Featured Music: Wednesday, May 03, 2006
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Don’t say the B-word: Sleeplab welcomes outside contributors.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Brown Stuff

That jet set-age bossa nova, bolero, and Latin jazz you’re hearing is no dream — it’s Sleeplab.

By JIMMY FOWLER

Back in the late 1990s, guitarist and composer Fernando Palomo lived in a garage apartment near the Hospital District. The building next door housed a sleep research facility, although he didn’t know that at first. Palomo wondered why people were coming and going at such late hours, but he figured that with so much nocturnal activity, his neighbors wouldn’t mind if he messed around on the guitar. Then one night a security guard “the size of a football player” came and knocked on his door and told him to put a sock in his amps.

“There were people in the building with wires hooked up to their heads, and doctors were studying their brains,” the 37-year-old North Texas native said. “My music was affecting their dreams and the research.”

About six months ago, when Palomo and fellow guitarist JeffA (né Jeff Arsenault), 38, decided to form a loose collective to recreate some of their beloved Afro-Cuban and Brazilian sounds, they didn’t have to look far for a name: Sleeplab, a place where bossa nova, samba, and meringue rhythms drift and curl into your subconscious. In fact, Palomo will go so far as to proclaim that some of their original tunes — slinky, spacey Latin beats percolating with a hashed-out grace — are “great to fall asleep to.” And that’s a boast.

But whether you choose to sway or snooze to Sleeplab, you should know that, according to Maine-born Arsenault, “there’s a four-letter word that starts with a ‘B,’ and we’re trying to get away from that model.” Sleeplab, he went on to say, “is more of a production project that shapes itself organically depending on the musicians who’re available.” Besides guitarists Palomo and Arsenault, core players include Matt Skates on upright bass and three percussionists to handle everything from high-hat to congas to the triangle — Jesse Sierra Hernandez, Scott Ivey, and Michael Preble. On the nights when the B-word expands to include keyboards, horns, and guest vocalists like Precious from A-Hummin’ Acoustical Acupuncture and classical singer Crystal Casey, the stage can be crowded with up to nine players — a small mob that creates consciously un-chaotic, spacious instrumentals that guarantee “you don’t have to scream if you want to order a drink in the middle of a song,” said Palomo.

JeffA came to Texas in 1992 to take a computer tech job; Fernando is a commercial artist and graphic designer who loves his home state but periodically feels the need to travel to places like Thailand and Spain “to clear my head, hear new sounds, and bust stereotypes.” Arsenault fiddled around on the Fort Worth-Dallas scene as a singer-songwriter but claims he wasn’t very good. He started falling in love with instrumentalists like Tom Zé and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Palomo’s parents had raised him on musicians like Celia Cruz, Carlos Campos, and the bolero trio Los Panchos. By the time he met Palomo at a gathering in that garage apartment next to the sleep lab several years ago, their tastes were so simpatico that collaboration of some kind was a fait accompli.

Sleeplab often gets tagged as a bossa nova band, and although that influence is strong in their work, Palomo insists that “a bossa nova purist who came to one of our shows would bust us immediately.” If listeners insist on labels for the poly-Latin blend Sleeplab brews, he prefers abuscados zapatos, which he claims roughly translates to “shoegazing music.” Ever see film footage of Brazilian jazz artists from the early ’60s staring at the floor the whole time as they draw out the tempo to a narcotic dawdling pace, a sound almost like sinister loitering? “They were on the brown stuff,” Palomo said, referring to heroin. “And in their comatose state, they were fixated on the other player’s feet ’cause that’s what would let them maintain the beat.

“Anywhere you go, from Barcelona to Prague, the DJ world is dominated by these Latin beats drawn out to incredibly slow, hazy tempos,” he continued. “When you slow it down, you leave it wide open.”

The guys in Sleeplab have recorded some tunes that’re available for sale at shows and through their web site, but they have yet to compile an official full-length record. Right now, Palomo is busy painting murals for what he hopes will become Sleeplab’s headquarters — a new downtown club called Embargo set to open this summer. Palomo and the owners are going for a Havana theme, planning to serve tapas and mojitos in a color-drenched environment that will offer live salsa, cha cha, bolero, experimental jazz, and whatever else the local scene inspires. So far, Palomo admits, Sleeplab feels a little lonely.

“There aren’t a lot of other local bands that we fit comfortably with,” he said. “Maybe some people find [the music] boring. But we hope with Embargo, we’ll discover what’s out there and maybe have a gathering spot for those musicians. We want people to come and share what they can do”

You can reach Jimmy Fowler at jimmy.fowler@fwweekly.com


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