The Zulus, and Husker Du, and I felt like there was no end to great underground bands.
When I went to NYU in the fall of 1988, I started seeing as many bands as possible in small clubs in Manhattan and at Maxwell's in Hoboken, such as Yo La Tengo, Antietam, Beat Happening, Dinosaur Jr., Game Theory, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Buffalo Tom, Galaxie 500, and the list goes on. At some point toward the end of my freshman year, I realized, along with Rachael and founding Sleepyhead bassist Michael Galinsky, that maybe we could do that too. (I actually met Mike because he saw me in the dorm wearing a Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt and invited me to his room with another friend to listen to records.)
Rachael learned how to play drums in the summer of 1989, and came back to NYU with her father's old Slingerland drum kit. Mike brought a bass and a bass amp, and we started practicing in an extremely hot basement room in our dorm, right next to the boiler room. I have found it very inspiring lately that some of the bands that first moved me to start my own band way back in the 80s and early 90s are still making fantastic music. Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill, Yo La Tengo, Antietam and Buffalo Tom come to mind. All of those bands have made records in the past few years that I think are just as good as their earlier work.
3. Going from bandmates, to husband and wife, to co-parents, how has songwriting evolved for you and Rachael since the last album? Does everyday life make its way into Wild Sometimes, or is music a creative escape?
While our songs really aren't usually autobiographical or confessional, everyday life definitely makes its way into the songs. I think the themes we tackle on Wild Sometimes, such as growing older and figuring out how to balance responsibility and the importance of staying young at heart, are themes we weren't really writing about on our first few albums. I like to listen to music that is about the challenges and joys of real life, so I think I end up writing about those challenges and joys as well. I feel like I've gotten to be a much better songwriter over the years, and it continues to be a very rewarding experience for me.
Since Rachael and I are both teachers, we spend a lot of time during the summer playing music and working on new songs. I do most of the writing but Rachael is very helpful. I bounce new ideas off her all the time, and now that she's singing lead vocals on more songs, she cares a lot more about the lyrics! We've decided that she will sing lead on at least half of the songs on the next record. We definitely aren't going to wait 15 more years before putting out another record! We're actually talking about recording some of the new songs this winter. Our shows in New York and Boston this fall will feature 3 or 4 songs that are too new to even be on the new record.
4. How did the A.V. Club come to feature your new video?
This is a classic case of “Ask and you shall receive.” We emailed them a link to the video and asked if they would host the debut, and they said yes! We were thrilled, as that's one of our favorite music and arts sites. This is our first record that has come out in the age of the Internet, and while some things are easier, I think it is just as hard, if not harder, to get yourself heard as it was in the days of paper fanzines, word of mouth, and college radio. There is just so much music out there and easily available. I feel like with this album we have slowly started to raise our profile back up a bit, but we want to make sure we keep the momentum going. That's why we want to get going on this next record and get it out there soon. We're hoping for two years between records instead of 15!
5. In light of your son and daughter's impressive turn in the video, how much a part of the McNally/O’Rourke family is music?
Music is really big in our family. Finn loves to play the guitar, and plays all the time. He takes guitar lessons at this fantastic place called The School of Rock in Norwood. He has a private guitar lesson each week, and then every Saturday they have a band that practices together. They do great music, too, like the Stones, The Ramones, AC/DC, and The Runaways. He also plays the saxophone at school. Niamh takes piano at the Dedham School of Music, which is also fabulous, and she is quite musical as well. She's going to start the saxophone at school this year too. There is a lot of music happening in our home on any given day. Maybe someday we'll have a multigenerational band like The Partridge Family! Derek's two oldest boys are great piano players, and I wouldn't be surprised if his youngest starts soon too.
Bonus Question: Whom did you most enjoy touring with and why?
We have played with so many amazing bands over the years, but there are a few bands that we did longer tours with. We did a long stretch with Polvo and another with Half Japanese, and also a West Coast trip with Codeine. We got along great with all three of those bands, and I remember those trips fondly. We also toured Europe in 1996, and while we weren't with another band, we had a great Belgian tour manager named Herman who was really fun to hang around with. Mike's college roommate Shawn came on one of our US tours, too, and that was a blast. Lots of great stories from all those tours!