By Bob Gourley; a longer version of this article was originally published in Music From the Empty Quarter (March 1994)
Since their emergence just over a decade ago, Sleep Chamber have proven to be one of those bands you either love or despise. Their fusion of highly repetitive, electronic composition and heavy S+M imagery is definitely not for everyone. Sleep Chamber has developed a cult-like following world wide, but there are just as many people who write them off a non-talented purveyors of bad pornography.
Sitting in a booth at Peking Tom’s, a Boston bar that has a table permanently reserved for the band and a wall adorned with their pictures, founder John Zewizz and keyboardist/ percussionist Elaine Walker try to explain the band’s unusual career. Sleep Chamber is the brainchild of Zewizz (real name: John McSweeney), who uses a constantly changing group of other musicians to fill out the line-up. Sleep Chamber released their debut 7inch, “Speak in Tongues”, in 1982 and have since put out 10 full-length CDs, about as many long-form videos, and a slew of vinyl (many limited edition) and cassette-only releases.
Zewizz says that he was influenced by the do-it-yourself ethic of the punk era to start up his own project, as he was dissatisfied with what was going on with music at the time.
“I don’t really consider myself a musician at all,” he proclaims. “Maybe a composer, an entertainer, but I don’t know anything about music.”
Since the fall of 1992, Sleep Chamber have released three new CDs, representing both sides of the band’s musical spectrum. “Secrets Ov 23,” is a primarily instrumental collection of repetitive, trance-inducing compositions created entirely by Zewizz. “Symphony Sexualis” is a 48:40 minute composition musically in the same vein. “Siamese Succubi,” on the other hand, features more traditional, structured songs co-written with DDT/ZIA member Walker and featuring Sleep Chamber veterans Ashley Swanson and Laura Chopelas.
Using a constantly shifting group of musicians isn’t necessarily the way Zewizz wants to work, but he says it is difficult to find people who will be dedicated even though the group is somewhat of a dictatorship.
“My biggest frustration is not being able to work closely and collaborate closer with the musicians I do work with,” he says. “I worked with Elaine and I enjoyed that because I could sit down and we collaborated, it was great. But a lot of the times we’ve done stuff in the studio, we go in and we write it in the studio – the music, the lyrics, everything – because I can never get together with people, everyone’s schedules are different.”
Zewizz and Walker met through Norm Francoeur, a Boston photographer who was working on the Sleep Chamber videos. Walker had worked with Francouer in 1986 when she had a project called Blue Cartoon and appeared in Sleep Chamber’s “A Synthetic Woman” video.
“It was funny,” Walker says. “John thought ‘oh, another fan that wants to be in my video’ and Norm was like ‘no, she’s a musician that I’ve worked with, she has a project Blue Cartoon.'”
But then one day in the studio, Francoeur played Zewizz some Blue Cartoon videos he had been working on.
“I said ‘This is her?’ because I was so amazed at her voice, I was like ‘you know someone who sings like this, this is an incredible voice’ so I kind of followed up on it,” explains Zewizz.
Walker says that her other commitments will probably prevent her from staying with the band full time now that they are signed to Cleopatra, as she would not be willing to drop her other projects to go on the road with them.
Zewizz says that at first it was difficult starting out in Boston, since the guitar-oriented public did not take kindly to such things as synthesizers and backwards vocals. But persistence paid off, and Zewizz was able to find an audience for his project.
“The more they hated me, the more I was determined,” he explains.
The first Sleep Chamber show, featuring Tibetan horns, videos, mirrors, incense burning and lots of smoke led much of the public to accuse them of devil worship.
“Our reputation started there, people were like ‘they kill babies, they kill animals, he pierces women, they have tattoos and scars’ and all that crap and it just stuck with us for so long, then people perceived us a Psychic TV imitation and all that crap. Once people started to really listen to the music and really see or even talk about it they said ‘wow, this is kind of different this isn’t what I thought it was.”
With the Sleep Chamber live shows, Zewizz aims for high levels of audience participation that strives to make use of all the senses. There is incense burning, videos and other visual effects, and projectiles such, confetti and silly strings. Zewizz says that the live shows are not meant for the band to exhibit their musical skills. Instead, the concerts are meant as a form of entertainment that will hopefully affect the audience members in some way by appealing to all the senses. Zewizz recalled an incident that happened several years ago and proved how much the audience loves to feel like they are part of the show.
