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Famous firsts: Sleeper Agent's Josh Martin and Tony Smith
On March 24th, the Bowling Green, Kentucky-based sextet Sleeper Agent will release About Last Night, a superbly paced set of winning garage pop-rock that follows their equally convincing 2011 debut, Celebrasion.
Sleeper Agent (Justin Wilson, drums; Josh Martin, lead guitar; Alex Kandel, vocals; Tony Smith, guitar and vocals; Lee Williams, bass; and Scott Gardner, keyboards) are heading out on their first headling tour, beginning April 8th in Lansing, Michigan. Ahead of the tour and album release, we sat down with Martin and Smith for a little something we like to call Famous Firsts.
What was your first guitar, and how old were you when you got it?
Josh Martin: "I was probably 13 or 14 when I got my first real guitar. I was in eighth grade, and my dad gave mean old beat-up guitar. It turned out to be a hand-me-down 1969 Fender Telecaster, black with a white pickguard. My dad used it on sessions, and two of my older brothers had also played it when they were growing up. It was so used and worn down that it barely even had frets on it. It's tougher to play than other Teles, but it sounds like no other that I've ever heard. Dad said they modded it at the factory with a unique out-of-phase wiring. It sounds nasty and I still love it."
Tony Smith: "I used to sneak into my dad's room when he was at work and toy around with his guitar. He finally got the hint, and my parents got me a Hamer Slammer electric guitar and Peavey practice amp for Christmas when I was 10 years old."
What was the first band – or album – that made you want to be a guitarist?
Smith: "This one's a bit embarrassing. I saw Hanson on MTV when I was 10. I was thrilled that there were kids my age in a band on national television. I soon started seeking out more and more music. However, the band that really pulled me in was Aerosmith. I think I spent every allowance dollar buying their back catalog."
Martin: "My dad is Grady Martin, a legend of a guitarist, and that's what really made me want to play at first. I guess most kids want to do what their dad does in some way. I remember playing this instrumental album of his called Cowboy Classics. It's my first memory of vinyl and it made me feel in awe of my dad and the guitar.
"Later in life, I discovered rock music.The first band that made me want to be a guitarist was Aerosmith. Probably because that was my first real rock concert I got to see when I was a kid – big thanks to my friend Zum and his dad, big Zum. It's a good long story, but the short of it is that we got to go backstage and meet Aerosmith. After seeing that show, I really knew what I wanted to do."
What was the first guitar solo you learned how to play? How long did it take you to play it "correctly"?
Smith: "The Pixies' Hey was the first guitar solo I ever set out to learn. It didn't take long to nail all the notes, but it took quite a while for me to play it just like Joey Santiago."
Martin: "Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix. My best friend, Seth Dobbs, taught me how to play this one back in the day. I reckon we learned it pretty quick, no more than a day, but we ended up jamming on it for many years thereafter. We'd do it like SRV-style and just trade off solos, gaining intensity each pass. I can still play it 'correctly,' if set to task, but emotions and improvisations always seems to take over. Solos for me tend to turn out slightly different each time."
What was your first really good guitar and amp?
Smith: "An Epiphone Les Paul Standard and Fender Hot Rod DeVille 212."
Martin: "My first really good guitar was my first Les Paul. It's a yellowish-greenish 1979 Les Paul Custom 25/50 Anniversary with gold hardware. My first good amp – or at least I thought it was good – was a Fender London Reverb. It was a great-sounding solid-state amp, and I wish it still worked."
Describe the first band that you were in.
Martin: "I was the drummer for my first band. I would've liked to have played guitar, but no one else at my small school could really play drums at the time. It's a long story, but this teacher, David Buckwalter, organized me and some of my friends into a rhythm section to accompany the other handful of students playing brass and woodwinds and so on. It was not like normal high-school band. It was like a rock band with a small horns section. We played all kinds of funk and classic rock and oldies at the home football games and basketball games. Sometimes students and parents would come to the games just to hear us play music at half-time."
