When COVID-19 stopped the tour, a Utah band reworked their sound

The indie-rock band Sunsleeper returned to the studio to see ‘how far down the rabbit hole we could go.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Indie rock band Sunsleeper in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 11, 2022. From left are Jeff Mudgett, Jacob Lara, Matt Mascarenas, Cody Capener, and Scott Schilling.

The Utah-based indie-rock band Sunsleeper were on tour in March 2020, and already had finished a couple of shows in South Dakota, when news from another Utah group on a road trip shook the world.

That other group was the Utah Jazz, and their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 11, 2020, was abruptly canceled — because Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. Within a day, the NBA’s season was suspended, and other activities — like rock shows — were canceled around the country.

“We were really looking at most of the year being out on tour,” guitarist Matt Mascarenas said.

With touring off the table because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the band regrouped, added to its line-up, and started writing and recording new music. Listeners are starting to hear the results, with their recent single “In the Clouds.” The band’s second album, whose name has not been announced, will be released later this year.

“If we were touring, we wouldn’t have [had] the time to write and also tour,” said guitarist Cody Capener, one of the new additions to the band. He and bassist Jacob Lara joined the three original band members: Mascarenas, drummer Scott Schilling and guitarist/vocalist Jeffery Mudgett.

“With nothing to distract us, it was just like ‘let’s be creative and see how far down the rabbit hole we can go,” Mudgett said.

A ‘collective’ approach

The band’s new music came from all five members of the band — compared to Sunsleeper’s debut album, “You Can Miss Something & Not Want It Back,” whose songs were mostly written by Mudgett and Schilling.

“We all just wrote on our own, [brought] an idea to the collective and built it from there,” Mudgett said.

In the studio, they built each song up, both vocally and instrumentally. That sometimes could be a juggling act with three guitars in the mix, which makes it easy to overplay. Lara said the band stuck to a mantra: “The song is king,” meaning they would do whatever it took — being quiet, or coordinating riffs — based on the needs of the song.

That’s carried over in the band’s live performance, Mudgett said. “Now we have an intention to have a really nice mix of all of our instruments [to] let everybody shine,” he said.

“In the Clouds” is a nod to the band’s new elevated sound. In press materials, Mudgett said the song was inspired by the summer of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest dominated the headlines. “Many people’s true colors bubbled to the surface,” he said. “This song recounts the realization that many people I held in high esteem in my life ended up not being the people I thought they were, including myself.”

The songs the band created during the pandemic are “not as vague” as what they made before, Capener said. “I can look at each one of the songs we’ve recorded, and in each one either has a person that song’s about, or something specific,” he said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Indie rock band Sunsleeper in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 11, 2022. From left are Matt Mascarenas, Scott Schilling, Jacob Lara, Cody Capener, and Jeff Mudgett.

Playing local, staying local

As the music industry starts to resume its regular cycles, the ones disrupted by the pandemic, the members of Sunsleeper say they’re more appreciative of the work they do.

“Culturally, we all value art more [on] this side of the pandemic,” Schilling said.

Mascarenas said the bandmates are more attentive to the little things — like noticing how they stand on stage, or if their shoulders are hurting in a certain position. It’s about being more present in the moment.

Lara agreed, saying, “you just never know when it’s going to be taken away from you again.”

They’re proud of being from Salt Lake City, and motivated by being part of a flourishing music scene. They say their versatility is their strength, because it allows them to fit on just about any bill.

They agree that their favorite local venues to play are Kilby Court — where they’re scheduled to play as an opening act for Slow Crush on May 9 — and The Urban Lounge, though they appreciate a good house show, too.

They will be playing a few festivals later this summer, and have another single coming out in May. Beyond that, the band has a bucket list of bands they’d like to play with and places they’d like to perform — with Tokyo a specific location where they want to make music someday.

Wherever they go, it’s “kind of a dream” for each of them that they get to play music at all.

“It feels like a trick,” Mascarenas said, “like we won for a second.”

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