“When we started, we were smoking lots of pot and taking acid, and the soundtrack to all of our fucking lives at the time was essentially Black Sabbath,” says Al Cisneros, vocalist, bassist and chief somnambulist for the quintessential stoner-doom metal band Sleep, which formed in the early Nineties. “Our entire universe was Black Sabbath. We couldn’t understand why the bands that we didn’t like were playing so fast.”
So what’s different today, now that the trio has returned from a long slumber with The Sciences, their excellent first long player in nearly two decades? “I quit taking acid in the early Nineties,” he says.
The record, which came out as a surprise release on 4/20, kicks off with three minutes of piercing feedback and gut-rumbling riffing (a track called “The Sciences” that guitarist Matt Pike concocted “trying to make Al laugh”) and before kicking into 50 minutes of swinging, blues metal that worships at the altar of Black Sabbath. One of the standouts is titled “Giza Butler,” a pun on Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler’s name. The sludgy “Marijuanaut’s Theme” starts with Cisneros lighting a bong filled with his favorite herb. And the band still plays at tempos just fast enough to keep them out of the ER. In other words, it’s business as usual.
So it’s been a surprise to the band members that the reception for The Sciences has been unlike any they’ve ever gotten. The LP, which came out on Jack White’s label, Third Man, has sold enough copies that it peaked at Number 12 on the Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart and Number Two on the Hard Rock Albums chart. Although the musicians have carried on in other groups – Cisneros heads up the drone ensemble Om, Pike fronts metal cult heroes High on Fire and drummer Jason Roeder hails from Neurosis – none have achieved this level of success.
“That’s a fucking anomaly,” says Pike, sounding amazed as he eats breakfast and does laundry before a Sleep gig in Milan. “I have never made it on the charts, and I don’t see High on Fire doing that anytime soon.”
“It’s somewhat surreal,” Cisneros says, plunking at his bass the day before as he awaits a soundcheck with the band in Düdingen, Switzerland. “We certainly didn’t make a record hoping to get onto those charts. So I did a double take. I’m like, ‘Whoa. Huh. Wow.'”
A big part of the reason for the trio’s success is the way Sleep’s legacy has grown since the 1999 release of their third full-length, Jerusalem (later retitled Dopesmoker) – an hour-long, doomy dirge that was so audacious that it has since resonated with metalheads and hipsters alike as multiple labels have reissued it. It’s a significant enough LP that it ranked among Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time, but creating it was such a weighty task that when the first label to put it out chopped it into sections, the trio broke up out of distress. They reunited in 2009 with original drummer Chris Hakius and carried on the next year with Roeder. With a higher profile due to the underground success of Pike’s High on Fire and Dopesmoker still on people’s radar, Sleep came back bigger than when they quit.
Since then, Sleep have issued only one song – the bassy, 10-minute–long “The Clarity,” which came out in 2014 – and found themselves sitting on a pile of riffs that date back to Dopesmoker. “That song [‘The Clarity’] was good proof to us that we can follow through and make a whole album and tour on it, blah, blah, blah,” Pike says. “It was a test run.” Although the band had been refining the songs it already had and was jamming on new ideas in the years since Roeder joined, it had to implement a self-imposed deadline to finish The Sciences, which it also self-financed.
Since two of the record’s songs were pretty old – “Antarcticans Thawed” and “Sonic Titan,” the latter of which previously came out as a live bonus cut on a Dopesmoker reissue – they rejiggered the tempos. “I think they wrote ‘Sonic Titan’ shortly after they did Holy Mountain,” Roeder says, referring to the group’s second record. “‘Antarcticans Thawed’ was a song they were working on at the same time as Dopesmoker, and since Dopesmoker was an hour long, it never made it onto the record. They broke up before they could put it out, but they reintroduced it in 2009 when they did the first reunion shows. I wrote new drum parts and we rearranged it and just kept it in the back pocket. Both of the songs were at least 10 minutes long originally, but we stretched them out.”
Playing slow and elongating songs has always been one of Sleep’s calling cards. “There’s more space for the groove and breathing and the flow,” Cisneros explains. “Really fast doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s gotta have that groove or it’s kind of a pointless exercise.”
“I think we slow down songs organically as we jam,” Roeder says. “I don’t think it’s any one of us who makes us slow down.”
“The hardest thing to do is going from one band to the other,” says Pike, who plays at considerably faster tempos with High on Fire. “I either have to have meatloaf with Quaaludes in it or I have to drink 30 espressos. High on Fire is on the accuracy/speed side, and Sleep is like, ‘I need to fuckin’ calm down.’ It has a more relaxed feel. … My job in this band, basically, is to detail the rhythm section and make it sound good.”
For the rest of The Sciences, the band refined some ideas in its riff archive and came up with new approaches to playing slow. “The Botanist,” the LP’s moody, psychedelic closing cut, originated around the time Roeder joined. The groove-heavy “Marijuanaut’s Theme” came bit by bit, just jamming on riffs at soundchecks. The newest song the group came up with was “Giza Butler.”
