Interview: Sleeper Agent's Tony Smith and Josh Martin

Gibson aficionados Josh Martin and Tony Smith show off the tools of their trade
Gibson aficionados Josh Martin and Tony Smith show off the tools of their trade (Image credit: Joe Bosso)

Given that Sleeper Agent are a scrappy and explosive six-member outfit in which a guy and a girl share vocals, it's not hard to imagine, 20 years from now, half a dozen rock 'n' roll tell-alls flooding the market.

For the moment, however, the Bowling Green, Kentucky-based band (consisting of 18-year-old singer Alex Kandel, singer-guitarist Tony Smith, guitarist Josh Martin, bassist Lee Williams, keyboardist Scott Gardner and drummer Justin Wilson) is content to let the music do the talking, and they do so riotously on their debut album, Celabrasion, a wicked and winning blend of grungy riff-rock and perky garage-pop.

Sleeper Agent's live shows have been knockouts, as well - on land or at sea (last January, the group were one of the featured acts on the Weezer Cruise). "We just love to hit the stage," says Smith, "no matter where it is. Some bands make great records but don't have the live thing going. We can't see one without the other."

We caught up Smith and Martin backstage at New York's Irving Plaza to talk about their dual Les Paul approach (check out their stage guitars in the above video), their influences, and to find out how a rowdy, youthful six-piece group maintains a sense of calm while they setting out to conquer the world.

What kind of a music scene is in Bowling Green, and how did you fit in? Or did you not fit in?

Tony Smith: "I don't think we fit in anymore. There was a time that we did - we were definitely a part of the bar scene - but by 2009, we kind of wore out our welcome. We oversaturated the town. So we changed our focus and pretty much became a Nashville band.

"We had to go to Nashville, actually, because the bars in Bowling Green wouldn't let Alex play - she was only 17 at the time. We do play Bowling Green still, and when we do we pack the house. We've had a lot of press, and there's videos and things, so people want to see what the hubbub is all about."

Being a relatively new band in a music business that isn't what it used to be, how hard has it been to get noticed?

Josh Martin: "I'm sure it's difficult for a lot of bands. You definitely have to put the time in. If you want to make a living from playing music, you have to do whatever it takes, playing everywhere you can, being in as many places as possible."

Smith: "You have to be omnipresent, almost. I would say it's incredibly difficult to get to even the level we're at right now, because I've seen bands that have been working their asses off for 10 years, and they're nowhere near where we are. We still feel like we're very small, but to a lot of people we're huge."

You've cited bands like The Pixies and The Black Lips as influences, but there's other bands, as well: in Get It Daddy, the guitar patterns have a bit of a Strokes feel.

Martin: "Sure, I see that. We love The Strokes. They're an awesome band. You know who else we like? T. Rex."

Smith: "T. Rex is a big influence. There's the riffs, but there's also the guitar sound."

Martin: "The sound, plus all that attitude and emotion… T Rex is amazing."

Some of the melody lines and the way Alex sings on Love Blood are reminiscent of early Blondie. Do you guys hear that?

Smith: "Maybe… I don't know! [laughs] That might be because of what she added to the song. I wrote the melody and the song, but whenever you give something to a singer they kind of make it their own. I guess she was channeling some Debbie Harry that I was unaware of."

Being in a large band increases the chances for bickering - more opinions to deal with. How does everybody keep the peace?

Martin: "It's pretty easy, really. Bickering usually comes up in little pockets, but the good thing is that there's enough people around so that situations get deflated fairly quickly. "

Smith: "There was probably more squabbling in our first six months together, but we're all over that stuff. Now, we can just look at someone in the band and say, 'Shut up, I know you!'" [laughs]

Tony, Josh came into the band later than you. What attracted you about his guitar playing? Why did you think he'd be the right fit?

Smith: "He learned all of our songs in less than 24 hours, and he played them with grace and style. Plus, he was available and willing to give up his current life for this crazy-ass thing we're doing. Our old guitar player quit right as we were about to go into the studio to record the album. Josh came in and just nailed everything - it was almost like serendipity."

Martin: "I heard their demo when I was hanging out in LA. I got the call from them saying they needed me to come in to the studio and record - it was great."

How do the two of you work out your guitar parts?

Martin: "Tony is the master of writing the cool riffs. I just try and fit in and do the supporting spots."

Smith: "We'll be able to get more into it on the next album, or if we do an EP or something. This record was already written when Josh came in; the next one will be something we write together."

Martin and Smith perfect their kick-ass rock faces backstage. © Joe Bosso

For the most part, you both play Les Pauls. Was there ever any thought to one guy playing something different to vary the tonal qualities of the guitars?

Smith: "Not really. I did play a Tele for a while..."

Martin: "I played a lot of Teles on the album. On the road, we like to use the Les Pauls. They stay in tune, they're sturdy, they're heavier… We'd like to switch up more with different guitars eventually, but right now we're playing the Les Pauls. We do get some good contrasts between our sounds, though - I like to use my coil tap to get a real cutting, dirty tone."

You mentioned T. Rex, but who were guitar influences growing up?

Martin: "My dad was a guitar player, so he was a big inspiration in so many ways. [Editor's note: Josh's late father, Grady Martin, was an A-list Nashville ace.] He turned me onto so many players, guys with very different styles. Man, where do I begin? [laughs] Everyone from The Allman Brothers to Jeff Beck to Eddie Van Halen… Tal Farlow, Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery - I like a lot of players. Duane Allman... I used to wear those records out. Anybody who express himself on the guitar, you know?"

Smith: "I came to the guitar kind of late. I've only been playing for the last six years, and I didn't pick up an electric till I was about 16 or so. I'm into guys like Dan Auerbach, Joey Santiago, Jeff Tweedy - Wilco's album Ghost has some great guitar sounds, very pure. And yeah, T. Rex. Marc Bolan wasn't the greatest guitar player, but he had such power and a sound all his own.

Martin: "I feel the same way about J. Mascis. He's got the right attitude: just play from your heart. That's what I try to do. That's the best advice for anybody out there."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.