Interview: Saint Slumber’s Josh Perna on soundtracks, social media and New York
After ten years of jumping from band to band, Philadelphia-area friends Josh Perna and Aaron Brown formed alt-pop band Saint Slumber, an ambitious project that pairs dreamy soundscapes with the rhythms and percussion of alt rock greats. The two are currently in the midst of a three part, self made EP series, Youth, led by Josh’s vocals and Aaron’s guitar.
Atlas caught up with Josh ahead of Youth//2 and their short tour this fall. Tickets can be purchased here.
Atlas: To start off with, how did Saint Slumber came to be?
Josh: The heart of the band is Aaron who’s the guitarist, and—my name’s Josh—I’m the vocalist. We met when we were about 12 years old. We both were going to a private school and not the type of private school you’d think. It was one of those very religious ones that were very off the map. There were only five to ten kids in each class, so Aaron and I really gravitated toward each other because we were the only ones who were musicians that were there. So for the past 10, 12 years now, Aaron and I have been making music in a bunch of different bands playing a bunch of different kinds of music from death metal to acoustic stuff and then backwards. Saint Slumber is the culmination of a decade’s worth of making music together, he and I. We went through a bunch of different band names. We actually had a famously difficult time getting a band name that wasn’t taken before. We’d stuck with a couple and we ended up having some sort of legal problems because some kid in Brazil or whatever would be making techno music under that name, so we had to ditch it. It was a real hassle. So Saint Slumber was the one that we ended up settling on. We really like words that have to deal with sleep, especially because my voice is very soft, and that just caught the vibe that we were trying to go for, so we ended up picking out Saint Slumber—half out of necessity, because we needed to pick something a little weirder to make sure that nobody was using it—and also caught with the vibe that we were trying to go for in terms of dreamy music.
Atlas: You’ve cited retro movie soundscapes as a particular inspiration, but what else do you draw from when you’re making music?
Josh: I’m really into soundtracks in general, especially modern ones that are kind of symphonic. There are bands that create soundscapes more than songs almost. Instrumentally there are bands like Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Ros, and there’s definitely like a movement of music that isn’t as worried about song structure as it is about evoking emotion and creating a musical narrative. So that type of stuff definitely an inspiration to us. There’s stuff that is more closely aligned with our band, bands that are like us, but I think if you draw too much influence from bands that sound a lot like you, you end up with this diluted—and I know this is a weird analogy—but it’s almost like a musically inbred offspring. There’s not enough variation, and you need that variation to in order to create new and strong things. So we basically try to find things that are definitely out of our wheelhouse, whether that’s listening to classical music or jazz or official soundtracks by the likes of Howard Shore or something, things that keep us on our toes and kind of stretches us. That’s basically where we try to keep our interests.
Atlas: How was it playing the Winter Jawn Festival alongside such huge names last year?
Josh: It was really awesome. Philadelphia is an awesome scene because we were born and raised in New Jersey, and New Jersey unfortunately doesn’t really have a music scene like it did ten years ago. But when we went to Philly late last year, we just really interacted with a music community that’s super hungry for new bands and new music and people going to shows for the sake of going to shows. We ended up getting voted in to play the Winter Jawn Festival, which was an awesome opportunity, playing with big names like that, most specifically Dashboard Confessional and The Struts, watching people who are really at the height of their craft is super inspiring. We got to meet Chris Carrabba backstage from Dashboard, but just really getting to watch musicians interact with a massive crowd is so inspiring to us, especially because we’re a newer band, all things considered. And that particular festival was record breaking, because they do it every winter, and that particular winter it was like 45 or 50 degrees outside, so people came out in droves. I want to say 11,000 people attended. So really getting to witness such a massive event and such incredibly talented musicians was great, really inspiring and really fired us up to hit this year as hard as we’ve been hitting this year, so it was really great.
Atlas: It sounds amazing, especially after looking at that lineup.
Josh: Such a blast.
Atlas: That was part of your tour, right?
Josh: We tour in a relaxed definition of the word. Since we’re still a regional band, we’re popping to and from dates that we can pick up and string together. We just announced our most proper tour run, which will be happening in October. So this whole year it’s been like a suspended animation type of tour. We’re just doing as much as we can do wherever we can do it.
Atlas: What’s your favorite part of being on the road when you do get to go?
Josh: It’s tough not to hit the cliches, but it’s just amazing being out of your comfort zone. I’m somebody who likes to micromanage things, so as soon as you’re completely away from anything that you are familiar with, you have to let go and let things come to you. Going to new cities and letting everything wash over you is amazing. You get to meet new people and you get to play rooms that you haven’t seen before, and it keeps everything fresh. People wonder how musicians can play the same songs over and over and over again, and it’s not really the songs that we as musicians experience. Every night it’s a completely new environment: completely new venue, new room, new people, and that’s what we feed off of. The music is just kind of the backdrop. It’s what we’re living inside.
Atlas: One of the stops on your tour is the Bowery Electric. That’s such a cool venue.
Josh: Yeah, love that room. New York is cool because every room is so tiny and is kind of nestled into a different type of building. A lot of them are underground—at least the club circuit. We love going to New York because every room is really a different experience. Bowery Electric is a good example of that, so we’re excited.