In addition to the pun in the title, the track cites the “Iommic Pentecost,” a reference to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. The guitarist explains that when the members of Sleep first got together, originally under the name Asbestos Death, he was into everything from Slayer and Celtic Frost to Neurosis and the Melvins. “Back then, me and Al used to trip a lot of acid, smoke a lot of weed and one day Al was like, ‘Dude, what if we name the band Sleep and revamp it and just start it again and get all Sabbath?'” Pike says. “That’s what our goal was. We just came up with this vision of being, I don’t know, drug-culture, Black Sabbath–worshipping kids.” Even though Black Sabbath were not the most popular metal band in 1991, “that was the whole point, dude,” he says. “We were just really weird kids. Me and Al went out and bought a Vol. 4 record and it was over.”
“Black Sabbath was gospel, like, ‘What is this other shit?'” Cisneros says of the group’s early obsession. “We’d just go back to the Sabbath tapes and wear out and break our cassettes. I can listen to other music now, and for sure I do, but the root is Sabbath. When it comes to amplified heavy riffs, there’s no other band and there never will be. When we have several hundred years to look back, my bet is that Sabbath is gonna be like Beethoven.”
“I can listen to other music now, and for sure I do, but the root is Black Sabbath.”
In addition to citing Black Sabbath, Cisneros has a pretty nonchalant answer when asked about what inspires his lyrics. “Probably a lot of weed,” he says. “Weed and science fiction, kind of like always. We don’t take it too seriously. It doesn’t have to be all furrowed-brow, arms-crossed, tough-guy shit, you know?” (Science fiction played heavily into “Leagues Beneath,” another new song that the group released as a single after The Sciences came out. “It’s about a guy who explores the deepest part of the ocean, and in the process gills come out of his sides and his sea suit shatters from the pressure and he goes on to live somewhere in the ocean,” Cisneros says.)
His longtime “base weed” is indica, and Pike reports that Cisneros was “burning again like old times” while making The Sciences. “It goes back to the tempos,” the bassist says. “Indica makes it really clear.” Pike doesn’t smoke as much as he used to – “I go up and down with my struggle with sobriety,” he says, “I don’t have to smoke a crock load” – but he says he’ll still toke on his THC pen and “be high throughout the day.” Roeder says that for as much as legal California weed plays into the band’s creative process, “coffee is almost always in there too.”
But when they first met with Third Man about putting out The Sciences, they had one question: Could the label put it out on 4/20? “Even though Record Store Day was a day later, we didn’t give a shit about that,” Cisneros says. “We were like, ‘Let’s do 4/20, the day before. Can you make that?’ They could, and everybody was really happy. It’s been really cool working with them.”
“Such is the challenge that Third Man lives for,” the label’s Ben Blackwell tells Rolling Stone about the album release. “I’ve no doubt in my mind that Sleep could’ve waltzed into the offices of any label in the world asking to put out The Sciences and probably walk out with a deal. The fact that we own a pressing plant may have helped swing the pendulum in our favor.”
The group had made contact with the label through the woman who sells merch for them, and they set up a meeting to play the record for Third Man in late 2017. They blasted the album at 110 decibels through the venue P.A. in the label’s Nashville HQ. “[Jack White] came in and listened to it when we were there and was really excited,” Cisneros says. “He was doing air drums and air bass and freaking out. It was like, ‘OK, this is awesome.'”
“It seemed like the perfect label for Sleep to be on because it’s very vinyl- and analog-oriented,” Pike says. “I’d always been a little in awe of Jack White and his whole process, and I like his music. And of course he’s a purist and he’s into vinyl, so it made sense.”
Now that The Sciences is out and a success, the band is enjoying playing the new songs live. Sleep have tour dates scheduled through August before the trio’s members return to their respective projects. Roeder has been fleshing out ideas for a new Neurosis record with his bandmates, and Pike is gearing up for another round of High on Fire, though he and Cisneros plan to have a hangout sometime in between and do some hiking and talking about music.
Sleep is now a sanctuary for the group, a place to cut loose from the responsibilities of the bandmates’ main gigs. And although they’re sitting on what Roeder calls “quite a bit of material,” they plan on taking their own pace with making a follow up to The Sciences and generally enjoying themselves. Mostly, they just want to keep Sleep fun.
“I don’t have to sing and it’s slower,” Pike says of what he enjoyes about playing in Sleep these days. “I can be a lot more improv-y with Sleep. I can hook up walls of amps and really experiment with sounds and be a lot louder, because the music allows for it to breathe that way.”
“Sleep is very laidback,” Roeder says. “With Neurosis, it’s much more laser-focused with precision, and I’m more of an anchor with the rhythms for everybody else to go off on. Sleep is a little more freeform.”
“The band was and is something really special,” Cisneros says. “There’s a magic in the music, like an ingredient X that we can’t really figure out. There’s just something about it that Matt and I really missed deeply. Despite the other music we were creating, there was just something that Sleep has that the others don’t.”