Viking voyage

Tampa's Sleepy Vikings are on the verge of their first full-length release and national tour.

I'd been forewarned about the heat, rats and overall grime of the Sleepy Vikings' rehearsal space, but it's really not all that bad. We've just finished talking over coffee and sandwiches at The Independent; now we're in Northeast Tampa in a mixed-used public storage unit, navigating our way through the flotsam repository that serves as the band's front office. A windowless box in the back serves as their rehearsal space, given cozy character by a string of plain white Christmas lights and a battered disco ball dangling from the ceiling. Wires snake across the floor, hooked up to music gear and scattered oscillating fans.

Four of Sleepy Vikings' six musicians are present. The local indie outfit has earned significant web exposure over the past several months, and now they're getting ready to release their full-length New Granada Records debut and embark on their first-ever national tour.

Julian Conner leads on vocals and guitar with natural ease and solid self-assuredness. Tessa McKenna, his fiancée and dulcet-toned vocal counterpart, brings a doleful femininity to the band's mix of moody alt roots and driving Southern rock. She's also the youngest and least-tried member, and so the object of much good-natured teasing. Bassist Sandi Streppone, a teacher by day, comes off as quiet and serious until she lets loose a wry one-liner or self-deprecating comment or pointed input on a song. And drummer Ryann Slauson is a long-haired sweet-looking young thing who curses like a crusty old sailor and draws on a wide-ranging musical palette.

Conner is quick to point out that this rehearsal is atypical because two members are missing — guitarist, lap steel and banjo player Nicole Schleif, whose presence is felt even in her absence ("Blame Nicole" becomes the fallback expression of the evening since she's not here to defend herself); and newest member Sandra Covin, who dropped off some gear but didn't stick around because she was battling illness. Her bandmates have complete faith in her reliability, though; she joined the group in March a mere week before they were due to open for Ra Ra Riot and learned all their songs in the seven days leading up to the sold-out show.

There's a comfortable camaraderie in their exchanges, in part because three of the musicians played together in the popular but now-defunct Giddy-Up! Helicopter, which dissolved shortly after their sophomore LP was released and guitarist Nikki Navarro moved to Chicago. Though the musicians who remained in Tampa went through a mourning period, "We all missed making music together," Conner said. "So we just started hanging out and playing, just acoustic stuff."

They brought McKenna into the fold, got together more regularly, maintained their connections in the local music scene and when they were offered the chance to open for Vivian Girls in October of 2009, they accepted and returned to the local scene as the Sleepy Vikings. "That was our first show, with the fucking Vivian Girls. Pretty ridiculous," Slauson commented.

"It was really intimidating," Conner interjected, explaining they didn't have any material at the time, just rough sketches, and had to write enough songs to fill a 25-minute set, which they did hurriedly but successfully.

The band continued gigging in earnest, and eventually caught a lucky break when they were selected to play at Toronto's NXNE festival last summer. The sextet drove 26 hours straight to get there. By the time they started their set, Conner said, "There were maybe six or seven people watching us. We're like, shit, we drove to Toronto and we're playing to no one."

But three of those people were bloggers who posted their glowing reviews of the Sleepy Vikings' set to well-known online music sites, including Paste Magazine. An offer to perform in Paste's Atlanta studio followed. "That was the most legitimate thing we had ever done," Slauson said of the "Live at Paste" appearance.

The nine-track LP, They Will Find You Here, recorded over eight months at Atomic Audio, is marked by catchy hooks, unexpected tempo changes and breakdowns, and instrumental textures that brighten up the dark vibe — tinkling glock notes, retro tambourine rolls, multiple guitars building layers of sound with jangly rhythmic strums, distorted shoegaze haze-washed riffs, and echoing angular solos. The forlorn lyrics are delivered in the winding vocal harmonies of McKenna and Connor, hers a lovely honeyed drone against his warm lower-register buzz. "As far as writing goes, I just think sadness is more interesting," Conner admitted.

The album drops May 10 and the band embarks on a two-week Northeastern tour in support this summer, with a show booked nearly every night they're away. "The shitty part is, we have to fund it," Slauson sighed.

Hence, the motivation behind their current campaign. "We were kind of struggling to get the word out, so we hired this PR company, Fanatic, which we can't really afford," Conner laughed. The funds raised via Kickstarter will help Sleepy Vikings maintain the services of the Big Apple-based publicity firm. "Our fanbase here is incredible," McKenna told me before they launched the campaign, and the proof is in the pledges; at the time of this writing, they'd reached $1,830 of their intended $3,000 goal (they're presently at $2,395) and the campaign won't even end until May 20.


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