Smith: "We were called The New Eclectics – because The Eclectics was already taken. [Laughs]. It was a lot of naive rock star dreaming and recording on eight-tracks with little knowledge of our instruments or the recording equipment we were using. We'd often record drums last, making it nearly impossible for the songs to be in time. We played a lot of open mics! We professionally pressed 1,000 CDs after saving up money for months and sold maybe 50. Scott, Sleeper Agent's keyboard player, was our drummer."
What was the first song you wrote that you thought was great?
Martin: "One of my great friends is Nashville songwriter Aron Leigh. We formed a band a while back and wrote a bunch of cool songs. One night, we wrote a number called Midsummer's Day, and that's the first one where I remember thinking, really, 'We wrote a great song ,man.' One night at a show, legendary saxophonist Jim Horn heard us play the song, and he told us he thought it was great but it needed some horns. We convinced him to come play on the session when we recorded it, making it one of the coolest studio experiences of my life."
Smith: "That's My Baby off of our first album, Celabrasion. It was the first song I could listen back to over and over again without picking it apart or feeling like it wasn't good enough."
What was the first guitar you got that made you feel as though you found "your sound"?
Martin: "When my older brother Joe died, I inherited his blonde 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom 25/50 Anniversary that had originally belonged to our dad. It had been in retirement for many years. Once I plugged it in, I immediately realized it felt like home. I later found out it could sound how I wanted every guitar to sound. It's very bright sounding with crisp mids at the bridge pickup, and it's got a big spongy low end at the neck pickup. There's also a coil tap so I can get some different textures out of it. It's currently my main guitar, and it has my favorite tone of all my Les Pauls."
Smith: "I'm still searching! However, I do fancy Telecasters."
When was the first time you played to a big audience? What was that experience like?
Martin: "The first time I played to a big audience was the rally at Sturgis in 2004. I was on a summer tour with Jasmine Cain. She landed this gig at the largest biker bar in the world. It's called the Full Throttle Saloon – they actually have a reality TV show now. We opened up the main stage every night of the rally. We played for thousands of people at a time at this huge outdoor stage. It was like night after night with big loud production and hanging out with celebrities after the shows. So many stories... One of the strangest and wildest times of my life."
Smith: "Another band of mine, Downtown Handshake, got the opportunity to open for our friend's band, Cage the Elephant, on a couple of dates back in 2009. They were hot off the success of their single Ain't No Rest for the Wicked and were playing to thousands a night. Their opening band had to miss a couple of shows, and they asked if we'd like to fill the spot. It was an incredible experience. There were waves of roars and cheers before we even played a note. Brad, the guitarist for Cage, asked me how I felt afterwards, and I said, 'Man, I can die now. That's all I ever wanted. I can die now.' He laughed and replied, 'Nah man, you've got a lot more ahead of you.' He was right."
Who was the first guitar hero of yours that you got a chance to meet?
Smith: "Charles Thompson of the Pixies. Back in 2006, he did a secret show at Grimey's in Nashville, and I found out about it a half hour before the show was supposed to start. It's an hour drive from Bowling Green to Nashville. My best friend and I sped the whole way there, only to find out the show was over. Luckily, we spotted Charles looking through the record racks, and we got to have a short conversation and take a picture with him. We could barely breathe, and we reeled off the energy of that meeting for weeks after."
Martin: "My dad, Grady Martin, is my primary guitar hero, without question. And I met him way back when I was born. That said, the first time I was kinda star-struck by a guitar hero of mine was meeting Joe Perry backstage at an Aerosmith concert in Atlanta."
What was the first thing you bought when you got your first big check from playing music?
Smith: "Nearly $1,000 in groceries. Everybody in Sleeper Agent used to live in one big dilapidated house before we got a record deal. There was never any food in the kitchen. After we got our first big check, Justin, our drummer, and I went to Wal-Mart and bought every type of food imaginable. There wasn't even enough room in the kitchen for everything we brought home. But we were insuring we'd never go hungry again."
Martin: "My first big purchase was just a Ford work truck. A high-mileage, red and white '94F-150 XLT Extended Cab with a5.8 liter V8."