Atlas: I’m excited for you! So as you’ve grown into this project, what have you discovered about identity and fitting into niche along the way?
Josh: The farther along we’ve been doing this, the more we’ve learned to strip away the excess of writing music. When we started, the first band we were in when we were 14, it was deathcore. It was loud, and there wasn’t a lot of dynamic variation. You just hit people in the face with sound. That’s the easiest thing to do when you’re starting out. As we’ve gone on, we’ve gotten quieter, a little more melodic and sparse. We’ve become more comfortable with silence and the space in between notes. So I’d say the common thread for our growth in the past decade has been becoming more comfortable with our identity. We’re not trying to hide as many things. With every record we put out, we’re kind of stripping away noise and production, and we’re trying to give the lean, raw ingredients for what makes our music our music. Whether it’s my voice or it’s Aaron’s guitar music, that’s really the niche we’re trying to fill. There’s certain things—like my voice is biological, I can’t really change it—there’s certain traits we have that we grew up with, so we want to exemplify those traits, the things that are undeniably 100% us instead of lean into a trend or a fad. We’re just trying to be as comfortable with us as possible.
Atlas: How is social media playing a part in your breakout as a band?
Josh: It’s a double edged sword. It’s something that you can’t do without anymore unfortunately. At the same time it can be something that’s really overwhelming. It’s a time suck, and it has very little to do with music because social media has basically turned everything and everybody into a personal brand, even on your personal Instagram. I’m sure you curate things, like what your look is and how you speak. As musicians, music is half of it nowadays and the other half is how are you selling yourself as a product? People want to be invested in who you are as people, people want to be invested in the narrative. So we do put a lot of time and effort into crafting our socials. We craft what the aesthetic looks like and what kind of story we’re trying to put forward. So a lot of the time, an equal amount of time or more gets put into that instead of music. Like I said, it’s a good thing and a bad thing. We wouldn’t have a fraction of the fans we do if it weren’t for social media. I definitely know the blessing of it, but as a creative, it can burn you out. If you’re not posting, people are going to immediately forget about you because there’s so much media hitting people constantly, so it feels like you have to continually pelt people with reminders that you exist. It feels like you’re screaming into the wind.
Atlas: What are your plans beyond this mini tour?
Josh: You can only plan as much as is in your control. We have this record coming out in September, so this little tour will be supporting that. In the meantime, we want to make sure that we’re making as much content as humanly possible so we can hopefully hit the road with other bands and have more music to promote. Hopefully we’ll have one more single come out this year after this record, and we’re just now finishing up our third EP in the Youth trilogy. Youth//2 is coming out this month, and we should be finishing up Youth//III this month, which will be released in spring of 2019. So we’re just doing everything we can to be sure we have a constant stream of content ready so when the opportunities do arise we’re ready and we’re prepared and we have what we need to take advantage of them.
Atlas: What have you been listening to lately?
Josh: Ben Howard is probably my favorite artist of all time, and he just put out his third record. It’s called A Noon Day Dream, so I’ve been listening to that. It’s always so difficult because you listen to so much stuff but then when you haven’t to bring it up, it’s hard. We’re really excited for The 1975’s new record. They’ve been peppering some singles over the past couple months, so we’re looking forward to that. It’s a band I’ve followed for a long time. Frank Ocean’s Blonde has been on repeat for the past year, year and a half since it came out. We’ve been listening to a Russian composer named Dmitri Shostakovich who has a string quartet that we’ve been listening to a bunch, and we’re trying to figure out a way to sample it for our new record. So yeah, a little bit of everything.
Atlas: Cool! What else should people know about you?
Josh: The new record we have coming out is called Youth//2. It’s the second EP out of three. It’s something that we’ve completely self produced. We’ve recorded the whole thing here at my home, which is in the middle of nowhere. We shot all our own music videos for it, so it’s a completely self produced project that we’re really proud of, and we can’t wait for people to hear it.
Atlas: Wait, everything was self made? When did you learn production and videography?
Josh: We ended up getting to a point in that decade journey when we realized that placing creative control in other people’s hands was not giving us the results we wanted, whether it’s in music or it’s in video. When someone else is producing something, you don’t think that whoever is producing it has much impact on it because you see the band and you hear the band, but the reality of it is that it shapes everything about the music and everything about the video. So I bought one microphone, and I put it in my bedroom, and I started teaching myself how to produce. It really opened up worlds for us. It gave us a lot of flexibility, and there wasn’t a lot of financial pressure because booking studio time is expensive. So we taught ourselves how to do that, and it went so well that we bought our own camera and we started the same exact process for videography. Honestly, the band wouldn’t be what it is if we didn’t do that because it gives you an opportunity to take bigger risks and to experiment more because you’re not terrified of wasting time and wasting money. It decentralizes the entire process. I think that’s really part of the music revolution we’re in nowadays. There’s no longer a gatekeeper that needs $100,000 to make a record. It can just be a kid with a laptop. So that’s definitely been a huge influence. I think it’s interesting how the technology is influencing how we make our art. It’s been a huge piece of the puzzle for us.
Interview by Taylor Gilliam
Photo courtesy of Right Angle PR