by Nich Sullivan
Progress can sound like sheer alchemy. It can sound like hours spent within a collaborative headspace, learning the skill of dialling back ideas so that each of them is present and none loses any of its lustre. But, as with most end products, progress’ footprint and importance are more wrapped up in its origins and motives than in any of the steps through which it evolves. What the progress is and what it represents are as colored by its beginnings as the particular hue of the blue sky in watercolor is chosen and made real by the painter. In this, it is as much of an artistic choice as a snare sound, a lyrical sentiment, an EQ setting.
‘Ataraxia’ is a feeling of serene calm, a peaceful state of mind. It is also Team Sleep’s opening salvo on their self-titled debut – and while the song encompasses many states and moods, it never evokes anything resembling true calmness: a distant voice transmitted through a radio; drums sputtering to life like they’ve just woken from the dead; a droning industrial bassline that wouldn’t be out of place from a Downward-era Nine Inch Nails, a disembodied voice gliding over all of this with the words “froze asleep”. In its opening moments, Team Sleep provides ominous proof of concept along with a forthright statement of intent; no genre is safe, no line will be left uncrossed.
Chino Moreno’s main outfit Deftones had always tagged along but had never really fit into what had come to be called ‘nu-metal’. Fans of Deftones weren’t necessarily fans of, say, Limp Bizkit, and that tended to work both ways (though there was admittedly some superficial overlap between the sounds of the two acts.) Beefy guitars, the beneficent presence of a DJ, and some rap-style vocal deliveries were where the similarities began and ended. Moreno’s overtly emotional singing careened from glistening softness to jagged edges, and his lyrics created a space where fans of other sonically similar acts could feel overwhelmed and underprepared. This was to be expected since other nu-metal didn’t offer much opportunity for anything beyond the scope of a generally aggro barrage of sound and angst. So while Deftones played the same festivals as many of those peers, the two things (Deftones’ signature style and nu-metal’s brash swagger) never found a happy medium. Looking back, this was categorically a win-win for all involved – the separation between them meant that Deftones were never forced to answer for the hollowness of the genre, and Fred Durst was never asked why he couldn’t make a song that even approached the beauty of ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)’.
Team Sleep represented an attempt by Moreno to develop something that went artistically over and above the outlet he had helped create in Deftones. While this was his first effort at fronting another band he proved to be a restless artist, going on later to work on Palms, Crosses, and Saudade. The timing of Team Sleep is telling: the side project gelled together around the time Deftones’ White Pony was being recorded. White Pony was their third album and it represented the Sacramento band’s most adventurous effort at that time – arguably ever – so much so that it still stands as a high-water mark for what heavy music can achieve; the album’s breathing moments were awash in waves of melodicism and anxiously cathartic caterwauling. Team Sleep’s parallel formation speaks to Moreno’s wealth of ideas at this time. Even though White Pony was capturing lightning in a bottle, he still had a need to make something that challenged his fans in other ways. Moreno told Ultimate Guitar in 2005 that he saw Team Sleep as “a little breather from Deftones-land”. It felt like there was a desire to make something that was emphatically something else when compared to what was more typically in the Deftones’ wheelhouse.
The roster of contributors on Team Sleep is a murderer’s row of generational talents and perspectives, including (but not limited to): Rob Crow, one of the founding members of San Diego indie pioneers Pinback; Mary Timony, who hurtled through the 90s as one of the driving forces behind Helium; Zach Hill, who would later become a cornerstone of Death Grips. Each was an established musician in their own right, and putting them in a room together was almost sure to bring about creative conflict. Despite the narcoleptic moniker, the project makes a case for thriving on the ordered and respectful clashing of ideas and styles, and there are moments that crystallize this perfectly.
Nestled in the back half of the album sits ‘Staring At The Queen’, an instrumental track that starts as Morse code bleeps before a trashy drum riff rises from the depths to crash the party. The beat is glitched and peppered with electronics before giving way entirely to a dual guitar and bass melody that is lightly kissed with atmospherics as it carries the song to an unceremonious outro. It would be easy to call ‘Ever (Foreign Flag)’ or ‘Blvd. Nights’ the artistic tentpole for Team Sleep, as both are engaging efforts that include trademark Moreno vocal turns. ‘Staring…’ presents a different angle altogether, that of a motley group of unattached strangers united by the goal of creating something and determined to do it even if and when their ideas aren’t completely compatible. It offers a compelling alternative take: that the intellectual violence of ideas fighting to the death in the coliseum of the studio is inherent in such a creation. These things very rarely work on a fundamental level, and the fact that Team Sleep finds ways to pull them off more often than not all over the LP is nothing short of incredible.
Team Sleep is an amalgamation of styles that shouldn’t work together, from messy trip-hop chicanery to chunky guitar riffs (one of which bleeds into the other on ‘Live From The Stage’), to old-world balladry girded by drum machines that sound as though they are short-circuiting (the Timony-fronted ‘Tomb Of Liegia’), to liltingly precocious indie pop (‘Princeton Review’), and sparse experiments in sound that seem to exist solely for their own sake (‘Paris Arm’).
Chino Moreno was no less than West Coast royalty in certain circles around this time. It would have been undeniably simpler for him to just stay the course he was on, popping out records and tours every two or three years. Stoking artistic chaos with another band wasn’t something that he had to do to make ends meet or to cement his legacy because both of those things were already accomplished, or were well on their way to being so. In a way, Team Sleep could be seen as a manifestation of his pathological need to swirl a cauldron of talent around just to see what might happen if it boiled over. Along the way, the group managed to pay homage to artists such as Smashing Pumpkins, Portishead, The Cure, Brian Eno, and many more.
And yet, the eclecticism was only a small part of the story. The lack of cohesion among members brought a diversity of ideas that was lacking in modern rock music at the time. Where bands that had been building chemistry for years may have skipped past the work needed to iron out the kinks in favor of words either coded or unspoken, Team Sleep had to confront it all head-on. The conspicuous jutting of angles where there may have otherwise been curves and the almost metallic clang of ideas bashing against each other turned out to be a feature and not a bug. The end result is a goal achieved through some amount of ideological adversity and over the hurdles of very successful artists sticking to their respective guns. All of this equals a template for collaborative art that comes through with as much respect for its audience as it has for itself.
In Jason Crock’s 6.1 review for Pitchfork, he outlined respect for the attempt but ended on the opinion that the ultimate result had missed its electroclash intent and was instead “make-out music for teenagers with lip piercings and caked eye-liner.” Audiences were mixed: for many Deftones fans, the project wasn’t heavy enough; the project’s target audience of crossover fans was much more accepting, but the fact that they were a loose coalition meant that they didn’t move the needle very far.
Team Sleep was largely ahead of its time for what it was, a collaborative project-driven amalgamation of personnel from all over the rock and indie maps. They found a promised land of sorts where genres existed without competition and where boiling water was sure to again become tranquil so long as the work was done in good faith. This lack of corner-cutting seems from the outside as though it would make for a difficult experience, but for Moreno and his Sleep Teamers, it could be said that they only attained a sense of profound ataraxia by never being calm.