“I had a big exhaust system I found out front, at Mass College of Art, and I picked the exhaust system up with the muffler and smashed I smashed it on the ground and it flew into the audience and hit like three people in the front row,” he explains. “That was not intentional and I felt bad because there was rust on them and they’re cheering. And I felt bad because I didn’t want to hurt anybody. After the show they came up said ‘wow man you’re so great’ and I’m like ‘I’m really sorry about that’ and they’re like ‘we don’t care’.”
While early on Sleep Chamber was often associated with devil worship, now people tend to focus on the sexual side. From the lyrics, is seems as if Zewizz is obsessed with sexuality, something that carries over to the live show, which feature the scantly clad Barbituettes on stage with the band. Zewizz acknowledges this but finds that too many people have a simplistic view on the matter.
“Sexuality is a a pretty intense and detailed world,” he says. “It’s not just sex to me, it’s my life, it’s my dreams, it’s everything that I’m living for. It’s not just intercourse. People have that mentality that sex is just intercourse. When I sing songs and write lyrics, they’re about relationships, they’re about fantasies, they’re about experimentation.”
One thing that non-devotees have accused Zewizz of being is sexist, but he strongly argues against this. He explains that while the Barbituettes do parade around stage in next to nothing, they are given full rein and are not told what to do. He may instruct them on how to interact with each other for particular songs, but beyond that, they are totally in control.
“I’ve studied sexuality for a long time, and you’ve got to know what sex is and you’ve got to know what exploitation is and you’ve got to know what sexuality is,” says Zewizz. “It’s so detailed – you can’t just say it’s sexist. If you study Sleep Chamber’s music, you see that I idolize and admire power in a woman. So how can I be exploiting women? Sometimes people see eroticism or sexuality and they automatically switch it to exploitation.”
The lyrical contents and album cover graphics have caused the band more problems than just public misconception. In 1991, the pressing plant Zewizz had been using to do his Inner-X releases for eight years decided that they couldn’t continue manufacturing Sleep Chamber’s records. The label said that other customers had been complaining about seeing the graphics when they came in, and the mastering lab was complaining about the music.
Most of Sleep Chamber’s major releases come out on either Funfundvierzig (Germany) or Musica Maxima Magnetica (Italy), although Zewizz’s own Inner-X has put out many of the vinyl, cassette and video releases. The first release on Cleopatra will be a “greatest hits” album in late summer. Zewizz will be working with Walker for one last project on Funfundvierzig – a CD based on the film and play “Salome’s Last Dance”.
“I realized that for people to notice things, it’s got to be presented right,” explains Zewizz on his marketing strategies. “It’s got to have a certain image to it, you’ve got to stick to the image. It’s got to be marketed properly, in the right place, and you’ve got to know who your market is and cater to them. But you can’t cater to everybody, because half the people are going to hate you anyway. So I just found out who my market was, who likes me, and pursued that direction staying within my own ideas.”
This philosophy carries over to the name itself, as Zewizz feels it is very important for a name to provoke an image or a thought. Zewizz says that everyone seems to have their own idea of what Sleep Chamber means, and whether it be something sexual or related to science fiction, it does seem to stick out in people’s minds and have “a life of it’s own.”
Video has been a big part of Sleep Chamber since 1985, when a friend brought them into a TV studio to do some clips. Zewizz became fascinated by the medium and found himself limited by that arrangement (“he was like, no we can’t take girls’ tops off, we just can’t do that kind of thing”) so he took out loans and invested in his own equipment. Even though the nudity and sexual content prevents them from being shown anywhere, Zewizz has been able to successfully market his work on videocassette.
By selling directly to record stores around the world, Zewizz has been able to make Sleep Chamber a self-sufficient business venture. For a few years, he was able to live off the merchandising, though he says his frivolous life style prompted him to get a day job (driving for the Boston subway system). Now that the group has signed with Cleopatra, some of the burden will be taken off Zewizz and he will have more capital to spend on Sleep Chamber projects.
“The only reason Sleep Chamber’s known as such a big marketing thing is because that’s the only way to survive,” he says. “I’m never going to get on a major label, I don’t think. The only other way to survive is to have something pay for itself.”